The US, the Muslim World and an Islamic ResponseIPSweb
It has been said time and again that the world has changed since 9/11 and ceased to be what it was before this incident. History will reveal whether this is a myth or a reality. However, for intellectuals and the people who are concerned about themselves and humanity, it is very important to reflect on all dimensions of this challenge. In this context, it is very important to understand that the word, “the US,” does not represent a monolithic situation because within the US there are many viewpoints, many dimensions and many responses. The same is the case with the Muslim world.
As’ad Abukhalil, Farid Esack
Policy Perspectives , Vlm 5, No.1
It has been said time and again that the world has changed since 9/11 and ceased to be what it was before this incident. History will reveal whether this is a myth or a reality. However, for intellectuals and the people who are concerned about themselves and humanity, it is very important to reflect on all dimensions of this challenge. In this context, it is very important to understand that the word, “the US,” does not represent a monolithic situation because within the US there are many viewpoints, many dimensions and many responses. The same is the case with the Muslim world. So, it would be very pertinent to at least point towards a more positive, moral and constructive approach.
US Policies towards Islam
The danger in developing a policy towards a faith is that it fans and lends credence to the prophecies of those who believe in a civilizational clash — a concept that Bernard Lewis, a Jewish scholar, introduced in the 1970s and which has been revived and inherited by Samuel Huntington, and many others. Many people in the Muslim world also uphold and reinforce belief in a civilizational clash and see conflict in terms of Islam versus the West.
The criticism against the idea of civilizational conflict is that it belongs to an era where civilizations were genuinely separated, distinct and divided, while, today, there is a dynamic traffic of people, cultures and ideas across countries and nations. The very nature of globalization, whether positive or negative, directly contradicts the thesis of a clash of civilization. Yet, Islam continues to be used in the West as a symbol of threat. This is not a rational approach: it has been a long time since Islam posed a threat to Europe, yet residuals of medieval Christian hostility still linger in the West.
Thanks to the promotion of the idea of clash of civilization, religious hostility certainly exists in a section of the American foreign policy establishment, especially among the Christian fundamentalists, who are part of the revival of the Republican Party. However, there are many complex factors and determinants of American foreign policy, and the source of its direction cannot be narrowed down to the single element of religious hostility.
On the other hand, if public opinion and surveys among Muslims since 9/11 are considered closely, it becomes clear that the views of Muslims are very different from those covered by the Western media. These surveys show that people are capable of separating the stances of Western administrations from the positive things in the countries they represent, such as education, science, technology, and even the attitude of their people. Moreover, Muslims also understand that the United States did not have the sort of medieval theological encounter with Islam that European countries had.
Indeed, US interest in Islam was rather secular during the Cold War; so much so, that it wanted to use Islam towards its own ends. At that time, the threat was not Islam but communism and socialism. When this threat came to an end, the United States developed a very different attitude towards the Muslim world. After the end of the Cold War, it started complaining about the same Muslim organizations that it had once supported. Now the US believes that the structure of Islam is basically terrifying the governments and people in many Western countries and, after 9/11, the United States has become intensely interested in transforming that structure. This discussion leads to the issue of contradictions in the American official and not-so-official attitude towards Islam after 9/11.
- Firstly, the American establishment shows a strong interest in knowing about Islam and, on the other hand, there has been a revival of classical Orientalism about it in its policies. If there is a genuine interest in learning about this religion, there should not be such an insistence on revitalizing the clichés of classical Western Orientalism about Islam and Muslims. Worse, there is a plethora of books coming out on Islam in which not only these clichés are found, but it also appears that an insult to Islam can now be delivered politely in the United States. Moreover, the US in particular and the West in general attributes all the violent manifestations among Muslims to Islam itself, and if an individual Jew or Presbyterian Christian commits an action of violence, it is treated as a criminal act. They do not want to separate individual Muslims anywhere in the world from Islam to analyze the situation.
- In this religious bigotry, terms like “Islamic Fascism” are being used through which the West is trying to like Muslim ideology with Nazism and fascism, although there is a huge difference between Islam and fascism. Likewise, the Al-Qaeda is always under discussion in the West, especially in the US, as an Islamic phenomenon. This organization is neither a mass movement nor does it enjoy the support of millions of people as fascism and Nazism did. By making such comparisons, the West is trying to equate Islam with the threat of Nazism and fascism, which leads to a justification for war against Muslim countries and Muslims in general.
- There is also an invasion of the teaching of Islamic studies by people who have no training in Islam or the Middle East. The only qualification they have is a very hostile attitude towards Islam and Muslims and a tendency to be overwhelmingly strong, fanatical supporters of Israel. They are also increasing people’s fear of Islam and of Muslims. It is ironic that it is said that people are afraid of Muslims in the United States when this fear has been created primarily by the American administration itself with the help of media and articles against Islam.
- There is a new wave of religious bigotry against the Muslims and Islam in America, as evidenced in a statement of the well-known WTOP (an all-news radio station in the Washington, D.C. area) commentator, Cal Thomas, comparing Muslims to a cancer in society. People in the East often think that these statements do not affect the Western people, but they certainly grab their attention.
- The second contradiction is that President Bush and others claim they are not enemies of Muslims and Islam and issue declarations that they have no negative intentions about Islam. Muslims are invited to Ramadan iftar at the White House once a year. At the same time, wars are being waged from the United States against two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, while other Muslim countries in the Middle East and outside are on the verge of civil war because of direct US intervention and sponsorship of militias in their territories. For example, in Palestine, the United States and Israel are blatantly supporting and financing Al-Fatah and aborting the democratic process because it has empowered people the United States does not like. The US is also supporting militias in Somalia just as it sponsored the devastating Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. In this situation, Muslims cannot be faulted in any way if they feel that the speeches and the rhetoric do not fit with the bombs falling over their heads. No one can win minds while waging wars against them.
- After the Iraq War, the US promised to establish an exemplary democracy in Iraq, arguing that once it was established, other Middle Eastern countries would plead with the United States to establish similar arrangements in their lives as well. The United States, however, comes to the conclusion that there is no seeker of the Iraq model among Muslims. There are no Muslims clamoring to have in their lives Abu Gharaib, daily car bombings, sectarian warfare, militias all around, Sunni-Shiite conflict, foreign occupation, shootings at civilians at check points, corrupt government, masses’ embezzlement, looting of national treasures, and fragmentation of the territorial integrity of their country. It has been mentioned in documentation that there are four million displaced people in Iraq, while according to one study by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, more than 650,000 civilians have been killed so far since the American forces arrived in March 2003. The United States might have realized that not only are the people in the region deeply repulsed by the model that it has constructed in Iraq, but this model has also not been emulated anywhere.
- The third type of contradiction is the variance of intentions with action. On the one hand, there are speeches about liberty, freedom and democracy, but on the other, the US is sponsoring dictatorship throughout the Muslim world. People cannot reconcile the speeches about liberty and democracy with the actual role of the US. Although the US is very concerned about human rights and democracy in Iran and Syria, which are not its allies, it does not appear perturbed by violations of human rights in many other countries where it has strong relations with dictators that it supports, funds and arms.
All these contradictions point out that the efforts of the US are largely rhetorical and they cannot be taken seriously by people in the Muslim world. Conversely, the American model in Iraq has consolidated, directly or indirectly, the oppressive dictatorial regimes in the Middle East and the Islamic world because of the chaos and destruction that has been wreaked in the name of democracy. People in Syria now say they do not like their government but would prefer their oppressive government to the ones in Iraq. This is an indirect result of the Iraq War. The US, on the other hand, is still supporting, consolidating and perpetuating the rule of oppressive governments in the Muslim world and the Middle East in the name of its War on Terror. The US government has become quite generous with economic and military aid to these dictatorial regimes and has ended up consolidating their power.
Certainly the United States is facing a dilemma. Although the Bush administration is coming to its last days, it would not be wise to assume that the situation will be different once Bush is replaced; if the Democrats come to power, there will be an attempt to keep the US an empire. People in America are terrified by the images of terrorism and this very fear contributes to the rise of politicians like George Bush and their policies remain constant. The reckless use of force and imprudent policies of the Bush administration throughout the world will have real consequences that will ultimately lead to the fall of this empire.
Analyzing the Islamic Response
No society is all virtue or all vice: there is great truth in the saying that falsehood alone cannot survive for long. Falsehood survives by acquiring some virtue and some good through which it can persist, along with the evil it engenders. While there are many good things that can be learnt from the Western paradigm, there are many other aspects of that society that have caused — and continue to cause — human suffering, not only for Muslims but for humanity in general. However dazzling the positive aspects or power and glory of Western society, therefore, it is not right to ignore its darker aspects. A critical, independent, objective and honest approach is more suited to a true analysis of the West.
It is a reality that the problems of today’s world cannot be understood without looking into the historical and cultural context, particularly the immediate colonial past and the continuing neo-colonial arrangements, and without clearly analyzing and understanding the power dimensions. In this context, the present problem of the Muslim world is primarily a result of the US vision of an unbridled empire managing the world imperialistically.
After World War II, American strategists very clearly stated that America must thenceforth invade the world. In July 1947, a famous article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” by American author George Kennan was published in Foreign Affairs, spelling out the entire concept of containment and management of all affairs, and making it very clear that democracy and human rights were good words but irrelevant. The US strategists in the Cold War clearly said that America must ensure that there was no challenger to American power in the next century or at least the first half of it.
There was a realization among the American scholars that, after the Cold War, America would face a challenge from the Muslim world. While the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan was taking place, Nixon’s article in Foreign Affairs in 1985 declared that there was much commonality between America and Russia. According to him, Islam was the real threat that America was facing. So, it was not Huntington who first lobbied for this thesis in 1993, but the American State Department. When the Berlin Wall fell, the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) spoke publicly in Brussels on the same lines. This shows that anti-Islam phobia did not start with 9/11; in fact, this extraordinary incident should be seen in the context of American objectives of becoming an empire and a global power.
On the part of the Muslim world, the real weakness does not arise from the strength of those who are challenging it but is internal. The thinking, aspirations and resource management of leaders of the Muslim World does not represent the aspirations, vision and role of the people. This is the Muslim people’s real weakness. The Muslim rulers, by and large, are in league with the global players. On the other hand, in America and Europe, people and their governments are on the same wavelength. There are, however, important forces, not only a significant number of individuals but also active groups and movements in the West, that are concerned about issues like justice, plurality, hegemony, human rights, and the vision of a better future. They are partners and allies of the Muslim world, despite all the dissatisfaction and critiques of the Western or American leadership and the establishment. The response of Muslims has to be neither retreat nor surrender. They should remember that it is not a new phenomenon that there are people who want to project Islam as another version of Western civilization, the American constitution, or American society; this type of reaction was there during the entire colonial period.
The other reaction of violence, which comes out of desperation and which is usually termed as fundamentalism or extremism, is also not sustainable. It is interesting to note here that “fundamentalism” is a unique term that was coined in a particular historical, religious, Evangelical context in America and it has been transplanted to others. However, this term basically means belief and loyalty to the fundamental sources and a value framework of a faith. This approach to understanding the devotion of individuals to a faith or ideology provides flexibility, which differentiates between fundamentals and peripherals, the substantive and the marginal, the permanent and the changeable. So Muslim intellectuals and the Muslim Ummah should not fall into the trap of the agenda, that is being sold to them. They should frame their own agenda keeping all these fundamentals in view in a realistic manner.
The entire Islamic ideal cannot be summed up into one concept but justice and peace, which are very closely related and are the key concepts of Islam. It is shameful that people try to project Islam as a version of peace out of fear or a psyche of surrender, compromise, or compliance. Quite contrary to this approach, Islam has never compromised on the divine concepts of truth and reality, although Muslims do not claim the right to impose it on others. The concept of da’wah (calling people to a faith) and the so-called civilizing mission of empires are different approaches. The Creator of all human beings has given the individuals the right to deny His existence and the right to live, work and achieve in accordance with what they want, but they will have to face the consequences of the denial. The Islamic paradigm was never meant to impose its views, values, and vision upon others; pluralism is an integral part of it because the global role of Islam is very different.
Associated Press. 2007, July 5. “Group Responds to Cal Thomas’ Muslim Remarks.” (http://wtop.com/?nid=25&sid=1181004 – July 6, 2007.)