Islam in an Uproar

The events of the last week — killings in Benghazi, attack on US and allied installations throughout the world, a marked upswing in killing of US troops and trainers by Afghan police and army trainees — have been feeding the Islamophobia of those who believe all Muslims are out to get “us” (e.g. westerners, especially the U.S.).  They also have led Republicans to declare Obama’s foreign policy a failure.  (Not that there isn’t much to criticize; Eliot Cohen’s diatribe has much with which I agree).

The hatred that a small minority of Muslims have for the U.S. is not unfounded.  The U.S. has invaded and occupied two Muslim countries.  In Afghanistan, we had good reason to avenge al-Qaeda’s attack on 9/11.  Yet instead of going after bin Laden, we stayed for 10 years, reshaping the government, intensifying rather than reducing local conflicts, and leaving the Afghan people at the mercy of a hopelessly corrupt government and local warlords.  Why?   In Iraq, we invaded on what turned out to be the pretext of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, allowed the entire infrastructure and professional bureaucracy to be destroyed or fall apart, failed to prevent a vicious sectarian war that killed tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and displaced millions from their homes. Why did the most powerful country in the world do that?   In Iraq and Libya, we argued that the US acted not from self-interested obsessions with oil or controlling the Middle East, but from generous motives of unseating vicious dictators and preventing the humanitarian crises of mass killings.  Of course, now that Syria is suffering from a vicious dictator who is killing tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children, and driving Syria into the largest humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, the U.S. is doing — nothing.  Why?

One does not have to be a wild conspiracy theorist to imagine that the U.S.’s actions in the Middle East and North Africa are purely self-interested, focused only on obtaining oil and attacking Israel’s foes, supporting oppressive local regimes, and having no regard for the people of the region.

In a way, it is remarkable that there is not more widespread hatred of the U.S. and suspicion of its motives.  But fortunately, people in the region do have some direct contact with the U.S., through relatives who have worked in the US or been students there, through business contacts, and through popular culture, most of which portays Americans as prosperous but normal human beings with a very free, pluralist society.

But when an American pastor burns the Koran, or a film maker produces a trailer that boorishly depicts the Prophet, or a Danish cartoonist pokes fun at him, it easily fans fears that Westerners have no regard for Muslims or their beliefs, and that the dignity of the Islamic faith must be avenged.

The best way to respond to these events is NOT to over-react.  Just as we prefer that Muslims not over-react to a few extremists in the US or Europe who insult their faith, so we must not over-react to a few hundred extremists in Islamic countries who act violently in response.

Of course, many will say the responses are not the same — Muslims protesting by the tens of thousands or comitting violence by the hundreds or thousands.  But the context too is different.  Westerners today live in open, pluralist societies with guaranteed freedom of speech.  But it was not always so  — just a few decades ago London was being bombed not by Muslim militants, but by Catholic terrorists fighting what they saw as Protestant occupation in Northern Ireland.  Did we condemn all Catholics or all Irish then?  Or did we recognize that under conditions of long-standing religious conflict and perceived occupation, a terrorist threat had emerged that required isolating, targeting, and stopping terrorists while negotiating with the broader Catholic and Irish population?

The Middle East is still fighting three simultaneous wars.   One is the legacy of colonialism, still being fought over — should Islamic societies adapt and adopt to the principles of their former colonial masters, such as secularism, pluralism, and women’s emancipation?  Or should they affirm their own heritage and traditions and seek to build distinctive Islamic versions of modern societies?  A second is among advocates for different versions of Islam — a tolerant and limited Islamism that thrives in private and community practice but plays a limited role in government and adapts to the contemporary world, or an intolerant and fundamentalist Islam that is deeply entwined with government and insists on confining daily life within traditional interpretions of Koranic law.  Yet a third is between the different schools of Islam — the main branches of Sunni and Shi’a, and such sub-branches and offshoots such as Alawite and Sufi.  This latter war has become a geostrategic fault line across the region, with Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iraq, the government of Syria, and the population of Bahrain all seeking to maintain and extend local Shi’a dominance, and with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, and Egypt seeking to maintain and extend Sunni rule.

These three wars are not fought just in the realm of political and ideological debate.  In a region where regimes ruthlessly attacked their opponents, both domestic and international, and where efforts to reshape regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and now Syria only were effective because of mass protest and violent civil wars, it is hardly remarkable that these three wars should also be contested with mass protest and violence.

There is nothing the U.S. or any external actor can do to quickly or easily resolve these three wars in the region.  What we can do is urge that these conflicts be fought and settled through open debate and elections and respect for basic internationally recognized human rights, not through intergroup violence.  We can praise actions that are praiseworthy, and condemn those that are oppressive and violent.  We can offer aid and support to those fighting for democracy, and act (as we should act in Syria) to try to forestall state-led killing and protect the innocent.  But above all, we should refrain from condeming all Muslims, from characterizing terrorist threats as a general Islam vs. Western conflict.  And we shall have to be patient — much as it may trouble us, these simultaneous wars in the Islamic world will continue, whatever we do.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in The Middle East Revolts. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Islam in an Uproar

  1. Pingback: Introduction to my term paper: | christinajisooyum

  2. Moughanie says:

    The danger to the world is this theocracy that has
    1/A non democratic ,totalitarian ideology,and regime.
    2/unfathomable funds.
    3/Local,regional and international politicalsupport.
    4/Illimited access to arms.
    5/The will to appropriate the souls of the 1.3billion sunnite muslims in the world.
    6/Political genius where they were able in 11 years to make of the 11th of september “collateral damage”.
    7/Access to the main international lobbies.
    8/Access to the major international financial institutions.

    • The Saudis have been a subversive force in many areas, but they remain a conservative monarchy, not a theocracy. They are repressive, and have been downright nasty in Bahrain. But they are not sponsors of anti-western terrorim, and are not supporters of al-Qaeda. There are, unfortunately, no clear lines in the Islamic world’s interweaving conflicts. Some of our friends — Mubarak, and at one time Saddam Hussein (?!) — can turn out to be liabilities. Some of our so-called friends — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — will defend their own interests first at all times. Every western power that has tried to influence events in the area, going back to the British, the Turks, the French, and us, has found that their abilities were limited and whatever sides they took they were often left on the wrong side at a later time. I do advocate humility and restraint rather than aggression, but that is not appeasement. I am in favor of strong action in Syria, as I was in favor of action in Afghanistan in 2001 and Libya in 2011. But one has to make choices carefully, expect mixed results, and value even limited progress.

      • Peter says:

        But the question should NOT be “does this country support the west or not?” If the ‘west’ is to intervene in these conflicts, it should be in a truthful manner. They cannot say ‘we are here to protect human rights against tyranny etc etc’ but then unequivocally support regimes like Saudi Arabia (be it a conservative monarchy or not) that similarly have no recognition of basic human rights.
        There is, without doubt, a morality question here. I too would advocate humility and restraint. However, how can intervention in Libya (or if it were to come to pass, Syria) be OK while other atrocities occur in neighbouring countries that go unchallenged. I do not doubt the intricacies of international diplomacy but you either want to stop all the evil in the world or you don’t. If you do, you try everything in your powers to do so, regardless of oil, money or strategic positioning. If you don’t, you do not get involved. A path must be chosen that isn’t the ‘I’ll intervene on my terms and if there is sufficient incentives for me to do so’.

      • Moughanie says:

        Mr.Goldstone
        Thank you for your reply.
        Theocracy according to Merriam-Webster is” government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided ”
        I tried to search for the definition of conservative monarchy unfortunately I was unable to find any.However I noted many prominent world magasines labelled SA as a conservative monarchy.Have you a definition of conservative monarchy?
        Up to 2003 the Imam of Mecca used to preach to worshippers the infidelity of Christians and jews, making their lives worthless.That is the same school that taught Bin Laden.It is the same cursus of the madrassa in Pakistan and Afghanistan.This ideology is taught in all schools of SA and Qatar,and around sixsty schoolls in the UK.Browse thru internet you will see how prosperous they are.Follow the satelite channels you will be amazed by their presence.In Egypt they had 15%of the votes,previously they were unheard of.
        SA might not be a theocracy, but it is not a benign “conservative monarchy” as you and many western media classifies it .
        If you consider the Taliban”Pakistan and Afghanistan” as benign the SA will be in that category.
        I labelled SA as a theocracy because it gains its legitamecy by its defence of the Wahabi religion .

        I analysed their role in Syria,what they did they could apply in any country where there is
        an important sunnite population .The western world is making a mistake that their children will pay the price.The learned an good lesson from Bin Laden and ‘Al Zarkawi. They want like them to appropriate the soul of the muslim sunnite for their own political agenda.

      • Saudi Arabia is complex. On the one hand, they view Al-Qaeda as a dangerous enemy and cultivate good ties with western nations. On the other hand, they support vicious anti-Jewish and anti-Christian propoganda in their own schools and in mosques and other religious establishments that they support around the world. The ruling family in SA is a conservative monarchy (Future leaders are chosen by hereditary relations to the current ruler). They are closely in league with the Wahabi sect and support their activities — but so too all medieval and Renaissance European monarchies were closely in league with the Catholic Church, who legitimated their rule by propagandizing the divine right of kings; but that did not make them theocracies. So while I abhor the sectarian racism of the Wahabi and regret that the Saudis support them, that does not make the SA government the equivalent of the Taliban.

  3. Moughanie says:

    I find the article of Mr.Goldstone and the main idea he propagates resembling the policy of appeasement of Mr.Chamberlain that lead to the second world war.If you bear with me I would like to propose a different reading of history that leads to these events.
    What Theocracy helped create the madrassas in Pakistan,and the Pakistani version of Taliban?
    What Theocracy created the Madrassas in Afghanistan and the the Afghani version of Taliban?
    Is it not the same Theocracy that made sure the OLP will never get red.”communist”
    Is it not the same theocracy that spent in the 90’s alone 80 billion $ to propagate its form of islamic sunnism in the world-including the western world,
    Is it not the same theocracy that has the oldest strategic relationship with the US in the Middle East?
    Is it not the same theocracy that has the ideology that the muslim anywhere in the world is part of the moslem nation-unlike the irish catholics.
    Is it not the same theocracy that due to the presence of the 2 most holy muslim sights in its territory cannot but play a low profile and use double standards lest it will be considered by its fellow sunnite muslims as the theocracy with an ideology contrary to their own,that has hijacked the 2 most holy shrines of islam?
    Yes Syria is a tragedy,but before jumping to conclusions based on opinion and propaganda let us ask the following questions.
    1/How many mosques and religious schools in Syria were financed by the above mentioned theocracy?
    2/How many fighters of the regime adhere the the ideology of this Theocracy?
    3/What is the role of the “soft” adherents e.g.Hariri in the financing and logistical support of these people.
    4/Why is this Theocracy insisting so much on making Syria democratic while itself,it is not?
    5/Why is Europe supporting this theocracy?
    6/What is the deal,what is this theocracy getting in return to supporting Israel?

  4. Peter says:

    Have to say I enjoyed the article and agree that it is essential that all Muslims are not tarred with the same brush. Otherwise it will just be perpetual hatred in the world. However, it is quite a difficult issue. For example, you say that we should “urge that these conflicts be fought and settled through open debate and elections and respect for basic internationally recognized human rights.”
    Would it be fair to say that Sharia law fails to do this? There may well come a stage in the region where there are democratically elected governments who do not recognise these same international human rights. What is to be done then?
    The idea that America is there to stop governments/dictators slaughtering their own people was always a red herring, however, in the face of Syria it can be downright discarded. Maybe intervention is the problem but the idea that there would be no human rights abuses without it is far from the truth. Governments with western backing as well as those who ‘despise’ the “west” have been equally guilty of such crimes.
    Freedom of speech though is to be defended at all costs. I would never draw a cartoon mocking Mohammed. But as Evelyn Beatrice Hall summarised Voltaires attitude; “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In my view, no amount of riots anywhere should change our stance on this!

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