Talking to the enemy

In his book Politics of God, Jim Wallis who is an American wise clergyman, suggested that “the best answer to bad religion is better religion, not secularism”.

Wallis was neither talking about different religions, nor was he trying to replace one world religion by another; instead he was talking about the different interpretations of the same American Christianity.


For him, the “bad religion” of the American extremist right cannot be fought successfully by the liberalist or secularist ideologies, but can be fought and defeated by a more humane interpretation of the Biblical text and the Christian tradition.


I always remember Wallis’ words while reading many studies prepared by American think-tanks about the various Islamic movements, and the interpretations these studies propose on the implication of this phenomenon for American policies worldwide.


There is no reason to doubt the credibility or the sincerity of the writers of these studies. Their quest for better understanding of the culture and politics of today’s Islamic world seem genuine.


However, I always feel something essential is missing in their studies: none of these studies is accepting the Islamic movements as a legitimate actor and potential partner in the future of their own Muslim societies.


“I think most Americans would rather see Muslims rule the Arab world, without our intervention.  

I think George Bush would also prefer this to losing our soldiers lives.”

David Cantril, US 

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The American strategists are still enslaved by an archaic attitude perceives all the Islamic movements whether as an eternal enemy that must be fought and destroyed, or a marginal phenomenon that can be ignored and left to the “moderate” governments to silence by oppressive means.


Both propositions are deadly wrong: the Islamic movements, in their mainstream reformist doctrine, are not an eternal enemy of America, and they are deeply rooted in their societies.


The solution Judt suggested is to convert Israel from a Jewish state to a bi-national one” where Palestinians and Israelis can live together as equal citizens

Alas, none of the serious American think-tanks that have influence on the policymaking process of this country realised the obvious: that today’s Islamic revivalism is very diverse and very dynamic; and that a fair and impartial view would certainly lead the American political elite to accept the Islamic movements as a potential partner and friend, instead of the hallucination suggested by the “eternal enemy” paradigm.


Conveying a message


A number of American academicians tried honestly and earnestly to convey this message to the American policymakers and the American people.


Among them is John Esposito of the Centre for Muslim and Christian Understanding, who clarified in his book: Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism or Reform, that political Islam is much more complex and diverse than the way it is usually presented in the American media and discussed within American think-tanks.


Esposito and other scholars assert there are at least two trends within political Islam: A mainstream reformist trend that accepts democratic process, and believes in gradual change internally and coexistence externally.


The majority of the Islamic movements belong to this category; including the eldest and largest ones, like the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and its branches all over the Arab world; and the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan, the leading Islamic movement in southern Asia.


Efficient mean


A radical confrontational trend that believes in violence as the only efficient mean, and does neither believe in democracy within their countries nor in coexistence with the Western world, especially with the US.


It would be better for America and the Western world in general to help Muslims overcome this painful metamorphosis, and to minimise their intervention in this transitional process

Al-Qaida is the most obvious example of such movements. Although this trend is highly publicised in the American media, it is statistically a very marginal element within the religious revival and activism spreading across the Islamic world today.
In their quest for effective means to confront al-Qaida and its apocalyptic theology, American strategists and policymakers are trying vainly to create a new Islam in their own image.


In her interesting – though flawed – study published by Rand under the title Civil Democratic Islam, Cheryl Benard professed that “it is no easy matter to transform a major world religion. If ‘nation-building’ is a daunting task, ‘religion-building’ is immeasurably more perilous and complex” (p3).


But despite this confession, Ms Benard suggested some recommendations for the US policymaker that can be understood only as a “religion building”: support the modernists and secularists (financially included), “back the traditionalists enough to keep them viable against the fundamentalists”, and “oppose the fundamentalists energetically” (p47).


Modernist Islamic opinions


The ambition of the study went too far, and asked for changing the curricula and even creating a pro-American “Islamic” website “that answers questions related to daily conduct and offers modernist Islamic legal opinions” (p48).


The flaws in this study and many similar ones that US policymakers are regularly exposed to, reflect the superficiality of the diagnosis and the inaccuracies of the assumptions.

The Shah option is no longer acceptable by the people of the Islamic world, and the Khomeini option is not acceptable to Americans

For example, Americans should have learned from the European colonisation of the Islamic world that changing the religious identity of Muslims in not that easy.

During their 130 years’ colonisation of Algeria, the French tried hard to change the Islamic identity of the Algerian people, but they finally failed. Secularism has no roots in Algeria today, as the only transparent elections in the history of that country proved in 1992.

Moreover most of the Islamic movements are not fundamentalist, as Ms Benard suggested; they are reformist and revivalist in essence, and they sincerely believe in democratic values and human rights for all, including non-Muslims.

Their problem with America is about policies, not values. Despite the bitterness they feel about some US foreign policies, they are pragmatic enough to compromise if they are given the benefit of the doubt and the minimum of trust.


Sensitive issue


Regarding the Palestinian issue, which is the most sensitive issue for the Islamic reformist movements, and the main criterion of judging “moderation” and “extremism” for Americans, the leaders of the Islamic movements need to develop a new discourse, that preserves the Palestinian right without falling into the kind of immature rhetoric coming from the Iranian new leadership, a rhetoric that harms the Iranians without helping the Palestinians.


The Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Mehdi Akef, announced recently that his movement does not recognise the state of Israel, but it will not go to war against Israel. His announcement should be taken as a good start on this regard.


A creative idea to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is eloquently expressed in an essay by the British-American Jewish professor Tony Judt, titled Israel the Alternative, and published in the New York Review of Books.


Mr Judt argues that “The problem with Israel, in short, is not – as is sometimes suggested – that it is a European enclave in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late.


Separatist project


It has imported a characteristically late-19th century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.


The very idea of a Jewish state – a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded – is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.
The solution Judt suggested is to convert Israel from a Jewish state to a bi-national one where Palestinians and Israelis can live together as equal citizens of the same country enjoying the same right.


In other words, it is a South-African scenario for this complicated conflict that is “poisoning the whole body of humanity”, in the words of an Israeli writer and peace activist, Uri Avnery.

I always feel something essential is missing in their studies: none of these studies is accepting the Islamic movements as a legitimate actor and potential partner in the future of their own Muslim societies

I know the bi-national state solution might seem unjust for many people who do not believe that someone who is born in New York or Warsaw should be given the same right in Palestine as one who is born in Bethlehem and Jerusalem; but I still believe the bi-national vision is a creative solution that should be accepted by the Islamic movements.


This vision is more compatible with the Islamic tradition of accepting oppressed Jews expelled from Europe and welcomed in Muslim countries (Morocco, Turkey etc), and with the “world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law”.


It is the only option that will restore Palestinians’ human dignity, and give the Jews a legitimate existence in the Middle East; an existence whose continuation does not depend on a foreign power, or foreign diaspora.


Viable option


In brief, America and the Islamic movements have no viable option but dialogue and coexistence. To achieve this noble goal, I would like to suggest the following guidelines:

  • The American policy makers need to commit themselves to a more honest effort to understand the Islamic movements.
    The traditional Western characterisation of political Islam, as a result of economic desperation or cultural anger, is a misleading interpretation that prevented the American policymakers from deeply grasping this complex and authentic phenomenon.
  • Americans need to come to terms that a democracy inspired by Islam will not necessarily be pro-American, or pro-Western.
    An agent of a foreign power will not gain the trust of his people, especially in the Islamic world, where Western colonisation is still fresh in the memory.
    But an Islamic democracy will surely be more responsible and more pragmatic both domestically and internationally. It will not be an American enemy, unless the US becomes the chief architect of such revision.
  • Selective democratic transformations that exclude the Islamic grass-roots popular movements are doomed to fail, because it would be deprived of transparency and credibility.
    Moreover, such crippled democracy will not help Muslim societies to overcome their internal contradictions. “Structural anti-Americanism” mentioned in one of Rand studies is partially one of the results of these contradictions. Americans ought to include the Islamic movements in any democratic vision for the region.     
  • Islamic movements need to be more pragmatically minded in their relations with the US; the challenge of reconciliation between morality and practicality is always a serious political challenge.
    Pragmatism is to accept what is achievable, and to have a practical approach to problems, instead of fighting for an unrealistic and unachievable vision. Protest is not enough; Islamic Movements have to offer a viable alternatives and reasonable solutions to their problems with America.

Muslim societies are going through a very crucial transition. History teaches us that transitions are always accompanied by pain and violence (the French, American and Russian revolutions are good illustration).


Painful metamorphosis


Therefore, it would be better for America and the Western world in general to help Muslims overcome this painful metamorphosis, and to minimise their intervention in this transitional process.


The key to a better future and better relation is for America to discontinue baking dictators in their oppression of the Islamic reformist movements, since these movements are the expression of Muslim societies’ aspiration for freedom and justice.


A wiser America should have learned from its experience in Iran: if you plant a Shah, you harvest Khomeini. The Shah option is no longer acceptable by the people of the Islamic world, and the Khomeini option is not acceptable to Americans.


The Islamic reformist movements provide a third way that is neither Shah nor Khomeini.


Mohamed El-Moctar El-Shinqiti is a Mauritanian writer living in the US.


The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.

Source : Al Jazeera

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