George Bush, the president of the United States, continually links Islam with fascism and Pope Benedict recently infuriated Muslims when he quoted an historical text decrying Islam as an inhumane faith spread by the sword.
These comments came as memories of the Danish cartoons which insulted Muhammad, the Prophet and Islam, persist in the Muslim world.
Some Western figures argue that Muslims should not be so sensitive; it is this sort of position that is used to justify Wesern policy towards the Muslim world.
When we look at some statements made by Western figures regarding Islam, we must note the underlying cultural logic.
Cardinal George Pell of Australia said that many Muslims could not “respond to criticism with rational arguments, but only with demonstrations, threats and actual violence”. [Reuters, September 19, 2006] Pell’s statement was a follow-up to Benedict’s speech at a German university earlier this month.
“It is western interests vs. eastern interests, with Iran and Iraq caught in the middle, everything else is propaganda.”
The pope invoked the observations of a 14th-century Byzantine ruler who claimed that Islam was “evil and inhumane” and “spread by the sword”.
For many Western journalists, Benedict was highlighting a significant truth. For example Jeff Israely wrote in Time magazine that the speech “could turn out to be the most important step forward for interfaith dialogue”. William Rees-Mogg wrote in The Time news paper in London that the pope “will have done Islam a service if he has started a debate within Islam and between Islam and its critics”.
In other words, Benedict’s recent speech has done the world a favour by provoking a conversation with those violent Muslims who are somehow dismissed as too irrational to sense their own irrationality and so unable to take part in reasoned, logical debate.
But, in my opinion, there is a further implication in the views cited by Israely and Rees-Mogg. It is that Muslims, because they are assumed incapable of debate, must be dealt with forcefully.
This condescending logic is not limited to academic discussions. It also characterises Bush’s foreign policy. It suggests that Muslims are somehow the problem of world affairs and need to explain themselves.
For example, in a speech on November 6, 2003, Bush said: “In many Middle Eastern countries, poverty is deep and it is spreading, women lack rights and are denied schooling. Whole societies remain stagnant while the world moves ahead.”
It is true that he also said that those failures are not of a culture and religion, but still the choice of words is telling: the Muslim world is stagnant while the world moves ahead.
Bush’s words suggest an inability of the Muslim world to “catch up” with the rest of the world. This one-sided world view is what Bush and his neo-conservative group use as a pretext to invade and wage war on Muslim countries.
He argues “that some men have gained influence in the Middle East and beyond through an ideology of theocratic terror. Behind their language of religion is the ambition for absolute political power.”
When the pope defames the Prophet or Islam it is referred to as debate, but when Muslims criticise elements of Western society it is called intolerance
It has become fashionable to refer to these figures as Islamo-fascists, a term as meaningless as it is provocative. Yet the theme running through the words of the pope, Bush and others remains the same. They are claiming that there is something terribly wrong with the Muslim world, while the rest of the world is somehow innocent of unjust policies or acts of aggression.
Their views articulate a cultural logic suggesting that Islam is somehow more violent than the West and cannot be reasoned with. The real question however, is this: Has the Western world truly offered any platform for debate and dialogue?
It is ironic that Benedict cited the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus in accusing Islam of being violent. Palaeologus was himself a wartime emperor who traversed Europe to gather support for a war against the Ottomans.
The pope’s citation is all the more ironic given that Turkey is scheduled to be the first Muslim country that he is due to visit in his official capacity.
It should not be forgotten that one of Benedict’s first utterances on Islam was to suggest that Turkey was incapable of fitting into Europe because of its Islamic identity.
It was Bush who declined debate with Saddam – at the cost of tens of thousands of Iraqi and Western lives
It is unfortunate is that when a well-known Western figure such as the pope defames the Prophet or Islam it is referred to as debate, but when Muslims criticise elements of Western society it is called intolerance.
Furthermore, based on the reference to Islam’s supposedly violent history in the pope’s quote, it is assumed that there is something implicit in Islam that allows any critical attitude to develop into a violent one.
Is it true that Muslims are too quick to choose violence over debate? Did not Saddam Hussein, on many occasions, challenge Bush to a debate over his alleged WMD programme before the 2003 invasion of Iraq? It was Bush who declined such a debate – at the cost of tens of thousands of Iraqi and Western lives.
Despite Bush’s lack of credibility – having given false reasons to justify a war against Iraq, not least accusing Iraq of a secret WMD programme – here he is again with the same scenario against Iran. He is refusing to talk to his counterpart there, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this time possibly at the expense of tens of thousands of Iranian lives.
Before Iraq war, the White House accused Saddam of trying to “fool” the world by offering debate, and now it argues that Ahmadinejad is trying to “divert” attention from Iran’s nuclear programme – or so-called “ambitions” – by offering a debate.
The underlying logic of these accusations is that leaders of Muslim world cannot debate because they are sinister and dishonest. This rationale serves to preclude any possibility of debate.
This is also how Bush deals with any Islamic movements or intellectuals – he dismisses them as evil or fascist, and brands them all terrorists, and of course the US will not debate with terrorists.
When the Palestinians freely elected Hamas to govern because they were tired of the corruption of Western-backed Fatah, did Bush suggest debating with Hamas about its views? No, instead he boycotted the democratically elected government.
Did Benedict suggest an open dialogue with Turkey about its values, before judging that it might not fit in the EU because of its Muslim identity? No, he suggested that Turkey’s Islamic character inhibited it from “understanding” the West. This talk about debate is nonsense.
The West – especially the US – has a track record of choosing war over debate
Debate requires two pre-requisites: First there cannot be debate unless there is a commitment to its purpose, and Western leaders harbour far too much hostility towards Islam – and a greed for Arab oil – to be truly committed to debate.
Secondly, debate requires respect, an ability on the part of both parties to understand that the other side may have something reasonable to say; so as long as Western leaders accuse Islam of being an “irrational” message, there can be no true debate.
True debate between the Muslim world and the West may well help assuage tensions, political tensions in particular, but the West – especially the US – has a track record of choosing war over debate.
And in debate’s absence, while Muslims continue to die as a result of Western aggression and arrogance, the world can be assured that the response from Muslims will grow more violent still.
Laith Saud is an Iraqi academic researcher and lecturer in the United States.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.