Western interest in Muslim culture may have been intensified by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, but it did not begin there. In fact, it reaches back to the earliest days of Islam as a recognized world religion.
Over the centuries, numerous books by Western writers have been published about Islam — its principles, its contribution to European civilization, and many other aspects of Islamic religion and culture.
A prophetic 1950 UNESCO report expressed concern that European university textbooks of that era contained “misconceptions and historical inaccuracies.” Not the least of them was Islam’s supposedly war-like traits; it was often presented as a belief-system whose adherents thrive “only when it conquers.”
Another feature of these textbooks was their selective emphasis on differences between Muslims and Christians. When the two religions were compared, it was invariably their differences, rather than similarities, that received most attention. The report noted as well that textbooks seemed to confuse social customs and religious doctrines. The so-called “inferior” position of Muslim women was frequently attributed solely to the teachings of Islam.
Another criticism levelled against textbooks was their serious “omission of facts.” Despite recognized Muslim contributions to Western civilization, there is virtually no reference to some of the basic ideals and achievements in which all Muslims take special pride: among them, freedom and equality, social justice, care of the poor, religious tolerance, and the absence of race consciousness.
Fast-forwarding more than 50 years to the present, little that the UNESCO report criticized has changed. Many Westerners continue to perceive Muslims as “dangerous, untrustworthy, undemocratic, barbaric, and primitive.”
But it would be misleading to explain official U.S. attitudes as a primary reflection of widespread cultural and historical misconceptions. In reality, political and security concerns have been more significant in shaping U.S. policy toward the Muslim world. These include: strategic calculations in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the increasing need for oil from the Gulf countries, and the vulnerability of some pro-U.S. Middle Eastern regimes.
Simplistic theories about Western hostility to Islam, like those that argue the opposite, are overturned by the many alliances — notably that against communism — created over the years mainly to serve American interests. To rid Afghanistan of atheists, for example, Islamic regimes encouraged the Mujahadeen (not as “terrorists”) to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, yet their victory was solely America’s. Similarly, in the war against Iran, Iraq was used to fight and win a conflict for America’s benefit. And how must we classify the alliance for the liberation of Kuwait? as a battle of Islam against Christianity? Hardly!
The goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has historically been to achieve “dominance and stability” in the region. During the Cold War era, the U.S. clashed with revolutionary nationalist movements in the Muslim world — today it clashes with their successor, “revolutionary Islam.”
Equating Islam with terrorism in the post-9/11 era has done considerable damage to the image of Muslim minorities living in the West. Not only has their well-being been eroded, but the West’s policy makers have resisted pursuing any accommodation policy towards the Muslim world, thus compromising hopes for world peace.
Some Muslim political movements have also been their own worst enemies, acting in ways that result in the perception that “Islam is the Western world’s new enemy.” The release of yet another taped message, purported to be from Osama bin Ladin, is the latest example.
In such a heightened and abrasive environment, Western confrontationalist “hawks” are winning out over the accommodationist “doves.” For the former, Islam is by definition “anti-democratic and anti-Western.” But the latter make a conscious distinction between the majority of Muslims and legitimate Muslim political groups, and extremist fringes.
Many Muslim political parties in countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine, and even Israel must, in all fairness, be regarded as a part of democracy, not as a negation of it.
During the 1992 Algerian elections, the military intervened and cancelled the voting in order to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from winning what was clearly going to be a sure victory: the state-sponsored military subsequently outlawed the FIS. The American administration’s response to the Algerian crisis was largely passive, in contrast to its outspoken record in advocating democracy elsewhere.
Sadly, the United States does not have a comprehensive or coherent policy regarding the role of Islam in the political development of Muslim countries. There are major inconsistencies between what American officials say regarding the advancement of democracy and what they do regarding the role of Islam in the political process. The good news is that American strategic and security considerations — rather than conflicts of culture, ideology, religion or history — continue to exert a greater influence on U.S. thinking and on official American foreign policy.
However, this has resulted in the U.S. attempting to impose a strange new type of democracy on Muslims: “elect the political parties of our choice, not yours,” thus forcing those countries (conveniently depicted as “backward”) to apply repressive measures against any political reforms. The result is a downward spiral into perceptions of even worse “backwardness,” maintaining a pattern at least two centuries old, in which dominant Western economic forces have been almost wholly intransigent in exacerbating political and economic instability in Muslim countries.
Under American dominance, Muslim countries have endured political, social, and economic repression, not to mention the callous depletion of their natural and human resources, which has further crippled their legitimate attempts to gain independence and liberation. By imposing and supporting authoritarian, often corrupt, regimes that act against their own people’s interests, the U.S. has overtly interfered in the affairs of the Muslim world.
In light of the real sources behind global oppression and terrorism, therefore, Muslims must not be the designated scapegoats for America’s intelligence and security failures of September 11, 2001. The conflict is not, and has never been, a religious one. America’s real war has far more to do with politics and economics than with “terrorism.”
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.