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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Trying to Bring Reality Into the Debate On Islam and Islamism

By Barry Rubin

People are fascinated by the discussion over Islam and seem hungry for some honest and accurate analysis on it. So let me continue to try to bring reality into this debate.

Consider this, a group of non-Muslim Americans who in the name of countering ignorance and bigotry plans to read the entire Koran on the grounds of the Capitol building. The assumption is that if people only knew what the Koran actually said they would understand there were no problems whatsoever except in the fevered imaginations of hate-mongers. Unfortunately, though, the hate-mongers aren't all people who have not read the Koran. Many of them are among those who have read it many times and even memorized it.

Whether or not there is such a reading, then, I imagine the scene when the well-intentioned come to passages about slaying unbelievers, waging Jihad, and massacring Muhammad's critics. For instance in Sura 9:5 they will read: "Slay the unbelievers wherever you find them."  Or that Allah hates the Jews because they didn't become Muslims (2:87-90) and the Christian belief that Jesus is divine is anti-Allah.(5:72).

 There are those Muslims, of course, who say that such things should be reinterpreted. Unfortunately, they are outnumbered in the Muslim-majority world by more than 100 to 1 by the more literal-minded. Fortunately, there is a third, even larger, group of Muslims that neither accepts that passage as a guide to action but also don't try to rewrite it, see below.)  

Presumably the well-meaning, albeit naive readers will say that there are parallel passages in the original Bible. Of course, nobody is trying to implement those things--which were mostly one-time instructions for specific events millennia ago, not perpetual commands--in the contemporary world. As for the Koran, some people did, for example, a few years ago on September 11. Afghanistan was ruled by such people; Iran and the Gaza Strip, among other places, still are; mass movements are dedicated to fulfilling them; while other such jurisdictions may be added in the near future.

Now I know too many Muslims and how they act in practice to accept some mechanistic model that they respond like robots to the presence of radical concepts in Islam's texts. But I also know that millions of people do take those passages as a blueprint for political action.  And I also know too much about Muslim-majority societies today and in the modern historical era to ignore these forces, pretend Islam as it is often practiced doesn't often holds back social and economic development; or sympathize with the real oppressors and ignore their actual victims.

That's why I make an all-important distinction between the fact that there are relatively few "moderate Muslims"--who actively want to reform Islam--and millions of Muslims who are relative moderates--people who avoid or oppose extremist ideas because Islam doesn't really define their world view (that third group I mentioned earlier).

What does shape their political views? A national, tribal, ethnic, professional, or regional identity, for example, or some kind of pragmatic response to daily life very much influenced by Western thought. In such cases, these Muslims simply ignore or reinterpret certain concepts or just have no intention of putting them into practice.

Of course, it is the goal of Islamists--and of non-Islamist dictatorships using Islamic demagoguery in propaganda--to mobilize them for extremist causes, terrorism, war on the West, etc. And if the Islamists win, take over countries, and indoctrinate  young people, then that will happen.

But ask yourself this question: If the Islamist regime in Iran were to be overthrown, even after three decades of indoctrination, wouldn't millions of Iranians say publicly (as many now say privately):

Thank God, that's over! [The joke is a deliberate one.] We have no desire to let a bunch of mullahs run our lives according to their interpretation of Islam.  Let's live in an overwhelmingly secular way, no matter how pious we might be in the religious sphere.

Or consider this point: Every leader of every Arabic-speaking state (except president of Lebanon) in the last sixty years, moderate or not, has been a Muslim whose politics did not come primarily from a religious interpretation of the world. Possibly the most traditionally pious individual Arab leaders during this period, at least outside Saudi Arabia, were President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, perhaps the most moderate of them.

For sixty years, and without a single successful revolution from below, Arabic-speaking countries have been governed by regimes that are actually secular and made their decisions on a worldly (though that doesn't mean moderate!) basis. And while Saudi Arabia is the most obvious exception, even it is closer to that model than many think.

People who attribute everything in the Middle East to Islam are making the same mistake as people who see the entire region solely in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict or some understandable reaction to the misdeeds of the evil West. It's just not that simple.

Of course, if the Islamists take over states they will--as has already happened in Islamist Iran, Taliban Afghanistan, Hamas in the Gaza Strip--live up to the worst expectation about imposing a radical, West-, Christian-, and Jewish-hating regime bent on Jihad. The Turkish Islamists have their own style but have now joined the radical team, a fact which does not appeal to about 70 percent of Turks (also Muslims), while another 10 percent support the regime because they don't believe it is Islamist.

How does one account, then, for the fact that Muslims who are not Islamists still have a different set of views from people in the West? Simple. It is a different society (I'm not sure whether or not to use the word "civilization") with a distinctive history, set of experiences, and political culture.

Does the dominant interpretation of Islam have to change before these countries enjoy moderate, stable, democratic, tolerant societies? It would be easy to answer yes and in the long run that's probably true. But a good start would be to get back to the conventional Islam of pre-Islamist times, when Jihad was just mostly a five-letter word and imams portrayed suicide bombers as heretics, not martyrs.

The Politically Correct, multicultural, diversity-obsessed, more-fearful-of-being-called-"Islamophobic" than-being-blind-to-reality Western approach is more dangerous than the Islam-is-the-problem approach. For one thing, the former runs Western countries and intellectual life. Despite scare talk, the latter approach isn't going to take over and launch anti-Muslim pogroms.

Let's face it. Western governments, media, and academics often act as if the greatest danger facing the world isn't revolutionary Islamist movements, terrorism, war in the Middle East, or other such things but the alleged threat of rampant Islamophobia. Consequently, the mass media, for example, doesnt report fully on the Americaphobia, Westophobia, Christianophobia, and Judaeophobia in the Muslim majority world out of fear this will promote Islamophobia.

Instead, we get a huge dose of feel-good talk about tolerance and Islam as a "religion of peace" facing a small minority of renegade extremists. This isn't bad as an element in the picture but shouldn't be made to seem as if it were the whole story. And that "small minority" of extremists should be reported more accurately as a very big minority of extremists.

From its position of power the currently dominant worldview doesn't face the reality of a massive revolutionary Islamist movement, that draws on normative Islam, which is the greatest threat to peace and freedom in the world today. It also sees a mirage of moderation where there is often just radicals who talk nice. 

As a result, the mainstream Western view today often  helps  reactionary, repressive forces that want to murder people (many of them Muslims), commit genocide on Jews, and force everyone in the Middle East and beyond into decades of bloody war and suffering. That same view--that anyone who says anything critical about anything connected with Islam should be demonized--also pushes aside the real moderates (who have their own criticisms of contemporary mainstream political Islam).

Don't those sound like rather serious, even suicidal mistakes?

The "good" news is that young Muslims have to be taught to interpret the Koran. In other words, in principle there is hope. But the bad news is that they are increasingly being taught by radical Islamist interpretations. An incredible amount of poison has been let loose and it will take many decades to undo the harm.

In short, those who say that Islam is innately evil or extremist they are wrong. But those who say there is no problem at all and that Islam as interpreted today by most Muslims as just a "religion of peace" are also wrong. The key is how Islam is interpreted, how many people hold the different interpretations, and what they intend to do about it.

In other words, this is a political and not a theological issue. Of course, one can say that Islamist radicals are more influential because they make arguments rooted in the Islamic texts. But then one also has to explain why they weren't so powerful when those same texts existed in precisely the same wording, for example, in 1975.

Being afraid of someone who just wants to live his own life and practice his religion peacefully is a phobia. Being afraid of someone who wants to destroy your interests and to kill you and your friends is wise.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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