Islam, used and abused
7 December 2001
Beriut, Lebanon: So what comes after the Taliban and Osama bin Laden are finished? Probably more Talibans and new Osama bin Laden. This is the sad and shocking reality that we must confront. It will happen apart from all the fanfare surrounding America's military triumph in Afghanistan and all the other achivements of this so-called war on terror. Why? because the Taliban and Bin Laden are not isolated cases but manifestations of a complex, and potentially durable sociopolitical phenomenon.
Basically, this phenomenon involves the immoral, unscrupulous and irreligious exploitation of Islam as a political weapon by everyone. The West, the United States, Arab and other Muslim tyrannies have all used the weapon of Islam. And all are paying their different prices for it.
During the Cold War it was easy, and easily justified on pragmatic grounds, to enlistment the help of political Islam in the fight against Communism. Yet this enlistment of Islam which helped hammer the final nails in the coffin of Communism by defeating the Red Army in Afghanistan led to catastrophe first for west Asia and later for America as was so shockingly brought home by the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
The policy of using political Islam as an anti-Communist tool was a crucial reason why so much of the Muslim world came to be dominated by stagnant undemocratic but stable (so it seemed) and adequately pro-Western governments on one hand and the traditional forces of political Islam reconfigured for the latter half of the 20th century on the other. The crowning achievement of such a policy was the defeat of the modernising alternative: those moments that hoped to avoid aligning with either the Soviet Union or the United State to develop their societies along secular lines by ideally ever more democratic means and to substitute nationalism for colonial humility and Islamic traditionalism. Such moments were sometimes called Nasserite after President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. He struggled against the Muslim Brotherhood for most of his political life.
The Nasserite space has been shrinking over the three decades since his death. The alliance between Western democratics and local despots, whether Saudi royals or Saddam Hussian in his early years had two results: the destruction of democratic openness in the Arab world and the obliteration of any chance for a liebral Arab nationalist movement that could act as a bridge to the modern world. State power may have been in the most cases secular but political hope and political mobility were left in the hands of God's representatives.
After the Cold War ended in 1989, and while the rest of the world was gearing up to join the March of globalisation and making great strides toward democracy, liberty and human rights. West Asia looked like a bombed-out city. More political oppression more intellectual and cultural stagnation, more economic and social ideological void that only the fundamentalists were able or were permitted to fill under the demagogic banner of protecting identity and character.
Political exploitation of Islam continued, but the enemy became simply Muslim peoples themselves. This was exemplified in the financing ( with petrodollars ) of some 7,500 religious schools in Pakistan, India and the Arab world schools that taught only isolationism, backwardness and hostility. Arab and other Muslim tyrannies sought by leaving the educational and cultural fields to Islamism to acquire legitimacy at the cheapest and most opportunistic price: by keeping the masses ignorent and preventing them from improving their lot politically and economically. Better to direct their hopes towards the hereafter.
Where was American then? Where was the West? Cavorting with tyrants on the sunny beaches of the Mediterranean. So long as the oil flowed at a good price, petrodollars were recycled in the West's arms factories and Israel was in no real danger, there was no reason to interfere in what America's moderate or even immoderate allies were doing to their own peoples.
September 11 changed all that. The United States lost its sovereignty. Suddenly security the streets of Washington. New York, Boston and Los Angles was inextricably linked to the curriculums of schools in Peshawar, Mazar-e-Sharif. Cairo, Algiers and deoband.
And just as suddenly, the regional system that Washington had nurtured during the Cold War then left to its own devices after 1989, was seen to have turned into a hatchery for human missiles and suicidal rage directed against the United States itself.
Now we have a world war on terror. This war is already yielding results: the prehistoric Taliban regime is all but finished, the financial lifelines to fundamentalist extremist networks have been severed, Bin Laden is on the run.
Winning a war, however, does not mean winning the peace. This war can in truth be won only by winning hearts and minds. This can be achieved only by correcting the historical mistakes made by the West, including the United States, in undercutting the modernising forces of pan-Arabism and by correcting the spectacularly misguided choice made by Arab elities in their use of power and of politicised Islam as a way to keep it.
Benjamin Barber, author of Jehad vs McWorld wrote recently "In the long run war can not defeat terror alone because violence can not defeat fear: only democracy can do that." Secretary of state Colin Powell seems to view matters in a similar light. In his speech of November 19, which received careful attention in Muslim countries. Secretary Powell articulated his vision of West Asia in which "all people have jobs that let them put bread on their tables and a roof over their head and offer a decent education to their children."
"We have a vision of a region where all people worship god in a spirit of tolerance and understanding." Secretary Powell continued. "and we have a vision where respect for the sanctity of the individual, the rule of law and the politics of participation grow stronger and stronger."
For now these are just promises. It is extremely hard not to question the likelihood of their fulfillment . For much of the 20th century, excessive American pragmatism tended to stress short-term interests, which often were served by tyrants like Saddam Hussian at the expense of the future of Arabs.
Nevertheless, Secretary Powell's promises alone may widen the chasm between the United States and its regional allies, and that is to the good. American seem to realising that having undemocratic allies and that is to good. American seems to be realising that having un-democratic allies- one who manipulate political Islam for their narrow purposes- has been a pennywise police, at best. The stress Colin Powell put on respect, dignity and the rejection of humiliation widens this chasm still further, for personal dignity is about the last thing Arab rulers had allowed to Arab citizens. Secretary Powell's emphasis make the issue clear: it shows that the solutions adopted in ignorance by all sides, including America, have not worked. The Arab and Muslim World may yet sign on to modernity and globalisation - because they and the West may come to realise there is no other choice.
Through this window of hope, it may be possible to see that self-inflicted injuries in the Arab and Muslim soul can indeed heal.. But until these promises and visions reach fulfillment, the passons fears and hatreds of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden will remain alive among us.