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Is Islam in Danger

By: Kazi Anwarul Masud
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(The author is former Secretary and ambassador of Bangladesh)

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To understand the background of what is happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the attack of 9/11 by the so-called purist part of the Muslims one has to recall the battles between the Sallahdin and the Christian Kings for the control of Jerusalem, holy to the Muslims, the Christians and the Jews. Responding to Byzantine Emperor Alexei"s plea for help against the Turks at the dawn of the eleventh century Pope Urban II reminded the Christians of Emperor Charlemagne"s forcible conversion of Saxons into Christianity and of the battles he waged against the Islamic rulers of Spain. Pope"s concerns were real. Charlemagne"s death saw Christian Europe under attacks on many sides and the greatest threat came from the forces of Islam, militant and victorious in the centuries after the death of Prophet Mohammed (pubh). By the eighth century the Muslims had conquered North Africa, the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and most of Spain. Islamic armies established bases in Italy, greatly reduced the size of the Eastern Roman Empire and besieged its capital Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire, the torchbearer of the Greek civilization, faced a rival culture and a religion described by late Edward Said as the intellectual contestant of the West.

The conflict between the two great religions and cultures­Islam and Christianity-- continued through out with the passage of time each convinced of the moral superiority of its teachings. Proponents of the dueling civilizations found prescience in historian Bernard Lewis" observation dating back to the nineties that the world has a "clash of civilizations"­Islamic vs. Christians and post-Christians; rigid theocratic hierarchy vs. permissive secular modernism­charged with as Lewis perceived the Muslim world"s "downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity; poverty and oppression". It has been argued that the Muslim world is horrified by the fundamental debasement and moral corruption in Western society, the West"s tolerance of every sort of decadence fuelling Islamic contempt of a dissolute culture that effectively could be termed as a dereliction of duty by the church. This wavering and tenuous belief in Christianity by modern day Westerners, it has been argued, resulted in the simultaneous assault by the followers of Marx and Freud - one contending that evil springs from unjust social conditions created by unfair political systems while the other saw it as a product of psychological dysfunction. The strict adherence of Christian belief would disregard both contentions and lay the blame on endemic human nature­the doctrine of original sin. They further claim that atheism and radical secularism are denial of essential human spirituality and that both Christianity and Islam claim exclusive universal moral sovereignty. Therefore modern Christianity despite adulteration and degradation added by its parishioners (and thereby the faith having no degrading causal connection with degradation) is essentially in a state of clash with Islam. Professor John Esposito sees in the resurgence of Islamic extremism deep malaise typified by widespread feeling of failure and loss of self-esteem, failed political system and stagnant economies. Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco goes further and lays the blame squarely on US policy towards political Islam (Foreign Policy in Focus­June 2001). He identified problems of post-Second world war Western and more recently of and Bush administration"s support of hardliner repressive Islamic regimes making democratic and non-violent opposition as a nonviable option; US tolerance of "democratic exceptions" in many Islamic countries on grounds of vital national interests and in the process perpetuating unfair distribution of wealth in those societies; and perhaps the cardinal sin of US policy is its totally one sided support of Israel in the Arab Israel dispute. Muslim suspicion about the US brokerage is not ill founded. As Stephen Zunes keeps on repeating the fact that from the time of the crusades through European colonization and the Iraq war western Christians killed far more Muslims than has been the case in reverse and the Muslims have a very strong sense of this historical fact.

Prescience of some notwithstanding the British intelligence, CIA Mossad etc were reportedly caught with pants down when the Iranian revolution happened. Apparently the suddenness of this historical event was comparable to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 when people were still in a daze about the unfolding drama. The skeptics would, however, point out that had the Americans not been instrumental in the overthrow of popular Iranian Prime Minister Dr. Mohammed Mosadegh and replacing him with Reza Shah Pahlvi then Ayatollah Khomeini"s triumphant return to Iran at the head of the Iranian Revolution would not have happened. That former US General Ginni who had extensive experience of the region had given the Iranian clerics a few years at most before they had gone with the wind or that Michael Leeden of the American Enterprise Institute considers the Iranian people as the most pro-American in the area are separate issues. The fact remains that many Muslims retain a strong historical sense of the Anglo-French colonization of the Muslim countries that assaulted not only Islamic religion and culture but also caused the death of a million Algerians in their fight for independence from France. Despite Tony Blair"s claim that NATO forces fought for the Bosnian and the Kosovar Muslims against Christian Serbs it has been alleged that the massacre at Srebrenica could have been avoided but for NATO"s delayed decision that perhaps was occasioned because the victims were Muslims. It is recognized that Christian oppression was not confined to the Islamic world and had victims across a wide spectrum of different religionists. It has been argued that but for the mounting body bags Vietnam could have gone the way of Iraq if the Vietnam war had been fought today with precision bombing instead of when it was fought (1959-1975); that Rwandan carnage was inflicted by the Catholics on their co-religionists; that racism in the US did not differentiate between followers of different faiths; that Lebanon had found peace till recently the Israelis attacked Lebanon to free two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by the Hezbullah guerillas because the Muslims are in charge but was in war when the Christians were in the majority. Such arguments trying to establish moral superiority of one religion over another are not only irreverent and pugnacious but are fraught with the risk of losing the quintessence of the "greatness of the different faiths". Francis Fukuyama (of The End of History and The Last Man fame) has maintained that the tragic events of nine-eleven did not nullify his thesis that mankind has reached the end of history which is "understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process, taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times" because it was hard to find an alternative civilization that people actually wanted to live in after discrediting socialism, monarchy, fascism and other types of authoritarianism. Fukuyama, however, seems to concede that nine-eleven events might have strengthened Samuel Huntington"s premise (The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of the World Order) that instead of progressing towards a single world order the world could be faced with several cultural groups and thereby produce fresh fault lines for global conflict. Fukuyama is also intrigued by Huntington"s central question: whether institutions of modernity like democracy and capitalism are peculiar to the West or have a broader appeal. Though the modernity institutions are doing well in East Asia, South Asia, Latin America, and Africa; most of the Islamic countries suffer from democracy deficit and none of the Islamic countries have made successful transition from a developing country to a developed country like Singapore or South Korea.

Despite universal condemnation through out the Islamic world of the carnage of nine-eleven questions have been raised whether radical Islam can constitute a serious alternative to Western liberal democracy .One would wish it not to be so. For example despite the chaos that envelops Afghanistan most of the people are relieved at being freed from the Taliban Caligula. In case of the Iranians after more than two decades of clerical rule it is generally believed that the youth who constitute the majority of the Iranian population would like to live in a freer and more liberal society. It can therefore be safely assumed that majority of the Muslims are not Islamists and are not sent into paroxysm of anger and hatred over everything American. But then here one should pause to ponder over the Franco-German-Mexico abstention on the UNSC resolution on Liberia (the point of conflict being the immunity that would be enjoyed by the US soldiers on peace keeping mission in Liberia from possible prosecution before the International Criminal Court should they be accused of violation of the legal code of conduct which would apply to the soldiers of all other participating countries). Ivan Elad of Cato Institute (Does US intervention overseas breed terrorism­December 1998) reached the conclusion that large number of terrorist attacks that occurred in retaliation of an interventionist American foreign policy implicitly demonstrated that terrorism against US targets could be significantly reduced if the US adopted a policy of military restraint overseas.

But would it necessarily be so? Jessica Stern of Harvard University advises the West to spend on health, education and economic development to prevent the rise of Osama bin Ladens. Former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel feels that fundamentalist forces draw sustenance from poverty, inequality, injustice and repressive political system. President Clinton held the view that forces of reaction fed on disillusionment, poverty and despair. But empirical study on Islamists and terrorists found them to belong "significantly above the average in their generation". It has been said that like fascism, Marxism-Leninism in their heydays, militant Islam attracts highly competent, motivated and ambitious individuals. So if militant Islam is not a function of poverty and as Birthe Hansen of Copenhagen University puts it that the spread of free market, capitalism and liberal democracy is probably an important factor in the rise of political Islam; the West may have to look for a solution less confrontational and more based on diplomatic and, when necessary, economic engagements. In this respect President Obama"s accommodative attitude towards the Muslim world, Pope"s declaration of his respect for Islam notwithstanding Regensburg"s speech, former British Foreign Secretary"s admission of the existence of Christian, Jewish and Sikh fundamentalists along with Muslim fundamentalists; and British leaders" call to reach out to the Arabs and the Muslims; US resolve to encourage democratization in the Muslim world and to forsake the policy of democratic exception followed hitherto; and western willingness to enter into dialogue with the Muslim world on the basis of equality and respect for differences are welcome signs. Faith is like Dresden china to be handled with care. While crusades will always remain a part of human history reenactment of the old scenes can only spell disaster for the world at large.

Kazi Anwarul Masud

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