Where’s the Muslim Debate?

Indian Express, July 12, 2003

Some Muslim groups in the U.S. have launched a campaign to block the appointment of Daniel Pipes to the board of the United States Institute of Peace. The USIP is a taxpayer-funded institution with a mandate to promote “peaceful resolutions of international conflicts.” Mr. Pipes, a Bush administration nominee, is a scholar of Islam and the Middle East and an outspoken critic of militant Islamists.

Although the Washington Post, among others, has editorialized against his appointment, the controversy should be seen in the context of the civil war of ideas in the Muslim world — between those who wish to reconcile adherence to their faith with modernity and those seeking the restoration of a mythical glorious past. The Pipes nomination has become a test of strength for those Islamists who wish to paint the war against terrorism as a war against Islam. If they can rally American Muslims to their cause, they would be able to limit the scope of debate about Islamic issues within parameters set by them. That objective doesn’t serve the interests of the U.S. or of Muslims.

Many Islamic revivalists, or Islamists, have turned to terrorism in an effort to destroy the West’s military, economic, cultural and technological domination. Above all, they resent and resist the free flow of ideas within the Muslim community and with the West. In dealing with terrorism, the U.S. cannot afford to ignore the ideas — and the lack of openness in Muslim discourse — that generate terrorist thinking. While his detractors label Mr. Pipes an “Islamophobe,” the tussle is less about Daniel Pipes and more about the terms on which the U.S. should engage the world’s Muslims, including many American citizens. Mr. Pipes is probably not always right in all his arguments. As a Muslim, I disagree with several of his policy prescriptions. But his views are neither racist nor extremist; they fall within the bounds of legitimate scholarly debate.

Muslims have suffered a great deal from their tendency to shun discussion of ideas, especially those relating to history and religion and their impact on politics. Hard-liners won’t tolerate questioning of their views that Islam has nothing to learn from “unbelievers” or that Muslims have a right to subdue other faiths, by force if necessary. The notion of an Islamic polity and state — supported by extremists, questioned by moderates — is also an issue which must be aired. Promoting such debate should be an essential element of U.S. engagement with the Islamic world. That objective is better served by including and debating the ideas of intellectuals such as Mr. Pipes than by attacking them.

Americans are keen to understand why some people hate them enough to want to fly planes into buildings and blow themselves up while trying to kill civilians. But similar introspection is missing among Muslims. Shouldn’t they be asking themselves why it’s difficult for them to criticize terrorism without fearing that they’ll be labeled anti-Islamic? Just as the U.S. needs to understand why Muslims resent its power, Muslims must figure out why they cannot win America’s trust and respect.

Islam’s external enemies, and their real and perceived conspiracies, are the focus of most discourse in the Muslim world. Colonial rule and, since then, injustices meted out to Muslims under non-Muslim occupation in several countries are real issues that need to be addressed. But the failure of Muslim societies — in particular the leaders — to embrace education, expand economies or to innovate cannot be attributed solely to outside factors. The root causes also lie in the fear of some Muslims to embrace reasoned debate and intellectual exchange, lest this openness somehow dilute the purity of their beliefs.

The campaign against Mr. Pipes is an example of this tendency to scuttle discussion. Muslims who disagree with his views should respond to him with arguments of their own. Slandering him might help polarize secular and Islamist Muslims, but it won’t raise the level of discourse about Islamic issues. It’s time for Muslim leaders in the U.S. to break the pattern of agitation that has characterized Muslim responses to the West.

The the Bylanes of the War on Terror

Indian Express, July 12, 2003

President George W. Bush’s personal efforts to secure a Middle East peace settlement in the hope that this would reverse the rising tide of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world have not yet had that desired result. An overwhelming majority of Muslims still remains skeptical of US intentions. Muslim public opinion does not seem to believe the American President’s repeated assertion that the US-led war against terrorism is not a war against Islam.

The decision by some American Christian evangelist groups to proselytise aggressively in the Islamic world, portraying Islam as an evil and terrorist religion, is likely to further enhance that perception. One evangelical group, Arab International Ministry leads crash courses on Islam and claims to have trained 4,500 American Christians to proselytise Muslims. Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jerry Vines have offended Muslims and Christians alike witinsulting remarks about Islam and Muslims.

No one can deny any religious group the right to seek converts through persuasion. But the American evangelists are likely to undermine US foreign policy, given their close political links with the present administration. The US government would have to ensure that the evangelist mission to spread Christianity is not seen as being intertwined with Washington’s stated military and political mission of changing the Middle East.

The US goal in the war against terror must be to eliminate extremist Islamist groups that threaten the world’s security. Helping moderate Muslims reclaim the intellectual and ideological leadership of Islam’s fellowship of believers (the Umma) can more easily attain that goal than trying to convert more than one billion Muslims to Christianity.

The war in Iraq has definitely increased the number of radical Muslims believing in the inevitability of a clash of civilisations and the need to stand up and be counted for their religious fellowship. Only five of the 57 nations that form the Organisation of Islamic Countries publicly joined President Bush’s coalition of the willing for the war in Iraq. On the eve of the war, public opinion surveys in traditional US allies Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan showed less than ten percent of those surveyed expressing a positive view of the United States. A post-war survey by the Pew Research Center for the people and the Press suggests that the ‘‘the bottom has fallen out of support for America in most of the Muslim world.’’

This growing Muslim disenchantment with the US highlights the need for bolstering moderate Muslims who seek reconciliation with the West. Until now the US has described as moderate those Muslim rulers who support US foreign policy. But many of these dictators have become a liability for the US as opposition to their authoritarianism is expressed in support for radical Islamic groups, which also target American interests. The US must now identify Muslim leaers of moderate thought as its allies. These scholars and activists would counter the obscurantism of religious extremists, paving the way for the transition of Muslim societies to modernity and for Islam’s coexistence with an ascendant west.

America’s problem with the Muslims is not limited to the Middle East and Central Asia. In distant Indonesia, 5000 miles away from Iraq and 9,000 miles from the US West Coast, several hundred thousand protestors railed against the United States, some in towns too remote to be covered by western reporters based in Jakarta. Even secular Indonesian scholars met with the US ambassador to express concern that the war in Iraq had ignited religious radicalism in the world’s most populous Muslim country.

In his recent book Islam Under Siege (published by Polity Press, U.K.) Professor Akbar S. Ahmed has called for inclusive dialogue between Muslims and the West as the key to avoiding the clash of civilisations desired by some and predicted by many. As one of the most well known Muslim scholars in the western world, Professor Ahmed has tried to make sense of Muslim history and political thinking for western readers. He has pointed out that the Muslim world has had both exclusive and inclusive tendencies. The exclusive tendency has focused on excluding outside (especially western) influences while the inclusive trend acknowledges the need to learn from others while maintaining one’s core beliefs.

Islam Under Siege highlights the dilemmas faced by Muslims in the post September 11 world and advocates embracing the inclusive approach, which he associates with Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, among others. The growing Muslim disenchantment with the US highlights the need for bolstering moderate Muslims who seek reconciliation with the West. Until now the US has described as moderate those Muslim rulers who support US foreign policy. But many of these dictators have become a liability for the US as opposition to their authoritarianism is expressed in support for radical Islamic groups, which also target American interests. The US must now identify Muslim leaders of moderate thought as its allies. These scholars and activists would counter the exclusionist thinking of religious extremists, paving the way for the transition of Muslim societies to modernity and for Islam’s coexistence with an ascendant west.

While seeking moderate Muslim allies, the US would do well to advise Christian missionaries against complicating the political equation. The White House should distance itself from the impression that the emerging American empire has any religious mission or that churches will inevitably follow the flag. In any case, co-existence with a democratised Muslim world is a more realistic target for American foreign policy than the project of massive religious conversion. The experience of European missionaries that followed colonial powers into the Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia, show that persuading Muslims to give up their religion en masse can be a difficult proposition. After over a hundred years of British colonisation in India, for example, missionary activity was far more successful in remote regions inhabited by animists than among the Muslims or Hindus. Missionaries have, on the other hand, generated a fundamentalist Muslim backlash in several countries, notably Nigeria and Indonesia.

The Middle East’s Christian populations are, by and large, the descendants of early indigenous Christians rather than the product of proselytising by colonial Europeans. The Assyrians, Chaldeans and Copts became Christian before Europe embraced Christianity. Even they might look upon swarms of American evangelical missionaries as intruders into their traditional way.

All religious groups, including the evangelicals, are well within their rights to extend their religious message to others without causing offense. But to tie efforts to ‘‘woo Muslims away from Islam’’ to the global war on terrorism could be disastrous. Al-Qaeda and other groups have been telling Muslims that unless they fight the west, through terrorism, their religion is in danger. For every convert away from Islam, there are likely to be many more Muslims that shed faith in reconciliation with the west for such radical beliefs. Such polarisation might be desirable from bin Laden’s point of view. It is not what America needs, or wants.

U.S. Should Stop Indulging Musharraf

Gulf News, July 4, 2003

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s Camp David meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush has yielded the promise of a $3 billion aid package for Pakistan for the next five years. But the promise of U.S. aid is not enough to help Pakistan out of its political and identity crises. To turn Pakistan’s fortunes around, Musharraf and his fellow generals need to re-assess many of the key assumptions that have driven the policies of successive Pakistani rulers.

Had U.S. aid been the solitary key to a nation’s success, Egypt and Turkey would have been models for emulation. Both nations, along with Israel, have been among the largest recipients of U.S. aid over the years. Pakistan, too, has regularly featured among the top ten U.S. aid recipients, despite intermittent interruptions to the flow of aid.

The question is not how much foriegn aid a nation receives but what it does with it. Pakistan has received aid packages similar to the one promised at Camp David over the last 50 years. Between 1951 and 1981, the U.S. provided $5 billion in direct economic assistance to Pakistan.

General Zia-ul-Haq negotiated $3.2 billion in aid for 1981-85 and another $4 billion for the subsequent six years, in return for Pakistan’s involvement in the anti-Soviet war in Afghan-istan.

The U.S. has also supported Pakistan’s borrowing from international financial institutions – the IMF and the World Bank. Their support for Pakistan averages $2 billion per year. Constant conflict, internal and regional, and the absence of rule of law have often mitigated the benefits of these concessional flows of resources into Pakistan.

At Camp David, Bush praised Musharraf for being a key ally in the global war against terrorism but there was no concern over stifling democracy and allowing Pakistan’s Islamist extremists a free hand. Such unconditional U.S. support encouraged previous Pakistani military rulers to pursue disastrous regional adventures, such as support for anti-India militancy, and has done little to move the country towards democracy.

If the U.S. really wants to help Pakistan, backing for Musharraf must be tempered with clear indications that Washington is uneasy with his domestic and regional policies.

Bush’s handling of Mush-arraf could be a test of the promise he made just before the war in Iraq about bringing democracy to the Muslim world.

Last week, Musharraf declared his intention to indefinitely remain at the helm of Pakistan’s affairs because in his view: “Pakistan is not ready for democracy.” This contradicts Bush’s stated interest in the spread of democratic values. In February, Bush had described as “presumptuous and insulting” any suggestion that democracy is unsuited to the Muslim world or it may not appeal to certain peoples for cultural reasons.

So far the U.S. seems content to allow Musharraf to run the country’s affairs. Musharraf refuses to restore the country’s constitution, offers only limited powers to the parliament elected last October and has calibrated co-operation in the war against terrorism to extract maximum benefit from Washington.

He has gone on record that he sees U.S. aid as “reward” for Pakistan’s support in the war on terrorism. Pakistan’s support in tracking down Al Qaida members has undoubtedly been valuable to the U.S. But the country’s intelligence services seem to be doling out Al Qaida figures one at a time as if to keep the U.S. indefinitely dependent on their support.

A major Al Qaida personality has been arrested and handed over to the U.S. before every important meeting between Pakistani and American officials.

This has led cynics to ask whether the timing of these arrests is a coincidence or the result of a deliberate effort to establish Pakistan’s usefulness to the United States for a long time to come. Musharraf cited the corruption and incompetence of civilian leaders as reason for his military coup in 1999.

As criticism and sanctions gave way to praise for Musharraf’s support, his rhetoric about a phased transition to democracy has been substituted by comments about his being indispensable for Pakistan.

Pakistan became a nuclear power soon after India in 1998. Musharraf suppressed secular political parties, leading to the rise of Islamists who now wield considerable political weight.

This enables him to claim that the only alternative to his military regime is an Islamist one. Since the U.S. does not want Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to fall under the control of Islamists, the military’s domination of politics is allowed to persist.

Lack of criticism by the U.S. has encouraged Musharraf to follow a two-track approach in relations with India. As a result, Pakistan failed to evolve a viable political system and India-Pakistan relations deteriorated.

This time, the U.S. should not allow a repetition of that pattern. Military rule or Islamist domination is not Pakistan’s only choice. Pakistan can, and should, be a constitutional democracy like its neighbours in South Asia, and the U.S. should make clear its preference for that outcome.