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.