How Bush Silenced the Moderate Muslim Voice

Indian Express, April 4, 2003

‘‘Show them no pity. They have stains on their souls.’’

To those familiar with anti-western rhetoric in the Arab and Muslim world, the above might sound like a line out of an Al Qaeda statement. In fact, it comes from the exhortation by a British commander, one Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins to be precise, to his troops in Iraq.

For moderate Muslims who have, for years, argued for reconciliation with the West, the war in Iraq is becoming their worst nightmare. Moderation in the Islamic world might turn out to be the most significant casualty of this war.

Everyday fresh images of destruction of the historic capital of Islam’s caliphs, Baghdad, are beamed into Muslim homes, courtesy a vibrant and increasingly independent Arab media. The emphasis here is on the death and destruction caused by a precision-guided Goliath relentlessly pounding a largely helpless David already debilitated by sanctions.

That the war was not provoked by an immediate casus belli, does not have broad international support and is seen as an American war of choice even by some of its supporters does not help.

Over two weeks into war, the weapons of mass destruction that the US-led coalition went in to eliminate have not been found or seen. There has been no popular uprising by the Iraqi people to support the invading troops. Progress in the march to Baghdad is reportedly good but slow compared to the expectations built by the Bush administration.

To make matters worse, Coalition military sources and their embedded journalist partners have ended up circulating half-truths and outright fabrications, unnecessarily eroding their credibility despite their overwhelming advantages.

The otherwise deceptive and dishonest Iraqi Baathists are looking increasingly like beleaguered defenders under attack, rather than the hated authoritarian regime they actually represent.

British and US 24-hour television news stations remain obsessed with the technological superiority of the Anglo-American Alliance and on repeating claims and rhetoric that fail to take into account historic realities or Muslim sentiments.

In fact, key segments of the Western media have been badly hurt by the impression that they have allowed themselves to be inducted into the psychological operations of the US-British military effort. Claims about the fall of Umm Qasr were broadcast nine times and three days earlier than the port city’s actual subjugation. Stories about the discovery of a chemical weapons facility near Najaf and the surrender of the Iraqi 51st Division turned out to be untrue. The reported fall of Basra to British troops on the third day of the war did not materialises after over a week.

The family of a British soldier alleged to have been executed by the Iraqis denied Prime Minister Blair’s assertion in this regard, saying the Army told them their son had been killed in action. And the British have had to retract their claims about the capture of an Iraqi General after circulating them through the BBC and CNN.

The US networks, in particular, have acted more as cheerleaders for their country’s war-machine than as independent sources of news. There is little interest in reporting on civilian casualties or hardship and there seems to be little desire to guard against being spun by those leading the charge.

Al-Jazeera, which has shown greater professional competence and integrity than the US cable news networks, is being viciously attacked for being an Arab news network as if being Arab was a crime.

Those Muslims who looked up to and hoped to emulate the higher ethics of Western democracies find this partial adoption of the propagandist ways of dictatorships by the free world very disturbing.

Few people in the Muslim world like Saddam Hussein. In fact, most commentators and observers recognise his role in bringing destruction to the Iraqi people. But at the same time, the Bush-Blair war is widely seen as an effort to occupy Iraq, not one to liberate it.

The British and the Americans have not been able to convince many Muslims that their military effort is a humanitarian project. Why else has Britain allocated only £ 210 million out of a war budget of £ 3 billion for humanitarian assistance? The US allocation for humanitarian work is a meagre $ 2.4 billion out of an estimated budget of an approximate $ 75 billion. Surely, after allocating more money to fighting than helping the people, the coalition should not expect its efforts to be seen as anything other than a military conquest.

From the point of view of the Muslim moderates, the Iraq war is polarising the world between a Muslim ‘‘us’’ and a Western ‘‘them’’. It is no longer easy for Muslim modernists to praise the West’s moral purpose when US leaders emphasise their power at the cost of their ideals.

Since the first strike aimed at decapitating Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi leadership, all we have heard from Washington and London is how there is no doubt that their superior military technology will prevail. A post-occupation American governor for Iraq has already been identified.

Some contracts for Iraqi reconstruction have been parceled out among favoured US companies. US and British marines have put in greater effort to secure the Rumailah oil fields than in providing water to thirsty civilians in southern Iraq. Is it surprising then that promises of building an Iraqi democracy and making a new beginning in the Middle East are not being taken seriously by an overwhelming majority in the Arab-Islamic world?

Recent polls show that approval for the US stands at less than ten per cent in almost every Muslim majority country polled. There is, of course, no moral equivalence between the western democracies and a totalitarian regime that used chemical weapons against its own people.

Saddam’s regime represents an anachronistic Stalinist system which disregards human rights and civil liberties. Even at their worst, the US and Britain represent far greater adherence to norms of civility than Iraq’s Baathist regime has done in its entire history.

But the recent conduct of the US towards Muslims and the Muslim world has been a particularly low point for those in the Muslim world who admire the United States as a leader of the free world. Beginning with the televised images of blindfolded prisoners in chains from Guantanamo to the post-9/11 violations of civil liberties of ordinary Muslims in the US and the conduct of the propaganda war in Iraq, the Bush administration has seemed willing to continually lower the moral bar for itself. It is as if Washington is stooping to the same level where it finds its ‘‘enemies’’.

The US has decided to ‘‘shock and awe’’ instead of trying to ‘‘befriend and embrace’’ the world’s one billion Muslims. The underlying assumption, articulated by neo-conservative intellectuals as well as by historian Bernard Lewis is that the Arab-Islamic world has never been receptive to Western idealism while it fears and respects force.

The problem with building an empire through force is that it remains vulnerable to the kind of sniping that terrorist movements represent. The American public has traditionally shown little appetite for empire or for protracted conflict. Moreover, Israel’s experience in the West Bank and Gaza, and Russia’s in Chechnya, disproves the theory that overwhelming force can persuade Arabs and Muslims better.

Instead of marginalising Muslim moderates by setting aside its own ideals in favour of a policy based solely on demonstrations of power, the US should review its relationship with the world of Islam.

There is a long tradition of Muslim leaders looking up to the West. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, told a peasant who asked him what westernisation meant: ‘‘It means being a better human being.’’ Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah cited the Englishman’s sense of justice and fairplay as the value that bound Muslims with Westerners.

Even the religiously conservative founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdel Aziz, allied himself to the United States because he found God-fearing Americans better than God-less Communists. Seeking out democratic allies in the tradition of these elders would have ensured Muslim friendship for the West more effectively than raining tomahawk missiles on Iraq.