BOSTON — The United States is a confused and frustrated country when it comes to dealing with the wide variety of voices and actions coming out of Muslim societies. Everywhere in the public sphere, discussions of foreign policy issues inevitably touch on how to deal with “Islamic extremism,” often revolving around the “terrorism” and “violence” of HAMAS, Hizbullah, Iran, Muqtada Sadr and other such parties that the United States dislikes.
The debate on these issues in the United States is disturbingly juvenile. I have rarely if ever heard discussions in this country about ordinary, normal, non-violent Arabs and Muslims who make up 99 percent of their societies. Only the intemperate and militant in the Arab/Islamic world are seen and discussed in America.
The really troubling aspect of this is that the tendency to view entire societies through the lens of a few rascals, criminals and militants is not confined to racists. Politicians and experienced public servants alike frequently offer rhetoric that veers uncomfortably close to the hateful, vengeful rants of radio and television demagogues and purveyors of filth. The widespread fear of and criticism of Arabs/Muslims broadly fails to differentiate between a small number of criminal terrorists and the vast majority of Arabs/Muslims who are peace-loving citizens of their societies.
Two problems here need to be separated. One is the threat of terror by a very small number of people who emanate from Muslim societies and wrap their war-making in the vocabulary of faith. Osama bin Laden and colleagues reflect Muslim societies to the same degree that the cult of polygamous Christian nuts that was just broken up in Texas represents American society. The Yearning for Zion Ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a freak of American culture and society, not a symbol for it. Radical Muslims who wage war against the United States similarly represent a fringe of their societies, not its essence.
The second problem, therefore, is about how Americans perceive and deal with the threat of such radical militants. To date, I sense, most Americans, including top officials and opinion-makers in society, have dealt with this very badly, ineffectively and immaturely. The latest example among many I can cite was Henry Kissinger’s op-ed article earlier this week noting that among the three revolutions in the world that the United States was having trouble coming to grips with was “the radical Islamist challenge to historic notions of sovereignty.”
“Radical Islam rejects claims to national sovereignty based on secular state models, and its reach extends to wherever significant populations profess the Muslim faith,” Kissinger says. This is a classic example of the exaggerated and dangerous generalizations that now permeate American public discourse, starting with the flippant use of terms like “radical Islam” that conflate a handful of criminals with an entire benevolent religion. This in turn reflects severe misreadings of what Islamist movements really want, why and how they developed, and how they can be dealt with.
The reality that I witness every day throughout the Arab-Islamic world where I have spent my entire adult life is very different from this kind of pontification that strives for erudite analysis, but sadly collapses into dangerous over-simplification.
The overwhelming majority of Islamist activists are clearly anchored in their nation-states, and work for their rights as citizens of those states. A very small number of militants professes to pursue a global jihad. You have to be a fool — or a poorly-informed politician — to focus on the handful of cult-like Salafist fundamentalist criminals and ignore the billion-plus Muslim good citizens who aspire only to being treated like human beings and enjoying their civil and human rights as citizens of their countries.
The United States has had five traumatic encounters with Muslim militants in the past generation, and seems unable as a society to get beyond the trauma of those encounters in order to engage with Muslims and Islamist politics in an orderly and rational manner. Those five encounters were the Iranian revolution and the American embassy hostages in 1979-80; the bombings of the American embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983; the short but ugly American military move (for humanitarian reasons) into Somalia in 1993; Al-Qaeda’s several attacks against American targets, culminating in the September 11, 2001 assault; and, attacks against the United States by militants and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan since the U.S. invasions tof hose lands in 2001 and 2003.
For the wellbeing of their own society and the world, Americans would do well to grasp the aberrant nature of those episodic encounters, while also appreciating the symbiotic nature of attacks against the United States and the projection of American military power around the world. American society needs to free itself from its own traumas, and react more rationally to the real dimensions and nature of Islamist movements around the world. A good starting point would be for Americans to distinguish between the tiny fringe cults and the mainstream majorities — in our societies as they do in theirs.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2008 Rami G. Khouri
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