Sunday, January 10, 2010

The West & Political Islam

Americans need to take the blinders off and look squarely at the political world we are creating before we lock ourselves into a future that we may find extremely distasteful. Fortunately, we have a surprisingly wide array of choices.

The neo-con mythology about political Islam depicts a homogeneous mass of crazy, violence-prone, evil aggressors motivated by religion and willing to use any method to achieve their goals. In truth, political Islam is a highly differentiated, disunified social universe motivated by as wide a range of goals as Americans and overwhelmingly non-violent.

There are several curious aspects of this neo-con mythology. Not the least interesting is the degree to which the neo-con portrayal of Islam reflects the reality about the neo-cons themselves. The utility of the neo-con myth for various neo-con projects—above all, the transformation of the U.S. into a global empire in control of the world’s oil and the transformation of Israel into a regional mini-empire—also merits reflection. But perhaps the most curious—and most tragic--aspect of the neo-con myth about political Islam is the degree to which it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Regardless of the true condition of the Islamic political world, to the degree that the world’s only remaining superpower portrays it as a monolithic, frightening, evil, and implacably hostile entity and treats it accordingly, then political Islam will evolve into that which it is accused of being. The greater the tendency of Washington to use force to get what it wants from global political Islam, the greater will be the tendency of Muslims to respond with force. The greater the tendency of Washington to view all activist, independent-minded Muslims as enemies, the greater will be the tendency of this highly factionalized array of political actors to unite against the common enemy. The greater the degree to which Washington views Muslim activists as evil, the greater will be the tendency of Muslim activists to conclude that they have no hope of finding an acceptable compromise with Washington.

The Muslim-Western contest has existed for far too long for a “chicken vs. egg” debate to have any value. Whether one dates it from the Arab attack on Spain, from the Crusades, from the neo-colonial era of imperialism, or from 9/11, the Muslim-Western contest waxes and wanes as each succeeding generation learns its own lessons. If the future of the world and the security of ourselves and our countries constitute our areas of primary concern, what matters is not so much the presumed nature of any specific person or group as the attitudes of broad social sectors. A man may decide to change the world but find that being a political leader is more like being a train driver, who can change the speed but must stick to the track, than being an explorer who can wander wherever he wishes.

The constant flow of the new generation into society offers endless opportunities for changing the course of events. A new Western generation may grow up imagining that war of civilizations is normal. A new Muslim generation may grow up without the frustrations that persuaded their mothers and fathers to view terrorist gangs as their only hope for justice. Support for and rates of recruitment into this or that political movement consequently change, leaving political leaders wondering why they can no longer accomplish what they were accustomed to accomplishing in the past. Physics may concern immutable laws of nature; politics concerns the possible.

In a political world of ever-evolving possibilities, yesterday’s assumptions will be today’s blinders. The neo-con myth about political Islam, born from a combination of rage over 9/11 and short-sighted desire to exploit 9/11 to fulfill private agendas, has, a decade later, become a set of blinders Americans can no longer afford to wear. We need to take the blinders off and look squarely at the political world we are creating before we lock ourselves into a future that we may find extremely distasteful.

Whatever your political views, you owe it to yourself to consider two questions:

  1. What sort of world are we creating?
  2. What can we do about it?

The Islamic world was on a role from the 7th to the 15th centuries, whether viewed militarily, culturally, politically, scientifically, or morally. Illustrating only the last point, a comparison of religious freedom in 13th century Muslim Spain with 13th century France or England or Germany would show Muslims centuries ahead of their Western neighbors. But since the 15th century, roles have reversed. That long twilight of Muslim activism, that ceding of Muslim initiative now seems to be reversing.

Today, the Muslim world is in ferment. Popular interest in politics is intense, even as Westerners are becoming dangerously jaded about their governments.

The West, with its military superiority, has the option of resisting tooth and nail, risking everything to retain its top-dog status. The West also has the option of looking for a mutually beneficial and historically innovating restructuring of our political world that would leave the West secure while accommodating Muslim aspirations. We in the West today face few challenges more urgent than the challenge of figuring out which goal is best and how to bring it to fruition.


Afghan Details

Yemeni Details

Iranian Details

Israeli-Palestinian Details


A look at the details of the political landscape in various Muslim societies and the nature of U.S. behavior will reveal that the U.S. faces a surprisingly rich array of opportunities.

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