The trouble with Islam

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“WILL WE support the moderates and reformers who are working for change across the Middle East, or will we yield the future to the terrorists and extremists? America\’s made its choice. We will stand with the moderates and reformers,” said President Bush in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on 19 September.

The growing concern in the United States about President Bush’s ‘war on terror’ was recently highlighted by the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report, which reflects the views of the CIA and 15 other intelligence agencies, quoted in the Independent today, which concluded that the invasion of Iraq had exacerbated ‘Islamic extremism’ and increased the threat of terrorist attacks on the United States.

But what are the popular perceptions of these ‘terrorists’ that feed the fear of terrorist attacks? Martin Peretz, co-owner of the mainstream US journal The New Republic, described an Arab character in a play: “He is intoxicated by language, cannot discern between fantasy and reality, abhors compromise, blames others for his predicament and lances the painful boil of his frustrations in a pointless, though momentarily gratifying, act of bloodlust.”

He added: “We have seen this Arab in Tripoli, in Damascus, hijacking a bus to Gaza. In the real world, it is not he but his ‘moderate’ brother who is the figment of the imagination.”

The war against ‘terrorism’, against this ‘Arab’, has failed. More accurate perceptions of ‘Islam’ and Muslims and an issue-based discussion could find solutions. The fear of ‘terrorism’ would then realistically begin to recede.

The stereotype of an Arab, linked to (abstract) ‘Islam’, aggression, terrorism and fundamentalism, is common in the Western media. Edward Said, in Covering Islam, said much of what we read represents aggression as coming from Islam because ‘that is what Islam is’. “Covering Islam,” he added, “is a one sided activity that obscures what ‘we’ [in the West] do, and highlights instead what Muslims and Arabs, by their very flawed nature, are.”

Said argued that US, Israeli and, by extension, their allies’ foreign policy accounts for the anger of Muslims. He wrote: “Between them, the US and Israel have bombed and invaded several Islamic countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Iraq). Israel has occupied Arab-Islamic territory. America is seen as supporting the occupation of these territories. To most Muslims, Israel is an arrogant nuclear power, contemptuous of its neighbours, heedless in the frequency of its bombings, killings, dispossessions and dislocations, especially of Palestinians.”

In Britain, Robert Kilroy-Silk described Arabs as ‘suicide bombers, and limb amputators’. Author William Dalrymple said, after Kilroy’s show was suspended, nearly 22,000 people contacted the Daily Express in his support.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking to his Sedgefield constituents in March 2004, repeatedly referred to opposition in Iraq and Afghanistan as an attack on Western democracy.

He also said: “Citizens who are free, well educated and prosperous feel solidarity with society. Nations that are free, democratic and prosperous tend to be stable partners in the advance of humankind. The best defence of our security lies in the spread of our values.” He proposed changing international law to allow pre-emptive strikes to spread these values.

Do Muslims oppose democratic values? A Harvard / Michigan University study by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, on differences between Western and Islamic societies, found slightly higher support for democracy among Muslims. This was evident from:

1. Approval for the way democracy works.
2. Support for democratic ideals.
3. Disapproval of strong government leaders (‘who do not bother with parliament or elections’).

Lower support was found in Eastern Europe and Latin America. China, the Koreas and Vietnam favoured strong government.

Russia and some former Soviet republics were disillusioned with the democratic process. The strongest endorsement came from Scandinavia, Austria, Germany, Bangladesh, Egypt and Azerbaijan.

The statement: “Politicians who do not believe in God are unfit for public office” received strong opposition from secular Western countries, but more support from Islamic countries. The US showed higher than average support for religious leaders, as did Nigeria, the Philippines and Latin America.

The study concluded: “Attitudes towards democratic principles and performance showed a broad distribution across cultural groups contradicting the claim that the West differs from Islam by its faith in democracy.”

How are the terms ‘terrorist’ and ‘fundamentalist’ actually defined? Abu Shuhada of the now disbanded organisation Al –Muhajiroun said, “Here Muslims have an identity crisis. They find it difficult to integrate. Muslims have been stripped of the right of freedom of speech. Whenever we speak, and if we oppose them, we are called terrorists, extremists.”

Both terms ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘terrorist’ are defined by the media and governments to ‘obscure what we do and highlight who they are’. Within Christianity, fundamentalist describes the most conservative group in Protestant Christianity, sometimes called evangelical. In Judaism and Islam, it refers to strong orthodoxy. But in the media it has connotations of extremism, imbalance, anti-Americanism, and being peculiarly Islamic.

The UK Terrorism Act 2000 defines terrorism as ‘the use or threat of action designed to influence the government or intimidate the public’ for ‘political, religious or ideological’ purposes. The US Code of Federal Regulations adds ‘the unlawful use of force and violence’ to a similar definition. Missing here is state terrorism.

Walter Bowart and Richard Sutton in The Invisible Third World War say America used chemical and biological weapons in Korea and Vietnam. “According to Pentagon documents,” they add, “Russia may have used both BW and CW weapons in Afghanistan.”

David Guyatt, an investigative journalist, said a 1989 CNN programme on electromagnetic [EM] weapons showed America planned their use against ‘terrorists’. A US Department of Defence engineer claimed: ‘In the context of conditioning, microwaves have regularly been used against Palestinians’.

Kim Besley of the former Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, listed the effects resulting from EM (or ‘soft-kill’) weapons’ use on the US Greenham Common base. These included: vertigo, retinal bleeding, burns, loss of memory, severe headaches, temporary paralysis, faulty speech co-ordination, and a sense of panic in non-panic situations. Guyatt writes: “These symptoms are associated in medical literature with exposure to microwaves.” Microwaves are known to damage vital organs.

Clearly, use of these weapons (by Western governments including British and French) falls largely within the definition of ‘terrorism’. But this activity is not regarded ‘terrorist’ since it is performed by governments.

In an attempt to understand the causes of the disenchantment of Muslims in Britain, Fuad Nahdi, editor of Q-magazine, wrote: “The alienation and marginalisation of our young is alarming. The government needs to tackle poverty, exclusion, and discrimination to create a safe Britain.”

The truth of this statement lies in the fact that 68 per cent of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis live below the poverty line. A Labour Force Survey showed them to be two-and-a-half times more likely than whites to be unemployed, and three times more likely to be in low pay.

Nor do they have adequate representation. Noting the small number of Muslim MPs, Dalrymple wrote: “One of Tony Blair’s most senior advisers told me Labour did not take Muslim sentiment seriously as there was as yet no serious lobby for Islam, capable of reacting in a politically coherent manner.”

Addressing these urgent problems may better integrate British Muslims and ease the fears of ‘terrorism’. The disintegration of Iraqi society, with enormous civilian casualties, suggests that a more sophisticated analysis into the causes of the crisis is long overdue, especially in the mainstream media. President Hugo Chavez, also speaking at the UN, quoted President Bush: “Anywhere you look, you hear extremists telling you can escape from poverty and recover your dignity through violence, terror and martyrdom.” He continued, “The imperialists see extremists everywhere. It\’s not that we are extremists. It\’s that the world is waking up. It\’s waking up all over. And people are standing up.” And it is against the terrorism perpetrated by the US and its allies, against Iraqi civilians, not to mention the Lebanese, that the people are standing up against.