An Islamic world in crisis, anti-Americanism and the fight against Israel
by Samir Khalil Samir
Arab and Muslim countries are trying to find ways to reassert their dignity and uphold human rights but are increasingly turning inward, inching closer to Islamism and its calls for Sharia and caliphate. US support for Israel and corrupt Arab states fuel fundamentalism. The Islamic world is thus still waiting to reconcile its religion with modernity.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Fundamentalism is growing in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Increasingly it is seen as a solution to their problems, this according to a world survey that was reported by AsiaNews (cf Islamic countries reject al Qaeda, but also American policy, AsiaNews, 4 March 2009). The results show that a majority of people in eight predominantly Muslim countries reject al-Qaeda and attacks on civilians but also oppose US policies in the Middle East and the world.

1. No to bombs or murderers

The study indicates that “a very large majority, between 67 and 89 per cent, condemn the use of bombs and killing for political and religious purposes; more than 70 per cent are against attacks on civilians (specifically Americans).”

This means that common sense is still alive and well in the Islamic world. But it is food for thought that at least 30 per cent of respondents are in favour of “bombs and murderers” who strike at civilians.

2. No to US military bases

Answers to the second question show that a large majority supports al Qaeda’s goal to “push the US to remove its bases and its military forces from all Islamic countries,”  including 87 per cent of Egyptians, 64 per cent of Indonesians, and 60 per cent of Pakistanis.”

Such attitudes towards the United States are not unexpected. Many wonder why the Americans should have military bases around the whole world. I too do not know why. No country, or almost no country—not Italy, not Japan, not Great Britain—has bases with territorial concessions around the world.

This can only be because the United States claims to be the ‘world’s policeman’ with the right to act anywhere.

Any nation would feel hurt by this: 87 per cent does in Egypt, so does 84 per cent in Indonesia and 60 per cent in Pakistan.

What gives the United States this right? By virtue of its might; and this makes the Americans unpopular, even if they do not get it.

3. Sharia and the caliphate

The study also vetted attitudes towards Islamic law and unity, asking how desirable were the “strict application of Sharia Law in every Islamic country” and, in the long run, the unification of “all Islamic countries into a single Islamic state or Caliphate.” Many like it: 65 per cent in Egypt; 48 per cent in Indonesia and 76 per cent in Pakistan and Morocco.

Both the strict application of Sharia and the establishment of a caliphate are very serious issues, but they are also a sign of the crisis that is affecting the Islamic world.

The caliphate was abolished on 3 March 1924. Since then the Islamic world has seen itself as rudderless and sought something to fill the vacuum without finding it. The Muslim Brotherhood was created in 1928 for that purpose. Many other groups have set up their own ‘caliphate’ in a token attempt to carve out some territorial enclaves, ostensibly under the rule of Islam. Unfortunately, this is not a solution for all it does is project a need for unity. Instead we must realise that in this day and age a single Islamic state is not possible. It makes no sense.

Religion does not dominate the world. There is a plurality of interests even in the most Islamised countries. Case in point: AsiaNews has reported that Saudi and Egyptian leaders have called on fellow Arabs to form a united front to resist Iranian expansionism and oppose its interference in the Palestinian issue, which in their view is an ‘Arab issue’ (cf Saudi minister calls for joint strategy to confront "Iranian challenge" AsiaNews, 4 March 2009). In doing so they draw a line between what is Arab and what is Iranian with the Islamic element taking the backseat. Of course, the Sunni-Shia divide could be the main reason, but still that will not change the fact the world is not ruled by religion, or religion alone. Seeking one Islamic state for all is absurd.

I am not the only one saying so; history is my witness. Arab states have never been able to achieve unity; no two Arab states have successfully merged. Egypt tried to create a United Arab Republic first with Libya, then Syria and Iraq, but failed.

In Arabic a proverb says “Ittafaqa l-‘Arab ‘ala allâ yattafiqû », which means “Arabs agree to disagree.”

The only time when they do agree on something is when they are agree on going against (and losing to) someone else (like Israel).

4. Searching for a lost dignity

The desire for unity among Muslims is an absolute, but it is an error to think that unity lies in a single state. Something else is needed. 

There is the Organisation of the Islamic Conference with its 57 member-states, but it is not very effective.

Muslims should not seek political unity, an area where their interests are divergent, but should look for it at another level, that of principles and normative values.

As for the strict application of Sharia, that too is a dream. It is but an attempt to find dignity and international stature in a way that includes religion. Why? Because all of our countries feel humiliated; they elicit very little respect. Some are very rich but are beset by rampant corruption. Others are ruled by dictators, violence, etc. We Arabs are not proud of our countries and we are looking for something that would allow us to hold our heads high, proud to say, “I am and Egyptian,” “I am Saudi;” “I am Libyan.”

Implementing Sharia seems like a solution because then we can call ourselves “real Muslim.” Such a trend is spreading, fast (cf. Fareed Zakaria, “Learning to Live With Radical Islam,” Newsweek, 28 February 2009), encouraged in part by Western governments, because, increasingly, people around the world are thinking that some form of Sharia is a price worth paying for peace. It is something that is happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also in Great Britain, Spain and even Italy.

This will mean closing many girls’ schools; a ban on mixed schooling, even for children; no more music; a family law that is unjust for women, etc.

Sharia covers all aspects of life but it was established in another time when things were different. It does not take into account changes in outlook, culture and ethics.

There is a desire for ethical improvement and better principles, and Islam seems the solution.

The reality is different. Where Sharia is enforced people see that it is not a solution. Iranians know that; after an early enthusiasm for its reintroduction, many became disillusioned with it.

Reintroducing Sharia is the wrong thing to do. Instead what we must do is reassert broader ethical principles that respect an Islamic perspective, but one that is distinct from the many cultures that make up the Muslim world.

How can Islam’s uniqueness be reconciled to the plurality of cultures and the diversity of political and economic choices made by Islamic states? This is the real question that is never answered or answered ineffectually.

Deep down no one is dreaming about the caliphate or Sharia, even if the latter appear to offer some justice, honesty and democracy. It is these values that people dream about and it is they which are missing in our countries.

5. Feeling bad about the West, feeling good about Bin Laden 

The survey found that “Western values” are widely rejected; by 88 per cent in Egypt, 76 per cent in Indonesia, 60 per cent in Pakistan and 64 per cent in Morocco.

It is odd that values should be rejected because they are Western in origin. All this is symptomatic of a malaise in the Islamic world, which is still searching for its own identity, independent and not subordinate to that of others.

I hope we can find this identity without being against someone else, which is an attitude usually related to adolescence (when teenagers assert their identity in opposition to others). Indeed we have been trying to find ourselves for a long time, for decades actually.

We must go back to our recent past to do this. We must rediscover the early part of the 20th century, when our grandparents chose to take what was good in the West, not only its technology but also its quest for human rights, equality, democracy, freedom of thought and speech. These are values born in the West but which are universal in scope, not specifically Western, but which impressed great Egyptian thinkers like Imam Muhammad ‘Abdoh, Sheikh Abd al-Razeq, Minister Taha Hussein, and many others.

At the same time, let us not forget that there are other universal values, which might be scorned by the West, like moral values, respect and love for the poor and the old. We need a synthesis.

6. What about Bin Laden then?

The fifth question looked at positive or negative feelings towards Bin Laden. The highest support for him was in Egypt (44 per cent), followed by the Palestinian territories (56 per cent). In Indonesia 14 per cent view him positively; that number is 25 per cent in Pakistan; 27 per cent in Morocco; 27 per cent in Jordan; 9 per cent in Turkey; and 4 per cent in Azerbaijan.

What does all of this mean? It means that for many Muslims, Bin Laden is “a good Muslim,” someone who is convinced that he is putting into practice Islam.

In the West one often hears that “Bin Laden” has nothing to do with Islam.” But in the Islamic world he is seen as someone who is trying to really apply Islam. Those Muslims who like him the least are those who have experienced other ways of life, in Turkey and Azerbaijan, two highly secularised countries.

Feelings about Bin Laden are also negative in many Arab countries (17 per cent in Egypt, 20 per cent in the Palestinian territories; 21 per cent in Morocco; 20 per cent in Jordan).

Overall, we can see that views about al-Qaeda’s leader are conflicted but relatively similar across the board. It goes to show how important fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism are.

It also shows that what might be viewed as a bane on the world in one place is seen as the “defender of Islam” in many Arab countries.

7. US and Israeli policies

Finally, a last point with regards to the United States and its policies towards Israeli expansionism. In Egypt 86 per cent of the respondents believe that US policy favours Israel’s expansion; in Turkey they are78 per cent; in Morocco, 64 per cent; in Pakistan 52 per cent; in Indonesia, 47 per cent; and Azerbaijan, 43 per cent. In the Palestinian territories the proportion reaches 90 per cent and even in peaceful Jordan it stands at 84 per cent.

And it is true. Irrespective of what US leaders may want US policy favours Israeli expansionism. The new US administration will thus have to take this into account because US policies are fuelling anti-US resentment and strengthening anti-Western terrorism.

On the other, about 59 per cent of Palestinians believe that US policy is in favour of the “creation of an independent and economically viable Palestinian state.” Elsewhere in the surveyed countries, only 30 per cent agree. Still it is something.

At the end of its mandate, the Bush Administration reiterated its support for a “two peoples, two states” solution. In its first moves Obama Administration has done the same (or at least, let us hope so). But if the Americans really want two states, they must actually be two and legitimate. Israeli expansion at the expense of the Palestinians is not legitimate. As long as it goes on, a Palestinian state will not see the light of day and war will continue for centuries.

This ambiguity makes it hard to be friends with the United States. In our countries people are attracted by America but also turned off by it.

The new administration has an opportunity to wipe the slate clean of these ambiguities; it can redefine America’s close relationship to Israel, which hitherto has meant ignoring the rights of others. If this does not happen, it bodes ill for everyone. The Americans will be fought and peace will remain distant. This is an issue that the Arab and Islamic worlds must confront. Not that many Arabs are truly willing to give their life for Palestine or come to its defence, but the Palestinian question remains for all an unbearable injustice. What is needed is not a courageous decision in favour of the Arabs, but one in favour of justice and peace, so as to avoid double standards.

Conclusion: healing the  wounds

What the survey shows is that Islamic fundamentalism is growing at all levels. For more and more people it is a solution to the troubles facing the Arab and Muslim worlds. Yet the same troubles are a consequence of Islamism, i.e. Islamic fundamentalism. For this reason there is no solution other than closing the book on fundamentalist Islam and opening another one in which Islam is open to modernity and democracy.

Sadly our governments, even if they do not want to turn Islamist, have no models to use as reference points. Something new might be developing in Dubai. Here an effort is being made to project an image that reconciles Islam and modernity. But it is a small country, a young country, with a largely foreign-born population, and which does not have to tackle problems of poverty.

It is worth pointing out facts about Egypt, a country increasingly undergoing Islamisation. Although its leaders are not Islamist, they have built an authoritarian regime that has become unbearable to many.

What might happen to Egypt gives scary thought to many people because it is mot populous Arab country (almost 80 million), a leader in the Arab world, and one of the few Arab countries to have relations with Israel. Here too fundamentalism is expanding, growing in reaction to the country’s elites, whose power is almost absolute.

Islam is being used as a tool against the ills that afflict us. But these ills exist, not because “we are not Muslim” but because in our countries there is no justice, democracy, and respect for human rights. In fact Muslims want human rights but we do not know how to put them into practice them. Instead whilst we ponder about them, we turn to Sharia, which denies them, at least in part.

It is time we remove this ambiguity.