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COMMENTARY: America and the Muslim World: Beyond the Crisis in the Gulf

c. 2003 Religion News Service (Akbar S. Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press). (UNDATED) With U.S. troops now in Baghdad, the war with […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

(Akbar S. Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press).

(UNDATED) With U.S. troops now in Baghdad, the war with Iraq is moving according to plan, say military officials in Washington. The relationship between America and the Muslim world is another matter.

The problem is that the Muslim world now sees America through the American television channels. It is a monolithic image of America, with retired generals and colonels commenting on the progress of the war with suitable charts and maps in front of them. They talk with authority about Tomahawks missiles and B52 bombers.

But they are less confident about Muslim religion, tradition and culture. They are clueless about tribe and sect in the Muslim world. They are equally clueless about the destruction the Tomahawks and B52s cause on the ground to ordinary people.

And they fail to understand why hundreds of thousands of Muslims are out in the streets in protest, from Morocco to Indonesia. Traditional allies, like Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, exhibit schizophrenic tendencies, with the regime looking nervously to Washington while the demonstrators in the street chant “Down with America.”

Where, Muslims ask, are the sophisticated, humanist and traveled leaders of America with an understanding of other cultures?

I was with these very people on April 3 _ on a panel to discuss “America and the Muslim World: Beyond the Crisis in the Gulf.”

The panel had been organized by Ambassador Karl Inderfurth, former assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs and the present director of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. The panel raised the key issues that will face any administration in a post-Saddam Iraq and the Muslim world in general.

These issues included the idea and practice of democracy, the role of women, the creation of a stable administration that takes into account sects and tribes, the sense of anger in the Muslim street against America and the sense of what I call loss of honor which creates so much anger and passion.

Edward Walker, one of America’s most distinguished diplomats who has served as ambassador in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel, and is presently president of the Middle East Institute, said he had been observing the Muslim world for more than three decades but had never seen a mood so anti-American.

He said that new polling data from the Arab world suggests that even if America were to profess renewed interest in the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, few will be inclined to believe in its sincerity.

The war on Iraq itself largely has been viewed through the lens of this conflict, and Americans should not be surprised if talk of a “new road map” is dismissed with incredulity. Muslims now expect further aggressive actions by America toward other Muslim states.

Far from counseling defeatism, however, Walker called for a new American sensitivity to the perceptions and experiences of Muslims. He recalled that when he was in Egypt, a large number of Israelis and Palestinians died on a single day. Secretary of State Madeline Albright issued a statement expressing sadness at the deaths of the Israelis, which was well received in America but unheard in the Middle East. Walker issued his own statement of remorse for the lost Palestinian lives and watched as Muslims throughout the Middle East and beyond responded to this simple statement of empathy with enthusiastic news coverage.

I pointed out Islam’s remarkable ethos of egalitarianism and its compatibility with processes of participation and consultation in traditional Islamic cultures. I also emphasized the importance of recognizing a full range of Islamic cultural experiences and heritages, including not just the Arab or Ottoman cultures, but also the South Asian and Southeast Asian Muslim cultures.

Too narrow a view of Islamic culture could lead to narrow conclusions about Islam’s flexibility and dynamism.

Walker gave examples of several prominent and successful women in the Arab world. I added to this list by pointing to women who had become prime ministers in Pakistan and Bangladesh and the president of Indonesia. But the problem for women is not at this level of national politics or administration. It is at the village and tribal level where out of ignorance and illiteracy Muslim men deny Muslim women their rights. I pointed out the high status Islam itself gives to women.

An Indian visiting scholar asked why this kind of discussion is not taking place in the Muslim world and wanted to know if our ideas are being heard there. Both Walker and I agreed there is a great need for dialogue of this kind to take place in the Muslim world and we both publish our columns in the Muslim world.

But the Indian was right. The Muslim world has to see and hear this side of America. Unless this happens the gap between America and the Muslim world will continue to grow ominously wide.

In any case Tomahawks and B52s do little to win minds and hearts.

DEA END AHMED