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COMMENTARY: The Clash of History

c. 2003 Religion News Service (Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, is author most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.) (UNDATED) When American troops entered Kandahar, Afghanistan, on a routine visit in the late summer of 2003, […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, is author most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.)

(UNDATED) When American troops entered Kandahar, Afghanistan, on a routine visit in the late summer of 2003, Muslim elders ran to hide the Quran.

The rumor had been circulating that American soldiers would burn and destroy the holy book of Islam. A quiet fury was spreading in the land against what the religious leaders called the infidels. We will take revenge, people were saying. There is a proverb in the land: “I took revenge after a hundred years, and I took it too quickly.”

The Kandahar story was not reported in the Western press. It was not given any significance because there is a blind spot in America’s interaction with the Muslim world.

In many ways, ideal American and Muslim societies are similar _ there is respect for the family and for humanity; a respect for knowledge and a belief in the goodness and compassion of God.

There is, however, one major difference between American and Muslim society: the understanding of history.

For most Americans, especially the young, history does not go far beyond the 1960s when television became part of everyday life. In any case, as the carmaker Ford, one of the makers of modern America, expressed it, “History is bunk.”

American history is a linear progression to better and more positive times ahead. It makes the Americans a uniquely optimistic people.

For Muslims, the past defines, guides and inspires the present.

Take the telling example of Iraq after the Americans toppled the tyrant Saddam Hussein. The first thing the Iraqis did when they were rid of Saddam was to express the yearning for the past through a spontaneous march of 2 million people to Karbala. It was the equivalent of 25 million Americans marching at the same time to a common point.

And what was the significance of Karbala, which most Americans could not pronounce, let alone find on the map? This is where in 680, Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet of Islam, was killed in battle. The event is widely seen in the Muslim world as the action of a committed Muslim in standing up to tyranny even at the cost of his life and that of his family.

Martyrdom, passion, the fight against tyranny at all costs and the commitment to the Islamic ideal _ scholars of Islam have called Muslim behavior that reflects the actions of Hussein the “Karbala paradigm.”

American actions in Iraq have triggered the “Karbala paradigm” in the Muslim world: by barging into ordinary homes to frisk women, throw household heads on the ground and tie their hands behind their backs, causing them to loose “face” with their neighbors; by shooting and killing innocent people in wedding parties and mosques as the media broadcasts a steady drumbeat of abusive remarks about Islam, its God and its Prophet and _ the final insult _ the Rev. Franklin Graham, notorious among Muslims for abusing Islam, reportedly waiting to convert the Muslim world to Christianity.

Unlikely allies _ secular Baathists and Islamicist groups like Ansaar ul Islam _ are joining forces to oppose the American troops. The nightmare scenario for the Americans is looming on the horizon: the Shia and Sunni in lraq uniting against the American occupation.

Young men are flocking to Iraq from other Arab nations. Iraq is now becoming what Afghanistan was in the 1980s: the great Islamic jihad against an infidel superpower. These young men have time and the future on their side.

I fear the crisis is wider and deeper than is being perceived or acknowledged in the American media.

Perhaps if American policymakers understood this problem at the start of the “war on terror,” they would have adopted different strategies.

Their arrogance was compounded by the arrogance of the so-called experts who were assuring Washington that Muslims respected strongman tactics; that as their societies were brutish and did not want democracy, they would admire brutal tactics; that once the Americans conquered the land, they would be welcomed as heroes. This false assessment of the so-called experts created the false assumptions of the policy makers.

Many of these assumptions were based on outright racist attitudes. Unfortunately these were the only voices permitted to comment on Islam in the media, forcing policymakers to work in a vacuum.

It has been a costly miscalculation.

Unnecessary lives, both American and Muslim, are being lost. It is grossly unfair to send young American soldiers _ many little more than boys and girls fresh out of school _ to a distant land and expect them to pay for the miscalculations of their leaders.

Unless imaginative and compassionate steps _ sadly missing so far _ are urgently taken, we are facing a dangerously growing chasm between American and Muslim societies. Two different societies with different ways of looking at time: the Americans now uncomfortably aware of the coming election and the growing shadow of Iraq on it; the Muslims aware that they have time on their side, that history is just restarting in another cycle.

For them it is an exhilarating time _ the seventh century when Islam was born is beginning to shape the 21st century.

DEA END AHMED