Paying attention to ordinary Muslims, not simply fanatics and extremists, is what the West should do to make effective its regional policy, writes El-Sayed Amin Shalabi
“We’ve deprived you of the enemy,” a Soviet expert told the Americans right after the end of the Cold War. His point was that the US needs an enemy to survive, to keep its war machine lubricated, to justify its global quest for domination. And the enemy was already emerging. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Iran was second in line on the US list of demons. The mullahs had already denounced the US as “Great Satan” and Iran’s boisterous anti-American rhetoric was copied by many jihadist and extremists Islamic groups around the world.
It wasn’t long before Samuel Huntington put together his “Clash of Civilisations” theory, suggesting that China and Islam would emerge as the main threats to the American way of life.
A Georgetown University professor, John Esposito, disagreed. In The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? he argued that the extremist manifestations of Islam are merely a reaction to US and Western policies in the Islamic world.
When 9/11 attacks took place, some saw it as vindication of Huntington’s views. Before long, the administration of George W Bush put together a worldwide strategy to combat terrorism, making it clear that the terrorism it was fighting was exclusively Muslim. Generally speaking, the idea that Islam is a violent creed by nature and that it is anti-democratic offered the intellectual backdrop to the war on Afghanistan and Iraq.
John Esposito, once again, challenged this way of thinking. In The Future of Islam, he refuted the claim that Islamic violence was intrinsic to the Muslim faith. Citing the widespread condemnation of the 9/11 attacks in the Muslim world, he argued that just as Islam has its fanatics, it has its moderates and reformers.
Esposito argued that the US is engaged in a new imperialistic quest to redraw the map of the Middle East. He enumerated the instances in which America committed acts of violence against Muslims, including detention without trial, mistreatment of prisoners, and torture. He also mentioned that the Patriot Act undermined the civil rights of Muslim Americans.
Islam is now a statement of politics as well as of faith, Esposito argued. Islam is becoming a global ideology with repercussions for policy and society. The positions the US took on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Lebanon and Gaza have all increased the anti-American feelings in the region, he stated.
In the last chapter of The Future of Islam, Esposito noted that American policymakers often base their judgement on the opinions of Muslim rulers and elites. It was better, he argued, for the Americans to find out what ordinary Muslims feel and think.
The Americans have often wondered, “Why do they hate us?” The answer is not to be found in religion, or in cultural differences. There is a difference between the blind hatred fanatics have for America and the consistent resentment felt by ordinary Muslims. The latter may admire US values and achievements, but they are opposed to US policies. The fanatics may wish to kill Americans, but ordinary Muslims want the US to stop making the world a dangerous place, he argued.
Esposito advised American policymakers to listen less to the Israel lobby and actively seek a solution to the Middle East conflict, one that leads to a safe and viable Palestinian state. Until this happens, the Americans, he added, must not solely condemn Palestinian acts of violence. They should denounce the violence committed by the Israeli military as well.
The Future of Islam appeared in 2010. Since then, Esposito followed closely the rise of Islamists to power. He continues to propagate the view that the enemy is not Islam, but religious fanaticism. And he advises Western politicians to make a distinction between moderate Islamists and fanatics. He also says that the future of the region doesn’t depend on whether Islamists are in power or not, but on whether democracy will take hold or not. The greatest danger to democracy, he argues, comes from the military, the security services, and bureaucratic elites.
Esposito now urges politicians in America and Europe to gear their assistance programmes to Arab countries towards education, economy and technology, while reducing military assistance.
The writer is managing director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.