Obama, Romney clueless about Islam

That was a shocker. On Monday, Mitt Romney launched a blistering, if empty,  assault on President Obama’s allegedly “passive”  policy toward Muslim extremists and terrorists. The Republican presidential nominee accused the president of not being able to tackle “violent extremists,” some of whom stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Obama “passive” about extremists and terrorists? Actually,  the president’s highly charged campaign against violent and many non-violent Muslim militants has been applauded more by jingoist Republicans than progressive Democrats. As I will argue, his — and Republicans’ — single-minded focus on extremists has left broad modernizing and  democratizing Islamist movements in their blind spot.

Obama has eaten his 2008 campaign pledge and kept Gitmo open. He has continued the Bush-era Patriot Act, military tribunals, indefinite detentions and extraordinary renditions. And he has intensified and vastly expanded the drone war, killing hundreds of innocent children, women and men, while targeting terror suspects.

In reality, Muslim extremism has been declining steadily, which so far has eluded U.S. politicians and media. The Arab Spring is a glaring example.  In the Middle East and North Africa, mainstream Islamists and other groups waged their democratic struggles peacefully. There were few anti-American slogans or burning of the American flag, even though America had long been supporting most of the repressive autocratic regimes they were tying to overthrow. Whatever violence has occurred between Arab protesters and their autocratic regimes was triggered by violent government crackdowns. Anti-American violence is being committed, as in the Benghazi case, mostly by fringe groups such as Al Qaeda, which have long been at odds with the U.S. Middle East policy.

The Islamist mainstreams’  transition to democracy has been facilitated by their growing popularity among the public, enabling them to pursue their agenda through the electoral process.  During reporting trips in the Middle East and South Asia in the early 1970s, I found most Islamists espousing armed jihad against their secular autocratic regimes and foreign hegemons. Among them Matiur Rahman Nizami, the current head of the Bangladesh Jamaat-i-Islami party. In 1971 he and his Islamist party plunged into an armed struggle against the Bangladesh independence movement, fearing the secular nationalists would secularize Bangladeshi society and outlaw Islamist politics there.

Four years ago I dropped in to see Nizami, then the industries minister of a democratically elected Bangladeshi government, at his office in Dhaka, the country’s capital. I couldn’t believe my ears when he asserted that “democracy is the only way to serve Islam and Bangladesh.” His party had come to power (along with a secular party) through a peaceful democratic election.  I have heard similar comments from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami ideologue Khurshid Ahmed and other Islamist or Islam-oriented leaders and activists.

The spread of Islamism through modern democracy has turned the old Western theory of modernization and secularization on its head.  That theory said education, economic development and public participation in politics would, according to modernization theorist Daniel Lerner, lead to the “secular evolution of a participant society.”  He added that “Islam is helpless” to resist the secularist tide. On the contrary, today’s modernizing Muslim societies are using the democratic process to Islamize.

Egypt’s dictatorships had persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood and banned it from politics for decades. Democracy has catapulted that Islamist organization to power, alongside a vibrant modernization process. Since 1980, Egypt’s national literacy rate has doubled to 71 percent. Especially encouraging is the literacy rate among young women aged 15-24, which is 82%, as UNICEF data show.

Democracy, too, has replaced Tunisia’s secular autocracy with the Islamist Ennahda  party government. During the last three decades Tunisia’s literacy rate also has nearly doubled to 77 percent, with that of women 15-24 an enviable 96%.

As impressive is the pace of democratization and modernization in Turkey, which has replaced a military-dominated secularist regime with the democratic government of the Islam-oriented Justice and Development Party. Turkey’s literacy rate has jumped from 65% in 1980 to 94% this year, including 97% among women in the 15-24 age group.

Westerners who are rightly concerned about the backwardness of Muslim women mostly overlook today’s progressive and liberating trends. Large numbers of the young, educated Muslim women practice their faith and support Islamist movements.

Education and new winds of freedom have inspired Muslims with a deepening sense of self-worth and empowerment. They had been languishing under domestic autocratic suppression and foreign colonial subjugation for centuries.  The awareness of self-worth has heightened their fervor and pride for their own religious and cultural heritage, which translate into pro-Islamist votes in the polling booths.

The United States should appreciate Islamism’s role in Muslim empowerment and the democratization of Muslim societies. It  should broaden its mutually productive relations with Islamist governments. That would help neutralize Islamism’s extremist fringe, which has been feeding on the West’s hostility or disengagement with Islamist movements for freedom, dignity and democracy.

  • Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He host the blog, Islam and the West: http://islam-and-west.com




The outrage: Revisit free speech

 (Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, 2012)

It was a reprehensible crime. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. diplomatic staff members were nurturing excellent U.S.-Libyan relations until they were murdered by a Muslim mob in Benghazi. Many Libyans will fondly remember Stevens’ hard work to implement the U.S. policy to facilitate their liberation from Moammar Khadafy’s repressive dictatorship.

Unfortunately, these four innocent Americans have been the latest casualties of the West’s conscious or subconscious policy to foist its liberal ideology on unwilling Muslim societies. The amateurish movie “Innocence of Muslims,” produced in California by an Egyptian Copt and American evangelical Christians, portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a child molester and womanizer. It has triggered Muslim outrage in Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Iran, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and probably elsewhere. But it conforms to the Western principles of freedom of speech and separation of church and state. So did the Muhammad cartoons published by a Danish newspaper, the anti-Quran movie produced by Holland’s Greet Wilder, Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” published in the United Kingdom, and other anti-Islamic works put out in the West.

All these incidents sparked indignation throughout the Muslim world. Yet Western statesmen and media generally defended the artists’ and authors’ right to produce these materials, citing the free-speech principle, even though some questioned the wisdom behind the projects.

Westerners are mostly comfortable with unbridled freedom of expression and the privatization of religion because these doctrines have evolved from the West’s unique historical experience. They stemmed from a reaction to the Catholic Church’s suppression of freedoms, the Inquisition and fierce power struggles with secular governments. Historical memories of those traumatic episodes have engendered antipathy for religion and religious values among many Westerners.

Muslim history has had no such conflicts between the laity and religious hierarchy.  In fact, the Sunni branch of Islam, to which nearly 90 percent of Muslims belong, has no religious hierarchy at all. And most Muslims — religious, agnostic or even non-believers — cherish their religious heritage. So do Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and many other non-Western religious communities. Western governments and most Western citizens don’t seem to recognize this diversity of value systems, so they insist on universal applicability of their liberal ideology and its doctrine of freedom of expression.

They have waived the free-speech principle, however, in cases of Holocaust denials, racial slurs, advocacy of terrorism and other expressions that could endanger Western social order or national security. But they have persistently refused to prevent the vilification of Islam.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has staunchly justified this stance in the case of the film “Innocence of Muslims,” citing America’s “long tradition of free expression.” She added that “we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.”

This Western insensitivity to the Islamic faith and civilization has been a major source of the smoldering anti-Americanism in many Muslim countries. The key to defusing this ominous trend lies in overcoming the delusions about universality of the West’s liberal ideology.

Islam embraces some key Western political structures and values, such as nationalism and democracy, but it rejects others, such as the ban on religious ethical standards in political discourse, the denigration of Islam in the name of speech freedom.

Islamic values and the cultural patterns built around them engender Muslims’ missions and aspirations and lend meaning to their lives. As a step toward reconciliation with anti-American Muslim masses around the world, the West should adopt measures to stop the misuse of the free-speech doctrine to attack Islam.

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West’: http://islam-and-west.com.




Democracy fluid in Bangladesh

By Mustafa Malik

SYLHET, Bangladesh – Paralyzing general strikes, known here as hartal, remain a common and effective tool of democratic politics in Bangladesh. A local opposition politician has been kidnapped from a highway, which the opposition says was arranged by the ruling Awami League party. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to which the abducted M. Ilyas Ali belonged, called for continual hartal, demanding his release. Ali has yet to be traced, but the hartal was a complete success.

For four days, transportation, businesses and even many government offices remained closed throughout the country. Here in Sylhet town, surrounded by scores of tea gardens, about the only automobiles seen on the streets were occasional police jeeps and “ambulances,” most of them fake. Vans marked “Ambulance” carried passengers, one of whom feigning sick!

Five years ago I was in Bangladesh when the BNP chairwoman and a former prime minister Khaleda Zia was thrown into jail by the government and her son was not only incarcerated but severely tortured. For a long time, the mother and the son weren’t allowed to publicly express their views on their ordeal. For months, they were not produced before a civilian court, either. Zia, the BNP chairperson, was later linked to official misconduct and, Tarek Rahman, her son, to massive financial corruption. Bangladesh is a decades-old multi-party democracy with a free-wheeling press. But most Bangladeshis, including many BNP activists, didn’t care much about the denial of their democratic rights to free speech the due process of law.

Bangladesh is a decades-old multi-party democracy with a free-wheeling press. Why has there been this nationwide outrage over the kidnapping of a rather low-level BNP leader, but not much of a whimper about the denial of basic democratic rights of the head of the BNP? If you are familiar with Bangladeshi society and culture, you would have expected it.

The right to free speech and habeas corpus, which Zia and Rahman were denied, are alien concepts in Bangladeshi society. These institutions derive from the Enlightenment principles of liberty and freedom, among the West’s greatest gifts to mankind. In this South Asian country, too, many political activists, especially when they are in the opposition, and Western-educated elites, value these principles. They would have greater public appeal as Bangladesh modernizes further.

But 90 percent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people are Muslim, and these liberal values are not rooted in their native Islamic culture, as they are not many other non-Western ones. The Islamic faith and civilization is anchored to the concepts of equality before God, charity and brotherhood, which are viewed as dimensions of justice, the core Islamic tenet.

True, most Muslims in Bangladesh and elsewhere don’t live by many of the Islamic ideals, including justice. Yet, being organic to their native culture, they stir Bangladeshi minds more deeply than the Western institutions of liberty, democracy and the rule of law. Ali’s abduction and possible killing are widely perceived here as a grave injustice. No wonder the incident has offended everyday Bangladeshis more poignantly than the curtailment of Zia’s and her son’s democratic rights to free speech and the due process of law.

The Bangladeshi government has been promising the investigation of Ali’s abduction and urging patience to let the tools of law run its course. The public has largely ignored these pleas; many suspect them to be ploys to sap the public rage over the issue. Most Bangladeshis are unlikely to be satisfied with any outcome of the government investigation, unless they see it as fair and just.

Mustafa Malik, the host of the blog Islam and the West, is traveling in his native Indian subcontinent.

Taliban fight for freedom, justice

By Mustafa Malik

SYLHET,  Bangladesh — Aunt Salima Khatun, my mother’s sister, barged in to see me here in the Bangladeshi town of Sylhet.  I spend part of my Bangladesh vacations in Sylhet, known for its tea gardens, cane furniture and the shrine of the famed Muslim saint Hazrat Shah Jalal.

Behind Aunt Salima was her grandson, a college student, carrying a big bowl. It had several dozen homemade sweets, wrapped in banana leaves under plastic covering.  They were made of flour, meshed with the delicious juice of a local fruit known as “tal” and other ingredients, before being rolled into round cakes and cooked.

“When you were a little boy, you loved ‘tal sandesh’ (tal sweets),” said my aunt, 81. “See if you like them.”

As the conversation progressed, she asked if I could bring the student over to the United States for further education.  He had been “pulling out my hair,” meaning badgering her, to make me the request, she added.  I apologized for my inability to help him get a U.S. visa.

The young man was, however, a member of an Islamic student group, which campaigns against U.S. and Israeli occupation of Muslim lands.  Why was President Obama “so viciously opposed” to Palestinians’ U.N. membership? he asked.  He was elated, however, that Muslim guerrillas were “throwing out the [Western] invaders” from Iraq and Afghanistan. Would Americans “dare to occupy a Muslim country again?”

His admiration for anti-American guerrillas is widely shared by most Muslims in South Asia, as I have learned during trips through the region.  Noor  M.  Khan, a family friend in the northeast Indian town of Haflong, told me during a visit there last year that “our mujahedeen [Islamic guerrillas] are our only hope against American imperialism.”  The Afghan mujahedeen drove back Russian invaders from Afghanistan in the 1980s, he continued.  Now thanks to the Taliban, American occupation forces would be fleeing Afghanistan, “peeing in their pants.”

Many South Asian Muslims, as many Muslims elsewhere, usually get to like Americans with whom they come in contact.   Many try to migrate to the United States for a better life.  If young, some of aspire to have an American education, as my aunt’s grandson does. Yet the same Muslims would be denouncing Americans vehemently for America’s “war on Islam.”

It’s a déjà vu of the last decades (1910s-1940s) of British colonial rule in what was then “British India.”  Those days many Indians had British friends. Many were educated in British schools or British-style secular schools in India.  Yet some of them joined the struggle to liberate their country from British colonialism.  British-sponsored education had taught them Western concepts of liberty and freedom and inspired them into anti-colonial struggle.

Justice is Islam’s core principle.  Muslims, secular or religious,  innately resist foreign hegemony because they consider it fundamentally unjust. Today most of the leaders and many activists of Muslim movements against U.S. invasions and domination  zest for freedom among Muslims, firing them up against American hegemony.  In earlier times, onset of modernity  stoked their struggles for freedom against European colonialism..

Modernity, it seems, has become the West’s Frankenstein’s monster!

But many of South Asia’s anti-American Muslim guerrillas are educated in madrassahs, or Islamic schools. They’re inspired by their innate antipathy for foreign military presence — which they share with many secularist activists — and pride in Islamic civilization, which madrassahs have inculcated in them.  In October 2007 a madrassah-educated Taliban supporter in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal agency town of Ghalanai (whose name I promised not to publish) said to me that Muslims had built “the glorious Spanish civilization and taught Europeans the sciences and philosophy for more than 700 years.”  How many years, he asked, could “American Crusaders” stick around in Afghanistan?

The Taliban and other Pakistani and Afghan militants with only a madrassah education are also fighting for freedom from foreign occupation and domination.  Most of them just don’t know that freedom is a core American value that Americans once fought wrest from British colonialists.

Muslims youths are struggling to snatch that American ideal from the jaws of the American hegemon, which they consider unjust.

● Mustafa Malik is the host of the blog site Beyond Freedom.