ANDREW J. BACEVICH says “the big story of Muslim self-determination is likely to continue unimpeded” and lead to the rollback of American hegemony over Muslim societies. In his Washington Post piece, the historian recalled that when the British Empire was collapsing, it could turn over its “imperial responsibility” to the United States. But Americans today, he adds, see “no readily available sucker to to whom we can hand off the mess we’ve managed to create” in the Middle East.
I’ve long admired Professor Bacevich’s insights and agree that there doesn’t seem to be any takers of America’s “imperial responsibility” in Muslim societies. But I do see a whole lot of “suckers” jumping in to clean up “the mess” created in much of the Muslim world by American and European hegemons during past decades and centuries. They’re the same revolutionary youths who are liberating themselves from American hegemony as much as domestic autocratic tyranny. And they’re struggling to reform colonial-era institutions that they see stifling their societies‘ natural growth and evolution from their indigenous, Islamic roots.
For years I have been discussing Muslim affairs with young and not-so-young Muslim activists, ideologues and plain folks in the East and the West. A large majority of them don’t share the views of the so-called “Islamic extremists” such as the Salafis and Al Qaeda. Many maintain, however, that Muslim guerrilla groups, known in the west as “terrorists” and “extremists,” have waged the “necessary” struggle to liberate Muslims from tyranny and subjugation. The history of the Protestant Reformation and other ideological movements shows that the extremism associated by the early phases of those movements tapered off when the conditions that bred them changed. In contemporary Muslim societies, those conditions are political suppression and foreign aggression and domination.
A majority of Muslims in post-colonial societies also don’t identify with Westernized Muslim elites. Quizzed closely, they typically say that they would just want to live as Muslims, adhering to basic Islamic laws and values; and want their societies modernized fast. Moderates such as supporters of the Jamaat-i-Islami in South Asia and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East believe in peaceful and democratic methods of Islamizing their societies. Extremists such as the followers of the Taliban and Harkat al-Mujahideen in South Asia and the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah in the Middle East have few qualms using force to achieve their goals. But both Islamist categories want to change or modify the alien institutions and cultural patterns in Muslim countries.
They remind me of the Brazilian statesman, philosopher and social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger. He argues that ideational and social change that brings fulfillment in life isn’t possible without freeing men and women “from their institutional chains,” or the “context” that creates the pernicious social, economic and political institutions. Unger taught Barack Obama at the Harvard Law School, but waged a media campaign last summer against the president’s reelection.
The professor says Obama and most Democrats are busy “humanizing” the Republican agenda, instead of trying to change the context, or the sources, of the economic and political malaise paralyzing America. Unger argues that “all that the Democratic Party has offered, at least since the presidency of [Lyndon] Johnson is a sugarcoating, a dilution, a humanization of the Republican program.” He calls the paradigmic shift he’s proposing “the second way.”
Few of the Muslim intellectuals and activists I have come to know appeared to have heard of Unger, but they echo his thesis nonetheless. They’re calling for conceptual and institutional change in their societies and polities. They denounce, or just ignore, Western-style secularism, the Western concept of privatizing religion, the colonial-era legal framework, and so forth. And they say they would want new institutions (about which most only have vague ideas) to build modern, progressive Muslim societies. Those societies would be based on the key Islamic values of social justice, charity and brotherhood.
The popularity of Islamist guerrilla groups in the Syrian civil war is the latest manifestation of the appeal of Islamic values among everyday Muslims. Earlier, Iranians, Turks, Iraqis, Egyptians, Tunisians and other Muslim peoples have demonstrated their preference for social and political orders based on Islamic principles.
The Islamic reassertion has spurred a lot of American paranoia about Muslims in America and Muslim countries. The Obama administration wouldn’t even give arms to Syrian rebels fighting the murderous Bashar al-Assad dictatorship, which it wants overthrown, because Islamist guerrillas there have turned out to be the most effective and popular fighting force and could dominate the post-Assad Israeli society. “I am very concerned,” the president said in the Jordanian capital of Amman on Friday, “about Syria becoming an enclave of extremism.”
For many Americans, Muslims struggling to usher in what Unger would call a “second way” are “terrorists” by definition and need to be resisted or hunted down. The Shari’a, or Islamic law, has become a dirty word in American media and public discourse, even though most of the Muslim world lives under it, even under secular, pro-American governments.
In the United States, many innocent, law-abiding Muslims have been under surveillance since 9/11 in case they’ve any form of contacts with Muslims suspected of terrorist proclivity. American law denies Muslims designated “enemy combatants” by the administration the right to be tried in civil courts under American law. Mosque building creates public hysteria in many neighborhoods.
The atmosphere is reminiscent of the McCarthy-era hysteria about communism, which swept up American conservatives and liberals alike. The icon of American liberalism Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota joined the right-wing Republican Senator John Marshall Butler of Maryland to get the notorious Communist Control Act of 1954 passed by the Senate. Other liberal Democratic senators who supported the Butler-Humphrey bill included John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Paul Douglas of Illinois, and Wayne Morse of Oregon.
What makes America work, however, is Americans’ sense of pragmatism. The paranoia about the Other usually evaporates when they fail to prevail against it. After a costly and dangerous nuclear arms race, the United States realized by the late 1960s that it can’t defeat international communism, after all. And lo and behold, the rabidly anti-Communist President Richard Nixon did a U-turn and began normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and China.
Today, America — even with its military might, costly nation-building projects and candy distribution among Muslim children — has all but lost the ground war against Islamist guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan. It can now see that its drone war in several Muslim countries can’t stem the spread of Islamist militancy. Al Qaeda, which had hunkered down in Afghanistan, and other militant Islamist groups have spread to large swaths of the Middle East and North and West Africa. Last week, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer pointed out that beginning with the Iraq war, “the bitter enmities between Al-Qaeda and other Salafist and Sunni Arab nationalist groups have given way to cooperation or even mergers.”
Sooner or later, I expect the United States — and the West — to do a U-turn in their confrontation with Islamism. Meanwhile, Islamist and other Muslim groups are changing “the context” of the evolution and modernization of their societies, and Islamic-Western relations.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Obama administration should, on a second thought, decide to begin the process. If not, I believe one of his successors to the American presidency will.
◆ Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog Islam and the West.