President Obama told the U.N. General Assembly that Muslims must shun “extremism” and exercise “tolerance” for their adversaries. He was referring to the violence-prone protest rallies that the American film “Innocence of Muslims” has triggered in many Muslim countries. The amateurish video shows the Prophet Muhammad in pornographic poses and other demeaning postures.
Some Muslim societies are indeed honeycombed with anti-American and anti-Western extremists. The problem is, you can’t eliminate a vice while nursing it. Obama and many other Americans don’t seem to recognize America’s role in stirring Muslim extremism.
Muslim extremism and violence against America are fairly recent events. During the era of European colonialism, the Muslim world admired the United States for not colonizing a Muslim country and even criticizing European colonialism. In 1957 I was a schoolboy in what is now Muslim Bangladesh. I remember folks cheering America in front of a television set after hearing the news of foreign troops withdrawing from Egyptian territory. I learned much later that the Eisenhower administration had led the U.N. effort to force Israel, France and Britain to vacate the Suez Canal area they had occupied the previous year, following Egypt’s nationalization of the canal.
Systematic Muslim violence against America was rare until 1979. That year Iranian revolutionaries attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage. Through this indefensible action, they were venting their rage over the overthrow of their democratic government by the CIA in 1953 and the installation by the U.S. of a murderous monarchy they had just overthrown. Ever since, Muslims have resorted to anti-American protests and violence with greater frequency in response to American policies they see trampling Muslim interests or dignity.
I attribute the current spike in anti-Americanism among Muslims to three main reasons. First, the post-Cold War generation of Muslims are better educated and far more politically conscious than their forebears, thanks to the quickening pace of modernization and globalization. These Muslims have very little tolerance for foreign domination, and domestic political repression, for that matter. Secondly, during the last two decades, the United States has waged three major wars against Muslim countries: Iraq I and II, and Afghanistan.
These American-led invasions and the prolonged occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have enraged Muslims everywhere. Thirdly, modernization has, strangey as it many seem to many Westerners, imbued Muslims with greater appreciation of their own cultural values. Yet America and the West continue to seek to impose their liberal value system on Muslims societies, infuriating many Muslims. Western defense of the film “Innocence of Muslims,” the Danish Muhammad cartoons, the novel The Satanic Verses, etc., are classic examples of this cultural aggression. All these anti-Islamic materials have turned much of the Muslim world into a hotbed of extremists and terrorists.
Through the 1980s and 1990s U.S. administrations tried to tackle Muslim terrorism through legal tools, covert operations and torture by client governments. Then came 9/11. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who hijacked aircraft to attack America were Saudis. The core cause of this horrible crime, as I learned during visits to Saudi Arabia, was the 1991 deployment of U.S. troops on that “land of Muhammad.”
America was unhinged by 9/11. Instead of pursuing the perpetrators of the crime, it plunged into a devastating war with Iraq, which had nothing to do 9/11; and a pointless one against Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda, a foreign group, planned the attacks on the United States. Tens of thousands of innocent Muslims have perished in the two wars, which have spread anti-Americanism among Muslims as never before. And they have proliferated Muslim guerrilla groups committed to rolling back American hegemony over Muslim societies.
These guerrillas have forced the United States to pull out of Iraq without achieving any of its strategic objectives. In Afghanistan, they have frustrated U.S. efforts to defeat them, compelling Washington to plan the withdrawal of most of its troops from that country by 2014.
One would have hoped that the Obama administration would take a serious look into the colossal failure of its formidable military machine to suppress Muslim militancy. Instead, the administration has lurched into a reckless, illegal and counterproductive drone war in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
The Predator and Reaper drones are purported to be targeting terrorists. As I learned during two research trips to Pakistan’s tribal areas, local CIA informants all too often report their own adversaries or people simply venting anger at America as Taliban “terrorists.” The result: an unmitigated disaster.
A group of American academics has just put out its findings from nine months’ research of America’s drone wars. Barely 2 percent of the drone victims were known militants, said the 146-page report. Clive Stafford Smith, head of a charity working in Pakistan, told them that Pakistan’s “entire [tribal] region is being terrorized by constant threat of death from the skies.” People’s “way of life is collapsing,” he continued. “Kids are too terrified to go to school. Adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings, or anything that involves gathering in groups.”
The first step toward dousing Muslim hostility to America would be to review the U.S. policy and attitude toward Muslim societies. As long as Americans continue to their aggressive policy toward Muslim countries and tolerate the demonization of Muslims and their faith, as the video “Innocence of Muslims” represents, sermons about virtues of tolerance and vice of extremism would be greeted by Muslim youths with hoots of “hypocrisy.”
- Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington, who hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West.’