These are difficult times for Muslims worldwide but in particular for those of them that live in Europe and America. Coming days may be as difficult for the Palestinians, whose cries of painï¿½out of necessityï¿½need not be heard if the Americans are to wage their war of vengeance. Inasmuch as the Palestinians did not need the Gulf war and were victims of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, they definitely did not need the atrocities committed in America on 11 September and are very likely to suffer as a result.
As for the Muslims in the West, although it would seem as if we have been through this before several times already (during the Gulf war, in the aftermath of the first World Trade Center bombing, and in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing), this is a crisis of unprecedented dimensions. The symbols of Western capitalism and U.S. military might have been attacked, several thousands have been killed and the renowned U.S. systems of intelligence and reconnaissance have been humiliated and discredited. Worse still, the suspect is a shadowy, elusive figure that takes shelter in a country suffocated by sanctions and ravished by war and tribal strife.
While most Muslims around the world condemn and regret the recent attack on innocent civilians in the United States, the media coverage of the unfolding events since Tuesday, 11 September has, wittingly or otherwise, been agitating Western public opinion against Islam and the Muslims. Muslim mosques and schools have come under attack, prompting some schools to send their pupils home and close their doors until further notice. Muslims in America have been advised to lock themselves in lest they are attacked as they walk the streets. The situation is less serious in Europe though several incidents of abuse and attacks have been reported in the U.K. Muslim women in particular, conspicuous by their head-dresses and vulnerable by their feminism, have been easy targets. One is tempted to think that what George Bush, Jr. and Tony Blair like to call the ‘civilized world’ is not so civilized after all.
The remarks made by George W. Bush on several occasions, despite his assurances to the Muslims that this was not a war against them or their religion, included references to a ‘crusade’, and the ‘civilized world’, the ‘free world’ and ‘democracy’ being attacked by the ‘evil ones.’ Such remarks have not been helpful at all and have been criticized by many people both inside America and across Europe. If the West is waging a crusade, are we to compare it with the one Europe waged against the world of Islam ten centuries ago? If the West is the civilized world, are the Muslims the savages? If democracy in the West is what is under attack, why is the U.S. sponsoring and protecting a bunch of despotic regimes across the Muslim region against the wishes of the people who are struggling for democracy and freedom?
The Israelis and their Zionist propaganda worldwide immediately seized the pain and sorrow of the American people as an opportunity to agitate the world against Islam and the Muslims. Former as well as present political figures were given ample space in the media to tell the world of their expertise regarding ‘Islamic terrorism.’ The Palestinian people’s struggle against occupation, which is a legitimate right in accordance with United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all UN Security Council resolutions adopted on the issue since Israel was founded in 1948, was being equated and likened to the atrocities of 11 September. Some Israeli figures, including former Prime Minister Netanyahu, could not conceal their delight because this attack on America was a golden opportunity for Israel to mobilize the world against Islam and to regain some of the points it lost since the Palestinian intifada erupted a year ago.
Without evidence of Netanyahu’s involvement and without much talk about his background or likely motivation, right from the first day, Bin Laden was presented to the world as the symbol of ‘Islamic terrorism’ or to put it more mildly ‘Islamic extremism.’ To bridge the gap between terrorism (or extremism) and Islam, the most frequently used term to describe the Bin Laden phenomenon, not only by people in the media but also by prominent politicians and decision makers, has been Islamic fundamentalism. Academics know quite well the danger of applying this term to Islam because to the majority of liberal or mainline Christians “fundamentalism” is pejorative or derogatory. Communal manifestation or personal observance of religious practice or symbols can easily be labeled as ‘fundamentalism.’
No doubt, such treatment is exclusive to Islam and its followers. No other religion is labeled in the same manner when some or any of its followers are suspected of embroilment in acts of terrorism. You do not hear the terms ‘Jewish terrorism’ or ‘Christian terrorism’ or ‘Hindu terrorism’ or ‘Sikh terrorism.’ One important factor compounds the problem in the case of Islam. The United States of America and some of its allies in Europe are not liked in many parts of the Muslim world because of their foreign policies and what is seen as their imperialist attitude. The U.S. in particular is the most hated country in the Muslim world thanks to its unconditional, uncritical support for Israel, its role in perpetuating the suffering of the Iraqi people and the presence of its troops on Islam’s holiest soil in Arabia. It is undeniable that the calamity that struck the United States on 11 September may have been a source of joy for some Muslims whose hatred for America prevents them from recognizing the savagery and inhumanity of this attack.
U.S. policy makers may not be oblivious to this fact. They probably know, only too well, that if Muslims were actually responsible for the catastrophe, it is U.S. foreign policy that breeds and provokes such elements that are willing to go as far as killing themselves to inflict pain and humiliation on the United States. The leader of world democracy and protector of international law and human rights is seen by many Muslims in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa as supporting dictatorships and military junta that resist political reform and that are up to their ears in corruption. The real tragedy is that very few Americans know how their country is perceived and what their policy makers are doing to the rest of the world. Rather than asking questions about the failure of America in protecting its citizens from the menace of terrorism and seeking to call to account senior U.S. officials all the way from the President downwards, many Americans are rallying behind their government to launch a war against ‘Islamic terrorism.’
In light of this feverish and indiscriminate mobilization, the Muslim world is emerging as the enemy Huntington once depicted. Unless sensible people in America and Western Europe start speaking out against such mobilization, what Huntington prophesized may just be realized. We should all do our best so that a war against terrorism does not turn into a clash of civilizations. A sensible war against terrorism may be won, but a war against Islam can never be won.
As for the Palestinians, something similar to what happened in the early 1990s may be in the making. The Gulf war paved the way for putting an end to the first intifada and the U.S. war against Afghanistan may lead to putting an end to the current one. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. administration used its verbal muscles to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Sharon into agreeing to a ceasefire that had earlier been agreed to by Yasser Arafat, also in response to U.S. demands. Ironically, this shows, only too well, that the Americans can dictate to the Israelis what they want when they deem it necessary to do so. Just as the Americans were eager to build a coalition against Iraq in 1990, they are now so eager to build a coalition against ‘terrorism.’ The Americans know well that if Muslim governments are not on board, such a coalition will have no chance of succeeding.
Like other Arab leaders, and in contrast with his position ten years ago, Yasser Arafat has pledged support for the U.S.A. He has even placed all his resources under the command of President George W. Bush. The best Arafat can do under the prevalent circumstances is settle with the Israelis so as for U.S. strategists and decision makers to have the piece of mind they need in executing their war, a war which many Muslims fear will not be waged solely against bin Laden and the Taliban but rather against whatever America deems to be a threat to its interests and the interests of its alleged strategic ally, Israel, in the Arab and Muslim regions.
However, an imminent settlement is unlikely to be permanent. Palestinians have tried this before. The symptoms of the chronic Palestinian issue are impossible to do away with. Only hours after both Arafat and Sharon agreed to the ceasefire, clashes between Palestinians and settlers resulted in fatalities on both sides. The Palestinians simply cannot coexist with Jewish settlers who live on land seized from them by force. The Israelis, on the other hand, cannot do away with their contempt for the Arabs whose presence next door is a continuous reminder to them of the crime they have committed against them.
Dr. Azzam Tamimi is director of of the London-based Institute of the Islamic Political Thought.