The Americanization of Islam – When the Rich and Powerful Act Stupidly

In history, many imperial powers have mistaken the after-effects of force of arms for the consent of those peoples they have subjugated; over time, they even come to believe in violent conquest as a basis for their legitimacy as rulers.

But John Locke, the seventeenth-century political philosopher, warned that, “… the aggressor, who puts himself into the state of war with another, and unjustly invades another person’s rights, can by such an unjust war never come to have a right over the conquered.”

The pattern of history shows that while conquered peoples focus their passions and resources upon trying to free themselves from the grip of their conquerors, the conquerors expend whatever energy it takes to keep those under their rule submissive.

A traditional method of conquering aggressors who want to maintain victims’ submission, is to demean their religion and culture; humiliate them to the point of losing all pride and identity; keep them anxious and defensive; and to transform the struggle between aggressor and victim from the political arena to the complex domain of religion, thereby shaming both victims and their supporters by attributing any acts of resistance (violent or not) to their supposedly "inferior" religion and culture.

Conquerors justify such programs of oppression by propagating disinformation — for example, that violence is "in the blood," of their victims, who are nothing but savages, extremists, barbarians, terrorists, etc., and therefore unworthy of mediation or negotiation in good faith. And one of the most effective ways in which aggressors seek to control and manage their subjects is to call for the "reform" of their religion.

When the British sought a major reform of Islam in occupied Egypt during the early 1800s, however, they did not expect the kind of change advocated by Sheikh Mohamed Abdo, who envisioned an Islam that calls for modernity, political activism and democratic freedom. Sheikh Abdo was promptly sent into exile, along with his teacher and mentor, Sheikh Gamal El-Afghani.

Why did the the British punish a leader who seemed to be following their own plan? It’s because what the British really wanted was to Anglicize Islam. Instead of a religion newly enlivened by a wholistic approach to life and a passion for social justice and democratic freedoms, they wanted a pallid, passive Islam, devoid of everything but "harmless" metaphysics and rituals.

The British used the same pseudo-reforming approach to encourage, support and even finance a religion of their liking in order to control and subjugate Muslims in India and the Middle East. In reality, they succeeded only in setting the stage for two new religions that exerted little influence on the masses — Bahai’ism and the Ahmadiyyah Movement. But Islam itself managed to survive the ravages of Anglicization.

Later in the 20th century, following the Cold War, the United States created for itself a serious new enemy — not the Eastern Bloc or the Chinese — but the entire Muslim world. Instead of nourishing mutually beneficial international relations with the more than 1.2 billion Muslims on earth at that time, America replaced the old British and European style of imperialism with new aggressive policies of its own, exploiting the people and natural resources of multiple nations whose religion and culture it did not, and still does not, understand.

In the process of conquering Iraq and Afghanistan and taking an aggressive posture toward other Muslim countries — including Iran, Sudan, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — the U.S. is now trying hard to weaken its newly-created enemy by calling for the privatization of Islam, while American-style triumphalist Christianity is stamped all over its own domestic politics.

The hypocrisy of such an approach to world affairs is astonishing. Like the former British imperialists, America is calling for a "new Islam" that does not participate in the political life of believers, yet the growing influence of the fundamentalist Christian Right is openly encouraged from the White House on down.

As the 21st century’s new conquering super-power, America fully endorses an aggressive and multilateral divide-and-conquer policy against virtually the entire non-Western world.

In American politics, official media, and partisan academia, there are only two kinds of Muslims worth knowing about. There are the so-called “moderate,” “modern,” “liberal,” and “secular” Muslims who could (hypothetically) be co-opted to support Washington; and there are the “radical,” “militant,” “extremist,” “anti-American,” “anti-Semitic,” “anti-Western,” “terrorist sympathizer,” “terrorist,” “rebel” “insurgent” Muslims, who believe only in shouting “death to America.”

And if the two — both mythical character constructs in themselves — could be provoked into subduing one another, America could stand back and let others do its dirty work. Such is clearly not the case, as we have seen in many Muslim countries today. What better example of the rich and powerful acting stupidly?

One of the most popular techniques used by modern-day conquerers is to correlate their victims’ lack of social and political human development with supposedly parallel deficiencies in their religion. Using an impressive array of theological and psychological jargon, promoters of this racist ideology can sound very convincing to the uninformed.

But logically, we should beware of such easy denigration and instead compare the teachings of Islam on any given subject with the teachings of other world religions on the same subjects. And if we must compare the status of one people or culture to that of another, we must do so for the same time periods in the actual history of human development.

It would be quite wrong, for example, to compare democracy in developing Muslim countries today with its contemporary and much older forms in the West. Go back a century or so, to a time when the West was at the same stage of political development as much of the Muslim world is at the present moment, and you then have the basis for a fair analysis. It is simple logic, yet rarely thought of in a world where confrontations are reduced to the dehumanizing level of a faceless "them" and a superior "us."

To take another historical example of development by recognizable stages: the first woman British parliamentarian was not elected until 1918; Denmark appointed Europe’s first woman governmental minister in 1924; the first female U.S. senator was elected in 1922, but the first black woman was not elected to the U.S. senate until 1992; and the first woman to head a government was in Sri Lanka – not in the West – in 1960.

And in case we forget: before Britain’s Great Reform Bill of 1832 only rich and powerful male landowners, who constituted less than 10% of the population, enjoyed the right to vote.

In Canada in 1841, University of Toronto founder John Strachan (later a prominent Anglican bishop) was making a fiery stand against democracy, which he believed was “the root of lawlessness in the U.S.” History books tells us that he fought “with all his might” to keep Canadian higher education under the control of the Church of England.

Coming to the present day, what should Muslims do against the threat of the Americanization (i.e. subjugation) of Islam?

The first rule is that they should not let the aggressor set their agenda. The faith of Islam needs no defense, but Muslims do — and there is a big difference.

Only thirty years ago, Islam came under attack because it has always allowed couples to divorce if their marriage is failing. While divorce is now widely accepted among practicing Christians in the West, Islam was ahead of its time in this respect by some 1400 years.

The second rule is not to fall into traps where Muslims end up having fewer resources than their aggressors. Canadian Muslims, for example, must move beyond the issues of hijab-wearing and Sharia Law. They must counter negative disinformation by exposing lies and bias and by educating those non-Muslims who genuinely seek the truth.

I have visited more than 30 Muslim countries and can personally witness that the vast majority of believers, even the poorest ones, are proud of their faith. Canadian Muslims must use all the hospitality and generosity of spirit at their command to inform and engage here at home with non-Muslims, not shun or try to convert them. Fortunately, Canadian society is still open and interested enough to respond to genuine interfaith relationships.

By contrast, both U.S. foreign and domestic policy today toward Muslim countries, and Muslims in their midst, is an aggressive one. Muslims must learn from the aggressor and know how the aggressor sees them; for sadly, enemies are often more clear-sighted than friends.

Canadian Muslims have no reason to feel apologetic, defensive, guilty-by-association, or passively politically correct. They must instead stand tall and speak up for social justice issues here in Canada, and promote the benefits of peace with justice around the world.

A caring Islam, a vocal Islam and an engaging Islam is what Canada needs. Canadian Muslims must be proactively issue-driven, and build mutually beneficial alliances with all Canadians — Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, First Nations, those of other religions, or of no religion — for we are all struggling with the same issues and aspire to the same goals. If we start with ourselves here in Canada, the creeping Americanization of Islam is doomed to fail, just as Anglicization did more than a century ago.


This article, first appeared in The National Post, Canada, is based on a public lecture given by the author on September 23, 2004 at the University of Calgary.