You say 'terrorist', I say God-fearing Muslim

July 2, 2004

As power is handed over in Iraq, academics assess the impact of US foreign policy at home and abroad.

Whatever America's intentions in the Middle East, most of the Arab world views the superpower as an aggressor, writes Anoush Ehteshami.

The September 11 2001 and March 11 2004 attacks on the innocent citizens of New York and Madrid have served to widen an already profound chasm between the world of Islam and the West, deepening a process that had been in evidence since at least the end of the Cold War in 1989.

The end of the Cold War directly led to the demonisation of political Islam as a threat to the West. The "green peril" soon replaced its "red" counterpart. Even before Soviet troops had begun their withdrawal from East Germany and the Warsaw Pact had collapsed, prominent Western commentators were targeting the Middle East region as a source of insecurity: "A new spectre is haunting America," Douglas Streusand, a professor at the American Military University, warned in 1989, "one that some Americans consider more sinister than Marxism-Leninism. That spectre is Islam."

In 1990 journalist Daniel Pipes warned the West that the "Muslims are coming!" By September 2001 these commentators' chance to shape the agenda towards Islam had come.

Within weeks of the atrocities other voices in the US, particularly evangelical preachers from America's religious establishment, began to critique Islam in television broadcasts and other communications. The theme of the commentaries - as stated by Paul Weyrich, an influential Washington figure - was a straightforward one: "Islam is at war with us."

Three individuals in particular articulated the most hostile anti-Islam views in the US: evangelist Jerry Falwell, Christian network-owner Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, son of televangelist Billy Graham. For example, Robertson said in February 2002 that Islam was a religion of violence seeking to "dominate and, if need be, destroy". His words were echoed by a member of the Pentagon's Defence Policy Board, Kenneth Adelman, who argued that "the more you examine the religion (Islam), the more militant it seems. After all, its founder, Mohammed, was a warrior, not a peace advocate like Jesus."

This was Orientalism uncensored. "Reverse Orientalism" was also daily being applied to the US by the traditional and radical Islamist forces across the vast territories of Asia, Africa and Europe, where most Muslims live.

Demonisation of "the other" had become a mutual pastime. But at the same time, on the Middle Eastern and Muslim side, the terrorist acts were also received with genuine shock and horror. Who can forget the images of Iranian men and women holding candle-lit vigils in memory of the victims of 9/11? But many in the region saw in the Bush administration's responses a reinforcement of their perceptions of the US as the hegemonic and anti-Islam power of our time - the New Rome - whose mission was to destroy Muslim culture and way of life and to dominate Muslim lands and societies.

Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said, for example, that "Muslim countries seem to be the target everywhere - Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Chechnya, Iran, Iraq". And he added that the war on terror seemed to be "a campaign to wrench Muslim societies from their religious roots".

Another typical position was that of a group of 209 prominent Muslims from across the Arab world. In a statement issued in November 2002, they argued that the US was intent on "wiping out Islamic identity, spreading American culture in the region, controlling its oil wealth and covering up for its failure in Afghanistan". They added that the US "wants to plunge the region into turmoil, prevent development and protect Israel and ensure its superiority".

To Islamists, 9/11 had not only "taught the Americans a lesson" for their arrogant behaviour and unjust policies towards the Middle East, but had provided the excuse for the US to unleash its power against Islam. The battle, at last, had been joined. As a leading Egyptian Islamist has put it: "What the US is trying to do is change Islam from within. The campaigns against Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir and Sudan (show this, but will also) definitely awaken the sleeping giant."

The idea that the US is seeking to "change Islam from within" indicated two things: an acknowledgment by Islamists that the US' reach in the region was extensive; and that the Middle East and North African region was vulnerable to the pressures that global forces could bring to bear on its societies.

9/11 ignited a much wider debate in the West, particularly in the US, about the "problems" of the Muslim world, of the place of Islam as a 7th-century phenomenon in a modern society, of the role of Islam in the socialisation process and politicisation of Muslim populations, of the role that Islam plays in education around the Muslim world, of the relationship between Islam and culture and politics in Muslim societies.

In some Western circles, the Muslim factor made it imperative to reinforce the secular (and Western) underpinnings of the state. Thus, this year France banned all public signs of religious symbolism in schools, including the veil. The policy generated an angry response from many Muslims and led al-Qaeda to declare that the ban "is new evidence of the extent of the Crusaders' hatred for Muslims, even if they brag about democracy, freedom and human rights. France, the country of liberty, defends only the liberty of nudity, debauchery and decay, while fighting chastity and modesty."

In the US, concerns about the security implications of the "Muslim malaise" gave rise to the Greater Middle East Initiative, launched at the G8 Summit in Georgia, US, last month. Its ambitious plan is to reform the Muslim Middle East, by hook or by crook. Washington has consistently argued that the best way of checking the fire of the green peril is to extinguish it through wholesale, structural reform. Well, here was the blueprint for the reformation, wrapped in the candy of democracy and emancipation. But if it fails to acknowledge the geopolitical context of the reforms - the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the isolation (from 1990) and eventual demolition (in 2003) of Iraq as a sovereign and independent regional player - what effect can it have? Indeed it was this context that prevented the leaders of several of America's close Arab allies (Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular) from attending the summit.

The conflict in the Holy Land, which to many Muslims has been going on since the Crusades, and the apparent emasculation and abuse of Iraq - the seat of the Abassid Dynasty and the centre of Islamic power for generations - are the most profound defining contours of Arab/Islamic relations with the West. Together, they act as the prism for much of the Muslim perceptions of the US and its Western allies. While the US War on Terror was an understandable security response to an unprecedented crisis, its formulation, which directly targeted parts of the Muslim world, coupled with the sentiment expressed by President George W. Bush that "if you are not with us then you are against us", left little doubt in many minds that the real agenda was not defensive but aggressive.

Relations between the Muslim world and the West are therefore being defined by the increasingly ahistorical War on Terror, which is now free of any relationship between cause and effect, or even of any geopolitical context.

Fears of violence emanating from the "greater Middle East" have induced a broad and comprehensive Western reform strategy for the Middle East; but this is not focused on the realities and perceptions of the lives of more than 400 million people living there, their relationship with their history, their (largely Western-supported) ruling regimes, their neighbours and their fears. These are still largely ignored, fuelling the suspicion that "the aim is to deprive these regimes of any chance to regroup or rehabilitate the Arab regional system. The US is using all its strength to get Arab and Islamic countries to capitulate, one after another... Washington will continue until the Islamic and Arab community loses cohesion, Islam's penchant for jihad ebbs, and the pan-Arab movement runs out of steam. At which time the 'greater Middle East', promised by President Bush... will finally materialise."

These are not the words of a Muslim fanatic, but those of a highly respected Western-educated Egyptian intellectual in daily contact with the West.

But what of the prospects for Anglo relations with the Middle East and North Africa? Not so long ago, Britain was the supreme foreign power in the region and is still regarded with awe, respect and fascination. The Gulf Arab elite still makes London and the Home Counties its summer home, and British brands still enjoy great prestige in the Middle East.

Britain's seat at the United Nations Security Council, the G8, the European Union's high table, all guarantee prominence in global circles, while even its close links with Washington bring prestige. But Britain also needs to engage with the countries of the Middle East over many matters that its world position, or indeed its "special relationship", cannot assist it with. A balance has to be made between playing a part on the grand stage and being seen in the more local Middle East theatre. Britain has reached a historic moment in its global role perception.

It makes sense for Britain to base its strategic evaluations on a home-grown assessment of its national interests instead of being unduly reliant on polemic-based policy alternatives emanating from the US.

Anoush Ehteshami is professor of international relations and head of the new School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University.

His book Globalisation, 9/11 and the Middle East will be published by Lynne Rienner Publishers.

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