Fight the right war

September 21, 2001

We must not let the battle against terrorism turn into a clash of civilisations, writes Azzam Tamimi

These are difficult times for Muslims worldwide, but in particular for those in Europe and America. Although it would seem as if we have been through this before several times (during the Gulf war, in the aftermath of the first World Trade Center bombing, in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing and so on), this is a crisis of unprecedented dimensions.

While most Muslims around the world condemn the recent attack on innocent civilians in the United States, the media coverage of events since September 11 has, wittingly or otherwise, been agitating western public opinion against Islam and Muslims. Muslim mosques and schools have come under attack. Muslims in America have been advised to lock themselves in lest they be attacked as they walk the streets. The situation is less serious in Europe, although several incidents of abuse and attack have been reported in the United Kingdom. One is tempted to think that what President George W. Bush and prime minister Tony Blair like to call the "civilised world" is not so civilised after all.

Without firm evidence of his involvement or much talk about his background or likely motivation, from day one Osama bin Laden was presented to the world as the symbol of "Islamic terrorism", or, to put it more mildly, "Islamic extremism". The most frequently used term to describe the bin Laden phenomenon, not only by the media but also by prominent politicians and decision-makers, has been Islamic fundamentalism. Academics know the danger of applying this term to Islam because, to the majority of liberals or mainline Christians, "fundamentalism" is pejorative or derogatory, and communal manifestation or personal observance of religious practice or symbols can be labelled as "fundamentalism".

Such treatment is exclusive to Islam and its followers. No other religion is labelled in the same manner when any of its followers are suspected of embroilment in acts of terrorism. You do not hear the terms "Jewish terrorism", "Christian terrorism", "Hindu terrorism" or "Sikh terrorism".

One important factor compounds the problem in the case of Islam. The US 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 US is the most unpopular 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 US on September 11 may have been a source of joy for some Muslims whose hatred for the US prevents them from recognising the savagery and inhumanity of this attack. US policy-makers may not be oblivious to this fact. They probably know that if Muslims were responsible for the catastrophe, US foreign policy provoked it. 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 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 US 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 mobilisation, the Muslim world is emerging as the enemy that Samuel Huntington once depicted. Unless sensible people in America and Western Europe start speaking against such mobilisation, what Huntington prophesied may come true. We should do all we can to prevent a war against terrorism turning into a clash of civilisations.

Azzam Tamimi is a lecturer in Islamic political thought at the Markfield Institute of Higher Education.

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