IS IT A WAR ON ISLAM?
by Pervez Hoodbhoy
[16 January 2003]
Street opinion in Pakistan, and probably most Muslim countries, holds that
Islam is the sole target of America's new wars. Even moderate Muslims are
worried. The profiling of Muslims by the INS, the placing of Muslim states
on the US register of rogues, and the blanket approval given to Israeli
bulldozers as they level Palestinian neighborhoods appear dangerous
indicators of a religious war. But Muslims undeservedly award themselves
special status and imagine what is not true. America's goal goes much
beyond subjugating inconsequential Muslim states. Instead it seeks to
remake the world according to its needs, preference, and convenience. The
war on Iraq is but the first step.
Aggressive militarism has been openly endorsed by America's corporate and
political establishment. Mainstream commentators in the US press now argue
that, given its awesome military might, American ambition has been
insufficient. Max Boot, editor of the Wall Street Journal, writes that
"Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of
enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident
Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets". The Washington Post calls for an
"imperialist revival" and the need for Americans to "impose their own
institutions on disorderly ones". The Atlantic Monthly remarks that
American policy makers should learn from the Greek, Roman, and British
empires for tips on how to run American foreign policy.
Although many Americans still cling to the belief that their country's new
unilateralism is no more than "injured innocence", and a natural response
of any victim of terror, the Establishment does not suffer from such
naivety. Empire has been part of the American way of life for a long time.
The difference after 911 - and it is a significant one - is that America
no longer sees need to battle for the hearts and minds of those it would
dominate; there is no other superpower to whom the weak can turn. In
today's Washington, a US-based diplomat recently confided to me, the
United Nations has become a dirty word. International law is on the way to
irrelevancy, except when it can be used to further US goals.
Still, none of this amounts to a war on Islam. Some will disagree. The
fanatical hordes spilling out of Pakistan's madrassas imagine seeing
Richard the Lion Hearted bearing down upon them. Sword in hand they pray
to Allah to grant war and send the modern Saladin, one who can
miraculously dodge cruise missiles and hurl them back to their launchers.
On the other side, Christian-Jewish extremists, extending from the Jerry
Falwells and Pat Robertsons to the leaders of Israel's Likud, yearn for
yet another crusade. They too are convinced that inter-civilizational
religious war is not only inevitable but also desirable. Belief in final
victory is, of course, never doubted by the faithful.
But the counter-evidence to a civilizational war is much stronger. Between
1945 and 2000 the US has fought 28 major, and countless minor, wars.
Korea, Guatemala, Congo, Laos, Peru, Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador,
Nicaragua, Yugoslavia, and Iraq are only some of the countries which the
US has bombed or invaded. The Vietnam War alone claimed a million lives.
By comparison America's wars on Muslim states have been far less bloody.
Iraqi deaths during the Gulf War, and the recent victims of bombing in
Afghanistan, amount to fewer than 70 thousand. Even if one throws in
casualties from the Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1971 and attributes them
to the US, Muslim deaths are only a few percent of the Vietnam War total.
Material self-interest, and not antipathy to Islam, has been the driving
force behind US foreign policy. A list of America's Muslim foes and
friends makes this crystal clear. America's foes during the 1950's and
1960's were secular nationalist leaders. Mohammed Mossadeq of Iran, who
opposed Standard Oil's grab at Iran's oil resources, was removed by a CIA
coup. Ahmed Sukarno of Indonesia, accused of being a communist, was
removed by US intervention and a resulting bloodbath that consumed about
eight hundred thousand lives. Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, who had Islamic
fundamentalists like Saiyyid Qutb publicly executed, fell foul of the US
and Britain after the Suez Crisis. On the other hand, until very
recently, America's friends were the sheikhs of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf
states, all of whom practiced highly conservative forms of Islam but were
the darlings of Western oil companies.
Nevertheless, Washington has occasionally misunderstood American
self-interests - sometimes fatally so. "Mission myopia", as the CIA now
wanly admits, led to the network of global jihad in the early 1980's. With
William Casey as CIA director, the largest covert operation in history was
launched after Reagan signed the "National Security Decision Directive
166", calling for American efforts to drive Soviet forces from Afghanistan
"by all means available". US counter-insurgency experts worked closely
with the Pakistani ISI in bringing men and material from around the Arab
world and beyond. All this is well known. Less known is the ideological
help provided by US institutions, including universities.
Readers browsing through book bazaars in Rawalpindi and Peshawar can, even
today, find textbooks written as part of the series underwritten by a
USAID $50 million grant to the University of Nebraska in the 1980's. These
textbooks sought to counterbalance Marxism through creating enthusiasm in
Islamic militancy. They exhorted Afghan children to "pluck out the eyes of
the Soviet enemy and cut off his legs". Years after the books were first
printed they were approved by the Taliban for use in madrassas - a stamp
of their ideological correctness.
The cost of America's mission myopia has been a staggering one. The
network of Islamic militant organizations created primarily out of the
need to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan did not disappear after the
immediate goal was achieved but, instead, like any good
military-industrial complex, grew from strength to strength. Nevertheless,
until 11 September, US policy makers were unrepentant, even proud of their
winning strategy. It took a cataclysm to bring them down to earth.
But militant organizations have done far greater harm to Muslims, whose
causes they claim to promote, than to those who they battle against.
Killing tourists and bombing churches is the work of moral cretins and is
not just cowardly and inhumane, but also a strategic disaster. Indeed,
fanatical acts can sting the American colossus but never seriously hurt
it. Though perfectly planned and executed, the 911 operation was a
strategic blunder of colossal proportions. It vastly strengthened American
militarism, gave Ariel Sharon the license to ethnically cleanse Palestine,
and allowed state-sponsored pogroms of Muslims in Gujarat to get by with
only a squeak of international condemnation.
The absence of a modern political culture and the weakness of Muslim civil
society have long rendered Muslim states inconsequential players on the
world stage. An encircled, enfeebled dictator is scarcely a threat to his
neighbors as he struggles to save his skin. Tragically, Muslim leaders,
out of fear and greed, publicly wring their hands but collude with the US
and offer their territory for bases as it now bears down on Iraq.
Significantly, no Muslim country has proposed an oil embargo or a serious
boycott of American companies.
What, then, should be the strategy for all those who believe in a just
world and are appalled by America's war on the weak? Vietnam, to my mind,
offers the only viable model of resistance. A stern regard for morality,
said their strategists, is the best defense of the weak. Even though B-52s
were carpet-bombing his country, Ho Chi Minh did not call for hijacking
airliners or blowing up buses. On the contrary the Vietnamese reached out
to the American people, making a clear distinction between them and their
government. By inviting media celebrities like Jane Fonda and Joan Baez,
Vietnam generated enormous goodwill. On the other hand, can you imagine
the consequences of Vietnam's leadership being with Osama bin Laden rather
than Ho Chi Minh? That country would surely have been a radioactive
wasteland, rather than the unique victor against imperialism.
Only a global peace movement that explicitly condemns terrorism against
non-combatants can slow, and perhaps halt, George Bush's madly speeding
chariot of war. Massive anti-war demonstrations in Washington, New York,
London, Florence, and other western cities have brought out hundreds of
thousands at a time. A sense of commitment to human principles and peace -
not fear or fanaticism - impelled these demonstrators. But why are the
streets of Islamabad, Cairo, Riyadh, Damascus, and Jakarta empty? Why do
only fanatics demonstrate in our cities? Let us hang our heads in shame.
(The author teaches at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.)
Return to New collection at South Asia Citizens Web
Return to South Asia Citizens Web