The roots of anti-Muslim rage


 Omayma Abdel-Latif


 öAl-Ahram Weekly Online


 18-24 October 2001

Bush and Bin Laden, symbols of virtual confrontation in a shop window in East Beirut
 (photo: AP)

Western governments say it is not a war against Islam. Osama Bin Laden says it is. Muslims at large are caught in the middle.

Omayma Abdel-Latif
o. abdel-latif

     This was meant to be the year when the UN initiated its scheme to promote "dialogue among civilisations." Instead, it is witness to a confrontation apparently pitting "Islam" against the "West." In the weeks following the 11 September attacks against the US, old theories were dusted off, and prejudices predicting "an ultimate clash of civilisations" were bruited about. 

Leaders of the US coalition have gone to great lengths to "win the hearts and minds of Muslims" -- as press reports put it. They have emphasised that "the West has no grievances against Islam." This has done little to soothe Muslim fears of a "crusade" against the Islamic world. According to one observer, the lull in the coalition military attacks in Afghanistan on Friday, supposedly in deference to the Islamic day of prayer was a "mockery." The bombing of a mosque near Kabul the day before, an atrocity which killed 120, according to Britain's Independent newspaper, negated the effect of all such symbolic acts. 

Many Muslims think the official niceties of Tony Blair and George Bush are meant only to keep the coalition intact: in reality a coalition intended to batter Muslims. According to John Esposito, director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding (CMCU) at Georgetown University, the US administration risks a backlash in the Muslim world thanks to its inconsistent treatment of Muslim sensibilities. Esposito says that many in the Muslim world see the US as a "hegemon," a kind of "neo-colonialist power," not a state engaged in a morally unimpeachable war on terror. "If they [the Muslims] start seeing the US as a colonial power jumping off from Afghanistan and moving around through the Middle East and settling old scores," says Esposito, "then the risk is that they will believe [the coalition is engaged in] a war against Islam. People will think that Afghanistan was only an excuse to get in the region." 

Accompanying the strikes is a trend in foreign press writings which amounts to what one German intellectual described as "a constant secular slander of Islam." These writings lend credence to Bin Laden's argument that the assault on Afghanistan is indeed a "war against Islam and Muslims." 

Elements in both the American and British press have embarked on what Edward Said described as "a wholesale demotion of a civilisation into categories like irrational and enraged." A constant stream of articles have parroted Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, the writers who coined the phrases "the roots of Muslim rage" and "the clash of civilisations," by speaking about "the strategy to win the hearts and minds of Muslims," as if Muslims were a herd, incapable of variety of opinion. Other articles represent Islam as unable ever to understand or accept a US version of modernity. Such articles describe the fanaticism of Islam, the moral sickness of the Arabs and Muslims and their inherent inability to comprehend Western modernity as the rest of the world does. Last week's Time cover demanded, "Who can stop the rage?" Newsweek referred to "the roots of rage." Self-appointed experts on Islam and Muslim societies speak of "the failed societies," or "the land of suicide bombers, flag burners and fiery mullahs." All of this in lieu of proper analysis of real political grievances some in the region have, and which may, just possibly, be behind their discontent. 

Contrary to Tony Blair's official praise of Islam, some British papers have bluntly suggested, "yes, it is a war, and Islam is at its heart" (pace Hugo Young in Britain's Guardian). Others spoke of war against "fanatical Islam." Such writings play to advocates of an imminent clash of civilisations between Islam and the West and fuel the rage of the warmongers. Not only do they whip up anti-Islamic sentiment, they also help mobilise what Said described as "nationalist passions and murderous sentiments" among readers against everything Islamic. 

The logic, according to Professor Hassan Hanafi, chair of the Islamic Philosophy Department at Cairo University, is to prepare the moral ground for the massive acts of the US. Their intention, argues Hanafi, is not to analyse "why they hate us" but rather to use angry violent images coming from the Muslim world morally to justify US aggression against the Islamic world. "It is about who sets the rules in the global game. The strategy to win the hearts and minds of Muslims only translates into how can we control them," Hanafi told the Weekly. 

Both Hanafi and Esposito reject the notion of a clash of civilisations between the West and Islam as a rehash of old imperialist theories. "There is no one West, no one Islam: and to speak of civilisations as isolated entities defies the very logic and nature of what civilisation is all about," Hanafi explained. Esposito calls the language of civilisational clash "medieval." The question, explains Esposito, is whether the United States truly believes in the promotion of self-determination and human rights for everyone, or is selective when it comes to the Middle East and the Muslim world. "If the US and Europe are really concerned about the promotion of democratisation and human rights, then they have to be consistent with regard to that policy." Otherwise, says Esposito, "they will be vulnerable to anger that contributes to the conditions that allow Islam to be hijacked and used to legitimate the kind of terrorist actions that we have seen." 

Samuel Huntington originally wrote his article "the Clash of Civilisations" in 1993. Ever since, it has provided a manual to "keep the West powerful and its opponents weak and divided." Huntington advises the West, to "exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian civilisations and Islamic states, support other civilisational groups that are sympathetic to Western values and interests, and strengthen international institutions that reflect and legitimate western interests and values." The media have pounced on this sordid provender with glee. The extent to which governments do, too, remains to be seen. But the omens are not good. 

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