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The Real Problem Behind the “Problem with Islam”
By Neil Elliott
Gore Vidal has famously labeled our nation the “United States of Amnesia.” The anxious conversation in our national media regarding Islam and Muslims, in the U.S. and abroad, is a case in point. Awash in a media tsunami of hysterical pseudo-analysis and editorial hand-wringing over “the problem with Islam,” we are up to our necks in a swelling ocean of forgetfulness, the American Lethe . The very terms in which the discussion is usually carried on only muddy the waters.
Richard Clarke, President Bush's one-time National Security advisor and current nemesis, co-authored a Century Foundation report offering a “Blueprint for Action” in the so-called “war on terror.” The report bore the title Defeating the Jihadists . That choice of term is noteworthy: why “jihadists”?
Language Drift and the Erasure of History
Weeks ago, Richard Clarke, President Bush's one-time National Security advisor and current nemesis, co-authored a Century Foundation report offering a “Blueprint for Action” in the so-called “war on terror.” The report bore the title Defeating the Jihadists. That choice of term is noteworthy: why “jihadists”? A search for the term in the electronic version of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (1989), results in “no entries.” The OED website reports “jihadist” as one of a few “completely new entries” added only on December 9, 2004.
Whether they know it or not, the Century Foundation authors are apparently on the cutting edge of a linguistic trend. But why the shift in language? Why not rely on the sturdy and reliable Arabic participle that has proven perfectly satisfactory since it first entered English speech (the OED reports) in 1885: Why not “Defeating the Mujahedin ”?
Perhaps it's because referring to mujahedin would be, well, so 1980s. More precisely, in 1979 President Carter authorized the CIA to work with Pakistani military intelligence to recruit, train, arm, and field a proxy army of mercenaries to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. As John Cooley recounts in his detailed history, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America, and International Terrorism (new ed.: Pluto Press, 1999), their recruiting targets were “religious fugitives” and “soldiers of fortune” from all over the world. Within a few years, the CIA had secured the assistance and support of the Saudi government, private financiers including Saudi businessman Osama bin Laden, and (applying a business model developed in Vietnam) profits from the Afghan opium industry to fund covert warfare by proxy. The idea wasn't new with Carter's people: John Pilger notes that already in 1965-66 the U.S. client regime in Indonesia “used Islamicist groups to attack communists and anybody who got in the way” ( The Rulers of the World , Verso, 2002). The strategy of employing proxy armies of desperate young men to do the dirty work of “counterinsurgency” is at least as old as Suharto's massacres.
And it's also as current as Iraq and the contemporary U.S. “war on terror,” which pits the U.S. against some of its own former mercenaries. As Cooley observes, after the Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan, a fierce host of well-armed, battle-hardened warriors suddenly found themselves at loose ends. “The Islamist contagion carried by the returning Afghan veterans spread rapidly in northern Africa,” from Algeria to Tunisia, to Egypt, to the Taliban in Afghanistan, to Kashmir, Chechnya, and beyond.
There's another noteworthy neologism: “ Islamist contagion.” As late as 1989, the OED informs us, an “Islamist” was “one who is versed in Islamic studies.” In John Esposito's 1988 book Islam: The Straight Path, the noun “Islamization” meant a process in which “organizations . . . of dedicated and trained Muslims” called on others “to be more observant,” and dedicated themselves “to struggle against corruption and political injustice.” So why do people use the term today to connote violent and anti-American extremism, even terrorism?
The “Islamist Contagion” and Useful Fundamentalists
Given the shifting allegiances of the Afghan veterans, and more importantly, given the shifting fortunes that have complicated American strategic policy, U.S. administrations and the mainstream media have been hard pressed to keep their terms up-to-date. Consider: The Kosovo Liberation Army was a “terrorist organization” on the State Department's watch list until the Clinton administration decided to bomb Serbia: suddenly they were “freedom fighters.” The Bush administration was happy to negotiate a multi-billion-dollar oil pipeline contract with the Taliban only months before Sept. 11, 2001. After those attacks, the Taliban became an unmitigated evil, posing a danger that could only be met by a massive bombing campaign (which was carried out over the protests of Bread for the World and Oxfam that millions of Afghan civilians were at risk of starvation). The Taliban's predecessors, warlords who included brutes with nicknames like “the Butcher of Kabul,” became the glorified “Northern Alliance” when their weapons were needed against the Taliban (or, currently, against “insurgents”). In Iraq, Pilger reminds us, Turkish warplanes enjoyed complete impunity to bomb Kurdish villages in U.S.-controlled “no-fly zones” until the U.S. invasion in 2003 made Kurdish guerrillas a potential ally against Saddam Hussein's army. Most infamously, Saddam Hussein himself was a cherished ally against the theocratic Iranian revolution throughout the 1980s, until the day in August 1990 when he sent Iraqi forces into the Kuwaiti oilfields. Suddenly, the mass graves in Halabja became a reason to bomb Iraqi cities, and to subject the Iraqi people to a decade of “barbaric” and “genocidal” sanctions (in the words of two UN officials who resigned in disgust at the cruelty and duplicity of the sanctions program, organized under U.S. supervision at the UN Security Council).
Given the powerful pressure this political undertow exerts on language, it's understandable that government flacks and reporters alike would seek a simple, uniform code. “Good Muslims” are those who comply with U.S. interests and refrain from criticism or dissent from U.S. policy. When they are armed and aimed at official enemies, “good Muslims” in other countries become “freedom fighters” and “our allies in the war on terror.”
“Bad Muslims,” on the other hand, are those who are uncooperative, even defiant, of U.S. interests. The term “Islamist” plays the same role in American discourse that “Arab nationalist” played in the 1970s: it identifies any Muslim population that refuses to surrender its natural resources, preeminently oil, to U.S. control.
“Bad Muslims,” on the other hand, are those who are uncooperative, even defiant, of U.S. interests. The term “Islamist” plays the same role in American discourse that “Arab nationalist” played in the 1970s: it identifies any Muslim population that refuses to surrender its natural resources, preeminently oil, to U.S. control. As a case in point, The New York Times reported, in the week before the national elections in Iraq, a coalition of Shi'ite political parties stood “poised to capture the most votes.” Their winning strategy was to promise not to call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq or to allow clerics to hold government positions. After all, “U.S. officials, who wield vast influence in Iraq, would be troubled by an overtly Islamist government” (Jan. 24). The point at first seems inconsistent: U.S. officials don't seem troubled, after all, by the harsh and undemocratic governments of Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. But the terms are being used consistently. A compliant Shi'a government in Iraq, like the pro-U.S. Saudi regime, might be called “conservative,” but only opponents of U.S. policy in either country are described as “Islamists.”
The issue is not, and has never been, whether Islam is an essentially primitive, violent, or anti-American religion. If Lenin famously described pro-Soviet Westerners as “useful idiots,” we should recognize that under specific circumstances, the most fanatical mujahedin have proved just as useful to the U.S. government as the secular Saddam Hussein or Reza Pahlavi, so long as their religious zeal could be harnessed to imperialist ends. The pseudo-scholarship on the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and “the West” tells us more about the doctrinal requirements of American empire than about how actual Muslims think or feel.
The “Problem with Islam” – or with American Christianity?
We don't ordinarily refer to members of the Ku Klux Klan as “Christianists.” To take more recent historical examples, when Pat Robertson flew to Honduras to praise the Lord while others passed the ammunition to members of the U.S.-sponsored contra army – people who would go on to bomb schools and hospitals and assassinate elected officials in Sandinista Nicaragua – no one thought to call the contras “Christian terrorists,” or to accuse Robertson of “inciting radical Christianism.” When American Fundamentalists and the White House alike embraced born-again general-turned-president Efraín Ríos-Montt as he launched his brutal “scorched-Communist” policy against indigenous Guatemalans, no pundits took to the airwaves to discuss “the problem with Christianity.”
Why, then, is Islam so regularly named when government and media figures deplore “global terrorism”?
The burden of proof is laid on American Muslims to prove that they are loyal citizens. That means refraining from criticizing U.S. foreign policy, including support for Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank, and the war on Iraq. The message is clear enough: No matter what is done to other Muslims in other countries, you must stand back and remain silent.
One effect of that way of speaking is to put Muslims everywhere on notice: your religion is suspect. The burden of proof is laid on American Muslims to prove that they are loyal citizens. That means refraining from criticizing U.S. foreign policy, including support for Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank, and the war on Iraq. The message is clear enough: No matter what is done to other Muslims in other countries, you must stand back and remain silent. Muslim communities are being pressed to show their loyalty, with the chilling logic of the president's mantra: “if you're not with us, you're against us.”
A decade ago, I sat at an elegant dinner table with an erudite colleague, a secular scholar of Lebanese Muslim extraction. Someone presumed on the good cheer of the evening to ask him to explain “Muslim rage” against the United States. With a self-restraint that belied the tears welling in his eyes, he recited a litany of injustices, from occupied Palestine to Bosnia, Indonesia to Algeria, all answered with relative indifference, if not hostility, on the part of the United States. “How do you think we should feel?” he replied.
I wonder how many Muslims feel confident enough, safe enough, to express similar sentiments in America today. Recently I met with two student leaders, one Christian and the other Muslim, to explore possible interfaith activities on campus. The Muslim was polite, but wary. “We Muslims recognize our duty to represent our faith honestly and honorably, whenever we're asked. But we're really, really tired of having to answer the same three questions from non-Muslims, all the time: ‘Why do you favor holy war?' ‘Why do you oppress women?' And ‘why do you hate America?'”
Although as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died since March, 2003, as “collateral damage” from U.S. bombs, even “liberal” churches find it easier to hold Sunday morning adult forums on whether Islam is a violent religion than on whether our nation is waging an unjust war. When voices are raised questioning the war, conversation too readily degenerates into a referendum on the personality and sincerity of President Bush, when we ought to make a clear-eyed assessment of the effects of a decade of “genocidal” sanctions, the deadly effects of radioactive weapons (the depleted uranium used by U.S. forces), and an obscenely corrupt “reconstruction” cartel that profits from the misery of the Iraqi people.
It's time for progressive Christians to clear our heads of the fog of this stupid, brutal war. It's time we declared, loudly and insistently, that Islam is not the problem: U.S. foreign policy is the problem. It's time we renounce the polite, irrelevant role to which our faith has been relegated. It's time we take the heat off our Muslim neighbors, here and abroad, and stand up for the justice and compassion that both our faiths require.
The Rev. Neil Elliott is chaplain at the University Episcopal Center in Minneapolis, Minn. He may be reached by email at email@example.com.