The potential and pitfalls of working with non-Muslim critics of America and the West

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Iqbal Siddiqui

Sha'ban 15, 1422 2001-11-01

Islamic Movement

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 17, Sha'ban, 1422)

One feature of the crisis that began on September 11 has been the extent to which the US’s subsequent policy has been questioned and opposed by so many people even in the West. Even in America, where war-fever has been most intense, opposition to the attacks on Afghanistan has been evident, in demonstrations on university campuses, in New York and other cities, and in some publications, even while journalists and commentators in the mainstream media have been sacked for going against the official, patriotic line.

Outside America, the anti-war movement has been far more assertive. Certain sections of the British press have been very critical of the US, and there is widespread scepticism about America’s motives for going to war. Although the British prime minister, Tony Blair, is George Bush’s ‘closest ally’ — described as “America’s newest ambassador” by the Wall Street Journal — the two weeks since the bombardment of Afghanistan started have been full of so many anti-war demonstrations, and so many meetings, lectures and seminars on the meaning and implications of the crisis, that it has been impossible to attend more than a few of them.

Americans living in London have been shocked by the reaction. Several radio talkshows have featured Americans calling in to express their dismay and anger at articles in newspapers and the comments of other callers. At London University, this writer recently witnessed a discussion between an American student complaining about the anti-war feeling, and her English friends trying to explain that opposing the war does not mean endorsing the attacks on New York and Washington.

At London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the Association of University Teachers held an anti-war ‘teach-in’ on October 20, modelled vaguely on the protests on American campuses during the Vietnam war, except that the hall was booked in advance and the protestors tidied up after them. Speakers included left-wing members of staff, and most of those who took part were the people who have dominated anti-globalization and anti-capitalism protests in recent months. Indeed, much of the anti-war movement is based on the established anti-globalization movement, although it also includes many who are not part of it.

All this has come as a welcome surprise to Muslims, of course, many of whom have been able to speak out more openly with the support of non-Muslim voices than might otherwise have been possible. The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) organized a seminar on the crisis on October 21, which was attended by Labour Member of Parliament George Galloway, a well-known critic of Western arrogance and hypocrisy in Iraq, Kashmir, Palestine, Chechnya and other places. He is one of several Labour MPs that the government have tried to gag for questioning the official line on the war. His criticism of Muslim Members of Parliament and the House of Lords, all Labour and all of whom have supported the government’s line, was strongly applauded by the Muslim audience.

Galloway also starred, along with Mark Laffey, a SOAS academic, and Dr Azzam Tamimi of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London, at a panel discussion organized by the SOAS Islamic Society on October 23, under the title “A War against Terrorism or a Crusade against Islam?” The meeting was also attended by Dan Screevner, public relations officer at the US embassy in London, who gave a gutsy performance trying to defend the indefensible against a hostile audience. He almost managed to look as though he believed what he was saying.

Of course, with Galloway and Laffey — also an anti-imperialist— on one side, and Screevner on the other, the meeting quickly became all about America’s role in the world, and Islam was forgotten, despite strong contributions from Dr Tamimi. The packed audience included an unlikely alliance of socialists and Muslims, with mahjubahs and girls with green hair and lip-studs sitting side-by-side and applauding each other’s points against Screevner. The only time the coalition wavered was when one English girl (brown hair, no visible body-piercing) demanded to know why the US had helped the mujahideen to defeat Afghanistan’s first and only “modern, progressive government” — ie. Najibullah’s Soviet-backed regime. For once the applause was not unanimous.

That incident, though, embodies the problem Muslims face in this alliance with non-Muslims. While many non-Muslims are extremely critical of the US, they have little else in common with Muslims. The anti-US trend is strongest among those who are also the most anti-religious and — in particular — anti-Islam. They are the ones who regard religion as the root of all evil, who are committed to aggressive secularism, and who are most contemptuous of the superstitious ‘mullahs’ whom they regard as the cause of all the Muslims’ problems.

Many of them work for charities and development agencies, doing what is — on the face of it— excellent work. But they are no less determined to impose their own prescriptions on Muslim countries than the politicians in Washington and London. The only difference is that their prescriptions are social and cultural rather than openly political, and are presented with kindness and generosity, not arrogance and repression. The harsh truth is that there are precious few non-Muslims — if any — who understand that we need either unconditional help or simply to be left alone to solve our own problems, in our own countries, in our own ways.

Expecting non-Muslims to note the failures of democracy and secularism in western countries, and to agree that Islamic principles offer a better basis for creating moral and just societies is perhaps unrealistic. But it is not unrealistic to expect that some Westerners at least should recognise that the Western way to be modern is not the only one; that Muslim countries and societies cannot be ordered by principles that are imported and imposed from elsewhere, and that are diametrically opposed to those of Islam (and which, in our view at least, have failed wherever they have been tried).

It is also not unrealistic to expect Westerners to understand that political Islam is a broad, varied and complex movement that cannot be identified simply with a few misguided ‘terrorists’ or a few ignorant ‘mullahs’; that in most parts of the Muslim world Islamic movements are the most popular, the most sophisticated, the most forward-looking and (to borrow a Western phrase) the most ‘democratic’ political forces; and that where a realistic attempt has been made to implement Islam in the modern world — notably in Islamic Iran — the results have been far more successful than any of the West’s attempts to supersede Islam in Muslim countries.

It should also not be beyond Westerners’ comprehension that in some places, such as Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya, the use of force is necessary against ruthless and brutal enemies ; that, at times, people acting in the name of Islam are going to make mistakes and commit crimes (even atrocities); and that the Islamic movement as a whole is not answerable for such episodes.

Of course, there are a few advantages of working alongside even non-Muslims who cannot see these simple points, although these are likely to be transitory. Once the present crisis has passed, many non-Muslims, those who are happy to sit beside us now, will remember why they usually disdain Muslims who keep beards or wear hijab, and refuse to drink alcohol. When that happens, Muslims have a bad habit of trying to maintain what is essentially an unnatural partnership, becoming apologetic or defensive, and making compromises, in the process.

Of course, there is an undoubted value in some Muslims, particularly in the West, working alongside non-Muslims in areas where it is possible and useful to do so; the work of the IHRC is a good example. The problems begin when Muslims in such positions (the IHRC has never been guilty of this) then complain that other Muslims, working in other areas, are making life difficult for those trying to work with non-Muslims, for example by voicing harsh truths when diplomatic half-truths might be less unacceptable. This is how we find our agendas and our effectiveness being watered down to suit the priorities and sensibilities of others, who expect us to conform to their standards while refusing to recognise ours.

Muslims in the West are essential to the Islamic movement, and can play a crucial role in partnership with those non-Muslims who share our understanding of the nature of the West and are willing to accept us on our terms. There is growing understanding of the West among non-Muslims; we must insist that there also has to be a growing understanding of Islam: and not just as a religion, but as a value-system for the whole of life, including public life, and of the Islamic movement — for all the failures, faults and errors of parts of it — as a movement for the promotion of Islam in the Muslim world that must be accepted and tolerated. Unless we achieve that, any support and sympathy we find among non-Muslims is more likely to work against us in the long run than to be of any use to us.

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