Tying terrorism to islam is counterproductive for both the Middle East and the west

Since the 1970’s, terrorist attacks from Islamic fundamentalist groups have colored the perceptions of Islam from Western nations, and have been the cause of economic sanctions, anti-Islamic foreign policy, and far-reaching wars that continue to this day. Troublingly, the actions of these groups have caused many to assume that Islam itself is a violent, hateful religion, and one that is entirely at odds with democratic values. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the concept that “religion and democracy need not be in conflict” was questioned, with the author citing various attacks on Christian churches in Indonesia by Islamic militants as an example of the impossibility of religious democracy. But is the very existence of religiously incited violence enough to prove the mutual exclusivity of religion and democracy?

It is true that Indonesia, following the example, has instituted policies and laws that limit religious freedom, particularly as it pertains to the freedom of speech against Islam, and have failed to properly disincentivize acts of religious intolerance. But this is a legal, governmental, and societal problem, not a Muslim problem. Without proper enforcement of laws designed to protect disenfranchised Christians, and by allowing human rights violations to go unprosecuted, Indonesian policymakers have created a society that will reward discrimination and violent crimes of hatred. But the fact that in Indonesia Muslims perpetrate the crimes against Christians is an effect of this society, not the cause. In Turkey, persecution of Christians is rare enough that it does not make the World Watch List, the ranking of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe as compiled by Christian NGO Open Doors. Indeed, the 2007 murder of three Christians at a religious publishing house shocked the nation, and was decried as “savagery” by the Turkish Prime Minister.

What’s more, the incidence of religiously intolerant acts does not belong to Islamic groups alone, with religiously motivated violence continuing to be reported throughout Europe and North America. Great Britain has been experiencing religious terrorism since the 17th-century “Gunpowder Plot,” a plan by English Catholics to blow up Parliament and thereby assassinate the King. In the modern age, the incidence of religious hate crimes has been growing exponentially in Great Britain, particularly against Muslims, since the 2005 London bombings. In Northern Ireland, terrorist attacks against Protestant and Catholic churches have occurred since the 1960’s. Here in the United States, religiously-motivated terrorist groups, such as the Christian group The Army of God, the Jewish Defense League, and the Mormon white nationalist group The Order, have been responsible for the bombings of abortion clinics and nightclubs catering to the homosexual community; massacres at non-Christian places of worship both abroad and at home; the targeted assassinations of numerous religious and secular figures; as well as a vocal, and often violent movement to convert America into a Christian theocratic state.

While it is true that both domestic and international terrorist acts by fundamentalist Islamic groups have been an increasing concern, tying these acts to Islam itself is counter-productive for both Western and Middle Eastern nations. To call religiously incited violence and terrorism a Muslim problem is comparable to equating the acts of the groups and individuals cited above to the beliefs of Great Britons and Americans as a whole. But this is not the case – there is no serious academic or politician arguing that these nations cannot be democratic or free because of the acts of the few. Rather, it is taken for granted that the actions of a few radical fringe groups do not speak for the nation as a whole. With the vast majority of Muslims decrying these acts as against Islamic law, this presupposition should be extended to Muslims as well. I am a Muslim woman, and one that believes in the ideals and values of democracy. I do not assume that David Koresh, The Army of God, Timothy McVeigh or the IRA speaks for you and your political beliefs. Do not assume that al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Army of Islam speaks for me.

Donald Rumsfeld tweets on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war

With last month marking the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, many reflected on the controversial war and its long-term global implications.  With a single tweet, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld started a new controversy that tested many people’s assumptions about what a just war entails, and how far the United States’ influence extends in the promotion democracy across the globe.  The controversy is not solely a phenomenon in the US, however, as this article from Australian newspaper East Coast News describes.  The world is now closely examining the situation in Iraq as it currently stands, and discovering that with one tyranny overthrown, another is quickly taking hold. 

The article seeks to describe the current situation in Iraq from the viewpoint of actual Iraqis, rather than American policymakers.  Local infrastructure is still struggling to rebuild itself, while free elections are being held, they are marred by domestic terrorism and accusations of fraud, and the federal government is rife with corruption.  More than anything, most Iraqis are still dealing with the incredible death toll, a tangible loss that the Iraqi people will never be able to overcome.  Democracy, promised to Iraqi’s by the US government, is tenuous and in disarray.  While it is clear to all involved that Hussein needed to be removed from power and prosecuted for his crimes, and equally clear that for the protection of the United States’ economy and national security armed forces needed to withdraw. To call the Iraq war a success is to revise history, and the war will surely be examined in the future as the wrong way to go about post-war reconstruction. 

Art still has its force in the power play of global politics today

One of the cornerstones of democracy is the free exchange of information.  Citizens without access to the facts cannot truly participate in free elections.  Non-democratic governments frequently deny their people information by limiting the press and the Internet to ensure that their citizenry cannot make informed opinions that might threaten the regime. When faced with government-controlled media and frequently enforced laws regarding dissent of the state, artistic expression is one way that citizens can spread information and change hearts and minds, both at home and abroad.  For this reason, art has been used as a political tool for as long as history has been recorded.  From Machiavelli to Os Mutantes, Joe Sacco to Jonathan Swift, Picasso to Public Enemy, Frauke Eigen to Frederick Varley, artists have boldly spoken about the truth of their political and social lives in order that others might gain insight about the problems they are facing.  This trend is continuing with the work of pioneering artists in the Middle East.  An article for Christian Science Monitor highlights some of these artists that are using the political turmoil of the region as inspiration for powerful self-expression.  Artists like Nermine Hammam, with a show currently open in London, manipulate images to seek a greater truth in a situation that has been overanalyzed and emotionally neutered.  Others, like all-female photography collective Rawiya, create an emotional connection to their subjects, enabling the viewer to see them as humans rather than theoretical and imagined Other.  These artists, in addition to creating beautiful and compelling works, are also adding much to the political discourse of the region, despite the inherent risks in doing so in a politically instable and often dangerous world.  With the Western world grappling with reduced arts funding and an art world that has been accused of pretentious superficiality, politically active artists should be celebrated as honoring the long-held relationship between art and politics.

Dictatorship vs. democracy: reflections on my two opposing worlds

To vote for the first time is to experience the overwhelming joy of democratic civic participation. In many countries in the region in which I was born and raised, general elections are not held, and authoritarian leaders preside over nations rife with political repression, press manipulation, and human rights violations. Other nations continue to have elections that are farcical, with vote-buying and other forms of electoral fraud a common occurrence. So when a citizen of a truly democratic nation votes, it represents more than just choosing your local, state or federal representative. It is emblematic of a system where individual votes matter and the people can have their say.

For this reason, it pains me greatly to see this system undermined through gerrymandering and the disenfranchisement of certain segments of the voting public at the ballot box. For two centuries, the United States has been an example to the world of how a representational democracy can be run, and how a country, although politically divided, can be unified through the celebratory act of casting a ballot. In the last ten years we have witnessed attempts by political parties and governmental agencies to utilize institutionalized racism to dissuade certain voting blocs from enjoying their Constitutionally-given rights, and congressional redistricting that has the obvious goal of ensuring that each vote cast, no matter who for, means less. It seems that when a party does not like the outcome of an election, instead of rolling up their sleeves, going to the people, and finding out how they may better serve their constituents, they examine voter maps and manipulate laws to ensure the odds are in their favor next time. This is not what Lincoln envisioned of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and I doubt Jefferson would call this “the rational and peaceable instrument of reform.” With the 2014 election marking 100 years of senatorial elections, Americans must, collectively, value their voting rights enough to ensure that their voices are heard and their rights upheld, not just for themselves, but for the many nations who hold them as a model and long for the same democratic freedoms.

The role of oil and islamism in the political structure of the Middle East

In her talk to the City Club of Cleveland, Jamal devotes a lengthy portion of her time to a question and answer period, a valuable contribution to the continuing education of her listeners and the opening of a dialogue, something which should be considered in both the Arab and Western worlds. Two important questions centered on the role of oil and natural gas in the political structure of the region and the use of large-scale violence in the region and the conception of Islamists as violent. Jamal discusses at length the role oil plays in the geo-strategic interests in the region of Western nations such as the United States. This issue has a large political impact, as can be seen in the foreign policy of the United States when compared to the level of energy dependence on foreign nation relationships.

She also speaks at length about the Western conception of Islamists as a group to be confronted and contained; something Jamal argues would “only inflame sensibilities and win them more supporters.” However, this idea has its basis in a false assumption, which is that all Muslims are Islamist, and draws the distinction between Islamist ideologues, the small portion of the population which have a “political and theological agenda,” and the Islamist supporters who support the movement because they cannot find a “better or more organized” group that is attempting to solve the practical problems of the nation. From a Western conception, there seems to be no distinction between Islamist supporters who are seeking to improve the infrastructure, economy, and quality of life experienced by Arab citizens, and the Islamist ideologues who are using violence as a tool for seeing their agenda realized, but this important distinction is one that would do much to further the education and understanding of the issues. Instead, the idea that a condemnation of these actions should not necessarily be a condemnation of Islamism and Islamist conceptions of democracy should be advanced, as to not would only serve to further anti-American sentiment and inhibit the democratic progression being seen throughout the region.

Similar to arabic countries, Pakistan’s voters prefer sharia over democracy

The issue of democracy in the Middle East has three distinct areas of opinion: the opinion of policymakers, influencers and political leaders both in the nations dealing with this struggle, and in nations who may have some economic, political, or philosophical stake; the opinion of the citizenry itself; and the opinion of academics and journalists who devote their careers to the issue. Over the course of this blog we have studied each of these opinions in turn, noting the particular areas of bias that we must take into consideration when evaluating the response. We look back, then, to the talks by Amaney Jamal, one academic who is leading the way in using public opinion, as well as the political theory, region history, and the current political process in formulating her ideas which she shares with the world through her teaching, books, and public talks. These ideas are not solely of academic value as they contain recommendations for practical application that may improve both the public opinion and policy of democracy in the Middle East.

In the talk Jamal gave to the BCIU Education Centre, she focuses on the Arab region, with particular focus on Egypt, as she explores the historical implications and connotations democracy holds in the Arab world, and the reason the concept continues to be so controversial. But she also focuses on the groups serving either as advocates or opposers of democracy, as well as the particular areas that democracy is struggling, such as women’s rights or free elections. She notes, for example, that despite the unfavorable view towards gender equality espoused by many Islamist political leaders, women continue to be one of the largest supporters of an Islamist government – not because they agree with inequality, but because they feel more strongly about eliminating corruption and inefficiency from the government. Adding to this, she mentions how the youth movement in many Arab countries, despite being overwhelming pro-democracy in theory, may still tend to lean towards a stricter, sharia-based legal system and Islamist political structure, for the very same reasons. This tendency is supported by polls throughout the Arab world, as these articles on Pakistani voters under the age of 30 attest.

The problem, then, seems to be not in democracy itself, but in the concerns and values that the average voter weighs when deciding their nations’ political future. The Western world, not experiencing the average Arab citizens daily struggles, may seem to think the issue is a simple matter of choosing between democracy or authoritarian rule, and then wonder why an argument even exists. But the issue, like most, is far more complicated than that. For a democratic party to garner real support from the populace, they must show that they have the capability to govern efficiently and equitably, with acknowledgment of the strong role that Islam plays in the daily life of their voters. A more likely solution, as Jamal continues to discuss in her talks, is an incorporation of democracy into Islamist political groups that already hold popular support, ensuring that gaining power does not necessarily mean morphing into the kind of totalitarian regime the Arab populace has already lived through.

Can Man be truly free?

As I awoke in Washington, I had to remind myself I was no longer in the country I will call Dystopia. In the afternoon I planned to talk with Navid, a graduate student from that troubled country, about his experiences in the United States. I wanted to know how life was different for him here and in Dystopia. I was also curious to know how his fellow students and acquaintances treated him. He laughed as he told me some of the questions people had asked him as he travelled throughout the US researching his PhD thesis, questions that ranged from the supportive to the innocuous to the absurd, such as the Midwesterner who asked him if he found jeans to be comfortable. Confused, he said that he did, before he realized that she had assumed that jeans were disallowed in Dystopia and he was wearing them for the first time.

“I don’t think people realize just how pervasive and common-place American culture is in Dystopia,” he said. Having friends and relatives living in the US and Canada, Navid was not concerned about his reception, which he has mostly found to be pleasant.

But his experience here has not been entirely without incident. He has had several visits from plain-clothed FBI agents to his home, the first less than six months after he arrived. He says they were polite and non-threatening, and mostly asked questions about whether he had been invited to any meetings or gatherings that concerned him.

The first time they came to his house he was surprised, especially as he had been part of a democratic movement in Dystopia. He told me that in Dystopia he had several friends in the underground movement that had disappeared. When he moved to the US he felt for the first time a sense of relief, which he soon discovered was not to last. He found it ironic that he could be considered threatening, not because he was vocally pro-democracy and anti-regime, but for fear that he was an infiltrator, an extremist, or a terrorist. I asked him if he felt his current situation was very different.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Here I don’t worry every day about being incarcerated and tortured if I’m caught distributing pamphlets, or about my family being taken into custody.” The fear of the outcome, he said, was far less in the US. “But at least in Dystopia,” he said, “I can walk down the street, and no one will know my politics. I am anonymous. Here it seems my politics don’t matter. My religion and my race have taken away the protection afforded me by my anonymity, and so I still cannot be truly free.”