Turn East From Mecca
Islam's Future Will Be Decided on Its Frontiers
01 December 2002
The Washington Post
Throughout much of the 1990s, when I was part of the intelligence community in Washington, we were not quite forbidden to consider religion as a strategic factor, but the issue was considered soft and nebulous -- as well as potentially embarrassing in those years of epidemic political correctness. Now, of course, religion may be discussed in intelligence circles, as long as it is bracketed with careful disclaimers noting that all religions have problems and that we are not bigoted toward any one faith.
The time has come for honesty. The good news is that the Islamic world, on its populous and expanding frontiers, is far more open to us than we might suspect. Millions of Muslims are willing to keep that door open, despite the actions of a legion of fanatics.
But make no mistake: A struggle of immense proportions and immeasurable importance is underway for the soul of Islam. It is a mighty contest that pits a humane, tolerant and progressive faith against a hangman's vision of a punitive god and a humankind defined by prohibitions.
And we have not even noticed.
We have been looking in the wrong direction, because that is where we have been conditioned to look. Blinded by oil and riveted by the Arab-Israeli conflict, we have kept our attention on Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other places in the Middle East. Last week, the issue of whether Saudis are involved in financing terrorism arose once again. It will be a recurring point of contention as long as the kingdom continues to appease terrorists while professing friendship with the United States.
But this great battle -- this war for the future of one of the world's great religions (and, certainly, its most restive and unfinished) -- is not being fought in the Arab homelands, which insist upon our attention with the temper of spoiled children. It is time to recognize, belatedly, that Islam's center of gravity lies far from Riyadh or Cairo -- that it has, in fact, several centers of gravity, each more hopeful than the Arab homelands. On these frontiers, from Delhi to Jakarta to Detroit, Islam is a dynamic, vibrant, effervescent religion of gorgeous potential.
The U.S. government can never be a decisive factor in this struggle for Islam's future. That role is reserved for Muslims themselves. But we can play a more constructive role. Until now, we have not even bothered to participate.
Our lack of involvement -- indeed, our lack of interest -- has abandoned the field to our mortal enemies. Over the past few decades, Middle Eastern oil wealth has been used by the most restrictive, oppressive states to export a regressive, ferociously intolerant and anti-Western form of Islam to mosques and madrassas abroad, from the immigrant quarters of London to the back-country of Indonesia. When we noticed anything at all, we dismissed it as no more than an annoyance, our attitude drifting between the Pollyanna notion that everyone is entitled to his or her own form of religion (no matter if it preaches hatred and praises mass murder) and the "serious" policymaker's view that religion is a tertiary issue, far less instructive and meaningful than GDP numbers or arms deals.
But in this disturbed and dangerous world, no other factor is as important as belief. Religious intolerance always returns in times of doubt and disorder. The ease with which today's Americans of diverse faiths interact has allowed us to forget that our ancestors, in their homelands, massacred one another over the contents of the communion cup, or slaughtered Jews and called it God's desire, or delivered their faith to their colonies with Bibles and breech-loading rifles. Some brought their hatreds to these shores, but America conquered most of their bigotries over the generations -- although we have not vanquished intolerance completely.
On its frontiers, Islam remains capable of the changes necessary to make it, once again, a healthy, luminous faith whose followers can compete globally on their own terms. But the hard men from that religion's ancient homelands are determined to frustrate every exploratory effort. The extremist Muslim diaspora from the Middle East has one consistent message: Return to the past, for that is what God wants.
Beware, no matter his faith, the man who presumes to tell you what God wants.
Our strategic blunder has been to attempt to work outward from Islam's inner sanctum. But in terms of population density and potential wealth (not to mention power), Islam's centers of gravity lie not to the west of Afghanistan, but east -- in the countries of India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Pakistan suffers from a ravaged education system that opened the door for the pernicious expansion of fundamentalist schools, but it still has not strayed irretrievably into the extremist camp. It may -- may -- even have turned a corner toward some fitful progress. But the path to economic, social and cultural health will be long and steep. Together with impoverished hard-luck Bangladesh, Pakistan remains the least promising of the region's states.
The most powerful determinants of Islam's future course, however, will probably be the success or failure of modernizing forces in Indonesia and India. Over the past two years, I have enjoyed extended stays in both places. Most Americans, and most government officials, haven't a clue about the on-the-ground reality in either one.
First, India. Recurring violence between Hindus and Muslims within India is undeniably a serious problem. Widespread pogroms a decade ago killed Muslims by the thousands, as well as hundreds of Hindus. The founding of India and Pakistan was anointed with the blood of at least half a million Muslims and Hindus. But consider what hasn't happened: Despite the resurgence of virulent Hindu fundamentalism among a small minority of India's citizens, hundreds of millions of Hindus and Muslims (as well as those of other faiths) have not killed each other. Instead, they have learned to work together as Indians, in the government, in the military, in business. The frequency and intensity of interfaith violence has decreased impressively over the past half-century. Given that Muslims make up at least 12 percent of India's billion people, and given the poverty that still afflicts much of its population, India could be regarded as an emerging model of tolerance.
Islamic extremism has not made nearly the inroads it has across the border in Pakistan or even next door in Bangladesh. Overwhelmingly, India's Muslims have accepted an Indian identity. Indian Muslims realize, for the most part, that their faith cannot express itself in acts of aggression without paying a high price and that reasonable accommodation is much to their advantage. For all its merciless corruption, India is a rule-of-law state, displaying surprising religious diversity within its government and armed forces.
All this seems to have encouraged a more flexible form of Islam. I would not paint the picture in pious, stained-glass hues -- and some would argue that Muslim docility is the result of repression -- but there is something to be said for a country where a Muslim friend and I can enjoy a couple of beers in public, where the murder of a compromised woman by her relatives is not accepted as business as usual, and where local pogroms shock citizens throughout the country.
The importance -- and promise -- of Indonesia is even greater than that of India. The danger -- real, if slight -- comes not from the syncretic, humane, tolerant, homegrown forms of Islam. It comes from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, insinuated into Indonesia through infusions of cash, missionaries, hateful propaganda, and the building of mosques and madrassas where secular schools and clinics are badly needed.
Yet, as one friend put it, the unhappiest investors in the world are not the Americans whose fortunes burst with the dot-com bubble, but the Saudis who spent millions upon millions to bring extreme fundamentalism to Indonesia. The Indonesians took the money, then did whatever they wanted to do.
You can go to fundamentalist schools in Solo, in central Java, and hear more denunciations of the West than you can possibly absorb between lunch and dinner. Terrorists, both Indonesians and deadly vagabonds from abroad, certainly use Indonesia's sprawling territories (more than 17,000 islands, of which more than 6,000 are inhabited to some degree) as a base. Yet, except for Aceh, where a long-term separatist struggle continues, the root causes of most of Indonesia's interfaith violence have been disputes over territory, local power and economic benefits.
In Yogyakarta, the old cultural capital of "Muslim" Java, the elite and the middle class send their children to Christian-run schools for a better education, they use Christian-sponsored hospitals because of the higher-quality care and they've got far more interest in Britney Spears than in Osama bin Laden.
This is not a metaphorical statement. While I was in Indonesia, Miss Spears, in all her inarticulate, trailer-court-tart splendor, got far more air-time than did Osama. Now, hard-headed politicos may dismiss the Cult of Britney , but a society in which girls and women tune into such video displays of life-affirming exuberance is unlikely to sign up for the whole fundamentalist package.
Technically speaking, Indonesia may contain almost 200 million Muslims, but I would say that fewer than 20 percent of them -- and that is a generous estimate -- would begin to pass muster with the mullahs of the Middle East. One woman who was showing me around described her female employer as a "most devoted Muslim, very strict," then added approvingly, "She doesn't pray during the day or wear religious clothing, and she likes to drink a little bit, but she is really a very good Muslim."
I am not belittling the devotion of Indonesians. On the contrary, they are often profoundly religious. But they have adapted Islam to their own culture, rather than adapting their culture to the extremist form of Islam.
One of my enduring images of Indonesia is from a small "supermarket" on the dusty edge of Solo. The young cashier wore a miniskirt that wasted no fabric on modesty, while the girl bagging my groceries wore demure Islamic kit, including the local head scarf. The two girls were friends, and there was no tension in their interaction -- or in their dealings with me. While Indonesia remains a male-chauvinist society, the opportunities afforded to women have dramatically outpaced anything in the Middle East -- and this is a country with a popular, elected female president.
Indonesia faces a long list of challenges, some of which may prove intractable. Yet the manner in which the United States has alternately scolded and ignored this huge, strategically positioned country is simply remarkable.
The most vital frontier may be the one closest to home. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, created a wide variety of stresses upon and distress for America's Muslim citizens and residents. This newest body of immigrants reacted with complex emotions: Horror at the attacks, anger at the damage done to their adopted country as well as to their chosen religion, alarm that their faith might be misunderstood by their fellow Americans and anxiety about blind retribution. But there was also defensiveness about the often-disastrous societies they had left behind, incendiary excuses for the inexcusable and, among the most disappointed and disaffected, muted pleasure that the proud had been given a public blow by the weak.
American Muslims are in perhaps the most difficult situation of any immigrant group since the Irish fled the Great Famine. Many of our Muslim citizens have long-since integrated into American society -- some have been fully Americanized for generations -- while some new arrivals are still in the process of adapting. All of this is the normal stuff of the immigrant's experience, with its shocks, discords and ultimate success. What matters, not only to us but to the world, is that the long-overdue, liberal reformation of Islam is likeliest to happen here, where tolerance is woven most firmly into the fabric of society.
In the dark days of the Cold War, American strategists touted the notion of "rolling back" communism. In fact, we never rolled it back much, but did our best to hold the line. We did not imagine that we could defeat Soviet communism starting in Moscow. Likewise, Islamic extremism cannot be engaged most effectively where it was born and bred.
The complex, exasperating and frequently inspiring world of Islam faces a historically unique challenge. An entire religious civilization, of remarkable variety, must change if it is to survive economically and culturally. We are foolish if we do not do what lies within our power to enable that change to occur.