United States and Islam

By Dr. Saleem Kidwai
1 February 1999

Introduction: At the end of the present century, religion has become a dynamic force all over the world. The recent developments in Eastern Europe and countries of the erstwhile Soviet Union clearly demonstrate that religion remains a potent force despite all the efforts to suppress it. More than other world religions, Islam as a world religion is characterized by unity. Islam is the only monotheistic religion that offers not only a set of spiritual beliefs but also a set of rules to govern the society. The commonality of belief structure gives Islam a strength that it not characteristic of other religions having multinational presence.

Islam has the second largest following in the world. It is the principal religion that extends from Morocco on the Atlantic through North and East Africa and into sub-Saharan Africa, across the broad expanse of central and South-West Asia to the headwaters of the Indus in the tableland of Tibet, and Southward to the Java sea. Such an extensive area, is subdivided into regional civilizations and local cultures: Turkish, Caucasian, Central Asian, Persian, African, South And Southeast Asian, and European. There are about one billion. Muslims all over the world. They constitute more than eighty five per cent population in thirty two countries, between twenty five and eighty five percent in 11 more countries, and significant populations in another 47 countries. They control most of the oil and occupy world's most strategic areas where politics is enmeshed with religion.

Early Contact:
The history of Islam is very long compared to that of the United States. However, from the outset, the US has enjoyed close and valued ties with the Islamic world. Significantly, a Muslim state, Morocco, was the first to recognize American independence. The Sultan of Morocco signed a Treaty of Peace and friendship with US in 1787, and thereafter the new republic had a number of dealings with other Muslim countries. During the inter war years, America had a clean image in the Muslim world because of educational and health services organized by American missionaries. The second world war, the oil industry and the post war developments brought many Americans to the Islamic countries; large number of Muslims also came to America, first as students, then as teachers of businessmen or visitors, and eventually as immigrants.

Cold War Period:
After the emergence of US as a prominent power, the American policy makers devoted special attention to West Asia. Prompted by the American oil companies, they tried to cultivate Saudi Arabia to ensure access to oil. However, the US role in the creation of the state or Israel resulted in strong anti-American feelings among the Muslim countries. This also resulted in the emergence of radical groups, some of which were able to attain state power. They adopted anti-American postures. It then became an objective of US diplomacy to ensure that a consolidation of such radical Muslim states did not materialize and a corporate relationship was established with the moderate and conservative regimes in the Muslim world. The US found Saudi Arabia's championship of Islam quite a convenient weapon to beat the Arab radicals with. In the wake of Suez Crisis in 1956, which spelled disaster for Britain as a custodian of western interests in the region, President Eisenhower seriously toyed with the idea of promoting King Saud as the Pope of Islam. But the project failed to take off. This was also the period when US was striving to contain Soviet expansionism, which also implied similar containment of `radical' Islamic states that tended to move closer to the Soviet Union. During the cold war period, American ideologies and strategists tended to view positive side of Islam from their own perspective and ironically concluded that "conservative" Islamic regimes were the custodians of Islamic values which held Communism as an atheistic heretical creed and disapproved of it. Therefore, they considered such conservatism a useful impediment to any unacceptable growth of pro-Soviet radical regimes in the Islamic world.

The US policy in West Asia throughout the cold war era was directed to drive a wedge between the socialist community and the Muslim national liberation movements and prevent them from establishing friendly relations. Washington was seeking to destroy the very possibility of such relations by arguing that people who supported Marxism could never support Islam. The US tried to impress upon Muslims that there were incompatibilities between the Islamic world and the Soviet Communism. In Washington's view, Islam could play the role of a "barrier" blocking the spread of socialist ideology in the Muslim countries. By and large, American diplomacy achieved considerable success, notwithstanding the occasional setbacks. From the second half of 1970's Washington began to evince special interest in Islam. It was chiefly due to world energy crisis. The Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa at that time provided as much as fifty five percent of oil requirement in the western world and exported as much as seventy five percent of its oil.

Another important factor was that these oil exporting Muslim countries had built up huge financial strength which enabled their ruling classes to exert even greater influence on the world economy. The US also took note of the growing political and economic weight of the Muslim oil producing countries in the non-aligned movement among developing countries in general and international organizations in particular.

All these factors resulted in an increasing interest in Islam in the US. In January 1979, Zbignew Brzesinski, then Assistant to the President on National Security Affairs, instructed the relevant departments to arrange for an intensive study of Islam and its political role in the world and prepare a detailed report on the situation in various Muslim countries. So, at the turn of Seventies, the issues related to Islam came to figure prominently in the activities of US policy-making bodies. Washington began to view these issues as important components of its foreign policy. In order to legitimize its concern, US extended support to the movements like the one going on in Afghanistan, which according to its perception would be appreciated by the Muslims in other countries.

The "Islamic factor" was also strategically used by US to keep the Soviet Union out of any possible Middle East settlement. According to the reasoning of American diplomats, the "religious affinity" of two sides, i.e.: the Muslims and the Jews, which was affirmed in the Camp David Accord, should help in enhancing the hostility of the Middle East Muslim countries towards the `atheist' Soviet Union.

Post Cold War Scenario:
The end of the cold war also witnessed the rise of religious fervor in Muslim countries. All over the Muslim world, from Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Egypt to Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia, a persistent undercurrent of religious revival, taking the form of political ideology is being observed now. In media and among the academic circles, this has been referred to as "Islamic Fundamentalism". The Islamic current is not novelty of 1990s although it is gaining new heights now. The new burst of activism has reached such proportions that with the demise of International Communism, Islam is increasingly being perceived as one of the future ideological rivals to the West, led by the US. After the cold war, Americans are turning in increasing number towards a new enemy: Islam. The American mass media has started sounding alarming signals: Beware of Islamic Fundamentalism, The Muslims are coming, The Roots of Muslim Rage, Islamic Fundamentalists call for a Holy war etc.

These headlines are symbolic of the prevailing negative images of Islam and Muslims in America. It is argued that with the demise of International Communism, Islam's militant strain is on the verge of replacing. Communism as the principal adversary of western liberal democracy and the values in en-shrines. Some American strategic thinkers view Islamic fundamentalism as a far more serious threat than international communism since Islam is more deeply embedded in the psyche of its adherents than Communism. To many in America, Islam is seen in terms of killing and bombing by extremist groups. Explicitly and implicitly, Islam is depicted in the media and even in academic literature as the religion of war, vengeance, hatred and destruction, and a force that is inimical to the orderly conduct of international relations and the progress of society and politics. Islam as a world civilization has been reduced to Islamic fundamentalism. Thus, with the end of the cold war, the new focus for American policy makers is on Islamic fundamentalism. For the American power-elite that is the challenge in the next century. Jean Kirkpatrick, former US ambassador to the UN had said on the CNN as the watched the hammer and sickle go down last time on Kremlin: The next enemy is "Islamic Fundamentalism".

American Phobia:
The American phobia of Islam has some justification. A whole succession of memories starting with the Crusades and coming down to the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Sudan and a huge cultural divide keeps the US and Islam apart. The divide was never that deep and wide between the Americans and the Russians. Both culturally and civilization-ally, they were similar even if they were ideologically apart at the political level. In contrast, Islam had confronted the Christianity off and on for centuries. From the battle of Ajnadayn in 634 A.D, military hostility has always defined the crux of Christian-Muslim relationship. Many Americans see the acts of terrorism and the ubiquitous Muslim diatribes against the West as part of a deepening conflict between an aggressive Islam and a defensive Christian civilization. According to Bernard Lewis: "The Struggle between Islam and West has now lasted 14 centuries. It has consisted to a long series of attacks and counter-attacks, Jihads and Crusades, conquests and re-conquests. Today, much of the Muslim world is again seized by intense and violent indictment of the West. Recently, America had become the enemy, the incarnation of diabolic opponent of all and specifically for Islam. Explosive headline events and acts of violence make it tempting to view Islam through the prism of religious extremism and terrorism.

Thus, political Islam has become one of the hottest, nastiest themes for debates in academic circles today, mirroring the well-organized and monolithic debate that was going on between Communism and Liberal Democracy. Muslim phobia that took off in 1989 was a byproduct of the orgy of speculation that accompanied the fall of Soviet Union and the liberation of Central Europe. During the cold war period the US had an "enemy". Now it has to create an enemy to instill national purpose into a tottering economy. The end of the cold war sparked off a kind of intellectual exercise to identify the biggest and the most credible new enemy. One threat has crystallized well in the public mind: Islamic Fundamentalism.

Apart from such historical and cultural divides, there are more recent geo-strategic interests that keep the US and Islam apart. The new antithesis of the West is specially designed to replace communism with Islamic Fundamentalism in popular perception, which would make it easy on the part of the whole American nation to redefine its national and security concerns in terms of this new menace. The strategic thinkers might be speculating that such a redefinition could bring about a new surcharged national solidarity that would serve national interests well in an era of economic crises. Thus, with the end of the cold war, the new focus for the American policy makers is on Islamic nations and movements. As Professor Dallal rightly argues that there is now "an all-out effort to drive a wedge between the US and Muslim world".

The evidence is clear that Islam is the new enemy and the major flash-points all over the world involve Islamic people and movements. The threat from the Islamic world is perceived at various levels. At one level Iran, Iraq, Libya and other hostile states are perceived as military forces bent on waging Jihad. At the other level, the overwhelming migration from the Islamic countries to the west during the post-Cold War period, in the event of the rising tide of socio-political upheavals in the Islamic world, has given rise to the fear that the Muslim immigrants may play havoc with the cultural system of the West and subvert the western civilization from within.

Islamic Solidarity - Myth of Reality!
American judgment of Islam has been grossly distorted by taking the extremes to be the norm. Extremism does exist at the fringe and it must be seriously dealt with. But it is unwise indeed to judge an entire community on the basis of stray isolated incidents, which inevitably leads to distortions and prejudiced conclusions. There is a regrettable tendency in America to overestimate the influence of the so-called fundamentalist groups in Muslim countries and an even more unfortunate tendency to generalize and assume that any movement raising the banner of Islam will necessarily be fundamentalist in nature. Very often, the entire community of Muslims, lumped together as a single monolithic group, is regarded as a potential threat to the western interests. This hypothesis ignores the diversity among Muslims. A cohesive, translational Islamic movement simply does not exist. Thinking of Muslims as single constituency is unrealistic. While there are Islamic movements that advocate violence, oppose the West and follow the revolutionary path, they are by no means representative of the political attitudes of majority of Muslims.

Islam, much like Christianity and Judaism, encompasses far too many perspectives, which often contend among themselves for recognition and influence. As such, while studying a subject as vast and as variegated as the Islamic order, it would not be too helpful to jump into facile generalizations. Iran is as much an example of an Islamic order, as is Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Takir Waal Hijre is as much representative of Islamic fundamentalism as are Afghan Mujahideens - the erstwhile comrades-in-arm of the US. The US tends to put all these disparate groups into one monolith. There are clear dangers in the US failing to recognize diversity in the unity of Islam. The various Islamic movements should rather be contextualized and examined against the background of domestic and international events that have helped to shape them.

The growth of fundamentalist and extremist Islam has manifested in different ways and over different local issues in different political and administrative units called the states or the nations. The roots of Islamic fundamentalism, like its ideological variants in other cultures, have been nourished by confluence of economic, cultural and political factors. As far as Algeria, Egypt and Sudan are concerned, a major cause for people turning to Islam and taking to violence for resolving their economic and political problems lies in the denial of opportunities to bring about political change through democratic means. A liberal doze of democracy could bring a semblance of purpose and poise to the institutions of governance in these areas of Islamic conflict. Not all those whom the US denounces as Islamist extremists are true followers of the faith or are even accepted as spokes-persons of Islam by Muslims themselves. A case in point is of Col. Gaddafi, whom the US vilified as an Islamic fundamentalist; majority of Muslims also views Gaddafi with skepticism. It was President Reagan, not the "Muslim Leader". The same is true of Saddam Hussein, whom most of the Muslims do not acknowledge as a religious leader, even if they were supporting him in the Gulf crisis.

History bears testimony to the fact that Muslims do not fight non-Muslims with as much passion and determination and as they fight one another. The divisions within Islam are so wide and deep and the conflict among them so acute and insoluble that more blood has been shed by Muslims of the Muslims themselves than of the non-Muslims. There have been endless wars going on between them over the years. For instance, between Malaysia and Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, South Yemen and North Yemen, Libya and Chad, Libya and Morocco and most horrible of all, the ten year war between Iran and Iraq. As compared to these bloody conflicts, there have been hardly any disputes between the Muslim and non-Muslim states, barring the Arab-Israel and India-Pakistan wars.

The Muslims have made futile attempt, no doubt, in modern times, to unite under a single political banner. But all these attempts failed miserably. The Union between Egypt and Syria was disaster. Today, every Muslim State guards it sovereignty zealously. No one is prepared to share even a bit of it and each one is determined to preserve its own identity, howsoever small and economically unviable it might be. Their differing national interests are more important for them than their loyalty to Islam.

It is true that some Muslim governments are supporting terrorist organizations as instruments of their own foreign policy. Some are also found guilty of human rights violations. But non-Muslim governments are equally found guilty of the same. No religion should be vilified on account of tyrannical conduct of some governments. Morally, terrorism is contrary to the spirit of Quran. Islam enjoins Muslims not to initiate hostilities, because "God loves not the aggressors".

The US, in its legitimate concern about terrorism worldwide, and particularly in the Middle East, should know that terrorism was introduced to the Arab world by Zionists who founded the state of Israel. If Americans are really concerned about terrorism in West Asia, then by all means they should try to curb the Israeli State-run terrorism. The irony, perhaps, is lost on Americans that the very terrorism unleashed by the state Israel has become the "role model" for the outbreak of Arab and of some other Muslim terrorism.

The volatility of that part of the world is not necessarily caused by Islamic activity as such. Rather, as Robertson correctly observed: "...this increased Islamic activity is a manifestation of deeply rooted underlying problems in the region that have contributed to this type of response. It is much less a manifestation of religious fervor than of political and economic frustration." Many Americans easily merge the fanaticism of hostage-takers, attacks of Palestinian terrorists and military threat by Iran and Saddam together to constitute a single mental picture of Islam. Of course, there is sense of indignation today over the events in Africa. But this anger should not be twisted into a false resentment against Islam or its followers. The US should recognize that the problems of the Muslim world emanate from many complex factors; for some of which former US policies were responsible. The political dimension of Islam has become more prominent after the creation of the state of Israel. The rise of Islamic movements in Iran, Egypt, Lebanon and other parts of the Muslim world was motivated by uprooting of three million Palestinian in order to implant a Jewish state based on fundamentalist Biblical grounds. The failure of the US policy makers to give this fact due recognition and their attempt to skirt it does not alter its vital importance. The humiliation caused to the Arab psyche with the loss of Palestine has been a significant contributing factor to Islamic extremism and terrorism.

Anti American Sentiments in the Muslim World:
The US has never exercised imperial authority over the Islamic world. But since the US is the legitimate heir of European civilization and the recognized and unchallenged leader of the West, the US has inherited the resulting grievances and has become the focus for the pent-up hate and anger in the Muslim world, in the Middle East or elsewhere has American policy suffered such disaster or encountered problems comparable to those in South East Asia or Central America. There is no Cuba, no Vietnam in the Muslim world. But there is surge of hatred that distresses, alarms and baffles the Americans. The most important cause for anti-American feelings among Muslims is American support for Israel. Another reason in American support for hated regimes, seen as reactionary by conservatives, as corrupt and tyrannical by both. Many Islamic radicals regard the US as hypocritical in not supporting their quest for traditional American values: elections, civil liberties, human rights etc. America's indifference to the issues of domestic governance in the Middle East is based on the claim that preconditions for liberal political reform cannot be found in Islamic societies.

The end of the cold war has not changed the US vies on the feasibility of democratization in the Middle East. Washington continues to maintain that nations of the region are not ready to institute democratic rule. Among the rationale offered to justify this contention is the claim that Islam, the dominant belief system in the region, is resistant to democratic practices and thus any effort - particularly by outsiders - to break this resistance is likely to be counterproductive. This claim is based on a prejudice rather than on an informed observation. An examination of empirical evidence strongly suggests that it is not Islam but pervasiveness of despotism that hinders democracy's advance in the region.

Islam and Democracy:
From a historical perspective, it would appear that of all the nor-western civilizations in the world, Islam offers the best prospects for democracy. Historically, culturally and religiously, it is the closest to the West, showing much - though by no means all - of the Judaic-Christian and Greco-Roman heritage that helped in the formation of modern civilization. There are elements is Islamic traditions that are not hostile to democracy and that could even help its development. Of special importance among these is the classical concept of Supreme sovereignty. Monotheism is not only central in the theology of Islam. It also has certain social and political implications that are relevant. The principle of the equality of all humans and the emancipation of individual from the authority of other individuals is directly derived from the principle of accepting only one form of submission - namely submission to the one God.

According to the Quran, man is the vice-regent of God and the human race is the chosen vehicle of God. From the concept of man stems the whole theory of human rights. These include the sanctity and protection of human life, absolute freedom of thought an basic freedom of expression. The Quran unequivocally stipulates the protections of these rights in the most categorical manner: "O, you people, be aware that your blood, your money, and your honour (reputation) are protected (from aggression) amongst you. They are as sacred as the culmination day of the pilgrimage in the sacred city of Mecca".

Significantly in Islam, capital punishment is reserved for only three crimes, one of which is the killing of another human. According to the Quran and the Sunna, speech or the use of word "is not simply a freedom but also an obligation on every believer. The duty of "inviting to the good and warning against the evil" is a religious and moral duty of first priority in Islam. The protection of freedom of thought is sometimes carried to the extremes, as manifested by the Quranic verse requiring believers to give refuge to those who associate Gods, different from Allah, with the Almighty, if they seek such refuge. A Muslim is required, moreover to guide such a refugee until he reaches a safe place. Equality of people regardless of their race, colour or language is in fact the foundation of Islam's concept of human relations, both at the individual as well as the collective levels. A leading and most unequivocal verse of the Quran reads: "O, you people, we have created for you a male and a female, and made you in peoples and tribes, so that you may know each other. The noblest in you in the eye of God is the most righteous". As regards the position of women in society, a leading saying of the Prophet underscores the basic equality by stating explicitly that "women are equals of men".

A Muslim state is basically democratic in nature. It respects individual rights and freedoms. The elective principle remains central to Sunni religious jurisprudence between the Caliph and his subjects is contractual. If a Caliphs failed in his duties, he could, subject to certain conditions, be removed from his duties. An Islamic ruler is not above the law. He is subject to it, no less than the humblest of his servants. Islam does not call for a government whose authority is based on divine will. Nor does it call for government of clerics. According to the consensus of Muslim Sunni jurists, the legitimacy of any government derives exclusively from the consent of the people.

From the above it becomes evident that, contrary to the popular belief, the political system envisaged by Islam is a democratic system. In contrast to the attitudes of the fundamentalist groups, most intellectuals and politicians in the Muslim world have genuine belief in democracy as a fair and workable mechanism to settle differences and to work out a system of decision-making. Islam is projected as anti-democracy by those academics and publicists who want to misinterpret it and misrepresent it as a threat. The prevailing tendency in the US media to portray Islam in such a distorted manner is a misjudgment that hampers a badly needed understanding of Islam as a cultural system.

Muslims in the US:
Fears about a Muslim influx have more substance than the worry about Jihad. It is argued that the Muslim immigrants will subvert Western civilization from within. The argument further runs that the Muslim immigrants bring with them a chauvinism that augurs badly for their integration into the mainstream of western societies. Is Islam the primary identity of American Muslims? whether they are moving towards the formation of a distinct community? American Muslim community is quilt of cultures; about twenty five percent are or South Asian descent. Arabs represent another twelve percent and nearly half of them are converts: primarily, African-Americans. Some six million strong America's Muslim population is fast increasing on account of immigration, conversion and inter-faith marriages. America's Muslim populations set to outstrip its Jewish Community by the year 2010, making Islam America's second largest faith after Christianity.

Multi-cultural democracy, with its guarantees of religious freedom and speech, makes life easier for Muslims in America than in many Muslim states in West Asia. Unlike other western countries, the US faces less of a problem thanks to a long tradition of immigration and healthy attitudes that go with it. Begin an American depends far less on ancestry than on shared values, and this encourages enfranchisement. Meritocratic ethics and an open educational system are also important. Should the fundamentalist Muslims move to migrate to the US and choose to remain outside the mainstream of culture, that too can be accommodated, as the Amish Mennonites of Pennsylvania and the Hasidic Jews of New York city make clear.

Religion is not basis of conflict in American public life. Instead of being divisive, it is a binding force. It helps in the regeneration of values that produce and integrated character and culture, making America a stable society. American society allows Muslims to strip away the cultural influences and superstitions that have crept into Islam during the past 1400 years. By going back to the basic texts, the Muslims are rediscovering Islam founded on tolerance, social justice and human rights. It is a generation committed to maintaining its Islamic heritage while finding a niche in the New World. During the last month of Ramzan, the Iftar party thrown by the First Lady Hillary Clinton, the Iftar reception for Muslim servicemen in the US hosted by Pentagon and the Mid greetings to American Muslims by President Clinton are indicative of the fact that Islam has arrived on the religious and political horizon of the United States.

Shared Values:
Americans as a people share certain human and moan values with Islam. The first and foremost, deep faith in the one Supreme Being. Both are commanded by Him to faith, compassion and justice. Both have common respect and reverence for law. On the basis of both values and interests, the natural relationship between Islam and America is one of friendship.

International Stability:
Muslims constitute majority in about fifty countries from Africa to Southeast Asia and by virtue of its large population and strategic location, the Islamic world is of vital significance to the security of the world. It is unfair to pit such vast and populous areas of the world against the peoples of the United State. For the US to make a strong economic recovery and compete with other industrial nations successfully, it needs the markets of these regions. Many of the Muslim countries possess important natural resources, such as oil and gas, which are essential to many American industries. Hurling insults at a religion of one billion adherents is dangerous in that it is certain to destabilize a vital and volatile region. To make Islam an enemy of the US is to declare a second cold war that it unlikely to end in the same resounding victory as the first. Challenging and ideology is one thing; demonizing a century's old faith and culture is yet another matter. Historically, the US has played a constructive role in the development of the Muslim world. There is no reason why the US should not continue to play such a role, which could be mutually beneficial, particularly for foreign trade. What binds America and Islam is much more powerful than what divides them.

No Tangible Strategy:
Is is rather unfortunate that despite the strong evidence of Islam's political appeal and its future potential, the US still has no tangible strategy to contend with Islam. American popular stereotyping of Muslims as inferior people and as terrorists complicates the US to chart out a new course in its foreign policy towards the Muslim world. Past policies based on erroneous premises should be reexamined. The US should recognize that the problems of the Muslim World emanate from the complex factors US policies were responsible. Only by recognizing errors committed in the past will the US be able to avoid repeating them.

Two Alternatives:
There are two alternatives available to the US. One is to press Muslim dominated areas of the world towards political pluralism and then to accept the results of free and fair elections. Having sided with democracy from an early stage, the US would be in a strong position to hold new Muslim governments accountable, if they abuse or give up democratic principles - without being seen as anti-Islamic. The other alternative which the US is right now adopting is to try to counter or contain Islamist movements by backing or aiding governments that suppress them. But such a policy could become as expensive and prolonged as fighting Communism, and potentially more difficult. Washington's perceived reluctance to promote genuine democracy among its allies in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere has led the opinion makers throughout the Arab world to criticize Washington for being reluctant to press for political liberalization, notwithstanding its pro-democracy rhetoric. It is rather unfortunate that the US is not applying the most important lesson of the cold war period that co option is far more effective than confrontation in undermining a rival. Any attempt to limit or control Islam appears counter-productive and may help the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Americans should understand that it is possible to encourage democracy in the Muslim world without being perceived as enemies of Islam in West Asia. The US interests would also be better served by encouraging democratic forces that include the conservative forces rather than propping up authoritarian systems that seek to exclude them. Given the growing sense of inter-dependence between the Muslim world and the industrialized would, the US can play a significant role in providing the pro-democracy forces with the much-needed confidence to carry on the struggle. The instability and uncertainty likely to result from this strategy should be weighed carefully against the probable consequences of alliances with dictators. The fate of Washington's ties with Saddam Hussein only confirms how unpredictable and costly the collaboration with dictators can be.

Clinton Administration and Islam:
The realization that the US has international responsibilities in the post- cold war period has shaped the policies of the Bush and Clinton Administrations towards Islam. The US position was first enunciated by the then Assistant Secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Edward P. Djrejian in June 1992. At that time many conspiracy theories had been circulating, seeking to explain the "true" causes of the Gulf War, the "real" intentions of the US in the region and its "obdurate" attitude towards Islam and Muslims. In such an emotionally charged environment, Djrejian sought to dispel fears that the US government was contributing to the perceptions of a widening gap between western values and those of the Muslim world. He stressed that the US government does not vies Islam as the next "ism" confronting the West or threatening world peace and said that "we acknowledge Islam as a historical civilizing force among the many that have influenced and enriched our culture". About Islamic fundamentalist movements, he suggested that "we detect no monolithic or coordinated international effort behind these movements."

One year later, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Djerejian detailed the Clinton Administration's position on the subject. He voiced the concern over connections between extremist groups and radical regimes such as Iran and Sudan and noted that "the US parts company with those individuals and governments who seek to advance their agenda through violence, through terror, through intolerance, through coercion. Our quarrel is with extremism, whether in a religious of secular guise." Reconfirming Washington's stand towards Islam, Robert H. Pelletreau, Sr. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs said: "We view the religion of Islam with great respect; we respect it as a movement".

On the other hand, Martin Idnyk who had been appointed by President Clinton as the Middle East specialist on the National Security Council, detailed the Administration's Middle East policy blueprint in May 1993. One of the major threats envisaged in Idnyk's NSC blueprint, Islamic fundamentalism, involved extremist groups engaged in terrorism and other violence, such as Hamas and Hezbullah. He recommended that the promotion of democratic political development and free market economic development would presumably counter this Islamic threat.

However, most students of Muslim politics would not accept the claim of cohesive, translational Muslim movement. That Muslim parties have done well in the few relatively free elections held in the West Asian countries is worth considering here. The Islamic parties, which favor free market economies, seem to generate support from those strata that suffer that pain of "structured development" enforced by the regimented apparatus of the state. The statements of several Islamic fundamentalist leaders also reveal that they aspire to bring about change peacefully, preserving the broad principles of democracy, rule of law, the majority rule, minority rights, freedom of expression and political participation. A dialogue with such individuals shall not harm US interests. President Clinton has promised to make promotion of democracy a more central concern of the US foreign policy. It remains to be seen whether promotion of human rights will become, for the first time, an element of US administration's Middle East policy in the days to come. While the US government has taken great pains to differentiate between its opposition to violence and its respect for Islam, it has nonetheless supported non-responsive governments in Egypt and Algeria that at times use extreme violence to suppress even nonviolent Islamic groups who oppose those regimes.

One has to acknowledge here, nonetheless, that however contradictory or limited Washington's support for democratic movements appear to be, the fact remains that the US is the most powerful promoter of democracy in the world. Yet, perhaps, in Washington's view the Middle East is not yet ready for democratic norms, is absent in the official American attitude towards the governments of Middle East. Washington cannot be indifferent to gross violations in one part of the world while celebrating the rise of democracy everywhere else. The Clinton Administration now faces a challenge and opportunity to formulate a new policy towards the Muslim world, which would be free from hatred and vilification, and which would be based on quest for the real solutions, It should be a policy free from the unwarranted fears and imagined enemies and should be motivated by vital US national interests.

Fundamental structural changes in the international environment have directly affected the nature of the Muslim world's relations with the US and profoundly altered its approach to the question of regional balance. The collapse of the Soviet Union transformed the bipolar regime in the direction of unipolar order. The US attempt to fill the strategic vacuum that this restructuring has created has imposed severs constraints on the regional actors in West-Asia. Islam's role as a source of legitimacy and a potential influence on domestic and bilateral stability, therefore, has to be closely investigated keeping this fact in mind. Within this investigative framework, one may then be able to analyze the dynamic linkage between the domestic, religious, political and socio-economic conditions in the Muslim world and the international environment.

The end of communism is by no means "the End of History" as Francis Fukuyama claimed. The "Clash of Civilizations" as propounded by Samuel Huntington is also not inevitable. The current challenge can be met peacefully if reconciliation takes place between Islam and Western secular modernity. After the Second World War, Islam had been considered as a bulwark against communist threat. However, after the rend of the cold war, Islam has been seen as an expansionist and as the only ideological opponent to the West. Islamic fundamentalist ideology does not challenge either the US or the west on its own turf. Fundamentalism is not a global ideology like communism or capitalism and hence, it should not trigger alarm bells in Washington. The more the US foreign policy seeks global power and greater the demand for an international system of liberal democracy, the greater will be the threat posed by an Islamic fundamentalism that adamantly and violently rejects hegemonistic influences. If the goals of the US remain relatively limited and it attends to issues such as global prosperity and domestic security with sincerity, then Islamic fundamentalism should not be regarded as a threat to the US. There is no unitary Islamic fundamentalism any more than there is a unitary Christian fundamentalism. The US policy needs to be tailored to meet the needs of the local conditions, with an `imaginative understanding' of what can be realistically attained in each society.

It is a mistake to assume that fanatic version of Islam is shared by majority of Muslims. Generalizations, libels and stereotypes blunt the kind of awareness that could help the US to play a positive role in the future development of the Muslim world. It is worth pointing out that majority of Muslim governments cooperate with the US rather than threaten it. For instance, Turkey is a member of NATO. Morocco and Jordan have long worked with the Western governments. So have the rulers of Tunisia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. The Saudis have invested so heavily in the West that their interests are directly tied up with Washington. The picture is hardly of uniform hostility. Given the historical, cultural, economic and political linkages among Muslim countries, as well as the translational characteristics of political Islam, American national interest will be served by consolidating stability in the region. In the aftermath of the cold war and Gulf War, the US is in a position to shape and greatly influence economic and political developments in the Muslim-dominated areas of the world.


  1. Ksilov A and R Zemenkov, USA and the Islamic World, New Delhi, Sterling Publishers, 1984, p.2.
  2. US News and World Report, March 22, 1993.
  3. The National Review, November 19, 1990.
  4. The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990.
  5. World Press Review, June 1993.
  6. Lewis, Bernard, "The Roots of Muslim Rage", The Atlantic Monthly September 1990, p.49.
  7. See The Quran, Sura 2, Verse 196, Also Sura 4, Verse 30.
  8. Prophet's speech at the end of his last pilgrimage.
  9. The Quran, Sura 49, verse 12.
  10. Carla Power, "The New Islam", Span, May/June 1998, p.38.
  11. Jimmy Carter, Relations with the Islamic Nations, Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, February 11, 1980.

  12. Robin Wright, Islam, "Democracy and the West", Foreign Affairs, p.144.
  13. Ibid.
  14. US Department of State Dispatch, June 8, 1992.
  15. US Department of State Dispatch, Vol. 4, No. 32, August 9, 1993.
  16. Michael C. Hudson, "The Clinton Administration and the Middle East: Squandering the Inheritance?", Current History, Vol. 93, No. 580, February, 1994.

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