Lost Muslim Voices of Dissent

In his recent book, Mahmood Mamdani called Good Muslim-Bad Muslim a fictitious dichotomy that petrifies Islam into a set of privatized beliefs without any relevance to politics or a dogmatic ideology of violence. War-planners and apologists for President Bush’s “War on Terror” accept this dichotomy, with the result that the voices of Muslim critics who transcend the facile binary of good and evil are effectively silenced. Dogmatic ideology brutalizes the men and women who do not order their lives by its creeds. Those who inhabit the incommensurable universes of the True Islam, the True Christianity, the True Judaism of the Chosen People, believe in their Truths with absolute certainty. The result is a world of threat and obedience: a world that cannot recognize the actual complexities, inconvenient exceptions, partial solutions, and humble compromises of political reform.

Bush’s War on Terror, with all its Orwellian rhetoric of “fighting for peace” and “killing to save lives,” has moved the Muslim world away from the real possibility of democracy in two ways. It has given those who it had intended to obliterate new authority to represent the legitimate grievances of Muslims around the world. And, equally disturbing, it has generated a state of emergency within the Muslim world that marginalizes those involved in the painstaking work of social transformation. In a public sphere ringing with screaming choruses of indignation and grief, it is harder to focus on the long paragraphs and the complex sentences of political analysis and interpretation. The reformers in the Muslim world fight harder for an audience at home, and are essentially eclipsed abroad.

Usama bin Laden’s appearance in the days preceding the American election shows the consequence of a dogmatic rhetoric of good versus evil. Rather than representing himself as a terrorist on the run, bin Laden tried out the guise of a statesman with an agenda. He did not condemn Americans or Christians as infidels who deserve to be annihilated, nor did he intend to frighten Americans with his hatred. Rather, he conveyed a message of hope and resistance for Muslims. He carefully cataloged American policies in the Middle East and declared that “contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom,” “we fight because we are free men who don’t sleep under oppression.” He condemned the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the ensuing massacres of Palestinian women and children in refugee camps. America had defended the legitimacy of Israel’s atrocities. On that day, he intoned “it was confirmed to me that Destruction is freedom and democracy, while resistance is terrorism and intolerance.”

This is a fabrication. Bin Laden is reinventing himself. In mid-1980s, after Israel’s depredations in Lebanon, he was a young wealthy businessman with close ties to the Saudi royal family. He had found his religio-political calling in the mujahedin resistance to the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, a joint operation of Reagan administration and the Pakistani intelligence services who created and recruited those “freedom fighters.” When he joined them, bin Laden expressed no special sympathy with families of the massacred people in Beirut and Palestine. In his recent speech, bin Laden called his task of confronting the Bush administration difficult “in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents.” With his new rhetoric of social justice and anti-colonialism, he is clearly positioning himself as the heir to movements with whose founding ideas he had never identified.

The other political cost of the War on Terror is the effect of damping down voices of dissent within and outside Muslim countries. One of the first victims of this war was the Iranian reformist president Mohammad Khatami. President Bush’s declaration of Iran as an axis of evil in his State of the Union address in 2002 was delivered at a moment when Islamic Republic had supported the American rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran had thrown its full support behind the transitional government of Hamid Karzai. But a reform movement in Iran cannot survive when the Administration continually waves the flag of regime change. The possibility of invasion offers existing regimes throughout the region the best tool to silence the opposition and treat them as agents of foreign powers. There were many institutional reasons for President Khatami’s failure to realize his reformist agenda. But President Bush’s messianic militarism does not leave much room for political actors such as the Iranian president to pursue the far more delicate business of creating an avenue for a rapprochement between political adversaries, for Khatami’s humanistic dialogue of civilizations.

Bush’s crusade obstructs genuine democratic reform that springs from Muslim societies. Rather, it equates reform with pro-Americanism, and therefore renders ineffective the political authority of reformists and obscures the role of those who wish to participate in their project. It inhibits those who engage Muslim societies critically to submit their critique freely without the fear of having their views misappropriated by apologists for Bush’s War on Terror. Critical views will not flourish if they are to be used for justification of war.

The War on Terror replicates the logic of terrorism where intimidation and violence are considered to be the supremely effective means for political engagement. Both the War on Terror and terrorism eliminate the possibility of public participation. They repress the very people on behalf of whom they profess to speak. But Muslim societies will transform in spite of these doctrines, not because of them.

The global networks of terrorism and the administration’s misguided policy against it together have substituted violence for critique, bullets for words, and destruction for change. The Polish social philosopher Zygmunt Bauman once remarked that in order to avert murder a human being needs to be augured towards words. Peoples whose voices are heard and their grievances acknowledged will not resort to violence, and will not submit to the authority of terrorists. Alas, the voice of this author will not be heard in the policy rooms of this Administration.

BEHROOZ GHAMARI is a professor of sociology at Georgia State University. He can be reached at: bghamari@gsu.edu