Politicians and pundits in the West and jihadists have something in common. Both see the conflict between the West and Muslim worlds through the grand thesis of a “clash of civilizations”. Some see it as a forever war. I think this approach is a grave mistake. It oversimplifies a complex problem that warrants closer analysis.
Since 9/11, radical Islamic terrorism has made inflammatory headlines. Terrorist atrocities have heightened hostility towards Islam and Muslims. But we wrongly see Islam as a monolith. What is lost in the noise is that most Muslims are grappling with poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment. They can merely hope for the Western ‘way of life’ let alone want to destroy it. Like others, Muslims aspire to be part of a just society that offers opportunities and good governance.
In the wake of vicious terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe, one can understand the harsh reactions of political and military leaders. There is short-lived joy in knowing that Baghdadi has joined Binladin on the list of jihadi ‘heroes’ in the afterlife. But just shooting guns and dropping bombs will not resolve a brutal conflict. Besides, the problem is less to do with cultural and religious differences and more about socio-economic and political disparities.
We know that the West has historically paid lip service to constitutionalism, democracy, and human rights in the Muslim world. It has helped to overturn electoral verdicts in favor of forces considered anti-Western. While hypocritically propagating democracy and freedom, the West has preferred to deal only with autocrats (the Shah, General Zia-ul-Haq, General el-Sisi over Mossadegh, Bhutto, Morsi). Ironically, when compared to ISIS, there is even nostalgia in the West for the dictatorships of Saddam, Gaddafi, and Assad after gleefully destroying nearly all of them!
The Western support for autocrats has hindered political development in many parts of the Muslim world. It is hard to justify the argument that “democracy is incompatible with Islam” if conditions do not allow it to succeed. A consequence of this self-serving policy is that terrorist organizations have found space to spread their murderous ideologies.
The conflict between religions and cultures equally benefits vested interests in the West and the Muslim world. They include powerful elements within the Military-Industrial Complex and populist politicians. I consider this group the principal winners coming out of 9/11 and the war on terror. For the western power elites and favored autocracies in the Arab world, “radical Islamic terrorism” is a sideshow.
The main focus of vested interests is on the lucrative business of selling arms and buying oil. It helps that the concentration of political and economic decision-making power in key oil-producing states remains in the hands of a few. The few are 23,000 members of the royal families of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE who are worth a whopping $ 2.4 trillion. The West intends the arms sales for Arab autocrats to protect themselves from internal and external threats. In return, the autocrats ensure that the West has secure access to oil.
The Muslim world is not blameless. By avoiding self-criticism, Muslims hide the deep malaise in the world of Islam. Since losing the battle to anti-rationalists after the first four centuries in its eventful history, Islam has been in intellectual decline. Muslims have lagged because Islamic societies discourage free inquiry. Today, a civilized debate on this sensitive subject invites a confrontational reaction from Muslims. Regrettably, Muslims feel more comfortable sticking to the line that Islam is a peaceful religion. Muslims feel that a few extremists have given Islam a bad name, unjustly giving way to widespread Islamophobia in the West. Thus, anti-Western feeling in the Muslim world has grown exponentially.
At a deeper political level, there is intolerance of discordant ideas and dissent. Secular democracy is an anathema to most Muslims who cannot see beyond the concept that Islam is a complete way of life. Many consider an alien concept the idea that religion is a private matter between an individual and whatever God, they may worship. Islam, too, has no tradition of separating politics and religion.
The rest of the world has seen the merit in embracing the principles of separation of church and state, democracy, human rights, religious pluralism, and civil society. In sharp contrast, barring a few exceptions, political control in the Muslim world remains with autocrats, theocracies, or the military. In modern political terms, this is a serious problem and a cause of friction with Western civilization.
As we look to an uncertain future in the West and Muslim relations, we can expect continued chaos and destruction unless there is a course correction by all sides. A firm rejection of authoritarianism and absolute support of democracy are essential. It is difficult to change the negative perception of Muslims as long as terrorism takes center stage. There is also no easy solution to rooting out extremism so deeply entrenched in Muslim societies. Still, honest dialogue and debate instead of fear-mongering can reduce the threat of a forever war.