Saturday, February 12, 2011

Don't blame religion for Middle East conflicts

Political and cultural frictions, land and oil interests, power rivalries and propaganda behind present East-West crisis, author says
By Douglas Todd

With a peaceful people's revolution rocking Egypt and the Middle East, the Western public's confusion is again being confronted in regards to Islam.

The citizens of Egypt, who make up the world's fifth-largest Muslim country, appear to be breaking a lot of Western stereotypes about the faith of Mohammed.

The protesting Muslim Arab masses of Egypt, the most populous country in the Middle East, are showing, for instance, they don't want religious fundamentalism; they want democracy.
Egypt's Muslims are also illustrating they're not particularly violent, even while voices in the West constantly warn Islam is a "religion of war," a poisonous breeding ground for terrorists.
Actually, given the poverty most Egyptians have suffered under the corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak, the restraint shown by Egypt's 94-per-cent Sunni Muslim majority is impressive.
So much of what non-Muslims in the West think they know about Islam comes from the religion's critics, if not its sworn enemies, particularly in the U.S. Why do we trust them? They're not reliable.

Canada also has its share of Islambaiters, but the country also has something better to offer than the oversimplified demonization of Islam that often gets trotted out as insight.
At this time of political transformation in the Middle East, Canada has at least three significant voices helping the world understand what is really going on among the world's 1.2 billion Muslims.

They include a Muslim journalist in Ontario, a Muslim scholar in Alberta and a non-Muslim landed immigrant who has chosen to live in B.C. after spending most of his high-level career working for the CIA in Muslim countries.

Graham Fuller, who has been in highly engaged retirement among the mountains of Squamish since the early 1990s, offers perhaps the most penetrating analysis of what is going in Egypt and elsewhere in regards to political Islam.

Since Fuller's hard-won opinions have often been sought in high places, Simon Fraser University at Harbour Centre is hosting a forum on Feb. 22 to discuss his new book, A World Without Islam (Little, Brown).

A World Without Islam imagines what kind of world we would have if Islam had never existed. It is a brave thesis, pulled off magnificently.

Full of historical fact and revelation, Fuller concludes that "a world without Islam" would be much like the East-West-torn planet we have today, since it is not the religion of Islam itself that causes conflict with Europe and North America.

Indeed, even if Mohammed had not founded his new monotheistic faith, Fuller argues the Crusades would still have happened under a more nakedly imperialistic guise; and Eastern Orthodox Christianity would have risen to prominence and clashed with Western colonialists.
Since A World Without Islam has such wide-ranging significance, I'll get back to it after touching on two different Canadian books, which also shed light on what might be the globe's most mistrusted religion.

The book attracting the most headlines is The Jew is Not My Enemy: Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism, by a provocative Canadian Muslim journalist named Tarek Fatah.

In The Jew is Not My Enemy, Fatah exposes the way that some frustrated Muslims around the world have fixated their powerlessness and fear on the Jewish people, sometimes misinterpreting the Koran to fuel their rage.

Although Fatah's book challenges angry Muslims to stop incorrectly blaming Jews, Fatah also says the long-term solution to their hatred is to end Western expansionism in Muslimmajority lands.

A Muslim professor at the University of Alberta offers a broader perspective than Fatah on Muslim political developments in his new book, The Contemporary Arab Reader on Political Islam.

Tired of non-Muslims creating the framework of debate, Ibrahim Abu-Rabi has brought together dozens of political Muslim thinkers to explain what is really underway in the oil-rich Middle East.

In the West, political Islam, known as Islamism, "has replaced communism as public-enemy No. 1," Abu-Rabi writes in a valuable introduction to his collection.
"The current revival and even strength of Islamism is due to the fact that the West considers it as its primary enemy," he adds. In other words, Western leaders' relentless denunciations of Islam have created a siege mentality among its followers.

As a result, much of the Arab masses, who have suffered under authoritarian leaders such as Mubarak (a "friend" of the West), see upholding Islamic values as a route out of their oppression.

"There is no doubt that the solidification of the dictatorial state in the Arab world," Abu-Rabi writes, "and the increased materialism and avarice of the ruling classes led to a major religious backlash in contemporary Arab societies."
Abu-Rabi makes a persuasive argument that Arabians are rising up against decadent regimes "because they have failed to articulate the Islamic vision of social justice and effect a more or less equal distribution of wealth."

Possibly because he is a non-Muslim who can freely speak his mind in "retirement," Fuller's well-written book may be the most valuable for the non-specialist trying to figure out what forces are at play in this historic time in the Middle East and beyond.

Fuller has spent more than two decades as a senior intelligence officer in Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, North Yemen and Afghanistan. He knows Chinese, Russian, Turkish and Arabic.
With his Muslim expertise, Fuller rose to become vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, and later a senior political scientist at the influential RAND thinktank. Based on his vast experience, Fuller generally opposes the way the West has for decades become embroiled in Muslim countries.

He wrote a blunt opinion piece last week on the eruptions in Egypt for the Christian Science Monitor.

Such an uprising was inevitable, he says, because of the "long and ugly pattern of harsh, incompetent and corrupt rule that sucks optimism, hope and creativity out of these societies and makes them breeding ground for radicalism."
Why do misguided politicians in the U.S. and other Western powers keep intervening in Middle Eastern affairs and propping up suspect leaders?

"Is it for the oil? Yet what tin-pot dictator has ever refused us oil? Furthermore, [Americans] don't even rely that much on Middle East oil." Most of it, Fuller says, comes from Canada, Venezuela, Nigeria and Mexico.

As an alternative, Fuller joins the RAND think-tank in concluding the only way forward for the West is to engage with moderate religious movements in the Middle East, like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

While not dismissing concerns about terrorists who are Muslim, A World Without Islam deftly calms many North Americans' hysteria about the negative power of religion, particularly Islam.

"Islam seems to offer an instant and uncomplicated analytical touchstone for most affairs in the Middle East, by which to make sense of today's convulsive world. By referring to Islam, we can reduce things to a polarized struggle between 'Western values' and 'the Muslim world,'" he writes.

"[But] the true horrors of the 20th century have almost nothing to do with religions: two world wars, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Rwanda -the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, all involving secular, even atheist regimes that seized upon dogmatic ideas and brutally implemented them at all cost."

With his wealth of knowledge, Fuller is convincing when he maintains the present crisis of East-West relations has little to do with religion and almost everything to do with political and cultural frictions, land and oil interests, power rivalries and propaganda.

Since Fuller is such a clear and forceful writer, I will give him the last word on how counterproductive it is to blame Islam itself for what is going wrong in the world: "This conclusion matters a lot . Are we in fact headed toward a titanic and implacable clash of civilizations, a new Hundred Year's War or World War IV, as some have suggested? A small group of Muslims, Christians and Jews actually like such a stark narrative of existential struggle.

"But if we conclude that religion is not the central issue at work in present tensions, then we have a much better chance at dealing with and even resolving those issues, however complex they may be.

"In that sense, we are hopefully working toward building a solid foundation for the three great Abrahamic religions -Judaism, Christianity and Islam -that share more than they dispute. It is the states that dispute."
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