Majid: Why America Matters to Muslims

Anouar Majid writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

“Why America Matters to Muslims

One thing that is striking about the recent revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain is the absence of any anti-American slogans or denunciations of the Great Satan, as the Iranian regime refers to Uncle Sam. On the contrary: signs of pro-American sensibilities abound. Democracy protesters carried homemade placards displaying slogans and statements (sometimes translated into French) of fundamental American rights. The United States’ republican culture, founded in the late eighteenth century, and given a brief burst of energy during the early days of the Obama administration, walked side by side with the protesters. President Obama expressed support for the demonstrators, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned Arab leaders that they were sinking in the sand the day before Ben Ali fled Tunisia. One should not forget also that the Tunisian revolt was sparked by the dispatches of U.S. diplomats revealed by WikiLeaks. For many, WikiLeaks was proof that the United States was an imperial power whose consuls never ceased to keep an eye on the world’s nations and their doings; to Arabs and Muslims, however, the leaks were further proof that their regimes had no credibility whatsoever and that they were, indeed, sinking. That’s because the consular reports reflected America’s belief in freedom and equal opportunity; they expressed contempt for palace corruption even as they did business with Ben Ali and other rulers to safeguard their nation’s interests. And then, of course, the United States helped dislodge Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi from power through its military intervention.

This is a great moment for both the United States and Muslims around the world to reassess their relations and change negative perceptions that hinder a better dialogue. Americans should try to get out of the crusading mindset that they had inherited from Christian Europe. We may think that the old clashes between Christianity and Islam are things of an ancient past, but all anyone has to do is listen to what many evangelical leaders today say about Islam and its prophet to get a sense of this legacy. Islam, in such speeches and sermons, is portrayed as evil, whereas the Judeo-Christian tradition is considered God’s truth. This religious attitude has a lot to do with the stalemate in Israel and Palestine, for the belief that God has promised Palestinians to Jews and, ultimately, Christians, is well entrenched in these evangelical circles and informs a lot of U.S. policy making. One way to temper such prejudices is to highlight the positive contributions of Arabs and Muslims to American culture, whether through the scientific and commercial advances that were introduced to the West in the Middle Ages, or though the work of Arab or Muslim immigrants. To be sure, American presidents never fail to express pride in America’s Islamic component, but Americans need to do more to show that they care about Muslims in their midst. Maybe Hollywood could help change attitudes.

Muslims, on the other hand, have a lot more work to do. One problem in American-Muslim relations is the old American conviction that Islam fosters tyranny. This view was widely shared by America’s Founding Fathers as they saw, righty or wrongly, that the Muslim world, with its despotic sultans and caliphs, was antithetical to the republican spirit of liberty. No sooner was the United States created than it had to contend with the harassment of U.S vessels on trade missions by Muslim corsairs in the Mediterranean. The so-called Barbary states of North Africa demanded tribute for safe passage, but leaders like Thomas Jefferson were at a loss to understand why his newly liberated nation had to pay protection money. This encounter, with its ransoms, skirmishes, and eventual defeat of the Muslims in Tripoli, further strengthened America’s belief in the superiority of its system and worsened its prejudice against Muslims. American missionaries would later flock to the Middle East to convert the locals and, in the process, introduce modern education and health care systems. Americans praised Muslim civilization when warranted, modernized Egypt’s army, and laid the foundations for a new Arab nationalism. The United States was so highly admired during the late 19th century that some Arabs didn’t mind being part of an American mandate. This is one of the glorious moments in American-Muslim relations, one that needs to be widely known. The discovery of oil and the establishment of Israel, however, affected this relationship negatively, and things have spiraled out of control since then.

For relations to be restored to a level of high trust and mutual respect, Muslims need to face the facts and realize that old perception of their societies as despotic had some basis in truth. They need to understand that they have only themselves to blame now for their backwardness in almost every cultural and scientific endeavor and that their future rests on rethinking their approach to religion. Sunni Muslims must speak out against the wanton murders of Shiites and Christians in their midst, not just complain about Westerners. They also must accommodate themselves to the historical reality of Israel and realize that all nations—including many Muslim ones today—were born out of violence against native populations. (Many Berbers in my native Morocco still resent Arab invasions to this day.) The history of nation-making is a bloody one, but we can still turn tragedy into an opportunity. Israel has a lot to teach Muslims with its know-how and democratic spirit, while Israelis need to temper their biblical prejudices and break out of their quarantine and tap into the huge Arab market to grow stronger and more stable.

So much could be done with the right attitude, but hanging on to the dysfunctional methods of the last five decades would be a colossal waste of opportunity at this historical juncture. Belligerence will help no one—not Americans, not Muslims, and not Israelis. Americans can still teach Muslims how to build nations that keep religion and politics safely apart and how to unleash the creative spirit of enterprise, but the United States must also get its house in order, too, and fix its fast deteriorating social structures without delay. When a nation is a city upon a hill it can’t afford to neglect its affairs. As President Obama would say, this is the time for change. We can’t afford to wait.”

Anouar Majid is the author of Islam and America: Building a Future Without Prejudice (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).

He is director of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England in Maine.

27 Responses

  1. Wonderful sentiments. The problem is, where would a Sunni sheik publish or broadcast his condemnations, Fox News?
    The masjid I attend has 2 sheiks who share the responsibility of Jummah prayers. Both routinely speak out against crimes committed by Muslims! Another masjid in my community actually has a media program but they have to fight tooth and nail to get anything published or broadcast and when it is it is either buried ir edited to a point of meaninglessness. I have also heard many lectures on the Internet by scholars who point out that Allah is definitely not pleased with those who murder innocents and non-combatants.
    What are we missing in Sunni Islam? Is there a secret code we can use to get our voices out there or is it as I suspect, that peace loving and peace promoting Muslims who are observant are not newsworthy.

  2. As long as we have Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham types in the seante and house, or as long as the Israeli lobby controls our foreign policy, I fear that any attempt to understand each other will be repressed by the always present 9-11 war rhetoric we have been fed for the past ten years.

  3. “Sunni Muslims must speak out against the wanton murders of Shiites and Christians in their midst, not just complain about Westerners.” I could not agree more, particularly regarding Bahrain and the Saudi ‘da’wah’. But I also cannot get past the following facts. In 1987 I stayed in a house in London full of Iraqi, both Shia and Sunni. Despite Saddam, they had no problem with each other, and had no sympathy with sectarianism – putting it down to lack of education and opportunistic politicians exploiting grievances. From then until now I have known quite a few Iraqi families. They all seem to be mixed. But they tell me that “back home” there are those who force such families to split up. The invasion of Iraq allowed the astonishingly bigoted Sunni extremists in, gave them a cause to rally people around. Then, a political system that allowed the installation of a sectarian government didn’t exactly help, in particular after that bizzare post election “delay”. Could they not have had democracy without that? Others somehow manage. Then as sectarian militia ethnically cleansed Baghdad of Sunnis, no-one took any notice. Only the anti-Shia atrocities, sick as they were, appeared on our radar.

    It seems to me that despite Saddam, as a people they were quite capable of resolving their differences. Pity they were not able to continue despite the likes of Paul Bremner. Apart from that, I agree with what you are saying. However, the muslim that refuses to blame himself and his own society and always blames America is an exaggerated figure, virtually a myth. You are right to point out that what has been happening over the last year disproves it. However it has always been a myth. As with everything do do with the Middle East, these is always too much filtering, too much cherry picking – and those who indulge in this invariably have their own interests at stake.

    • the bigoted sunnis. Are you kidding me?. What about shia treatment of iranian sunnis in Iran?. You just hear about sunni mistreatment of shias because the sunni region falls into the western sphere of influence. Maliki promised sunnis recently a sea of Blood. What about the killing of 47000 sunni Moslem Brothers in Syria in1982 that were killed in Hama by the shia Hafez Al Assad and 10 of thousands murdered and tortured during his rule. Hafez al Assad was for sunnis what Saddam Hussain was for shia . What about his iranian backed son Bashar al Assad that ordered the Killings of 5000 mostly sunni Protesters?. He is also backed by shia leader maliki which want to refuse democracy to syria while he himself insist on it since shia are the majority in Iraq.

  4. “Sunni Muslims must speak out against the wanton murders of Shiites and Christians in their midst”

    Thats true like the shias must stop hating sunnis as a core principle of faith. Al Azhar teaches the shia school of thought not as heresy. It`s a Minority Majority Problem. What happened to the sunnis after the iranian revolution took place?. What will happen to sunnis in Iraq?

    Nuri al Maliki Quote: First I`m a shia(Not Muslim or Arab). Second I´m Iraqi. Third I´m an Arab and fourth I´m a Dawa Party Member.

    Syrias first Prime Minister was a christian. Sadam Hussains foreign minister was a christian.

  5. I am glad that Prof. Majid give a balanced view. But I suggest he is misinformed on several points.

    It is true that many an evangelical, from whom we get the absurd and patently incorrect interpretation of Revelations that modern Israel is mentioned in that book, claims that the primary force of Christianity is Judeo-Christian, and not Christian. But that is really nonsense. Because authentic Christianity (an accurate interpretation of what Christ was really communicating) is a fundamental different view of God and God’s intention for humans, compared to what is so in Judaism, ancient of current). Just one example being that Peter has a vision in which God explicitly tells him that EVERY single Torah food regulation is now completely invalid.

    So in authentic Christianity, all other religions, including Judaism, are invalid, and living in accord with them will result in you avoiding God’s will for your life. But, fortunately, God knowing that religion is a personal pursuit, impossible to be a corporate pursuit, and therefore should be banned from all political discourse, got the US constitution to ban government support of any religion. However, further misfortune, many many a false Christian is working hard to abrogate that aspect of God’s will.

    Second is that the American republican tradition has been totally absent from the Obama administration, and from all US federal administrations for many decades. What was present in the Arabs participating in the Arab Spring was the recognition of universal rights, which may have been articulated by the documents that founded the US, but are present deep in the psyche of every human being in the world. Especially since the mid-1960′s.

    Finally there is implied in Prof. Majid’s paper, that it is governments who need to grow up and reform, and reboot their relationships. And I claim that one of the offspring of the Arab Spring is that the day of government has just rapidly diminished. That the future is individuals exercising their universal rights to become optimal in every area of their lives; actions which CANNOT in any way be caused, facilitated, or implemented by a single government action. And governments should be relegated once and for all, for the rest of history, to solely and only providing infrastructure, so each of us can get on with doing our thing.

    • The Golden Rule and the Golden Mean:

      If my “thing” is taking in a lot of money by peddling counterfeit medications, or leaving half the re-bar out of a grade school in a quake zone, or committing serial murder, or producing and selling AK-47s and centrifuge tubes and growth media for cute little bugs like anthrax and smallpox, or generating whole planet-loads of notional-value, counterfeit “dollars” via derivatives “contracts,” or starting up a little gang of highway robbers, or carving out an “enclave” where a preacher man can set up a church where his deflowering of all the young maidens is considered in his doctrine to be a holy act, is it a government function in aid of providing infrastructure to “do anything” about any of that, or is that all part and parcel of getting on with, and just a cost that you personally are willing to impose on everyone else, of doing one’s own thing?

      Human engineers have been smart enough to design “governors” into a lot of machines that otherwise would pretty quickly destroy themselves. Figuring out a way to have “government” without “kleptocracy” and “oppression” seems to me to be what a whole lot of humans have set their minds to for a whole long time. Without finding a durable and homeostatic set of checks and balances and any central organizing principle that has done much to keep YOUR “doing your thing” from planting YOUR hand in my wallet or YOUR boot on my neck.

      “Governments” are no more “persons” than “corporations” are. Personifying the whole complex structure is just beclouding and inviting mindless simplistification, to hide the real hard work of making something positive-sum-game-ish out of all the competing hopes and horrors that humans can imagine into existence, and making it into into a set of rules or suggestions or eventually native behaviors that create the conditions for a freedom that is more than the freedom of a few to enslave or en-serf the many and suck the life out of them, while turning them into, or forcing them further along the path to becoming, mindless “Brave New World”-Eloi-and-Morlockity consumers.

      The multiplicity we shorthand as the “Arab Spring” (and our local Occupy citizens) seems to have a flavor of something very new, some actual Hope and Change. But there’s still a huge amount of elbowing and cross-checking and clipping and slashing going on, and it remains to be seen whether the people who just want a safe and more equitable world for themselves and their families and friends, and appear willing to reach across the old boundaries of tribe and class for a more complete and less competitive interaction, will have the endurance and durability to face down the martial kleptocrats who gain their power by playing off ancient “features” of the human psyche and soma…

      • I didn’t say the government has no function. I said it sole valid role is to provide the infrastructure that allows us citizens to chart our own course. Very much part of that infrastructure is creating valid laws, and enforcing them with valid justice systems. A valid law being any boundary beyond which no reasonable person should go; which, from my view, would include every activity example you gave.

        But it is time to forever give up this idea that the people in government know better than the rest of us how to run our lives. Almost every time a government tries to stimulate change in its citizens, or stimulate another government to take a desired course, it doesn’t work; and often lots of people are killed, maimed, and seriously hindered.

        I further suggest the occupy movement in this country, and the civil servants last year protesting so their “benefits” wouldn’t be lessened, are holding on to the past, and operate from a very different basis than the Arab Spring movements, who are working to have the freedom to chart their own courses.

        • Hi.

          1: Warren said “So in authentic Christianity, all other religions, including Judaism, are invalid.”
          I wanted to say that I believe that same idea has been implied in Islam as well. There is a narration that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) saw his son-in-law, Ali (RA), reading the Torah and told him to first learn his own religion. (learning one’s own religion, in my opinion, would be never-ending).

          2: I feel as if you both are denouncing the idea of government in general. I believe that a very large number of politicians are driven by money. I found on the internet that the average House member needs to spend an average of $1.1 million and the Senator $6.5 million. Our government is controlled by the rich, and it’s us Americans who are putting these people up there not once nor twice, but for decades. Of course, this aligns with the Occupy movement, but I’m just saying, rather than criticizing our government per say, criticize our American mentality first for electing incredibly rich people, time and time again.

        • Sounds like the “libertarian” prescription, with a dash of “I of Newt.” Just how, exactly, do “valid laws” come into existence? And how, exactly, do those “valid laws” get “validly enforced?” By Philospher Kings like the Pauls, who suck off the government teats labeled “Medicare” and “Medicaid?” And just love the “benefits” they get as “government employees?”

          “Government” is a back-and-forth, usually too much and too little by somebody’s lights, the Kochs at one extreme and a wheelchair-bound paraplegic at the other, amenable to perversion and subornation to allow the few to steal from the many, but also to provide an FBI escort to a young black woman into a “whites-only” school in Old Alabama, and to take a stab, however subject to regulatory capture, at controlling pollution and other externalities, and maybe trying to keep nasty stuff out of consumer products like milk and medicines, stuff that the popular-in-Lib-circles notion of “voluntary associations” and “government-like organizations” would not likely be doing. In case you missed the serial: link to nakedcapitalism.com I guess the Golden Rule is just for the weak and sissies, as ol’ Jesus and others enunciated it — and the real valid interpretation is that “He who has the gold, rules.”

          I suggest that the fundamental problem, and opportunity, is that we are all in this together, and a Galtian demand for “unhinderance” might be good for a very few but kind of deadly for the rest. And guess what? How do you get to claim the title of “citizen,” without there be a government to define the boundaries of “citizenship?” As in “free white male landowner?” Oh, that’s right — it has to be that wonderful construct, a “VALID government…” which comes to exist, and persist, exactly how, again?

        • Where is your evidence that the Arab Spring movement is any less socialistic than Occupy? Or that Occupy is a state socialist movement instead of an anarchist movement?

          And if holding onto the past means that civil servants get the same standard of living that they did under, say, Eisenhower or Kennedy, what is your alternative? That they join the envious Tea Party mob that believes since its wages “must” be reduced to pre-WW2 levels to appease the great god Entrepreneurship, all other workers must suffer likewise? Under those idiotic conditions, there is no logical reason for the plutocrats to ever raise wages at all; like their bloody cousins in Latin America, the Philippines, etc, they’ve become better off making the country as poor and illiterate as possible since it gives them an overwhelming advantage in wage bargaining.

  6. “One problem in American-Muslim relations is the old American conviction that Islam fosters tyranny.”

    Anti-Semites also believe that Jews are evil. So?

    “Muslims need to face the facts and realize that old perception of their societies as despotic had some basis in truth”

    Should Jews also “face the fact that Anti-Semitism has some basis in truth” in the eyes of anti-semites? If not, why not? Inquiring minds want to know.

    And this takes the cacke: “They also must accommodate themselves to the historical reality of Israel and realize that all nations—including many Muslim ones today—were born out of violence against native populations.”

    Silly me, I thought settler-colonialism is now a crime and international law prohibits ethnic cleansing and the acquisition of territory by force. If you think this should be ignored/scrubbed, do come out and say it. If Majid thinks slavery is okay too, he should come out and say it. If he thinks natives should be treated in 2012 the way they were treated in past centuries, he should also come out and say that clearly.

    Anouar Majid’s views are anything but “informed”. His name suggests that he is of Arab/Muslim heritage, but he clearly channels Bernard Lewis and has internalized the thinking and stereotypes of orientalists. I suggest that what we have here is another Fouad Ajami in the making.

    • Let me get this straight: your argument is that the statements “There is tyranny in the Muslim world” and “Jews are evil” are equivalent?

      Uh…ok.

      Silly me, I thought settler-colonialism is now a crime and international law prohibits ethnic cleansing and the acquisition of territory by force. If you think this should be ignored/scrubbed, do come out and say it.

      Those are what you consider to be the options? Either “ignore/scrub” the history of Israel’s settlement, or maintain perpetual hostile relations while refusing to recognize Israel…for how long? No matter how much it harms your own people, just keep up the crusade against the existence of Israel, regardless of how many generations pass? This is the lack of imagination that comes from not having to incorporate the real world consequences of one’s bromides into one’s political stance.

      Hey, Middle Eastern residents, keep up the fight against Israel! Tridant is behind you; several thousand miles behind you, but still, behind you!

      • Well joe, some people think that the struggle for justice is more important than the individual. It seems that you are advocating that if an entity (such as Israel) can elude punishment for long enough, those crimes become irrelevant, perhaps even quaint.
        I for one am thankful that there are people in this world who see through that crap and continue the fight for justice.

        • Well joe, some people think that the struggle for justice is more important than the individual.

          To be more precise, these “some people” think that their “struggle for justice” is more important that other individuals.

          Which is both cowardly and morally abhorrent.

          It seems that you are advocating that if an entity (such as Israel) can elude punishment for long enough, those crimes become irrelevant, perhaps even quaint.

          Ever read about how the Persian nation was founded? How about Canada? How about, say, every single nation on the face of the earth?

          You think you’re going to “punish” Israel? Yeah, good luck with that. I just hope that there aren’t too many more millions of people whose lives are ended or impoverished in this endless quest for punishment.

    • You know, the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria had no trouble acknowledging that there was too much tyranny in their society.

      Perhaps you can explain where they went wrong.

      • Because Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis wanted to replace that tyranny with Wall Street plutocracy, like all the neoliberals and neoconservatives do. Admitting anything when it would have helped those schmucks would just have made it easier for Bush & Cheney to justify the occupation of Iraq. Now Wall Street is being challenged by the Arab Street, and by Main Streets all over the world.

      • “Let me get this straight: your argument is that the statements “There is tyranny in the Muslim world” and “Jews are evil” are equivalent? Uh…ok.”

        No; you do not have that “straight”. Majid exact phrase is that “Islam fosters tyranny”, which — unless you have a reading disability — is a far cry from saying that “There is tyranny in the Muslim world”. The later is equivalent to saying that Jews/Judiasm is evil.

        “No matter how much it harms your own people, just keep up the crusade against the existence of Israel, regardless of how many generations pass?”

        Let’s try this for size: No matter how much it harms black South Africans, just keep up the crusade against the existence of Apartheid South Africa, regardless of how many generations pass?

        According to you and Majid, humanity should accommodate settler-colonialism and Apartheid — decency, morality and international law be damned.

        • Majid exact phrase is that “Islam fosters tyranny”,

          No, it is not. Good lord, we can all still read the post, you know!

          His EXACT phrase is, “One problem in American-Muslim relations is the old American conviction that Islam fosters tyranny.” and later, “Muslims need to face the facts and realize that old perception of their societies as despotic had some basis in truth.”

          You completely misrepresented his statement. What you just did is not different from what the Romney campaign did with Obama’s quoting of the McCain campaign. You took a statement in which he described someone else’s position, and pretended that he was stating it as his own.

          I will generously attribute this misrepresentation to your reading disability, and not accuse you of deliberate dishonesty.

          According to you and Majid, humanity should accommodate settler-colonialism and Apartheid — decency, morality and international law be damned.

          Another misrepresentation. Neither of us has written a single word about colonialism, Apartheid, or any other Israeli policy. Here is the sum total of what Majid wrote about Israel: They also must accommodate themselves to the historical reality of Israel

          And that’s it. While my exact words were “the existence of Israel.”

          It’s becoming more difficult to attribute your errors to good-faith misunderstanding.

      • “You know, the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria had no trouble acknowledging that there was too much tyranny in their society. Perhaps you can explain where they went wrong.”

        Your orientalist distortion above notwithstanding, I will not that tyranny is not idiosyncratic to that part of the world and living under tyrannical regimes is not unique to the Mideast region. To suggest otherwise is down right racist in my view. Further, decent people worldwide – not just the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria – also recognize the tyranny and inherent racism of the Zionist settler-colonialist enterprise that you are so enamored with and which is still on the march in Palestine, not just the occupied West Bank.

        • Your orientalist distortion above notwithstanding,

          You’re throwing out words that you think seem powerful, but they are utterly without meaning. It is “orientalist” for me to agree with the Egyptian, Libyan, and Tunisian people that their dictatorial governments should go? Whatever.

          To suggest otherwise is down right racist in my view.

          Good think nobody has suggested that, then. Not me, nor the Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian, and Tunisian people with whom I am agreeing, and who you seem to think engaged in racist orientalism for denouncing their country’s dictators.

  7. I think the author puts to much emphasis on the concept of “Arabs AND Muslims,” as thought the two are somehow one in the same, with nearly identical realities. That really has been the problem of the last thirty or forty years. He is really speaking of the Arab World, which has a entirely separate destiny from the rest of the world that happens to be Islamic.

  8. Majid is wrong anyway. Glenn Greenwald the other day cited a very recent Egyptian poll which shows the US ranks very low in their estimation, Obama and Hillary not having impressed the Egypt street one whit with their shucks and jives and continued kowtowing to Israel.

  9. As for slavishly following America for developmental solutions, I have to recall my time in the Philippines, a country that hitched its star to America when it seemed all-powerful, while Thailand and other Asian countries copied the strategies of Japan. The Philippines had the 2nd highest per-capita income in East Asia in 1963. You know what happened after that. My own observation was that the overpopulation and resource constraints there made US models completely inapplicable, but because of their contact with the US, Filipinos viewed living Yankee-style as a reasonable aspiration. The other Asian states were lucky not to have these illusions, and generations of deferred consumption and industrial investment was their only hope.

    I once had an anthropology professor who had worked in the Philippines, maybe went a little native there, but he insisted to his students that in the mid 1950s the big industrial and union interests in the US demanded that Washington stop promoting in the P.I. the kind of industrial development that made Japan into a threat to their dominance, and instead push the dogma of agricultural exports. I can’t verify this, but it would explain an awful lot of the ugly results of US policy since then.

  10. While I staunchly support good relations with the west, and utterly recject the “clash of civilizations” theory, I feel the rehtoric in this piece is apologetic. Once and only once the west looses control and stops intervening in the Muslim world will we be able to achieve some of the things you speak about. Once the US gets off of our necks we will be able to solve our problems with clarity of mind. In the meantime the west has nothing over us as long as it does not practice at home what it preaches abroad.

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