Be it the Fort Hood shooting, 9/11, Mumbai Attack, Hostage Crisis, Taliban, al-Qaeda, or Palestine-Israel violence, when political context and messy history is removed from the picture, when important distinctions among these cases are blurred, and simplistic cultural logic of “irrational, violent, fundamentalist” is emphasized, they not only lead to wrong identification of causes but also suggest misleading solutions.
Good Muslims are moderate, rational, non-violent, and progressive, who chant, “Islam is the R-O-P” (Religion of Peace). Bad Muslims are extremists, irrational, violent, and fundamentalists, who chant “Death to Amreeka” and are against everything modern-and-civilized. Often this is how Muslims are presented in the mainstream news media. Which box do you fit in?!
Usually three kinds of responses to the above binaries have been seen in the mainstream media. Some do not see any problem at all in these binaries. You might hear them saying something on the following line, “Yes, you are right…there is some trouble with Islam.” “Bad Muslims in fact do exist, just like you said it.” “But…we are not like them! We are Good Muslims! We are just like you want us to be!”
The second does see a problem with these binaries. This is the apologetic response that tries to defend Islam and Muslims but without questioning the underlying assumptions of those binaries. The people following this stance seem to have internalized the underlying assumptions and are unconcerned or unaware of their politics. You might hear them saying, “No, not all Muslims are terrorists.” “There are a few bad apples among all people. We renounce all forms of violence. Islam is a religion of peace.” “Islam also preaches tolerance just like you are demanding.” These responses are often defeatist. How so? Ask a simple question to them: Are you a fundamentalist?
The third kind of response starts by questioning the underlying assumptions and interrogates their politics. So, for example, it would first ask who is a fundamentalist, who is defining that to be so, with what assumptions, and for what political ends? Before invading Taliban-controlled Afghanistan when President Bush demanded, are you with us or with them, the third kind of response absolutely refused to play within this false dilemma: Neither you, nor them!
I find the third approach most fruitful and assertive. This discussion is important if we are concerned about the questions of patriotism and integration in the mainstream, if we are concerned about the future of our activism and politics, about how others think of Muslims and Islam, and how even Muslims see themselves and their religion in an era of information age and globalization.
Let me elaborate the third approach by way of examining their underlying assumptions and politics below. This discussion is informed by Mahmood Mamdani’s widely acclaimed book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (2005).
I should also clarify at this point that this piece focuses on how a certain mainstream discourse tries to frame and control Muslim outlook and politics. I do not deny that we have all kinds of social and political problems in our midst. We definitely need critical self-reflection and change. The concern in this piece is to be mindful of who is shaping the agenda of that “change”, from what perspective, and toward what end? Another related concern is that even for resolving our “internal” problems we need to understand the role of “external” factors and long term historical interconnections.
The Underlying Assumptions
Want to understand why Muslim women are so oppressed? Why are Muslim men so violent? Why are there too many authoritarian regimes in the Middle East? WHY DO THEY HATE US? The answer to all of these questions, as the media and many political pundits tell, lies in understanding the “Muslim Mind” (or the “Arab Mind” or the “Shia Mind”). How do you read that mind? Read it by reading their religious texts. Understand the “logic of their culture” – often presented with quite simplistic and reductive formulas in the media. No surprise that immediately after 9/11, so many Americans rushed to Barnes & Noble to buy the Qur’an. No surprise that ‘burqa’ became the singular explanation of all kinds of oppression on women in Afghanistan. And no surprise that the anti-US-Israel resistance in many countries are many times explained through the so-called “martyrdom complex”. (“It’s not our fault that they are bent on killing themselves – we are just poor victims of their irrational beliefs.”)
The Politics and Messy History
A historically informed perspective on the other hand would demand that the audience connect the abovementioned questions with wars, militarization, poverty, power struggles, the competition for global hegemony during and after the Cold War, the pursuit of oil and gas and other forms of economic and cultural exploitations, the direct support of the global powers to dictatorial and oppressive regimes. But you don’t see that on the media most of the time. You instead see the above binaries that are simple, clear, and easy to understand and follow. These binaries, however, emphasize a narrow cultural logic for explanation at the expense of political causes and messy history, distorting the truth altogether.
That narrow cultural logic assumes that Muslim societies and politics are governed exclusively by their religions and culture and have developed in isolated containers, and the so-called ‘West’ had nothing to do with their political outcomes. Not many ask, for example: Were women in Afghanistan not already in bad conditions before the Taliban came to power (and worsened the situation further)? Why were they in such bad conditions? And why, out of various ideological inclinations and interpretations of Islam, only the most extremist versions became so dominant in Afghanistan during and after the Afghan Jihad?
Instead of focusing on the cultural logic, a better place to look at is the twisted history of the Cold War and its aftermath. The reality is that the battle ground for the Cold War was not America or Europe. It was fought mainly in the so-called “Third World” countries, of which the turbulent Pakistan and Afghanistan were key regions. The US interest in Afghanistan was to create a Vietnam for the Soviets, to “bleed them white”, and for that purpose, a certain understanding of Jihad, devoid of its underlying Islamic ethics and respect for human life, was promoted with the co-sponsorship of Saudi Arabia. The combined interest of the two countries was also to contain the Iranian Revolution. Against the wishes and reservations of other jihadi and nationalist resistance groups, the most extreme and sectarian of those groups were officially patronized in Afghanistan and Pakistan during those years. The same groups were also given exclusive access to the refugee camps in the two countries to indoctrinate the next generation of mindless and ethics-less jihadis. The Taliban, their understanding of Islam, and style of jihad, all are the direct outcome of that joint enterprise.
The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan has a history and political context. So does the al-Qaeda. And so do the movements in Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq. The origins, development, and forms of these various movements are often very distinct from each other. But by emphasizing those simplistic binaries, the mainstream media often conflates these very different kinds of movements into each other. No consideration is given that the pure terrorist organizations, many times created by those on the payroll of the CIA, like the Contras in Nicaragua or the shady al-Qaeda, are very different from those Islamist movements in Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere that are today engaged in principled resistance (militant or otherwise) and have legitimate causes and mass support base. Interestingly enough, the former groups – the pure terrorist movements – are used as the pretext in the so-called “War on Terror” through which the global powers and their supported dictatorial regimes suppress the legitimate resistance movements in their countries. Even non-Muslim states in South Asia, Latin America, and Africa have learned to use the rhetoric of terrorism to suppress various kinds of internal resistances opposing their oppressive policies and exploitative neo-liberal economic reforms.
Unfortunately, many urgently composed statements by Muslim media relations organizations denouncing “all violence in the name of religion” after tragedies like the Fort Hood shootings and Mumbai Attacks also collapse the distinctions among various groups and show little attention to the politics of these binaries. (I discuss this politics in more detail below.)
Power and Powerlessness
The adjectives “Islamist” or “Sectarian”, as in “Islamo-fascism” or “Sectarian violence”, are often used as both the ‘description’ and its ‘explanation’. The answer is already assumed in the way question is defined. This is again an example of a narrow cultural logic which erases more than it explains.
Instead of the narrow cultural logic, the motivations of state rulers and grievances of people may be better understood by the logic of power and powerlessness. Saddam Hussein, for example, may have selected the most anti-Shia elements in his army to brutally suppress the Shia rebellion after the Gulf War, but if his Machiavellian suppression of the members of his secular-nationalist from the 1970s onward and the indiscriminate killing of the Kurds in 1987-88 are any indicators, Saddam himself was driven more by power ambitions than anti-Shia prejudice.
But what do we do about the explicitly religious vocabulary used by various terrorist and Islamist movements? We did discuss that there are important distinctions between various groups, between their origins, contexts, and modes of resistance, but at the end of the day they all claim themselves to be religiously motivated – so why the emphasis on power/powerlessness logic?
Two considerations: First, particularly in the context of the failure of various kinds of leftist and nationalist movements in the second half of the last century, religion provided the space to resist neo-colonial advancements and dictatorial oppression. In some movements, religion expressed itself in mainly ‘reactionary’ terms. But at other places, the Islamists ‘proactively’ sought to create a vision for an alternative future based on spiritual values and social justice. Among others, the poet-philosopher Mohammad Iqbal and Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr come to mind. Understanding their distinctive approaches and how they engaged with both traditional Muslim and Western scholarships and politics of the time are crucial to de-mystify ‘fundamentalism’ and its appeal to masses. The emphasis here is to understand the issues and responses in their historical context without undermining their distinctions and weight.
Second, Islam as-a-solution needs to be distinguished from the historical “causes” of contemporary issues. The power/powerlessness logic, although not the only effective logic, is analytically more useful than the narrow cultural logic for understanding the historical background of ‘Muslim politics’ in many parts of world, particularly that of the Shia populations.
Consider the following illustration: Facing systematic discrimination and exploitation from their rulers (who came to power due to multitude of historical factors, of which the colonial and neo-colonial experiences of the last 200 hundreds years is the most important), these Shias found a powerful expression of their grievances and a solution in the Islamic ideology around and after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. However, instead of falling in the trap of polarizing identity politics, this Islamic ideology and movement sought to be pan-Islamic (non-sectarian, but at the same time, it sought empowerment of oppressed Shias under many Arab regimes). It was also anti-imperial and dedicated to the Palestine cause (which, despite the rhetorical overkill of the Arab nationalist leaders still today, was gradually abandoned by the Arab states from the late 1960s onward). No wonder that the aware masses in the Middle East and elsewhere, from all kinds of religious and ideological backgrounds, were naturally attracted to the Iranian Islamic movement and its manifestations. Glimpses of that attraction was again seen during and after the 2006 Summer War in Lebanon, despite the concerted efforts by the dictatorial rulers and the US and Israel to raise the false specter of the “Rising Shia Crescent”.
It is in understanding the politics those in power and those marginalized in each case can we find answers of many questions asked in the mainstream media. The apologetic commentators spend hours defending how Islam is a religion of peace which does not support violence, etc. But these theological discussions cannot explain the problems that have their roots in power/powerlessness. Those media discussions at best serve as distractions from the real issues and at worst as control mechanisms in the hands of powers-that-be. (See below.)
A False Sense of Moral Superiority and Self-righteousness
Why does the American public support the neo-colonial enterprise of its government? Or, put differently, how is it that the politicians are able to sell their war-mongering agenda to people every time? This is a critical question. Among other factors, a crucial ingredient is nurturing a sense of self-righteousness in the people based on a blissful ignorance of history and a belief in the moral superiority and universal validity of the ideals of the so-called Western civilization. A few issues with that sense of moral superiority have been discussed in a previous piece, where I reviewed Fatemeh Keshavarz’s book Jasmine and Stars. A useful book that dissects this blissful ignorance of history is James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong (2nd edition, 2007).
The point I want to make here is that the neo-colonial enterprise is of course not presented in blunt terms. There is a whole moral discourse that is based on that blissful ignorance and sense of moral superiority among the masses that the governing elites use to advance their agenda. In the past, the rhetoric of saving the poor, oppressed women from the oppression of “Muslim”/”Arab”/”Indian” men was used by the colonial powers to advance and justify their expansionist agenda. More recently, the same moral discourse of “colonial feminism” was used to “liberate” the Afghan women from ‘burqa’. Yesterday’s colonial expansionism is today advanced through “humanitarian interventions” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to promote democracy, freedom, human rights, and enlightenment. The fact that before the US invasion of Afghanistan, the cause of “liberating” Afghan women from ‘burqa’ was endorsed by people from a variety of political and ideological persuasions, from far-right and conservatives to Hollywood celebrities and liberals and leftists, suggests the pervasiveness of this particular way of seeing Islam and Muslim societies. Columbia University Professor Lila Abu-Lughod’s following piece provides valuable insights in regards to the connection with the colonial discourse: Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?
A useful question to ask in this regard is how come we see a simultaneous development of the so-called European Enlightenment and Colonial expansionism. The answers are complex, but one thing to realize is that the two tendencies were not necessarily contradictory to each other. Colonial subjugation of “other” people was not contradictory to the liberal ideals of political rights and self-determination. Because the very ideals of European Enlightenment, anchored in the notions of uni-linear historical progress of civilizations, the emphasis on particular modes of reasoning, the importance on individual rights and private property as the means of self-actualization, and the difference between the “modern” and “backward”, implied that Europeans see themselves as “different,” “superior,” and “civilized” in comparison to other unfamiliar cultures and peoples. Both John Locke and John Stuart Mill, the champions of Liberalism, supported and rationalized the practice of colonialism through these ideals. To them it was a “progressive force” that would civilize the indigenous populations in colonized territories. That was the “White Man’s Burden”. These ideals were also incorporated into particular versions of Christianity that were brought to the Americas by the European settlers.
This moral discourse has deep roots and is directly intertwined with those cultural binaries. By tracing those roots, we can find useful clues and illustrations for deconstructing the contemporary neo-colonial moral discourse, equally popular among the liberals and conservatives speaking on Islam in the media.
The Politics of “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim”
Be it the Fort Hood shooting, 9/11, Mumbai Attack, Hostage Crisis, Taliban, al-Qaeda, or Palestine-Israel violence, when political context and messy history is removed from the picture, when important distinctions among these cases are blurred, and simplistic cultural logic of “irrational, violent, fundamentalist” is emphasized, they not only lead to wrong identification of causes but also suggest misleading solutions. A whole intellectual industry of “reforming” Islam under the patronage of RAND Corporation, Freedom House, and similar organizations has exponentially developed post 9/11.
When focus is on culture and ‘the tensions/conflicts within’, defined by burqa or some age-old sectarian divide in different cases, it takes the role of powerful state actors and external powers out of the picture (whereas many times the state and foreign powers are the ones behind staging terrorist activities and instigating violence in the name of religion). Thus, for example, the failure of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq was conveniently blamed on “sectarianism”. By blaming it on the cultural logic, the global powers can thus be presented as saviors, as the only recourse of the poor, oppressed people, and if they leave that region (as in Iraq or Afghanistan today), then one should only expect chaos and civil war.
As the Control Mechanism
The “Good/Bad” Muslim rhetoric also serves as a control mechanism that seeks to (re-)socialize the Muslims to a certain ‘cultural script’ where they are to live and act under constant fear and self-discipline. The “Good” Muslims are expected to distance themselves from the “Bad” Muslims. See how people react to the labels of “fundamentalist”, “extremists”, “militant” in our communities and how so many like to be considered “moderate”, “modern”, “peaceful”. This ‘cultural script’ is already widespread in our midst demanding people to act and align themselves along certain politics (or lack thereof). Among other things, it polarizes and disunites our communities.
Every time a tragedy happens, they feel obliged to immediately respond and distance themselves from those ‘bad’ Muslims. No consideration is usually given over the framing of the issue: Should it be seen through the lens of “Islam” (and therefore the “problems” with its teachings and its people) at all. That ‘cultural script’ is reinforced every time tragic incidents like Fort Hood happen (last year it was the Mumbai attacks). Again, there is usually no discussion of political context or messy history (not for ‘justifying’ these acts but to ‘understand’ them).
On a related note, these binaries are not new. The African American community has already experienced them during and after the civil rights movement, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was presented as the ‘Good Black’ and Malcolm X was the ‘Bad Black’. It is an interesting topic in itself if MLK could have succeeded without Malcolm X type parallel resistance against the powers-that-be and if the historical context were that of a century earlier and MLK was doing his non-violent activism in the South. Interestingly enough though, MLK was also coerced to shut up when he raised his voice against the Vietnam War.
De-legitimizing the Legit Movements
At times the mindless chanting of ‘peace, peace, non-violence, non-violence’ by Muslim activists are used to de-legitimize militant resistance (as ‘irrational’ and ‘unjustifiably violent’) in Palestine. They take attention away from the whole history of Israeli atrocities by focusing too much on – and even blaming at times – the victims for responding with violence in defense. (Same goes for the case of Lebanon.) The ‘peace, peace’ slogans sometimes neglect the fact that the international community has failed to deliver any positive results in the last sixty years. So far the only thing that has been directly effective against the Israeli expansionism is militant resistance.
One can also argue that instead of ‘wasting’ time on the two-state solution over the last 30 years or so (since Camp David), if we had spent our time and energies on discrediting political Zionism in public opinion, perhaps we would have made at least ‘some’ accomplishments by now. Two-state solution was never the right answer (see “How Realistic is the Two-State Solution?“). If nothing else, at least we could have somewhat united our own communities – their opinion and activism – for the cause over these years. Communities here refer to the general Muslim community but also people of conscience from any background. The glimpses of that possibility (of uniting those concerned) were seen during the Summer 2006 Lebanon War and even more so during the Gaza massacre eleven months ago.
This point also highlights the need for developing sound political analysis especially from those engaging themselves with the media and public opinion campaigns. How do we frame our concerns that are beyond the narrow objective of appearing as “Good Muslims”?
Obama/Clinton’s “Smart Power” for the Middle East
So far, the Obama administration has shown no meaningful signs of any major change to the old grand plan of a “New Middle East” (as Condy Rice famously stated), other than slight modifications in the tactics. Suspending the expansion of settlements and recognizing the two-state solution that the current administration is asking of Israel were already part of Bush’s “Road Map for Peace”. Neither of them had actually enforced these demands on Israel.
Against the Bush administration’s “hard power”, however, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has put forward the idea of “smart power”, combining diplomacy and “iron fist”. What that probably means for Muslim countries is the ‘Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim’ game. The good Muslims are those compliant to the US-Israeli imperial ambitions. The Bad Muslims are those who resist that and therefore must be disciplined.
The status quo regimes of the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan – are presented as the “moderate” Muslims. Those opposing their corruption and the hegemonic ambitions of US-Israel from within the status quo states and from outside are labeled as the Bad Muslims. And it is demanded from the latter (those resisting) to ‘reform’ and become ‘good Muslims’. After the inauguration, Obama went to the West Bank, not Gaza, and then to Egypt, where he delivered his now popular Cairo speech.
Consider the following two sentences from the end of that speech: “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.” What?! During the inquisition?! Muslims were slaughtered, forced to convert or exile under the Inquisitorial Regime. Is that what Mr. Obama is suggesting that Muslims do today against the oppression of their own dictatorial regimes and from outside? Perhaps it was a blunder on the part of Obama’s speech writer.
But in practical terms, this is exactly what the current administration is asking of the Palestinian people: Keep suffering. Rhetorical gestures of re-conciliations by the new administration aside, the US and Israel are more or less continuing the same policy of turning Gaza into a virtual prison and dividing the West Bank into small quarantines through the Security Wall, with Israel having effective control over water, communication, and security matters of both areas.
Perhaps we should also reflect upon the role of power (and powerlessness) that we too face in our societies, in our daily lives, in our activism: Why is it that we feel pressured to apologize/condemn every time a Fort Hood like incidence happens? Why don’t our public relation organizations in America also condemn the ongoing US atrocities in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other places with the same dedication? On another level, is it even correct to frame/understand Fort Hood shooting or 9/11 in terms of a narrow cultural logic of binaries? Who is defining that framework, with what perspective? What is the politics of this framing? Who benefits?
A challenge for all of us, especially the scholars and activists, is to come up with practical strategies and rhetorical tools for the media and public opinion that are in line with our principles and based on sound strategic analysis. Where we do not ‘apologize’ for the crimes that we did not commit, but at the same time, we proactively counter the negative propaganda against us and our legit causes. This is crucial not only for reaching out to the general audience and politicians but also for the outlook and identities formation of our own communities.
Important also is to closely study various anti-war/civil/human rights movements in the US, UK, South Africa, India, and elsewhere. What kinds of strategies and alliances worked, what did not, and in what political and historical context? Can we use the same strategies and tactics in the present context of the country we may be in?
Lastly, we need to do more than just issuing reactionary responses after every tragic incidence threatening the Muslim image. We need to come up with a more proactive vision for what our role as individuals and communities could be in the countries we may be in. An important point here is to not become so self-absorbed in our national interest that we dissociate ourselves from the conditions in the rest of the world. The challenge is to come up with sound analysis and detailed action plans – not just empty proposals and rhetoric in annual conferences – that combine our principles, national objectives, and global interests.
Ali A. is a doctoral student in social sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com.