In Other Words

The Rage of Moderate Islam

Amrika: Muslim Dunya ki Bey-Itminani (America and Unrest in the Muslim World) By Khurshid Ahmad 308 pages, Islamabad: Institute of Policy Studies, 2002 (in Urdu) "Do they really believe we think all Muslims are terrorists?" a distressed George W. Bush asked his staff following a tense, hour-long conference with Muslim leaders in Bali last October. ...

Amrika: Muslim Dunya ki Bey-Itminani (America and Unrest in the Muslim World)
By Khurshid Ahmad
308 pages, Islamabad: Institute of Policy Studies, 2002 (in Urdu)

"Do they really believe we think all Muslims are terrorists?" a distressed George W. Bush asked his staff following a tense, hour-long conference with Muslim leaders in Bali last October. The U.S. president had just gotten an earful about his administration’s policies, ranging from the occupation of Iraq to the support of Israel against the Palestinians. Such protests are routine in the grainy video diatribes of Osama bin Laden, but for Bush it was clearly unnerving to hear similar words from a handpicked focus group of moderate clerics. One of the attendees, Ahmad Syafii Maarif — the head of Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organization, with 30 million members — bluntly told the president that if he wants to "see a peaceful world," his foreign policy should be "more balanced, more just."

Since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has taken pains to emphasize that the war on terror is not a war against Islam. And, in pursuit of that goal, the U.S. government has spent millions of dollars on Madison Avenue-style public diplomacy campaigns, including the distribution of Hi — a glossy magazine touting the virtues of the United States, targeted at young Arabs. But, just as Arab newsstand vendors report that stacks of Hi gather dust in their stalls, the popularity of published works with an entirely different view of the United States is clear proof that Bush’s message of shared values has failed to make an impression.

A book by professor Khurshid Ahmad, a leading Pakistani intellectual of the Islamic revivalist movement, offers insight on why the United States faces such a tough sell. In his collection of essays, Amrika: Muslim Dunya ki Bey-Itminani (America and Unrest in the Muslim World), Ahmad argues that the United States "dreams of world domination, resolves to control the resources of other nations, wants to shape the world according to its ideas, and seeks to impose its values and ideology on others by force." Only the Islamists, he says, offer a political force capable of resisting this Pax Americana.

Ahmad’s book is noteworthy because the author is neither a firebrand cleric nor a jihadist crouching in the caves of Afghanistan. He is a Western-educated economist, a senator, and deputy chief of Pakistan’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Ahmad gained prominence in the 1950s and 1960s as the Islamic movement’s international spokesman. Even while the Islamists became more radical during the 1980s and 1990s, Ahmad was considered a voice of moderation within political Islam. His genius lies in adapting Western political methods, ranging from creation of charitable foundations to the formation of a think tank seeking to purify Islam from external influences. The influential Islamist think tank that Ahmad heads, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in Islamabad, published his collection of essays on Muslim anti-Americanism.

Ahmad’s book comprises nine essays, four written before September 11, and five after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. In the book, he condemns the attacks but argues that the perpetrators are still unknown. "A glance at the history of Israel and [the] Zionist movement," he suggests, "gives credence to the suspicion of Mossad’s role in the terrorist acts." Like all Islamists, however, Ahmad was suspicious of Western intentions long before September 11. Two of his essays on the "new world order," originally published in 1991 and 1993, extensively cite influential U.S. conservatives such as Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, and Eliot Cohen as proof of an insidious plan to create a century of U.S. dominance at the expense of other nations.

The framework of this U.S.-led new world order, according to Ahmad, rests on "four pillars": globalization, Western democracy, technological supremacy, and political alliances. Ahmad’s suspicions of U.S. intentions during the 1990s, even as the United States was leading a military campaign on behalf of Bosnia’s Muslims, can best be understood in the context of the U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Ahmad saw the end of U.S. support for the mujahideen as a betrayal motivated by the United States’ need for a new enemy — an Islamic green menace to replace the defunct Soviet red threat. The U.S. ruling elite, he argues, in collusion with Zionist Israel and Hindu India (the Islamist "axis of evil") is bent on plundering the Islamic world of its oil and denying Muslims their rightful place in the contemporary world.

Ahmad’s arguments against U.S. imperial ambitions have more in common with Marxist critiques than with Islamic theological tracts. In his first two essays, he never even cites the Koran or the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. Elsewhere in the book, religious references are mixed in with citations from U.S. leftist author Noam Chomsky and European journalists critical of U.S. hegemony. And while Ahmad’s tone is more restrained than the angry exhortations found in recent Islamist pronouncements, his moderate worldview is little different from that of more extremist elements. "The men of wisdom and thought in the Muslim world and the Middle East," he warns, "can see the bloody storms across the horizon that are advancing towards them in the garb of this new world order."

Ahmad’s prescription for resisting U.S. subjugation is familiar: The Muslim umma (global community of believers) must purify its ranks and become a homogenous community that can mobilize against the American-Zionist-Hindu plot. Ahmad also emphasizes his nation’s special role in this Islamic revival. As the only Muslim country with a nuclear capability, Pakistan must expand cooperation with Iran, China, and other nations that wish to oppose the U.S. hegemon. The Americans have let Pakistan down before, he says, because their interests converge with those of India. The Chinese, however, have been among Pakistan’s most reliable allies. Ahmad does not seem perturbed that China’s communist ideology has little in common with the aspirations of the Islamists, or that China is brutally repressing Muslim separatists in Xinjiang. In effect, he is advising the Islamists to reverse the mistake they made during the Cold War, when they sided with the West against godless communism in Afghanistan. The arrogance and triumphalism of the "American imperialists" require a closing of ranks among all those who oppose them. Ironically, Ahmad’s arguments for a proposed alliance between the Islamic world and China parallel Huntington’s prediction in his clash of civilizations thesis of an eventual "Sino-Islamic alliance" against the West.

But Ahmad’s book offers little discussion of the state of Muslim society. Most Muslim countries have low literacy rates and contribute virtually nothing to world literature. The arts and sciences remain marginalized. Western writers freely discuss the freedom and knowledge deficit in the Muslim world; Islamists, for the most part, do not. Other voices in the Muslim world are trying to fill this introspective void. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad spoke of the intellectual crisis within the Muslim world during his address to the Islamic Summit in Kuala Lumpur last October. And Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, whose political career started within the Islamist movement, recently acknowledged that Muslim nations "have not always attained the highest standards of democracy, equality, or social rights" and called for the need to "prove that a Muslim society is capable of changing and renovating itself, attaining contemporary standards, while preserving its values, traditions and identity."

This vision has yet to reach fruition. Until it does, Muslims will continue to see themselves as victims of a U.S.-led global order designed to keep them poor and powerless.

Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan's ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His latest book is "Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State"

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