Bush Still Doesn't Get It

A  female Iranian, wearing the Islamic Chador,  passes by a  painting of a revolver  in front of the former US embassy in Teheran during an anti-US rally.
A female Iranian, wearing the Islamic Chador, passes by a painting of a revolver in front of the former US embassy in Teheran during an anti-US rally. (Abedin Taherkenareh -- Corbis)
By Akbar Ahmed
Sunday, July 22, 2007

Here's a bit of modern-day heresy: President Bush actually has some rather sound instincts about the Muslim world. He has visited mosques more often than any of his predecessors, and he frequently talks of winning Muslim hearts and minds. So why are those hearts and minds so estranged today? What went wrong?

The problem is that Bush has relied on ill-informed advisers and out-of-touch experts. By substituting their false expertise for his own sensible intuitions, he has failed to understand the Muslim world -- which means he has failed to understand the arena in which the first post-9/11 presidency will be judged. Instead of seriously explaining Muslim societies that are profoundly split in complex ways, Bush's aides have offered a fatally flawed stereotype of Islam as monolithic and violent.

These missteps have helped squander the potential goodwill of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- countries that pose major threats to U.S. security, and countries that once saw themselves as U.S. friends. (When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, I was the administrator in charge of south Waziristan, the lawless border region of Pakistan where Osama bin Laden is now said to be hiding, and I saw how appreciative Muslims were of U.S. support.) Today, rather than extending his hand to the people of Pakistan, Bush is marching in lockstep with the country's fading dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who is mockingly referred to as "Busharraf."

Errors like this are tragic -- and avoidable. Galvanized by the need to help Americans better comprehend the Muslim world, I traveled last year to the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia, accompanied by a group of American researchers. We conducted interviews; we met with presidents, prime ministers, sheiks and students; we visited mosques, madrassas and universities. During our travels, we found something far more subtle than the Bush administration's caricature. Americans often hear of a faith neatly split between "moderates" and "extremists." In fact, we discovered three broad categories of Muslim responses to the modern world: the mystics, the modernists and the literalists.

The mystics are the most tolerant and the least political, defined by a universalist worldview that embraces difference rather than resisting it. Muslims in this group look to sages such as the great Sufi poet Rumi for inspiration. "I go to a synagogue, church and a mosque, and I see the same spirit and the same altar," Rumi once said. You'll find today's mystics in such places as Iran, Morocco and Turkey.

Then there's the modernist position, one taken by Muslims who seek to adapt to Western modernity, synthesize it with their faith traditions and live in dialogue with it. Some of the most prominent Muslim thinkers in recent times have belonged to this school, such as Muhammad Abduh, the liberal Egyptian religious scholar who led a drive in the late 19th century to shake the dust off Islamic institutions and dogmas that he believed were lagging behind the times. Some of the most important Muslim politicians, such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the staunchly secularist founder of modern Turkey, have felt similar impatience with the faith's old ways. You'll still find plenty of modernists in Turkey today, as well as such countries as Jordan and Malaysia. In fact, a few decades ago it seemed that these forward-looking interpretations would become the dominant expression of Islam, and reform-minded Muslim countries seemed poised to join the community of nations.

For me, the quintessential modernist was Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. The urbane, sophisticated Jinnah believed ardently in women's rights and minority rights, and in 1947, he almost single-handedly created what was then the largest Muslim nation on Earth. For Pakistanis, he is George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson rolled into one. He founded a new country without compromising his principles or breaking the law, rejected hostage-takings, hijackings and assassinations, and he idolized Abraham Lincoln.

Jinnah is a far cry from our third category, the literalists. This group also arose in the 19th century, but it draws its ethos, attitudes and rhetoric from one central perception: that Islam is under attack. It sees Western ideas such as liberalism, women's rights and democracy as threats, not opportunities. In response to the incursions into the Muslim world of the great Western empires, this group sought to draw firm boundaries around Islam and prevent it from being infected by alien influences. The literalist worldview has inspired a range of Muslim activists, from the Taliban to mainstream political parties such as South Asia's Jamaat-i-Islami, which participate in elections while producing influential tracts on Islam. While this entire school's theology is profoundly traditional, only a tiny minority of the group advocates terrorism. The vast majority of Muslim literalists simply want to live according to what they see as the best traditions of their faith.

But you're more likely to see media images of bearded young men wearing skullcaps and yelling "God is great" and "Death to the Great Satan" than you are to see scholars at work. The angry activists are now on the ascendancy, according to our study. The reasons for their rise are complex: the incompetence and corruption of modernist Muslim leaders from Egypt to Pakistan to Southeast Asia; the widening gap between a crooked elite and the rest of the population; the absence of decent schools, economic opportunities and social welfare programs; and the failure of modernist leaders to douse burning regional conflicts such as Chechnya, Kashmir and Palestine.

The U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan poured gallons of fuel on a worldwide fire. Bush's wars gave the literalists support for their claim that Islam is under siege; the crude Muslim-bashing of some of Bush's supporters helps the literalists argue that Islam is also being attacked by the Western media, which many Muslims believe represents the thinking of the West's citizenry.

In this context, parodies of the prophet Muhammad or the cloddish Republican talking point branding Muslims as "Islamofascists" helped convince wavering Muslims that their faith was truly a target. Remember Jerry Falwell's post-9/11 abuse of the prophet, in which the late televangelist dismissed as a "terrorist" the man whom Muslims named as their foremost role model in our questionnaires? Such slurs helped boost Pakistani religious parties in the 2002 elections in Northwest Frontier Province, where the clerics had never before won more than a few seats. Overnight, the Taliban found a friendly base.

Americans who think that all Muslims hate the United States may be surprised to hear that many Muslims believe they have it precisely backward. Our questionnaires showed that Muslims worldwide viewed Islamophobia in the West as the No. 1 threat they faced. Many Muslims told us that the Western media depict them as terrorists or likens them to Nazis. Such widespread perceptions let literalist clerics argue that Islam must defend itself against a rapacious West -- something the mystics and modernists were incapable of doing.

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