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M. Shahid Alam: A Muslim Problem

A Muslim Problem


M. Shahid Alam

It appears that Mr. Thomas Friedman has a Muslim problem. He has a great deal of trouble thinking straight when writing about Muslims; and, as the New York Times’ resident expert on Islam, he displays this malaise frequently, often twice a week.

In the wake of the recent bombings in London – as atrocious as bombings get anywhere – Mr. Friedman sums up his thoughts on this terrible tragedy in the title of his column of July 8, 2005, “If it’s a Muslim Problem, It Needs a Muslim Solution.” The conditional ‘If’ is merely a distraction. I could say that it is a deceptive ploy, but I will be more charitable. It is perhaps the last gasp of Mr. Friedman’s conscience, mortified by his own mendacity.

Always the faithful acolyte of Bernard Lewis, Mr. Friedman interprets every Muslim act of violence against the West (and that includes Israel) as the herald of a clash of civilizations. In his own words, when “Al-Qaeda-like bombings come to the London underground, that becomes a civilizational problem. Every Muslim living in a Western society suddenly becomes a suspect, a potential walking bomb.”

First, consider the inflammatory assertion about every Muslim in the West suddenly becoming “a potential walking bomb.” If this were true, imagine the horror of Westerners at the thought of some 60 million potential walking bombs threatening their neighborhoods. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of Westerners did not start looking upon their Muslim neighbors as “walking bombs” after the terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid or London. Despite the high-pitched alarms raised in very high places, the overwhelming majority of Europeans and Americans knew better than Mr. Friedman.

It appears that Mr. Friedman is propounding a new thesis on civilizational wars. ‘The Muslim extremists,’ he charges, ‘are starting a civilizational war. It all begins when they bomb our cities, forcing us to treat all Muslims here as potential terrorists. This is going to pit us against them. And that is a civilizational problem.’

The terrorist acts of a few Muslims are terrible tragedies: but do they have a history behind them? Is there a history of Western provocations in the Muslim world? Does the Western world at any point enter the historical chain of causation that now drives a few sane Muslims to acts of terrorism? The only history that Friedman will acknowledge is one of Western innocence. There is no blowback: hence, no Western responsibility, no Western guilt.

Mr. Friedman speaks on this authoritatively and with clarity. The Muslims world has produced a “jihadist death cult in its midst.” “If it does not fight that death cult, that cancer, within its own body politic, it is going to infect Muslim-Western relations everywhere.” His two-fold verdict is clear. Inexplicably, the Muslims have produced a death cult, a religious frenzy, that is driving those infected by it to kill innocent Westerners without provocation. Equally bad, the Muslims have done nothing to condemn, to root out this death cult they have spawned.

There is not even a hint of history in these words. The historical amnesia is truly astounding. Does Mr. Friedman know any history? Of course, he does; but the history he knows is better forgotten if he is to succeed in demonizing the Muslim world. The oppressors choose to forget the history of their depredations, or substitute a civilizing mission for their history of brutalities, bombings, massacres, ethnic cleansings and expropriations. It is the oppressed peoples who know the history of their oppression: they know it because they have endured it. Its history is seared into their memory, their individual and collective memory. Indeed, they can liberate themselves only by memorializing this history.

Which part of the history of the Muslim world should I recall for the benefit of Mr. Friedman? I will not begin with the Crusades or the forced conversion of the Spanish Muslims and their eventual expulsion from Spain. That is not the history behind the “jihadist death cult.” I could begin with the creation of a Jewish state in 1948 in lands inhabited by Palestinians; the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel; Israel’s pre-emptive war of 1967 against three Arab states; the meticulously planned destruction of Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967; the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, stretching from 1982 to 2000; the massacre of 200,000 Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s; the devastation of Chechnya in 1996 and since 1999; the brutalities against Kashmiris since the 1990s; the deadly sanctions against Iraq from 1990 to 1993 which killed one and a half million Iraqis; the pogrom against Gujarati Muslims in 2002; the US invasion of Iraq in April 2003 which has already killed more than 200,000 Iraqis. Clearly, there is a lot that Mr. Friedman has to forget, to erase from his history books.

Mr. Friedman’s memory only goes back to the latest terrorist attacks of Muslims against Western targets. That is not say by any stretch that these terrorist attacks are defensible. Clearly, they are not. But they will not be stopped by willfully and perversely erasing the layered history behind these acts. They will not be stopped by more wars and more occupations. If Mr. Friedman would unplug his ears, that is the clear message flowing everyday from the American or American-supported occupations of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Frustrated by what he sees as the unwillingness of the Muslim world to smash the “jihadist (read: Islamic) death cult,” Mr. Friedman issues a dire warning: ‘Smash your cultists or we will do it for you. We will do it in a “rough and crude way,” by denying visas to Muslims and making every Muslim in our midst “guilty until proven innocent.”’ This clinches my point that Mr. Friedman cannot think straight when he talks about Muslims. Apparently, he does not realize that his proposal to deny visas to nearly a quarter of the world’s population would seriously jeopardize globalization – his own pet project. Incidentally, this also raises another question. Why wasn’t Mr. Friedman pushing his visa proposal after 9-11? But, in those heady days he was too busy peddling the war against Iraq as the panacea for the troubles of America and Israel.

What is Mr. Friedman’s agenda in all this? No doubt, he will claim he is a man of peace: no less than George Bush or Ariel Sharon. We know that Mr. Friedman is no naïf; neither are we gullible fools. Mr. Friedman can sense that the history he tries so hard to camouflage – the history of Western domination over the Muslim world – may change before his eyes. He has been hoping that the United States can forestall this by wars, by occupying and re-making the Arab world, a second, deeper Balkanization of the Middle East that his neoconservative allies have been pushing under the rubric of democratization.

Already that project is in tatters. Despite all their inane rhetoric about fighting the terrorists in Baghdad, the policy makers in Washington know that their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are spawning more terrorists than they can handle, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan. The terrorists have struck Western targets in Bali, Riyadh, Istanbul, Karachi, Madrid, and now London. The United States could have leveraged these terrorist acts to strike Iran or Syria or both. But these plans are now on hold. Even Mr. Friedman admits that “there is no obvious target to retaliate against.” One has to add, the targets are obvious enough, but they look much harder after Iraq.

In desperation, Mr. Friedman has now issued two new threats. He is warning Muslims living in the West, ‘If your coreligionists do not stop their terrorist attacks against us, we will hold you hostages here.’ To the Muslims living outside the Western world his message is equally sanguine, “Smash the terrorists or forget about ever setting foot in the United States.”

Perhaps, judging from the endless rush of visa applicants at US consulates in Muslim countries, Mr. Friedman thinks this will bring the Muslim masses to their senses. In every street, every neighborhood, Arabs, Pakistanis and Indonesians will form anti-terrorist vigilante groups, and hunt down the terrorists. If this works out, it could be the cleverest coup since the marketing of Coke and Pepsi to the hungry masses in the Third World.

Regrettably, the visa proposal will not work. The United States has already mobilized nearly every Muslim government – with their armies, police and secret services – to catch the Muslim terrorists. Not that the Musharrafs and Mubaraks have failed. Indeed, they have caught ‘terrorists’ by the truck loads, and dispatched many of them ex post haste to Washington.

In this enterprise, it is the United States that has failed. It has been producing terrorists much faster than the ‘good Muslims’ can catch them. Perhaps, after Madrid and London the rhetoric about fighting the terrorists in Baghdad is beginning to strain even the ears of the faithful in the red states. Perhaps, the faithful are now ready for a new tune. Perhaps, in time the Muslim world will take Mr. Friedman’s advice, suppress terrorism, and deny business visas to Americans unless the United States pulls out its troops from every Muslim country.

After that Mr. Friedman might wish he had thought a little harder about the law of unintended consequences!

*************

M. Shahid Alam, professor of economics at a university in Boston, is the author of Is There An Islamic Problem (The Other Press, 2004).

© M. Shahid Alam


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