When I was in 7th grade I remember hearing about Islam for the first time, at least in an educational setting. Our teacher, Mrs. Gors, asked us what religion was closest to Christianity. Most people thought it was Judaism. She said that she thought it was Islam, and she explained the basics of the Islamic faith. I don’t remember much else, only that I was intrigued by the fact there were other religions that were well developed and had a considerable following. Perhaps it sticks in my memory because that opened my mind to the fact that perhaps I was Christian simply by dint of geography.
Of course the rise of Islamic extremism with the Iranian revolution caused the faith’s reputation in the West to take a hit, but not a fatal one. After all, there are Christian extremists as well. During the 90s brutality against Bosnian Muslims and later Albanian Muslims in Kosovo painted the picture of Muslims as victims, minorities in a culture that was defined by brutal nationalism.
Then came 9-11. Suddenly a man with an extreme, radical and bizarre interpretation of Islam launched an attack on the US. 19 of us followers managed to shock and anger (and awe) the country with the use of box cutters, hijacked planes and spectacular destruction. For Americans the Taliban and al qaeda became the face if Islam. Instead of being a great and popular faith spread over North Africa and down into Asia, it was seen by many as dangerous and scary.
Muhammad went from a prophet that people didn’t know much about to a demonized caricature, the most extreme forms of Islam became posited as the norm; the Koran was misinterpreted and taken out of context to make it seem like Muslims were commanded to kill all others. Out of fear and ignorance people constructed an “other” that was irrational, unreasonable, unwilling to change, and therefore an enemy that had to be defeated.
Islam is a great world religion that is not going to go away, and trying to repress Muslim political expression is not only futile, but likely to create more harm than good. The Ottoman Empire’s repression of peoples’ political voice and embrace of a very conservative form of Islam set up current difficulties. Those problems are real but can be overcome. The region has to start progressing, which means bringing all voices, including those of fundamentalists and extremists, into the mix. There is no other way.
The US can facilitate this with a clear message: We will not get involved in your internal affairs, we will assist you when our mutual interests make that possible, and we will respect our cultural differences. All we ask in return is not to be seen as or treated as enemies. For almost all Muslims that would be welcomed and start a path to a good relationship.
If not for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that would be enough. There can never be true normalcy in the region as long as the Arabs (and to a lesser extent non-Arab Muslims) see Palestinians being humiliated and denied basic rights in the occupied territories. That doesn’t mean Israel is completely to blame, they’re in a tough spot with Hamas and Hezbollah kindling trouble: who can blame them for being hesitant? But there is hope.
The Arabs blew the first opportunity in 1948 when they could have had a state containing far more territory than what they now could possibly dream of when they rejected the UNSCOP plan (Israel accepted it and declared statehood on its basis). After losing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Arabs could have accepted their defeat. They would have kept East Jerusalem and been able to construct a Palestinian state with no issues of Israeli territory. Not wanting to compromise kept them from results that now would be seen as major Israeli concessions.
Yet Israel has also proven unwilling to entertain ideas that could finalize Palestinian borders. My own view is that Arafat should have taken Ehud Barak’s 1999 proposals, but Israel could show some leeway on East Jerusalem and Palestinian borders. If they had done that in 1999 then Hamas might not have become a factor, Hezbollah would be easier to counter, and a main irritant in Mideast relations could have been avoided. Both sides are to blame, and neither side can “win” — the Arabs won’t push the Jews into the sea, the Jews won’t push the Arabs into the desert.
Though the positions there have intensified in the last decade, ultimately the two peoples’ destinies are linked. They’ll fight or they’ll make peace, but neither will make the other go away. One cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, or pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel. That irony is the biggest obstacle to piece, neither side wants to truly accept their shared destiny.
Still, after a decade of pessimism there may be cause for optimism. As the Arab world changes, so to will change come in thoughts about Israel. One reason the issue has remained so hot is that it was useful for the dictators to have something to unite their people around. Now as Arab peoples slowly start moving into modernism and away from the old repressive regimes, they’ll need to rethink what is best for them and their respective states.
Islam is not anti-Jewish; the Koran commands respect for the other religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad had many Jewish friends and allies. Political Islam could actually hasten acceptance of a settlement in Israel by shifting the tone. After all, religion only entered the conflict late, before 1973 it was about European colonizers taking Arab land, not Jews taking Muslim land.
First and foremost is to make sure that the West does not fear political Islam in the Mideast, or treat it as an enemy, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Second, treating political Islam without fear does not mean ignoring our values. A Taliban like state will have to be opposed. If new leaders start acting like the old ones in denying people a voice, our support should be lukewarm. We shouldn’t fear them, but shouldn’t treat them different from other third world states where we reward democracy (or at least moves towards more openness) and refrain from supporting authoritarians (especially now that the Cold War is over). Finally, we need patience. Modernism came to Europe from 1300 to 1900, and during that time there were wars, plagues, holocausts, ideological extremism, slavery and sexism. Even in the last Century we had 11 killed by Nazis under Hitler, 20 million by Communists under Stalin.
Their transition need not be so messy, we’ve shown one possible path to modernism. The Arab world and other Muslim states will choose their own path, not exactly like ours, but we can help avoid the extremes. But we shouldn’t expect it to be smooth, nor should we give up on them because they don’t quickly leap into modernity. We’re entering a new era, full of danger and promise.