The history of Islam: part three

My first college roommate once asked me, “Do you know why we Arabs hate you Americans?”

I responded, “No, Mohamed, please tell me why you Arabs hate us Americans.”

“After World War II,” he informed me, “you helped rebuild your friends, Britain and France, and that made sense. You also helped rebuild your enemies, Germany and Japan, and that was strange. You helped everyone else in the world—you even helped the Jews get their own country—but you did nothing for us. That’s why we hate you today.”

It seems strange that a young man, born several years after the war ended and the rebuilding was accomplished, should carry a national grudge to the point of hatred. It also seems strange that, in spite of that hatred, he would travel to the United States to take classes in our schools. But Mohamed’s view of the United States reflects a reality found across the Muslim world over the past seventy years. (Bear in mind that, while most Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Arabs. Yet from Indonesia to Nigeria, the feelings expressed by my roommate are common.) For a time, the United States had become a world power, matched only by the Soviet Union. But Muslims had exercised political power in the world in the past, and they expect to rise to that level again.

Five hundred years ago, many Muslims lived in powerful Old World empires ruled by Muslims. The Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Moguls each were stronger and more advanced than any European government. Muslims could take credit for scientific and medical advances, for philosophical inquiries, for outstanding artistic accomplishments, and for revolutionary mathematics (such as algebra). But new things were happening in Europe: exploration of the world’s oceans bringing discovery of previously unknown lands, reformation of the Christian Church, a Scientific Revolution, an Industrial Revolution, and a philosophy that called itself the Enlightenment. On the political front, Enlightenment philosophy declared that all human beings are equal and that we all have rights; that government should be limited in power and should protect those rights; that people should have freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly; and that education provides a way to develop those freedoms and to establish that equality. Coupled with an economic movement called Capitalism, this philosophy was developed in western Europe, was tried in the thirteen United States of North America, and was eventually established in Europe and was transported around the world.

 As the Muslim empires lost political power, some leaders tried to imitate European ways, hoping to catch up to Europe’s scientific and industrial advances and to maintain their place on the world stage. Other Muslims said that Enlightenment philosophy was opposed to Shariah and the Qur’an; they would accept western science and technology, but not western ideas about freedom and equality. By the end of the first World War, the Muslim empires had collapsed. European governments—especially Britain and France—held political power over north Africa and west Asia. But, following the second World War, Britain and France began to divest themselves of their colonies. They recognized national governments in Africa and Asia, withdrawing their armed forces and seeking trade with their former colonies. Where Old World empires once had prevailed, now Third World nations were on the board, eyed by the powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States offered freedom, democracy, and the benefits of capitalism. The Soviet Union offered stability, socialism, and a dream of world-wide Communism. Both sides in the Cold War looked at the Third World as a battleground for their ideas. Both sides assumed that “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” and that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If a government favored one side in the Cold War, opponents of that government were assumed to be fighting for the other side. The possibility of a third side that hated both Americans and Soviets seems to have escaped both Americans and Soviets during their conduct of the Cold War.

Eventually, the United States and its allies won the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed. China remained under the control of the Communist Party, but it turned away from socialism and embraced capitalism. Those few countries that cling to soviet-style socialism (North Korea and Cuba) are trapped in economic doldrums; those that embraced freedom and capitalism most fervently (such as Germany and Japan) became economic powerhouses.

Meanwhile, the Muslim world remains skeptical about the value of freedom and democracy. Most are governed by a small elite. While they learned to play the economic game of capitalism, teasing industry’s thirst for oil to their enrichment, Muslim governments continued to try to balance Shariah against Enlightenment values of freedom, equality, and education for all people. Well-to-do Muslim families in Asia and Africa have satellite dishes; they watch American television. They do not tune in to religious broadcasting or to documentaries on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No, they watch our entertainment shows. They have learned about life in the United States from Seinfeld and Friends, from Jersey Shore and the Kardashians. Given those examples, one can easily see why Muslims might question the benefits of freedom, democracy, and education for all people.

All Muslims are not the same. Many appreciate the United States and value what we are when we are at our best. Most do not wish harm upon us, so long as we leave them alone. But twenty years ago, a group of Muslim terrorists attacked the United States. They did not target churches; they worked to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They showed us what they reject about us: our obsession with worldly wealth and power, our display of human beings at their worst rather than at their best.

Before we hope to be a light to the world, a shining city on a hill, the United States must clean up its own act. We must learn to use freedom responsibly, to use education in a way that shapes better people, to devote our resources for meaningful purposes. We can do better than we have done. When we live up to our own standards of truth and justice and the American way, then we will be recognized as people who have something worth sharing. J.

The Afghan mess

Some Americans have wanted, in the worst way possible, to end our nation’s involvement in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has done exactly that, getting us out of Afghanistan in the worst way possible. Among other things, I am cynical about the timing of this mess. By the time voters are in a position to respond in any way to the events of the last several days, a lot of water will have flowed under the bridge. At that point, the President and his supporters are likely to respond to any criticism, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” And many Americans will agree with that attitude.

Twenty years ago, the United States suffered a terrorist attack from Al Qaeda, an attack that was planned by Osama bin Laden and his organization from within Afghanistan. President Bush asked the government of Afghanistan to hand over bin Laden for justice, warning that if the Taliban failed to do so, we would include them among our enemies and treat them accordingly. They failed to hand over bin Laden; we attacked and drove the Taliban out of power and into hiding. It took ten years to find bin Laden, but that operation ended successfully. We spent time trying to build a civilization in Afghanistan conforming to (what I will be calling, in my history posts) Enlightenment Values. These include the values that government belongs to the people and must respond to the people’s needs and demands, that all people are equal under the law, that all people have human rights that should be respected and protected by their government, and that education for all people should be provided—or at least respected and protected—by their government. For the most part, the Taliban does not hold those values or agree with them. In my opinion, President Bush hoped to establish governments in Afghanistan and Iraq that would maintain those values, proving that those values can exist in an Islamic culture and state. Many people would say that Bush and the United States failed to achieve those goals; others would suggest that the jury is still out on that question.

Blogger Doug reminds his readers that the United States gained valuable information about our terrorist enemies during our twenty years in Afghanistan, including (but going far beyond) information that made it possible to seize bin Laden in Pakistan. He also points out that we have spent twenty years working with the citizens of Afghanistan, building and supplying schools and other facilities, and encouraging people to respect one another. In spite of the present setback, Doug offers hope that the seeds of Enlightenment Values (as I call them) have been planted in Afghanistan and will sprout and grow, shaping the future of the nation, after the current dust has settled. We shall see.

Meanwhile, life goes on. In the short term, President Biden has lost some grass-roots support that helped him take office a few months ago. Other nations wonder if the United States has lost its willingness to protect all its allies: the Peoples’ Republic of China is eyeing Taiwan and licking its lips. President Trump and his supporters are speculating how he would have handled the reduction of American troops differently—perhaps a feint to pull out troops, followed by a swift and powerful response as the Taliban forces emerged from their holes. Perhaps that scenario would have made it possible to bring more American troops home in a better way. We shall never know.

This week, the United States has been embarrassed in the eyes of the world and of its own people. Such embarrassments have happened before. We the people will remember this week and will keep it in mind when we return to the polls for future elections. Voters are keeping personal lists of reasons not to trust or support the Biden administration and the Democratic Party. Republicans need to do more than keep lists, though—Republicans need a clear agenda of how best to serve the United States of America and its interests around the world. They also need electable leaders who will hold to that agenda during the election campaign and after they take office. This book has many chapters. Not all of them have been written yet. The future can be brighter than the present; in part, the outcome remains in our hands. J.

Defeating terrorism

I intended to write a post about problems in Europe and about its changing relationship with the United States. That topic is so complicated, though, that I shall have to break it into several pieces. One of those pieces is terrorism, particularly as it relates to the Muslim world.

Many Muslims are fleeing war and poverty, seeking safety and a chance for a new life in Europe. Many more have died attempting to reach Europe. The crisis is a humanitarian problem not directly related to terrorism. On the other hand, many Europeans and North Americans have linked the problems of human migration and terrorism, using the religion of the migrants as a linking factor.

Muslim terrorist organizations claim that they are fighting in a war between Islam and western civilization. They view this violence as valid because they have been exposed to the decadence that freedom of expression has allowed in western nations. Fundamental Muslims are not so much opposed to Christianity or the Constitution of the United States as they are opposed to Jersey Shore and the Kardashian family. This decadence is what they believe they are attacking when they explode bombs and engage in acts of violence in public places.

Americans serve no good purpose when we agree that the war being fought is a war between Islam and western civilization. All we accomplish by agreeing with that idea is greater success for the recruiting efforts of terrorist groups. A far better approach is to label terrorism as the actions of a few deranged individuals, actions that are opposed to the principles of Islam as well as to the principles of western civilization. The more North American and European governments cooperate with North African and West Asian governments to battle terrorism, the better all these governments can persuade Muslim populations that western civilization is not at war with Islam; it is combating terrorism, which is the right thing to do.

Ironically, one method for governments to respond to terrorist threats is to reduce human rights—those very rights to which the terrorists object. To catch all the terrorists before they cause harm, governments must closely monitor communication, internet usage, and other aspects of our lives that are not generally the government’s business. European and North American governments have tried to find a balance between respecting personal rights and protecting citizens from harm. Most government decisions—and most government controversies—are a balancing act of this kind, trying to maintain two good things that contradict each other. The governments are probably doing as well as they can when some citizens are complaining that the governments are not doing enough while other complain that they are doing too much.

When President Franklin Roosevelt received letters from Jewish citizens of the United States asking why the U.S. was not doing more to end the Holocaust in German-held lands, Roosevelt said that we were doing everything we could to end the Holocaust. The only way to end it, Roosevelt said, was to win the war and defeat the German government. The same approach is needed today. Eliminating the conflicts that migrants currently flee would relieve a lot of pressure on European governments regarding those migrants. Seeing capable governments established in Libya, Iraq, and Syria would make it easier to eliminate cells and training institutions of terrorists in those countries. Overcoming the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria while cracking down on other terrorist groups would make the world far safer. The United States cannot do this alone, or even with help only from our European allies. Winning the war against terror requires the help of governments in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and their smaller neighbors. Even Israel has a role to play and a strong motive to play that role.

We can and should expect leaders of governments throughout the world to communicate and cooperate in order to defeat terrorism. Complete victory will not happen in our lifetime, or probably any time before Judgment Day. Marginalizing terrorist groups and stifling their opportunities and motives to cause harm will bring improvement, though, and improvement is a worthy goal. J.