Wednesday, September 14, 2011

America’s New Challenge Among Muslim States Is Democracy

By Mustafa Malik
After 9/11 I had visited my mother four other times in the village of Polashpur in northeastern Bangladesh. She is 92 and lives in my ancestral home, surrounded by three fish ponds and shaded by sprawling mango and jackfruit trees. Bangladeshis are nearly 90 percent Muslim, and on each of those four trips, neighbors peppered me with critical questions about the United States. Could the U.S. hold on to its occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq? Why did Americans hate Islam? How badly were American Muslims being treated by them?
However, the last time, on my fifth visit, the America-bashing was less intense. One person, alluding to Egyptian protesters’ attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, wanted to know if Washington could still help preserve the “Israeli domination” over Arabs. When would U.S. troops be leaving Afghanistan? asked another. Is the United States or China “the stronger country now?” inquired yet another.
Some of these inquires and comments echoed sentiments I had recently encountered in the Middle East. On Aug. 21, Salim Kanoo, a schoolteacher in Manama, Bahrain, said to me that the Arab democratic movements would eventually target “U.S. bases and troops” near that city and in other Persian Gulf countries. Could America handle Arab democracy, which might bring anti-American forces to power? he asked.
America’s impending retreat from Afghanistan and Iraq, serious economic downturn and the Arab Spring have convinced many Muslims that the Muslim world is wiggling out of American hegemony. I can see, too, that war fatigue has set in much of America. Asked recently why Britain and France, rather than the United States, were leading the war effort in Libya, Senator Richard Lugar, An Indiana Republican, said, “The fact is, we cannot afford more wars.”
The lesson of Vietnam, dismissed by neoconservative and other hawks, has begun to sink in among Americans. Vietnam’s main lesson, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said in 1995, was that “we failed to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces and doctrine in confronting highly motivated people’s movements.”
Contemporary Muslim “people’s movements” have been fueled mainly by modernization and the strengthened bond of the global Muslim community, the umma. Twenty-five years ago few people in Polashpur would have wanted to discuss foreign invasion of a far-away Muslim country. The rural village then had no electricity, no telephones, no newspaper readers, one college graduate and one or two radio sets. Today my home and a host of others are electrified. Just about every family has one or more mobile phones. College graduates and students abound. So do radio sets and news consumers, many of whom flock to the nearby Ratanganj bazaar to read newspapers. Dozens of Polashpuris live and work in towns and cities in Bangladesh and abroad.
The heightened awareness of the world and of the spread of the ideas of the rights and democracy have plunged a number of Muslim societies into struggles for freedom – against domestic tyranny on the one hand and foreign occupation and hegemony on the other. The Arab Spring belongs to the former category of struggle. The struggle against the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq belong to the other.
The Information Age has helped bring Muslims everywhere in wider and closer mutual interaction, bolstering their umma bond. A Pew Research Center survey found last year that Muslims in most countries considered themselves Muslims first and citizens of their countries second.
A research project I conducted in the late 1990s revealed that a key source of Muslims’ deepened affinity with their global community is their disenchantment with post-colonial-era nation-states and state institutions. Most of today’s Muslim states were carved out, often capriciously, by European colonial powers. These states are run through legal systems that are often alien to local social norms by badly corrupt and uncaring bureaucracies and governments. No wonder citizens of these states feel stronger pull of their faith and global community than of the corrupt institutions of their artificial states.
So when the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, or waged its anti-terror campaign killing, maiming and harassing Muslims, anti-American sentiments ratcheted up around the Muslim world, including in Polashpur, as I had observed during my earlier visits.
The impotence of the American military power – shown in the “war on terror” and in Iraq and Afghanistan – has helped rejuvenate Muslim movements against U.S. and Israeli hegemony as much as domestic political repression. Muslim societies that are evolving from the two-pronged struggle are likely to go through a period of turmoil, which accompanied the democratization process in almost every Western country. Eventually, they are expected to settle down as stable democracies. Muslim democracies will, however, be underpinned by Islamic social and cultural values – as we see in Turkey, Iraq and Pakistan. Egypt, Libya, Yemen and most of the other Muslim societies struggling to democratize are expected follow the same path.
Post-9/11 America, where paranoia about “political Islam” has stalked large swaths of society and much of the foreign policy establishment, could face the challenge of handling democracies that adhere to Islamic values. But Americans are pragmatic and appear to have begun to take stock of the futility of their campaign to defeat “terror” and stem the tide of Islamic politics. Eventually, they are likely to appreciate the need to do business with resurgent Islam.
As I told the Bahraini schoolteacher, Americans will come around to adapting to Muslim democracies as they did to the communist Soviet Union and China.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 14/09/2011
-Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog Islam and the West (

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