Sunday, June 7, 2009

Reaching Out to the Muslim World

President Obama's address in Cairo was seen by most as a long overdue effort by the West to reach out to the Muslim world.

We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world - tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.

Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.
Fear and mistrust to say the least! The attacks on 9/11 by mostly Saudi citizens greatly increased tensions with Saudi Arabia which is the birthplace of the Muslim faith and is seen by many as its focal point.

For Americans who are not Muslims that have perhaps visited Mecca on a pilgrimage, their experience with Saudi Arabia may have been in the form of business trips there over the years.

I can’t help but think about my first visit to Saudi Arabia on business back in the mid 80s. Talk about culture shock!

Our incoming plane arrived in Riyadh between 1 and 2 in the morning. That was OK I thought because that meant that the line in customs would be short. Wrong! It took about 2 hours to clear customs to enter the country. Customs agents were carefully going through each and every item of every suitcase to look for anything they felt would violate Islamic law — alcohol, pork, or even magazines with women who were not fully clothed.

TV was heavily censored. At the time there were only two channels available. To go along with the Arabic language channel was an English language channel that did not show any programs where women had any kind of a substantive role. This usually meant westerns or children’s shows. In my final visit there, satellite TV had arrived. It was still said to be illegal, but supposedly the Royal Family was in on the enterprise so nobody said anything.

Even the comic strips were censored. I remember a Blondie comic strip where Dagwood and Herb talked about going out for “bowling and a beer”. But even though many there drink non-alcoholic beer, the word “beer” was written over by hand with the word “burger”.

Women were not allowed to drive. They were not allowed to travel alone. They were definitely not allowed to travel with a man who was not her husband. And they were not allowed to work except for certain approved professions like teaching or nursing. Wives of expatriate workers could do their usual jobs as long as they were behind the compound walls.

And Saudis could not even assemble in public places. There were no sports stadiums and until
very recently no movie theaters.

For the first time in three decades, Saudis in the nation's capital did something that most Westerners take for granted — they went to the movies. But it wasn't exactly date night. No women were allowed.
So when most Americans think of Muslims, they think of Arabs in the Middle East — especially the ones who are the extremists. During the presidential election, some of those on the political right claimed that Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim. The woman who took the microphone to ask a question during a McCain rally probably meant to say that Obama was a Muslim but instead said that
"He's an Arab", probably because in her mind the two were interchangeable.

Some have even gone as far to say that the extremist behavior exists at least in part because it is the inherent nature of Islam. But what they overlook is that there are many millions of Muslims
in other countries around the world outside of the Middle East who have seldom or never caused any trouble for others.

Most notable is Indonesia whose Muslim population of over 200 million dwarfs the 26 million Saudi Muslims. Indonesia has a secular government whose president is freely elected. The same is true for Turkey whose Muslim population approaches 99%.

So the problem is not with Islam itself, but with the countries where Muslim fundamentalists control their governments. As Thomas Friedman opines in
After Cairo:

It’s a war within the Arab-Muslim world between progressive and anti-modernist forces over how this faith community is going to adapt to modernity — modern education, consensual politics, the balance between religion and state and the rights of women. Any decent outcome in Iraq would bolster all the progressive forces by creating an example of something that does not exist in the Middle East today — an independent, democratizing Arab-Muslim state.
So the first thing for those of us in the West who want to reach out to Muslims is to reject the false stereotypes that describe all Muslims as endorsing violence. But on the other hand, those Muslim nations who wish to be a part of the world community in good standing need to practice tolerance towards non-Muslims and realize that governments that are being run by religious extremists are the ones that terrorists feel they can rely on to provide a safe harbor for inflicting violence on others in the name of Islam.

On the other hand, nations around the world (including those with heavily Muslim populations) that have chosen to establish more secular governments have tended to thrive because of their greater respect for the human rights of their citizens — especially its women. But ultimately, the choice is theirs!

No comments: