Reflections from East Asia

In East Asia, 'Arab Islam' and moderate Islam are clashing. In India, orthodox thinking is flourishing--and that's a good thing.

BY: Akbar Ahmed


Continued from page 1

Muslim Views on the Iraq War
March 23, 2006, New Delhi, India


Here in the Muslim world, Iraq is seen as a nation that was strong and legitimate, but now is in turmoil and anarchy. Yes, Saddam was an evil dictator, but Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia feel the situation for Iraqis is worse now. And they see a conspiracy--that this was deliberately done to destabilize the Muslim world in the Middle East.

What is so tragic for me, who has talked about democracy so long, is that I’ve used Saddam as a model of a tyrant long before it became fashionable in the West. I always spoke how his socialist ideas imposed tyranny on Muslim societies, because his first victims were always Muslim scholars. And the saddest thing to see now is that in the Muslim world -people are saying that Saddam’s type wasn’t too bad. At least you knew you had one tyrant, and you had stability. But now you have total anarchy. Iraqis are scared that people may come into their home and take someone hostage. If they go to work, will they come back?

And the most frightening thing is that there seems to be no end in sight. And Muslims here see no viable solution. You have an election, and it’s not working. America sets up a government, and it’s not working. Law and order is just not taking hold. And Iraq’s turmoil is spreading throughout the region: You have Iran and its nuclear crisis developing on the Eastern front. You have Syria identified as part of the “Axis of Evil” by America.


Even here in South Asia, the war in Iraq is a main topic, and feelings here are quite strong that American should not be there.


Muslims say America is the problem not the solution, which is opposite of what the Bush administration feels. It’s a tragic misreading of history on both sides. You get all these efforts of the American media showing how great Iraq is doing--new schools, new parks, how Marines are handing out sweets and so on. Then in the Muslim world you’ve got the feeling that there’s nothing but death and destruction because of America. Two opposing views.


Muslim Views on the Iraq War, Part II

March 23, 2006, New Delhi, India


It’s amazing how strong the feeling is in India and other countries we’ve visited about this war being waged to pull apart the Muslim world. It never was about weapons of mass destruction. There’s no sense that America was bringing democracy. People in the Muslim world, I’m finding on this tour, are not only very alert, but they are very conscious of world politics. They’re looking at the world, they’re watching the news, and they’re making their own assessments.


So they’re arguing that while America talks of democracy, which is great, and human rights, which are great, in practice it supports dictators. And this thought is repeated everywhere I visit. Here in India, Muslims are saying that America brought in Saddam early on. They say the reason he’s only being tried for a very small number of crimes is because Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had supported Saddam previously and had given him the latest chemicals andequipment. So if Saddam is tried for bigger crimes, America’s complacency will come out. I don’t know if this argument is right or wrong, but this is how the Muslim public perceives it.


In fact Muslims in the Middle East are saying that a tyrant like Saddam was preferable to the anarchy that is Iraq now. So right now the mood is bleak, it’s angry, and Muslims here have one request: America should get out.


Muslim Views on the Iraq War, Part III

March 23, 2006, New Delhi, India


What’s most tragic, in my own view, is that Iraq is now set up for another dictator to take over. I feel that America has built up one force alone in Iraq in the last three years, and that is the security force. And a number of these guys are from the former security services of Saddam. Many of them are old Bathists. Old habits die hard.


These security forces, I believe, are thinking this: We had a stable, strong nation for three decades. We were known in the world. We had the most powerful army in the Arab world, and now we are reduced to a joke. And so I think they are looking for a local young colonel--a young Ghaddafi or a young Saddam--to declare a military coup to bring back stability. And America will be pleased, just as they were when Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over in Pakistan. And that, to me, will be the ultimate irony, because you’re back to square one.


I frankly don’t see any other choice right now, because democracy is not working, and law and order is not taking root, and people are looking for answers. This is a bleak scenario, and I fear that people will be happy to have a strong man take control. And if that happens, then it’s an indictment of the terrible costs America and Iraq has paid--for the several thousand Americans who have died and for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died.




On Meeting President Pervez Musharraf:
Modernity Without Westernization

Islamabad, Pakistan, March 15, 2006


An Islamic Renaissance
The questions that keep coming up from nearly every Pakistani we meet are: Why is the West equating terrorism to Islam? Why is the West taking a few people of violence who are outside the law and saying they represent all Muslims? Pakistanis are very unhappy about this. They believe that there may be a conspiracy against Islam.

In our meeting with President Pervez Musharraf, he tackled these questions by presenting three points. The first point he made was that his identity is that of a Muslim. Musharraf said, “I may not be a very orthodox Muslim, but I am a Muslim. And I believe Islam is compatible with modernity.”

Prof. Akbar Ahmed and Pres. Musharraf
Prof. Akbar Ahmed and Pakistan's Pres. Musharraf

And that led him to his second very important point: that Muslims do not have to become Westernized in order to become modernized. For example, westernization means that Muslims must behave like those in the West--have Western values, dress like people in the West. President Musharraf said to me, “We have our own culture; we have our own history. We are proud of that. We must be modern; we must have modernity, which means civic government, a good system of administration, justice, good education, democracy. All these features are characteristic of modernization, and that we can have as Muslims.


“Islam is not incompatible with modernity,” President Musharraf emphasized. Then he pointed to the war on terror and to his own role. He said, "I have put my neck on the line. I am a victim of assassination attempts, but I believe in what I am doing because I am doing it for Pakistan. It is also beneficial to America and the West, because it helps if I can control terrorism." But he emphasized that Pakistan was most important to him.


His third point was about how Pakistan can play a pivotal role in the Islamic renaissance. "We are the leaders of the Muslim world." President Musharraf said to me. "We are the only nuclear power. We have a population of 160 million. Our geopolitical situation makes us absolutely vital to understanding the Muslim world. And we have a history of leading the Muslim world in terms of [new] ideas. So Pakistan cannot be ignored."


On Meeting President Pervez Musharraf:

Reinventing Pakistan’s Madrassas

Islamabad, Pakistan, March 15, 2006


Modifying Pakistan's Madrassas
I asked President Musharraf about the negative Western perception of madrassas (Islamic religious schools). He said, “We are reforming the madrassas. We are introducing subjects other than religion, so we are studying religion [and] subjects like geography and history and other religions, not just Islam. Even computer training—in madrassas!”


I asked him why he doesn’t close the madrassas like many Westerners demand. He said, “In the West, they think the madrassas mean a terrorist camp. [But] all madrassas are not violent or extremist. Some are, but not all. I have one million students in madrassas. Now if you close all [of them], you’ll have one million kids out there in the street.


“So what I am doing is--by persuasion, by discussion, bringing them into the mainstream--helping them to raise their standards and become absorbed in the mainstream,” President Musharraf said to me.


And I found him quite persuasive. He seems to be genuinely grappling with the problems and not just trying to please Americans. He pointed out, “Look, I have a lot of critics in Pakistan who say I’m pro-Western. But I’m simply trying to bring my nation more in line with the vision of [Pakistan's founder] Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who believed in a modern, democratic society based in human rights and women’s rights and so on.”


But building a Pakistan that is secular and Islamic, but not too Westernized is a difficult task. I asked him how it was possible to do this. He answered, “So far, Islam meant rituals. So far the obscurantists are interpreting Islam.” For example, the recent riots in Pakistan’s northern region between Shi’as and Sunnis began because one group was praying with their arms across their chests, and the other group objected to that. “That’s the kind of Islam we have to avoid,” President Musharraf said to me. “The defenses of Islam are progress and compassion. In order for that to happen, the scholars of Islam have to be engaged so that the people in the streets begin to appreciate what Islam really is.”


Numerous Societies are Under Siege

Islamabad, Pakistan, March 15, 2006


Societies Under Siege
I gave a speech to about 500 people from all walks of life. And in my speech I tried to pick up the theme of societies under siege. You see, Muslims are complaining about being persecuted here. And I said, “You’re absolutely right.” I talked about Muslims feeling under siege in Palestine, in Kashmir, in Bosnia. Muslims are feeling their Prophet is being attacked. I spoke of Muslims being kept in prison camps and being humiliated and tortured--of Guantánamo  Bay and Abu Ghraib.


And all this adds to a sense of Muslim anger. But then I pointed out that there are the other communities—like Americans after 9/11—who feel under siege. And I said something that very, very few Muslims will say in the Muslim world or anywhere: Israelis feel under siege. They are surrounded by 300 million Arabs, and many Arabs talk about exterminating Jews. This is unacceptable, because already the Jews have faced such persecution. So I asked that Pakistan-Muslim audience, “How do you think the Jews feel being under siege? Several world societies are continuously feeling persecuted.”


So we have to be much more accepting, much more tolerant and compassionate. As a Muslim, my duty is to uphold the holy Prophet and the Qur’an--both which talk about compassion and bridge-building.


The Letdown of President Bush’s Visit

Islamabad, Pakistan, March 15, 2006


In coming from Jordan to Pakistan, we found two things: We are in a land with huge numbers. Jordan’s population was five million. Then we arrive in Karachi with a population of 15 million--in just one city. You have these tenements and slums literally taking over the whole of Karachi. So there’s population, there’s poverty. But in spite of all that there’s a great vitality here, in spite of Pakistan's military government--we mustn’t ignore that. Pakistanis feel that they can be role models, and that America doesn’t get that.


Pakistanis are feeling a little bit of a backlash because the recent visit of President Bush. They felt that his love affair with India had completely diverted him from Pakistan. He had signed the nuclear deal there, and then he came to Pakistan and lectured President Musharraf about democracy.


And this wasn’t perceived well at all! There’s a constant barrage of editorials that are very critical, saying Pakistan has been forgotten. The joke is that Pakistan has been treated like a wife with whom the husband is fed up—and now she’s brushed aside because he’s enchanted by this mistress of his across the border called India and is prepared to give India anything.


And for the skinny, loyal wife that is Pakistan, there are lectures on greater efforts on the war on terror and lectures on democracy and nothing else. There is a sense of being let down, of being abandoned by an old ally.


Continued on page 3: Finding the antidote for anti-Americanism in Jordan »

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