By Aijaz Zaka Syed
A QUESTION in response to a question can often be the answer. This is what I realised when Major-General William B. Caldwell, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Effects and spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq, visited the Khaleej Times earlier this week with a team of high ranking US officials.
The US officials were ostensibly on a mission to win the ‘hearts and minds’ in the Middle East and Muslim world by reaching out to the media and telling their side of the story. When asked what the US proposed to do to reach out to the alienated Arab and Muslim world, Major-General Caldwell in turn asked me what I thought the US should do to win over the Muslims.
I mumbled something to the effect the US should bridge the gulf by initiating a genuinely free and frank dialogue with the Islamic world addressing each other’s concerns. Caldwell agreed with me pointing out that his very inability to answer my question underscored the seriousness of the problem. A great deal has been said and written about the yawning gulf that exists between the West, especially the US and Muslim world. It’s hardly a secret that while the ruling classes in the Muslim world revel in their proximity to the US, the same cannot be said of the majority of ordinary people. In fact, of late the commotion in Muslim street over America’s far from popular policies in the Middle East has grown alarmingly. Yet our American friends appear genuinely surprised every time there is a pointed expression of anger against the US policies and actions. They ask themselves: “Why do they hate us?” But is it that hard to figure why the world’s 1.8 billion Arabs and Muslim have some serious issues with the reigning superpower that has invaded and occupied at least two Muslim countries and could be planning to attack on a third? It’s not only America’s unquestioning support to the apartheid state of Israel and its persecution of the Palestinians that agitates the Muslim world. The superpower’s historical political and economic exploitation of the Middle East and its attempts to redraw the map of the region after the World War II have been at the heart of this alienation. A recent survey by the University of Maryland and Zogby International found that 78 per cent of Arabs have an unfavourable view of the US. At least 72 per cent of them see the US as the biggest ‘state threat.’ Another poll in 40 Muslim countries by Gallup’s Centre for Muslim Studies reveals that 52 per cent of Iranians have an unfavourable view of the Big Satan. That’s hardly a surprise, given the US-Iran conflict. But this antipathy towards Uncle Sam is significantly lower than that recorded in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — all three close US allies. Two third of Jordanians and Pakistanis and a staggering 79 per cent of Saudis have a negative view of their so-called friend and ally. But remember, this disillusionment with the Americans is not limited to the Muslim world. Anti-Americanism as a movement in Europe and around the world has survived the fall of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold war. Way back in 1993, a State Department study found that a whopping 83 per cent of the British had a favourable opinion of their cousins across the Atlantic. This support has drastically dwindled in recent times. Most Britons, polled by Pew Global Attitudes Project, today see the US presence in the Middle East and its ‘war on terror’ as a bigger threat to world peace than Iran or North Korea! It should be a real source of concern to the Americans that this view is widely shared by respondents in France, Spain, Russia, India, China and throughout the Middle East. Clearly, what unites the world today is hatred of America the Almighty. But like I said, should these findings really come as a surprise to the Americans? Remarkably, few of them seem to realise that it is the casually callous policies — especially, foreign policy — of their successive governments that make them the world’s most despised nation. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. According to the same Gallup poll that I’ve cited above, most Arabs and Muslims also admire America for many of its positive qualities and features. For example, an overwhelming majority of Muslims admires American technology, its democracy and political freedom among many other things. According to this poll, all Muslims want is ‘more respect’ from America! Clearly, it is a complex, love-hate relationship. From my own personal experience as a Muslim who grew up admiring all things American, I understand how my fellow believers the world over feel about America. My introduction to America began early in life with westerns and thrillers by lovable writers such as Oliver Strange and James Hadley Chase, who rubbed shoulders with the best in Urdu classics in my father’s library, back home in India. This adolescent affair with America developed into a heady passion when I went to university. And it was my fawning fascination for Amriika — as we call it back home — that made me choose American literature as an elective in MA English. I never regretted that decision — to be in the enriching company of Frost, Whitman, Hemingway and many others. Over the years, this bond with America has only strengthened with my philistine fondness for Hollywood and exposure to US democracy and civil liberties icons. Like fellow Muslims everywhere, I still love and admire America and all that it stands for and represents — or once did. I admire its democratic values, its love of liberty and personal freedom and respect for the rule of law and human rights — notwithstanding Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. But what really makes the American way of life so attractive to us Muslims — from the edge of Africa to the end of Asia — is its celebration of honesty, fair play and hard work. If you are confident, hard working and enterprising, American dream can embrace you as its own. Which is why the rags-to-riches stories are so common in the New World. And this is why it remains the favourite destination of dream chasers everywhere. From actor-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sabeer Bhatia of Hotmail, in our own lifetime there have been numerous examples of immigrants scaling dizzying heights to become a part of the great American dream. It’s this side of America that conquers hearts and minds everywhere — in the Muslim world and elsewhere. Indeed, there is a great deal that the Muslims have in common with America. We share an unshakable faith in God, justice, honesty, freedom and humanity.It is such a shame then that such a huge gulf between the US and the Muslims and between the West and Islam should exist. How do we bridge this divide? The only way to end the rift is by trying to understand what has caused this in the first place. If the Americans — the US establishment, to be more precise — are indeed keen to bridge the divide preventing the coming clash of civilistions, they must start by showing some respect to Arabs and Muslims. It’s only when you respect the other side that you pay attention to their point of view. Bush is wrong to suggest Muslims hate America and the West because we abhor their ‘way of life.’ We do not hate America or grudge Western way of life. It’s your life after all and you have the right to live it the way you want. As the Quran puts it, “To you be your Way, And to me mine.” The trouble starts only when you try to force your way upon ours. Also, ordinary Muslims like me find it hard to accept that a nation that inspired by the ideals of freedom, democracy, dignity and justice can support a state that is rooted in injustice, oppression and tyranny.
This gulf between the US and Islam is not impossible to bridge, if the US establishment makes a sincere attempt to understand what really concerns and agitates the Muslims. And I assure my American friends — including well-meaning individuals like Major-General Caldwell — that it’s not that difficult to figure what makes Muslims unhappy with America. Identify and eliminate those causes and Islam and America can join hands to create a better and more peaceful world.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and a commentator based in Dubai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org