The panel discussion "Engaging Political Islam" took place at the 60th annual conference in November, 2006.
Engaging Political Islam
Maysam al-Faruqi, Richard Murphy, S. Abdallah Schleifer, Akbar Ahmed
Akbar Ahmed, American University:
Welcome to the 60th Annual Conference of the Middle East Institute, to perhaps the most important panel of all. All of us on any panel consider it the most important, but in a sense this is the heart of what we are discussing, the heart of the crisis of relations between the US and the Muslim world; in a sense, the heart of our very profession, subject and interest, which is engaging political Islam. So I really congratulate the Middle East Institute for suggesting the title, "Engaging Political Islam." Too often the philosophy has been to ignore political Islam or to clash with political Islam or, simply put, to bomb it out of existence. So I'm delighted that the word "engaging" has come back onto the agenda. Let me point out, this was selected long before the mid-term elections.
I don't think you'll find three better guides to help us unravel how to engage with political Islam. These really are stars, each one of them. They have long bios so I'm not going to take up precious time by reading out their bios, but they are experts in the finest sense of the word. They are activists, they are scholars, they are published. There's a good mix of gender, of profession, of nationality. They are ambassadors, they are journalists, they are professors on campus. I am very privileged to have known them for many years. I recall – Abdallah Schleifer has probably forgotten this – but two decades ago, he and I walking around very agitated in the Cairo Club, discussing Sufism. He was explaining to me how Sufis begin to jog and the jogging rhythm and the notion of "Allah-u, Allah-u, Allah-u" keeps the rhythm going, and I wasn't able to keep up with him and not quite able to understand what he was going to with the discussion on Sufism. But you can see that we have been engaging with political Islam for a long time.
I'll request each speaker to restrict their presentation to ten minutes and come here and speak from the podium in this order, Abdallah going first. I will then request you, if you have questions, to write them down on the cards you'll find on your chairs. There will be young students walking around helping us, volunteers. Please give them the cards and they will be handed to me and I will be very happy to ask the questions on your behalf.
Some of the themes which we need to be looking at, which I'm sure will come up in the discussion, need to be really focused on. We are looking at political Islam. I, as a scholar, am always intrigued by these definitions that keep cropping up in our discipline. We keep hearing of new terms: Islamofascism, jihadists, fundamentalists. I'm uncomfortable because as an anthropologist looking at Muslim societies, I'm uncomfortable when we take terms from one culture and one context and simply transpose them on another culture and another context. So we need to be looking at what we mean by political Islam.
I have just returned from an extensive tour of the Muslim world. I was in the Middle East, South Asia and Far East Asia on behalf of Brookings, Pew and American University. I was accompanied by four or five young assistants and students, wonderful and enthusiastic Americans, the best ambassadors for this great country. We met along the journey and interviewed people. We met President Musharraf and prime ministers and princes and students and taxi drivers. We went to mosques and madrassahs. So we've come back with a lot of data which I've just written up into a book to be called, "Journey into Islam."
What I discovered, very briefly, was tremendous vitality. So it isn't that the Muslim world is dead at this moment. It may be moving in very different directions simultaneously, which may be equally problematic, but there is vitality. It surprised me. Tremendous vitality.
Also, tremendous confidence. "History is on our side" – this is the mood. Also, clearly the trend is for what you are calling political Islam to be the dominant discourse in the Muslim world. Take a look at Somalia, Hamas, Hizbullah, Sadr in Iraq, the pressures on Musharraf and Karzai, the reemergence of the Taliban along the eastern frontier. The pendulum is swinging.
One of the reasons is the failure, the unfortunate relationship with the West, of the model we call the "modern, moderate position" of Islam. That hasn't quite succeeded and it is now tainted with its association with the West. Had democracy succeeded – had democracy with its notions of justice, human rights, civil liberties, which we all cherish and want to propagate – had all these succeeded, you'd have then seen a natural containment of the more extremist position within Islam. Because it was not contained, many things that are being done from the United States are being directly counterproductive. We are bogged down now with Iraq. We need to be thinking of a post-Iraq scenario.
I would request you to start thinking of a post-Afghanistan scenario, because in the middle of the Iraq crisis, Afghanistan is hurtling toward us like a railway train. It's coming toward us and we are not even aware of the extent of the crisis. Along the eastern border there literally is a collapse of administration, where the Taliban have reemerged and you have the sorry spectacle of the president of Afghanistan and the president of Pakistan throwing all kinds of accusations against each other simply to explain their own position.
You have a crisis brewing in Pakistan itself. You saw the killing of about 80 villagers. You saw then a suicide bomber who killed forty Pakistani soldiers. Tremendous pressure is being built up within Pakistan. So another big crisis coming. And always keep in mind that Pakistan is not Iraq or Afghanistan. It is a country of 165 million people. It is a nuclear power. A crisis with Iran is brewing – Pakistan is a neighbor of Iran. There are something like 30 million Shi'a in Pakistan with great sympathy for Iran. If anything happens to Iran, there will be a very strong tidal wave in the Muslim world in support of Iran.
So all these things need to be kept in mind when we do our planning for the Muslim world. If we don't have a policy, if we don't think of the day after, we may end up with yet another Iraq, because what history constantly tells us is that we simply don't learn from history. Unless we start reading and you, the scholars and the thinkers and the commentators, are able to communicate and explain and persuade the policymakers, we may have a little bit of the repeat that we've seen in the last few years, resulting in the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the billions of dollars that have just ended in death and destruction.
I'll end by sharing with you that on this journey I also was able to make a television series which is going to be airing this month. It's called "The Glories of Islamic Art," a three-part series for British television. It's based on filming in Damascus, Cairo and Istanbul. It's based on the historical patterns in the mosques, the calligraphy, mosque architecture. The theme is really for Muslims – because I present it – to rediscover their respect for 'ilm – learning, knowledge and acceptance of other societies. You'll see in Damascus, for example, how close Christianity and Islam have been historically. So in a sense, a challenge for people abroad in the West to look at Islam and for Muslims themselves to be rediscovering some of the essential strengths and features of their own faith, because they themselves are now debating which way to move ahead and that vitality and their antipathy toward the West may push them in directions that are not truly balanced or Islamic or compassionate.
With that, may I request my friend Abdallah to come up and give his presentation.
Abdallah Schleifer, Al Arabiya:
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. That's true, it was a long time ago in Cairo, jogging around the Gezira Club. In fact we even had a name for it, it was called the Abu Hassan Shazli Running Society, to integrate fiqr and jogging. That seems like a terribly long time ago, and I use the word terribly because I must start off by telling you that I am afflicted by an undue sense of pessimism. Probably that's because I lived in the region for such a long time. I approach the issue, the topic of engaging political Islam from a perspective that differs from many people in this room.
Number one, although I did an MA thesis related to that topic – "Jihad and Modern Islamic Political Thought" – my approach is basically not academic or scholarly. Too much of it is tied up with personal experience – personal experience as a journalist for many of those years, even when I was teaching journalism, and personal experience as a Muslim, as a convert to Islam. That gives me a slightly different take. If I were a lot younger, I'd probably feel a lot more professional about the topic. I'd say, all right, the secular moderates, the secular Muslims have failed, so let's just move on and engage with political Islam – as if these are just sort of categories we can shuffle around.
For me, I'm gripped by a sense of – with the exception of one little light I'll hold out at the end of my talk, so I don't depress you all and you all leave – I'm overwhelmed by a sense of pessimism. I can remember living in Jerusalem as the managing editor of Jordan's paper when Hizb-ut-Tahrir – you know what Hizb-ut-Tahrir meant to me? Hizb-ut-Tahrir is a very important group globally now. It wasn't then. Then, it was the Jordanian Palestinian followers of Sheikh Nabhani, who had participated in the 1936 uprising. They played with the Muslim Brotherhood, split off and basically were my neighbors, very sweet guys – barbers, shopkeepers – who for some reason followed this perspective. They were just like everybody else. They were traditional Jordanian Palestinian Muslims, who were interested in me as a convert and were very kind to me. Every once in a while some of their colleagues in the East Bank would recruit a couple Bedouin officers and stage a hopeless coup d'état that never got to that stage because they'd be rounded up. It was almost harmless. Every couple years, a couple Jordanian Bedouin officers would go to jail for having been approached by the Hizb-ut-Tahrir and attempting to make the coup which would lead to the caliphate.
That's where, of course, the talk of the caliphate comes from. It doesn't come from, as is attributed so often, sort of main street jihadi-Salafi or a bin Ladenist perspective. It's one of the themes that's been pumped into political Islam over forty years by Hizb-ut-Tahrir. That's what they believed in to the degree that they wouldn't even participate in the Palestinian resistance at that time because its goal was a nation-state and not the caliphate.
To see its evolution into really nasty people lacking all of the politenesses, all the adab that makes up half of the religion, if you're drawn to traditional Islam – if you're drawn to traditional Islam then half of religion is politeness, civility. Half of religion is spiritual pursuits. Instead there's a very inflammatory global movement which is the opposite of civility and it's very depressing. Let me run through some other lists so you understand my concerns.
When I covered the Lebanese civil war in 1975-76, it was interesting – again, I'm mentioning these things so you appreciate why I have a sort of inherent fear just when I see the phrase political Islam, even though as I said, I did my MA in political Islam, in Islamic political thought. Of course that meant doing imamate theory – 12th century theory of the imamate among the Sunnis, reading Ghazali and other people's guides to rulers. That's what Islamic political thought meant at that time, in the 1970s, on the academic level.
Anyway, covering the Lebanese civil war, what was interesting was that there were no partisans in that war who were committed to Islamism – or on the other side, to Christianism, if there's such a thing. It was basically a communal battle which overlapped into the Palestinian issue, those who allied themselves with the Palestinians and their aspirations, or at least with their gun power, and those who were opposed to the Palestinian presence in Lebanon. But nobody was fighting to establish an Islamic state.
What's very interesting is that at that time I could prepare a T-shirt for myself and my crew that had the NBC logo, the peacock, on the front and on the back across our shoulders it read sahafi. Because the assumption was that these forces which were no way openly committed to Islamic ethics, Islamic law, Islamic justice or whatever, if they read sahafi on the back of our shoulders, whether they were right-wing Phalangist snipers or Nasserists or Palestinians or leftists, they would not fire. That was the assumption, they would not fire. Of course ten years later, as this perpetual struggle takes on a sort of Islamist or religious dimension, if you went out on the streets with a shirt like that, they'd come down, hit you on the head, kidnap you, hold you as a prisoner for ransom. And ten years later if you wore that shirt in Baghdad, you'd have your head chopped off on a video in the name of Islam, to the recitation of Qur'an.
So from my perspective as a journalist, things are getting very bad over the years. A very pessimistic environment, to say the least.
Equally, I never thought, as a Muslim convert and an ex-communist – with a small "c." The new left, you were a hippie – the Communist Party was very old-fashioned, it wasn't considered revolutionary enough. Anyway, as a convert to Islam and an ex-communist, needless to say initially I was very – at the time, I was covering the Fedayeen movement in Jordan in 1968-69, and even 1967-68 from the Occupied Territories. Again, nominally all of these movements – by the way, I'm saying all this because I don't think you're going to get it from anybody else, because these are perspectives of someone who is approaching it as a journalist and as a Muslim.
All of the movements were secular, nominally secular, whether Palestinian nationalist, Arab nationalist or some form of Marxist. But on the other hand, what I found to my own fascination was that I spent many a wonderful evening sitting with the fighters from these Fedayeen groups and I always felt remarkably that I was in the company of Muslims. Probably if you go back the years, because we're looking back now at nearly forty years, these were men who were raised in traditional Muslim families. A traditional Muslim is someone who believes that Islam is the five pillars. I would offer, since we're talking about definitions for political Islam, the phrase Islamism – which I acquired from the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe in the 1970s when I was studying political thought – which is based on the conviction that Islam is more than the five pillars. Personally, how anything could be more than "there is no God but God" is sort of amazing. Anyway, they believe that Islam is more than the five pillars, that Islam is an ideology not a religion or not just a religion. As if that's a very demeaning thing – not just a religion.
None of the Fedayeen groups had that commitment to Islamism. Yet I felt when I was with the combatants that I was moving amazingly – again, the adab, the politeness, the concerns for the delicacies of Arabic grammar, the things we talked about. These men forty years ago, who had been born sixty years ago, raised in traditional Muslim families, were indeed Muslims. Then they made this sort of abstract ideological commitment – yeah, we're Palestinian nationalists or Marxists or whatever. But in an existential sense, they were very much Muslims.
Then around ten years later, as a journalist, I started covering Islamist movements. What struck me was just the opposite, as the years passed, that when I covered Islamist movements with a whole new younger generation, when I would hang out socially with people I was covering, I felt I was back in a communist party. That basically I was dealing with people where – what I considered the essence of Islam, a certain intrinsic spirituality that reflects itself in manners, was gone. In that void was ideology. Islam remained as a sort of rhetoric but basically I was dealing with very instrumentalist people who shared the same perceptions of means and end. It was very stunning, to such a degree that I now feel nostalgia. I remember when the PFLP – again, nominally a Marxist group – when they hijacked three planes in 1970, they got everybody off the plane, gave them tea and cookies, then blew the planes up with nobody inside, and gave them tea and cookies and a little pep talk. Looking back now, as a Muslim, I'm nostalgic for the Marxists of the PFLP.
It is from that perspective, and I guess we'll get more of this in questions and answers – finally, besides helping to define this by saying Islamism, I have two other quick definitions which have to be resolved here. By political Islam, do we mean political in the sense of commitment to political work or how do we deal with terrorist organizations? Obviously there's a difference. There are organizations that are Islamist that are committed to a political process and not committed to terrorism, and there are Islamist organizations that are very much almost in principle committed to violence and terrorism, the sanctification of violence. So that's one of the things we have to consider.
Mind you, since you're all very pragmatic, especially those of you on careers in the Foreign Service, the fact that somebody is a terrorist, while I might find it appalling from a spiritual point of view, does not necessarily mean that you don't talk to them. The sort of museum of 20th century Middle East history is full of terrorists redeemed. Menachem Begin was a terrorist, he blew up the King David Hotel and his people threw bombs into Arab villages. Shamir was a terrorist, murdered British officials. Yasir Arafat dabbled in terrorism. Hizbullah, which ran a very honorable guerrilla war against Israel in the Occupied Territories, nevertheless had its origin in terrorism. So the fact that a group is terrorist today doesn't mean they'll necessarily be terrorists tomorrow.
Finally, do not dismiss that shibboleth of people who really didn't care about democracy – when they would say the trouble in the Arab world – we say the trouble with the Islamists is it's one man, one vote, one time. Don't dismiss that. I am very conscious of Sudan, largely because I'm married to a Sudanese whose family largely went into exile after the coup d'état in 1986. What's interesting about Sudan was, on the eve of that coup d'état which brought the present government – missing one or two glorious personalities who were in that government originally – to power, there was no country in the Arab world that approached Sudan for democracy. You had a free parliamentary election. The Jebha, the Islamic Front, the old Muslim Brothers, the Jebha had three newspapers. They could compare freely. Whereas the Ummah Party, the largest party, didn't even have one newspaper. So they had newspapers, they could rally, they could participate. There was no country in the Arab world then or now that resembled that Sudan that followed the overthrow of Numayri for a few years, in terms of the democratic process. When the democratic process was all over, the Jebha was party number three, a very distant number three, and nevertheless entered into a coup d'état against the democratic government.
Having said that, let me qualify it by saying also that maybe that's not all that important. Maybe democracy is not all that very important. Again, from a pragmatic point of view, but let's not have illusions. That slogan, "one man, one vote, one time," had a reality and that reality was called Sudan. Thank you.
Maysam al-Faruqi, Georgetown University
"Engaging Political Islam," which means we need to talk partly about Islam, political Islam, and partly about the United States. I'm going to generalize somewhat – after all, I am only given ten minutes and it's a huge topic. But let's simply define political Islam in a very simple way – the various ways by which Muslims are going to try and create governing institutions in harmony with their religion and their culture. That's a fundamental right and that's a basic characteristic of any culture.
Islam is the primary source of culture, of identity in the Muslim world. It's going to affect all the institutions that the Muslims are going to create. Those institutions are not going to be Western. They're not going to be Western-style democracies or secular constitutions. The rights of individuals are provided for under Islamic law but not necessarily in the way in which they are carried forward in the Western world. These Western structures are culturally determined. They work very well for the West – not always. I would remind you that it's not the Islamic state that carried out the Holocaust, inquisitions, eradicated the Native Americans, the enslavement of their own black citizens or the segregation.
So we need to be a little bit careful about what it is that we are trying to export to the Muslim world. Western-style democracy is not God's gift to the world. Incidentally, speaking of always bringing freedom or democracy to the Muslims, the Muslims will often say: we've heard this one before. In the 10th century they said they had to bring us Christianity, in the Crusades. In the 18th and 19th century they had to bring Western civilization to those barbarians. Now we have to invade their lands in order to bring them freedom and democracy. That is going to breed resentment and anger and violence.
Modern Muslim political movements arose mostly when the traditional Islamic state structure broke down. It broke down basically through the impetus of colonialism. Some of it was internal problems, and I'm not going to have the time to go through that, no doubt about it. But a lot of it had to do with basically the forceful destruction of state, social, cultural structures and institutions by colonialists.
Ever since, political Islam is the various ways by which Muslims try to rid themselves of these foreign structures perpetrated often and continued by military regimes, and they tried to create their own structures. In most cases these movements then are fighting internally the remnants of these colonial structures and ideologies, because those have partly become internal to the Muslim world, and externally they fight the active intervention by the West in their affairs through military means, through coup d'état, through helping one faction over the other, through shoring up dictatorships or outright invasions. Violence breeds violence. If we try to resolve issues of our national interest – and really the West only has national interests in the region – then we're going to create movements that are going to fight back. If the government takes away the rights of its citizens, their citizens are going to have their movements and the opposing movements are going to become more and more radical with time. If we carry out invasions or dispossession of people or massacres of people – as is done in Bosnia, Chechnya or Palestine – then we're going to breed more and more reaction and violence.
Of course, not to justify it – violence is never justified. But the Muslim masses that refuse generally the use of violence will call the abuse that causes this violence equal abuse. It's the same terrorism – it's state terrorism basically – that is bringing about this kind of radicalization on the part of some of the Muslims. So if we want to resolve that, we have to go back to the root causes, the issues that cause this radicalism in the first place.
Most of the so-called extremists and radicals, all of them are branded around – whether truly or not – political issues, like the sanctions on Iraq before and now the invasion of Iraq, and of course the issue in Palestine. Palestine, like it or not, has become the flagship issue of the Muslim world. There is no Muslim movement that is not going to demand the resolution of the issue of Palestinians on fair and just grounds – none whatsoever, whether you go to Indonesia or Malaysia or Chechnya, anywhere in the world they are going to demand the rights of the Palestinians. Why? First of all, it's a clear-cut issue. There's a clear injustice. People have been dispossessed, their lands taken away from them. They are under oppression. They are in refugee camps where they are forced to live for sixty years. They still are in refugee camps, for no other fault than that God created them on land coveted by some foreigners who have come and taken it away from them. It's a clear-cut and black-and-white issue. It's clear that the West is taking not a fair and clear position based on moral or international rights. It's taking the side of the aggressor against the oppressed.
It's the exemplar of oppression and therefore the West has become associated with this. There is no way we're going to be able to resolve anything in the Muslim world unless this issue is resolved. You want to engage Muslim movements? Then you have to address that one. In a sense, the US is a prisoner of its policy on Israel. It is forced to call anyone who fights Israel on account of the rights of the Palestinians or who refuses to recognize them on this account, it's forced to call them therefore terrorists. It's forced to refuse, for instance, a perfectly rational Islamic movement that's arising in Indonesia because that movement is going to demand rights for Palestinians. Then we have to call them terrorists and fight them.
How do we deal with that? There are two ways in which we can deal with this. One is to continue on force and use force, invade more lands, fight them, drop bombs on them until they accept and agree to whatever policy we are trying to force on them. Or we resolve the Palestinian issue on fair and just grounds.
There are three reasons I would give you why you should try to resolve that Palestinian issue. The first one, the one that you probably are least interested in, is the moral argument. After all, you have 750,000 dispossessed Palestinians, now millions of them in refugee camps, living there for more than sixty years. Colonization of the West Bank. Oppression, killings. Basically that produces of course violent reactions. But if you don't recognize the rights of individuals, yes, that's where it's going to lead. It's going to lead to this kind of radicalization. It's not part of the culture, it's a political issue. Violence breeds violence.
Then you have the legal argument. The rights of the Palestinian refugees are entrenched in international law and in UN resolutions. The reason why you can't change that – and I assure you Israel would have changed that if it could – but if you're going to start to play around with international law, the whole world system is going to fall apart. So you can't. All you can do is deny the application of the UN resolutions and international law, but you can't change it. We're going to have to choose. Either you're going to choose the rule of law to be able to fix issues and problems, or we're going to continue using violence and imposing solutions through violent means.
The third argument that I would give you is reality, basically. Simply, reality. The fact of the matter is all Muslims are going to agree on this issue – all of them. The masses are behind them. Those Islamic movements, incidentally, have massive followings. The masses are behind them. If you had free elections in the Muslim world, they would sweep to power. Most of them would sweep to power instantly.
They have professionals, intelligent and pragmatic people in them. We can easily engage them. But if we're going to simply brush them aside because they demand the political rights of the Palestinians, it's not going to lead us anywhere.
The problem however is that this goes all over the Muslim world. We have to fight Indonesia, we have to fight Malaysia. We have to fight everything, Pakistan, everywhere, because of this issue. Basically it is a problem. One in five people in the world are Muslim. One in three people in forty or fifty years might be Muslim. Are we going to alienate a third of the globe? That's not talking about all the masses who are Christian in Latin America and Europe who agree with this. But we do not actually agree to carry on a solution based on simply international law.
That problem incidentally also is in Palestine, in Israel. You have after all 1 million Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship. They're going to become, just thirty or forty years down the road, they're going to be 5 million or 6 million. So what do we do then? Expel them? Kill them? Massacre them again? You're going to have to deal with this issue and it's better to deal with it now rather than later.
I would say if that is not resolved, then those who are holding onto arguments pushing the United States with the use of violence rather than proper international legal means to solve the problem are basically going to take the United States – I would compare it to a train going full-speed ahead into a huge rock. That's the future and there is nothing pleasant about it. That's the reality argument.
As to the way we engage them, perhaps I should conclude with one of the most important issues there. To justify our assault on these Islamic movements, or rather the extreme movements, we then conflate these extreme movements that are really the result of political issues with the religion. We allow here in the United States – and I can assure you of that, my students all come with that terminology – hateful terminology about Islam being violent and terrorist and what have you – it has basically taken the airwaves in the United States. This discourse of ridiculing Islam, putting it down, associating it with terrorism and hatred and what have you – let me tell you, it's not going to affect Islam. It's not going to affect the Muslims. They're not going to stop being Muslims because of this. But the language and the discourse of hatred dehumanizes the person who perpetrates it. It just consumes them. It makes them unhuman. It makes them unable to understand and work with the other. That is a moral matter that concerns each and every one of us, if the end in the world that we want to seek is an order based on true acceptance and tolerance of the other and justice. Thank you.
I've been invited to comment on political Islam, drawing on my own service as an American diplomat who was assigned primarily in the Arab Middle East. Listening to the scholars at this conference, those who may not have worked in any branch of the government, has reminded me how rarely I exchanged views with them during my own assignments, particularly in Washington during my last assignment as assistant secretary. That was my loss. They've asserted and I agree with them that political Islam is a growing phenomenon worldwide, both in terms of its extremist and its mainstream actors. They've also correctly stressed the need for us to distinguish between legitimate Islamist political groups and terrorists. This is a distinction that's become increasingly harder for American politicians and the American public to make with each passing year.
It was after the Iranian revolution that our policymakers started to worry about political Islam and Islamist movements in the region. The week I took over as assistant secretary, our Marine barracks in Beirut were blown up. The previous year we'd committed the Marines in answer to the urgent plea of the government of Lebanon to come back to Lebanon and help restore a degree of stability. This followed the Sabra-Shatila massacre. When we lost the Marines, for many of us it was hard to accept that those men could have been seen as acting for any other purpose other than to help the country get back to a modicum of stability. In the eyes of the newly created Hizbullah movement, however, they had come not to strengthen government institutions but to support the Israeli invasion of 1982 and to back a specific Christian leadership.
But I'd like to focus first on possible reasons why an American diplomat in the field has serious problems both in understanding and in making recommendations about shaping our policy toward political Islam. Our diplomats, when they serve abroad, face a number of constraints. Let me apologize in advance to my colleagues from the Foreign Service. Some of this is going to seem obvious. They all know – perhaps you don't – that our favorite color is plaid, as professional diplomats.
First of all, the diplomats are not normally "religious." I'm not speaking of their personal piety but of the lens through which they view world affairs. Of course there has been a lively debate in our country, particularly during the past generation and continuing through our latest election, about the proper role for religion in our political life. But historically we were more favorably disposed towards movements which termed themselves secular political movements. They seemed to accord much more with our own experience and our own successes.
But we forget that militant secularism can beget militancy among its opponents. Unquestionably Al Qaeda's violence, its development in that movement against established regimes, against Americans, has been in part due to the experience of some of its senior leaders who were ruthlessly oppressed when they tried to be active in their countries' public life. In Algeria one can possibly explain the savagery of Islamist factions in the 1990s as the radicalization of a movement in response to the suppression of national elections in 1992. In any event, we're still only gradually coming to understand how much religion in politics is a reality in the Muslim world and that it's naïve to talk of separating mosque and state.
Second, our own academic training conditioned us to think in terms of nation-states as the basic building block of international relations. Most Islamic movements do define their identity in terms of local nationalism but there are many who reject a nationalist orientation. They deplore the system of nation-states. They see it as a conspiracy through which the West sought to divide Muslims. But for our purposes today, I'd simply maintain that a movement such as political Islam, which seeks to strengthen the umma, the community of Islam transcending national boundaries, is harder for diplomats to analyze and to relate to than a purely national party or even regional political movements.
Third, although ambassadors and political officers are in theory expected to cover the entire political waterfront in their countries of assignment, they have to give primacy to government-to-government relations and to organized political parties, particularly those who operate publicly.
Fourth, we are constrained by the political environment of our host countries in our contacts with Islamists. It's a truism to observe that if the main objective of moderate Islamic parties is to achieve political power, the main objective of non-Islamists in power is to stay there. Islamists in most Muslim countries, far from being allowed to share power, are very far from being allowed to share power. In countries such as Syria they are rigorously oppressed.
How does this play out in an embassy setting? Our ambassador is the personal representative of our president to another chief of state. In the Third World, the conduct of an American ambassador and the contacts of the ambassador's staff are closely scrutinized by the intelligence services in both states friendly to us and our adversaries. The ambassador has to weigh the gain of getting a more complete picture of the political scene in that state through developing contacts with all elements, including Islamists, against what it may cost him in his relations with the established political leadership. These leaders view Islamists as rivals and in some cases as their bitterest enemies. He has other ways than personal contact with the Islamists to gain a better understanding of political Islam. There are many Islamist texts out there available for study. But I submit those texts are not in themselves a sure guide to how the Islamist political priorities and their programs might develop should they gain power, much less lead a government. Abdallah has referred to the common assertion that some see in the election of an Islamist as "one man, one vote, one time." It's not inevitably, always going to be the result.
A senior diplomat can delegate his juniors to the task of contacting Islamist figures. He can use the embassy's covert intelligence capabilities. He can stay in close touch with journalists. The latter can be especially helpful as an experienced foreign correspondent, like a diplomat, has to understand the overall political forces in a society and a correspondent is less subject to the constraints under which the diplomat labors. I was never personally allowed to wear a T-shirt with that inscription you refer to.
Above all, the embassy has to be responsive to the views and the policies set by Washington. Congressional and public opinion which started to form and sharpen about Islamists after the Iranian revolution, especially since 9/11, has been conditioned to see terrorist activities and Islamic militancy as all but synonymous. Accordingly, the executive branch has become cautious, some say spooked. American laws have increasingly constrained our official dealings with states supporting terrorism and groups listed as terrorist. The net effect of these several laws has blocked our diplomats from developing useful contacts with a variety of political movements under the general title of Islamist parties.
It's also true in many countries that Islamist parties often themselves avoid us. In the Arab countries with which I'm personally most familiar, the Islamist groups agree on one thing: Washington's support for the political status quo has increased the obstacles to their gaining what they consider a rightful share of power. Islamists tend to be deaf to explanations that America has important national interests to defend, such as preserving Israeli security through broadening the Arab-Israeli peace, such as energy security, and the fact that some established regimes, Egypt being a very good example, have earned our support by advancing many of those interests.
Since leaving the service, I've had the opportunities to talk with Islamists – not themselves, officials of Hamas or Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood, but those who support the programs and are familiar with the thinking of their leaderships. They all speak of resentment at being excluded from open political activity. But I found particularly interesting that as far as their programs are concerned, some are readily acknowledging that as Islamists they don't have all of the answers to providing better governance than their current political leaders are doing. They aver they're ready to abide by the democratic process, to leave office when they've lost popular confidence. They seem more aware of their need and of course the advantage to them of cooperating with other movements, other parties also critical of the current regimes but not in themselves Islamist. It's not clear in fact how far Islamists will go in cooperating with other opposition elements. Take the Taliban, for instance. It had no interest in doing so.
Conventional wisdom is that political Islam is not supportive of civil liberties, freedom of worship, women's rights. In most countries, however, we just don't know because Islamists have not taken power.
But all of this suggests to me six general conclusions. Let me briefly state them.
First, beware of treating all Islamist parties as if they are an undifferentiated bloc. Al Qaeda intended the attack of 9/11 as a blow against the United States. On the other hand, the agenda of most Islamist groups is local and nationalist.
Second, American policymakers easily, sincerely, speak of our respect for Islam as a religion, praise individual piety, but they hesitate to explore what common ground there may be between Americans and those Islamists who are emerging as prominent political leaders and who have disavowed support for violent change. Our not talking to them, our refusal to engage, reinforces their convictions that we support their exclusion from the political process.
Third, we should not shun groups just because they express criticisms, often harshly expressed, of the United States and Israel. Arabs generally, not just Islamists, flatly disagree with our stated explanations for confronting Saddam in 1991 and for invading Iraq in 2003. They see a straightforward American drive for regional hegemony to control Iraqi oil resources, to enhance the defense of Israel. It's in our interest to try to explain the complexities, the context of our policies, and do so directly with them.
Fourth, don't set the bar to that engagement too high. For instance, our insistence that the Palestinian Hamas leadership affirm its acceptance of Israel's right to exist before we will talk with it, deal with it, has made their ideological change a precondition for us to restore foreign assistance to any element of the Palestinian Authority which Hamas might be controlling. Hamas has found it impossible to reply positively. The result has been a grave deterioration, which Karen AbuZayd referred to last night, in the Palestinian economy and as far as I can see has not given any clear political advantage to Fatah as the principal opponent of Hamas.
I'm reminded uncomfortably of the position that American diplomats were obliged to observe against contacts with the PLO from 1975 to 1988. It took thirteen years for Arafat publicly to accept UN Resolutions 242 and Israel's right to exist. In my opinion, Washington in those thirteen years could have played a mediating role between Palestinians and Israelis, which might have produced an earlier and a more productive result than the Oslo Accords did. That period instead saw radicalization in the region and the birth of Al Qaeda.
Fifth, if the assumption is even partially correct that people turn to religion as a last refuge when the root causes of their dissatisfaction and their unhappiness are not addressed, we should be focusing more deliberately on the issues of unemployment, corruption and the monopoly of political power.
Finally, we should be more conscious of the impact of our political rhetoric. There is only one Islam and when we use phrases such as "Islamic extremist," "Islamic radicals," "Islamofascists"; when we compare Islam to communism and Nazism, we come across sounding as if we are anti-Islam. Such talk is helping legitimize some of the truly radical critics of American policies and pushes more moderates into the radical camp. Thank you.
Question & Answer:
Akbar Ahmed: Thank you very much, Ambassador Murphy. We heard the wisdom, the passion, the experiences of our three panelists. Unfortunately we have about fifty questions, I will not be able to go through all of them. But I will select some of the more relevant ones. Before I do, I do want to make one or two comments and take the privilege of monitoring the panel to do so.
Firstly, Abdallah Schleifer had pointed out the role of the Hizb and correctly put it in context. A generation ago this group was a very small, marginal group – some idealists, some confused young adolescents and so on – but with a vision. A generation later they moved into the mainstream. For me, as someone who grew up in South Asia, the mainstream was – growing up in the 1960s as an undergraduate – a towering figure called Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam of Pakistan. He was a towering figure because he embodied for me modern Islam. He embodied the notion of a modern state, a state and a tradition and a faith that could balance the past and the present, that could balance Islam with modernity itself. He had no complexes, he had no hang-ups. He could take on the world on his own terms and be respected and give respect in turn. One of his first statements was – there was a riot against the Hindus, he was the governor-general of Pakistan – he jumped into the fray, prevented the Hindus from being massacred in Karachi, and gave the famous statement, "I would prefer to be known as the protector-general of the Hindus in Pakistan rather than the governor-general of the state." This embodied modern Islam half a century ago.
The big question for us – and this is where I would disagree with Abdallah. I agree that there's so much pessimism in looking at the Muslim world. But there's also optimism. We do have a model like Jinnah. If only we could revive models like that from within Islamic tradition. We seem to be stuck with – and many of the questions reflect this – what is being called radical Islam on the one side and the mullahs on the one side or the military dictators on the other side, and that's it. The middle ground, the Jinnah position if you like, seems to have been wiped out.
So my urge is for all of us to try to rediscover that particular model. The world is changing, but as an anthropologist I'm always fascinated – society is not static. Society keeps changing. Once again, if we rediscover Jinnah, you are in a position then to talk about democracy, because he talked about it; human rights, women's rights – his sister led the Pakistan movement side by side with him. I'm talking about the 1930s and 1940s. Professor Faruqi is absolutely right. No one has to teach Muslims about democracy. Jinnah was not being taught about democracy from anyone. He was an indigenous, local, native response to the modern world and he was elected. He wasn't a religious figure and yet the people of South Asia elected him to the most significant political movement of the 20th century in the Muslim world, which was the creation of the largest Muslim nation on earth, which was Pakistan in 1947. So that's point number one.
Now of course, Hizb-ut-Tahrir or Al Muhajiroun, who are the successor to the Hizb, accuse and attack Jinnah. To them he is the ultimate kafir. He is the great kafir. His sin is that he talked about women's rights and minority rights. They've said this, read the journal called "Khalifa", published in 1996. There is a debate within the Muslim world and we need to know that there are positions within the Muslim world that need to be reinforced and supported so that the debate within the Muslim world can be conducted successfully.
My comment for Professor Faruqi, and I appreciate her passion – she talks and focuses on the Palestinian issue correctly. She is right. Throughout the Muslim world, I discovered on my journeys, Palestine really is a very emotional issue throughout the Muslim world. Wherever we went – Indonesia, Malaysia – Muslims would talk about Palestine with passion. They see the suffering for the last half-century and we pray that these two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, can live in friendship and harmony and security and respect each other. They are after all, as far as we are concerned, in the Abrahamic tradition and kin.
I would also urge her to show some sympathy for the Kashmiris and not to forget the Chechens and the Balkans. They are also Muslims. They have also been suffering for half a century. Too often we seem to overlook them and we simply focus on the suffering of one people.
We also need to point out the suffering of non-Muslims in Muslim societies. Sometimes, like in Pakistan, the Christians face a backlash which is very unfair and totally unacceptable. Churches are burned and Christians are attacked simply because someone may covet a piece of land or someone's cow. They are then labeled as having blasphemed against the Prophet, the blasphemy law gets involved.
So let's not simply focus on one burning issue. It is the number one issue but there are other issues equally important which involve millions and millions of people. Kashmir is important. It involves Pakistan and India, two powers, both nuclear, both have fought three wars. A war there would really involve half the world's population. So it's not a marginal, insignificant point to make.
Finally, for Ambassador Murphy, he talked about the religious tradition out there and the secular tradition here in the West, specifically the United States. I appreciate that. I appreciate his wisdom. But I would urge him to remember that from the Muslim world, again as an anthropologist, some of what he's saying simply will seem very strange. When the president of the United States is asked which is his favorite book and replies the Bible, it will be difficult to convince people in the Muslim world about the secular attitudes of American leadership. Or if you look at a little bit of history and see the relationship between some of the current players and the encouragement of the jihadists, so-called, and the religious movements of the 1980s in Afghanistan and the religious revival that took place there and the encouragement of this movement toward rediscovering a militant Islam and the very active involvement of the agencies over here and through the ISI in Pakistan – I think to simply assume that the West is secular and the other people are not secular breaks down. Vigorously, as Ambassador Murphy knows, states deploy all kinds of strategies and all kinds of under-hand tricks at times to further their own interests. When it suits people they use Islam, when it suits people they become secular. But to say that somehow the West is not promoting a religious agenda in the Muslim world does not make sense. The Taliban are a direct consequence of policies in the 1980s in that part of the world. Osama bin Laden emerges from the failed policies in the 1980s, when in the 1990s there was a complete chaos and disintegration taking place in Afghanistan. So once again, the request to look at this in a larger context with all its complexities.
With this, I will start asking the questions on your behalf.
Question: The first question is for Abdallah Schleifer. The question is: as a convert to Islam, how would you mediate between the non-Muslim world and the Muslim world, and do you yourself often find yourself caught in the middle?
Schleifer: I think in any form of mediation, the first thing one does is look for areas of agreement. Certainly I can think of any number of – broadly speaking, it's very interesting. When I sat down with Ambassador Akmed, he showed me a video he's just completed called "The Glories of Islamic Art," based on a recent trip he's made. One of the things that struck me was the fact that beauty is recognizable. I remember in the 1970s, one of the most extraordinary interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims occurred in England when the Festival Islam was organized. Hundreds of thousands of British citizens, hundreds of thousands of British students, visited museums, attended lectures, which were to a great degree devoted to the perspective of Islamic art. It was a very positive dialogue. So that's one basis I've always been drawn to, and to look for many others where there's a certain commonality.
Very few people in the West, especially those who are Christian and Jewish and concerned about that, are aware of the extraordinary commonalities that exists. I think interfaith work is very important for Muslims. I would certainly advocate Muslim organizations in the West to really engage in it. Somehow a person's perspective of what Islam is, once they get beyond the headlines of Islamic fascism or whatever and certainly the manifestations in which radical Islamism is then juxtaposed as Islam, is to discover the extraordinary commonalities. To know that the hajj has very little to do with the Prophet Muhammad. The hajj has to do with Abraham and it's a complete reenactment – it's a missing chapter of the Old Testament, the chapter that's alluded to but never got written – what happened when Abraham took Ismail and Hajjar. It's all there, it's all that, that Old Testament dimension. Or the New Testament dimension. That changes a person's attitude when they realize they're dealing with a people where there's such commonalities of conviction. To such a degree that when I'm in England and sitting with one of my friends who's an Anglo Catholic, a traditional Anglican, and I sort of tell him that as a believing Muslim I'm probably much closer to traditional Christianity than one-third of the clergy in England who reject the Virgin birth or reject many aspects of that.
So those are two areas. They're not political areas. In political areas, you look for decency. I said I was going to say something optimistic and I ran out of time, so let me say something optimistic. That is what I would call the post-Islamic movements, and I'm thinking specifically of Turkey, where you have a political party that rejects the idea that its religion is an ideology and simply offers itself as – and this is their own description – as a conservative Muslim party, a party of conservative Muslims. Very similar to the perspective, let's say, of Christian democracy or the Christian socialist movements in Europe after World War II, where the ethical dimension that they bring to bear on politics comes from their religious perspective but it's not a religious party. They draw their strengths from that perspective.
So I think: post-Islamism. It's very interesting that in the political struggles in Egypt, very cynical political struggles if you look at the whole pattern of last year's elections, the one group that nobody mentions but that was totally deprived of any ability to function was an attempt around ten years ago by a group of former Muslim Brotherhood militants to create a post-Islamist party, a party which was not an Islamist party but where clearly the values were derived from Islam. That group, between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, has been utterly marginalized.
But that's an area, certainly in Turkey, which has been very impressive and I hope we see it elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Question: You still haven't told us how you're caught in between the two, but I'll come back to that later. Professor Faruqi, a question for you regarding Palestine and the Palestinian refugees. Are the Arab countries and Iran simply politicizing the Palestinian issue to mobilize public support? If not, could you clarify the treatment of Palestinian refugees in different countries? My understanding – that of the questioner – is that they are poorly treated and discriminated against from both the government and the general public.
al-Faruqi: Yes, no doubt they are discriminated against and they're not treated well in many places. The issue I think revolves around this claim, why don't we simply have them blend in, as the founders of Zionism had said – people just going in as poor and impoverished and then blending in other areas and countries. The Muslim world has actually refused to accept this – that is, to have Lebanon make them become Lebanese. Lebanon has its own problems of different factions and the equilibrium of society there.
But basically the issue for most of the Muslims is that this is a way, an argument to deny the Palestinians their rights. The rights remain, whether they are actually integrated in a society or not. The rights remain. If you're going to claim on biblical ground that any, let's say, Jew has the right to return to Israel from having been born for generations in the West or wherever, then even more so for a Palestinian who's lived all his life in Palestine, who owns land there, who has been dispossessed. Whether he is integrated or remains in refugee camps, that does not negate or nullify those rights.
However, yes, they are not treated well and the issue is used politically and for political means. But the reason why it resonates with the masses is that it is a true issue. There is no way of denying that. All Muslims will say that. I will challenge you to find a Muslim who will tell you they don't want the rights for the Palestinians. Find one.
Question: Ambassador Murphy, a question for you. The questioner hasn't written his name down but obviously he contains a great deal of wit in the way he's framed the question. Why does anyone want to be an American diplomat in the Middle East? Hated in the Middle East and totally unappreciated at home. Whoever asked that question, thank you.
Murphy: I come from New England. It's perfectly natural to seek out that kind of misery.
al-Faruqi: I'm sorry, but I have to jump in and answer this one. We want the American diplomats. We want them to be there. Most of them are very human people who recognize the issues and try to work. There is no actual hatred by the Muslim people against the Americans and American diplomats. There is rejection of policy but not of people.
Murphy: She said it all.
Question: Ambassador Murphy, I will not allow you to be a diplomat in this gathering of scholars. Please elaborate on that. Do you think there is a predicament? There is a serious side to this. It is a difficult situation. I've traveled in the Middle East and I've found the American diplomats excellent officers who are really constrained. They couldn't come out of their high-security walls in the embassies. They could not mingle easily. In a sense they were at a disadvantage. With the American team I could joke with them and say, America is a superpower, Pakistan is an ordinary Asian country, but I found in Damascus and Amman that the Pakistani counterparts were free. They could mingle, they could walk around, they had great influence. They had great networks which they could use. I was just making this comparison that with the vast resources, it does constrain the Americans. Maybe they need to be changing their style, their substance, their approaches. I don't know. So a comment from you would be appreciated.
Murphy: I would repeat that after being harassed mercilessly in any meeting with any Arab of my acquaintance about our policies, the last minute fills us again with optimism – they say, but you're not all that bad yourself. That makes the specialty that I chose – let me be frank about why I went open-eyed into it. I chose the Arabic language course the State Department offered back in 1959, spent a year and a half in Beirut studying Arabic, because I wanted to work in an area which looked as if it would, perhaps for my career, stay of concern to the United States. My career officially ended in 1989, so my ability to predict the region's staying power as one of interest and critical nature to the United States was pretty poor. But the vast engagement of American domestic opinion in Middle Eastern developments, be they strongly on the Zionist side or not Zionist, but the concern about the Middle East, about the Holy Land, concern that our government had then about the importance of energy and energy security, which Secretary Bodman started us off with yesterday – it was already evident at that time. It just seemed that – I'll also be frank – there were one or two countries that were offered as hard language areas to specialize in but it meant that if you took – I hope there are no Japanese or Chinese diplomats here – if you went there, you were going to serve between Washington and Taiwan. You were going to serve in Washington or in one of the consulates in Tokyo or the embassy. But in the Arab world, I already had thirteen posts where I could serve and a whole variety of countries stretching across the Arab world, from Morocco through Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula. So it offered importance and variety in a career.
And as I say, it helps to come from New England.
Question: Abdallah, why is the Arab world so divided? Apart from the fact that they depend heavily on the United States for their survival, can they generate their own resources to mobilize and become a coherent force?
Schleifer: I don't know the answer to that at all. I pass. The only thing that strikes me is it depends on what you mean by divided. If you're talking about political division or whatever, this is sort of a universal state of politics that you'll find elsewhere.
What's more stunning I think is on a state to state basis – because the other is you could say the Arab world is like anywhere else in the world except more so. More long-term engaging crisis, like the Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which has sort of engaged and affected the region for so long. But it's like other regions. But it's on a state to state basis that I'm puzzled. Why is that for all of the rhetorical commitment of an Arab nation, which certainly dominated politics when I first appeared there and still carries over in the sense that the Arab dimension and the Islamist dimensions are not nearly as opposite as they appeared to be thirty years. In many ways now they are sort of in the same trenches. The rhetoric sort of overflows.
No, I'm talking about the state system. Why is it that that state system has failed more so than any other regional state system that I can think of? The degree of trade relations. The lack of regional action. Sub-Saharan Africa can act in terms of peace-keeping missions with greater promptness and effectiveness than the Arab League does. When you think of all the catastrophic situations which the Arab League has not acted on – whether we're looking at Sudan, Algeria, Iraq. One thing about the Palestinian issue, and I think this is something that some members of the panel have alluded to, is that very often it was a convenient way for ignoring other terribly tragic situations, like what was happening to the Kurds and Shi'ites in Saddamist Iraq. It was like minimal interest in that throughout the Arab world.
So why is it that the state system has failed more so than in any other region? I don't know the answer but it's an interesting question.
Question: Professor Faruqi, there's a question about the role of the madrassah. How are the teachings in the madrassah, the teaching of – I'm quoting the questioner – hatred towards the West – or are these teachings being misunderstood in the West?
al-Faruqi: The madrassahs are simply the age-old ways by which you got some kind of literacy and teaching and learning the Qur'an. That's basically all the madrassahs do, teach the Qur'an and have the students learn the Qur'an and memorize the Qur'an. That's what 99 percent of them do. That's the basis of the madrassah, it's the fundamental basic education that you would get in the remotest villages in the Muslim world.
So to associate them with actually teaching hatred is really to try and pass this argument that teaching Islam is teaching hatred. That is a very dangerous argument. The fact that people go back to their religion to justify violence or anger is something that is normal, to some extent. This is part of that culture. However their anger or hatred is based, I repeat this again and again, on political issues, not on the hatred of the Swedes because they are Swedes or the Americans because they are Americans. But basically because of specific interventions, political issues. There can be abuse of course of such problems for political purposes. But really it is not in the teaching of Islam, and that's what madrassahs generally do.
I would say incidentally about this conflation of religion and – no doubt, Islam is going to affect everything that the Muslims do. It's a matter of fact. But so does it here. Do not tell me that evangelical Christianity and certain Jewish Zionists are not basically justifying a push for certain policies on the basis of biblical justification, divine justification of taking over a holy land. If we are going to say this, we are lying to ourselves. Religion plays a role everywhere – in the West, in the Muslim world, everywhere. It is part of the culture, it is going to affect it.
Religion can play a role in this way, kind of negatively, but ultimately religion can and will play a role positively, because a religion holds you to moral values. You can't ask a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim to endorse killing and stealing and rejection of the other. Ultimately within the texts of each of these traditions, you will get the basis of tolerance. Proper that it return to religion, to religious texts, and as Abdallah said, talk between these groups is the way to resolve the issues. Certainly not through violent means.
Questions: I’m going to ask Professor Abdallah to comment on the same issue. Before that, I want to make a comment on the madrassahs. I had occasion to talk to President Musharraf in Pakistan and ask him about madrassahs, because the real question of course is the madrassahs in Pakistan, not a theoretical discussion on madrassahs, which everyone knows are simply religious schools and have produced some of the most glorious aspects of Islamic civilization – the great madrassahs of Bukhara and Baghdad and so on. We know about them.
He gave a very interesting answer to my question about the madrassahs. He said, I am under pressure from the West because they don't understand what a madrassah is. They think it's a little nursery to educate terrorists, simple as that. So they simply say, close these damn madrassahs. He said, if I close the madrassahs, I will have millions of young Pakistani boys running around, going off to the mountains and getting involved in all kinds of activities. Some of them may be violent, some of them may be jihad-oriented, some of them may cross into Afghanistan. What do you do then?
So he said, my strategy, much more difficult, is to try to reform the madrassah from within, which is to change the syllabi, change the way these students are taught. Have teacher training programs for the teachers. That really is a long-term and much more complex way of dealing with the madrassah and a less emotional way. But he did point out that he was under extreme pressure from the West with this knee-jerk kind of response to simply close the madrassahs and all the problems of Pakistan will go away. They won't. We heard the comment from Professor Faruqi.
Schleifer: Madrassahs have been around for a thousand years. For nine hundred of those years they did not generate extremism or fanaticism – quite the contrary. One could argue in many ways that as a traditional system in which traditional Islam – which in Egypt we associate with Al-Azhar, for instance, or with the Sufi toriq – was transmitted to broad numbers of youth prior to the Egyptian revolution, where everybody had a few years in the Egyptian equivalent of the madrassah. Their sense of Qur'an was a very traditional sense of Qur'an. You could partially suggest that it's precisely the destruction of such traditional organizations that happened after the Egyptian revolution that created a certain void in which a highly political Islam would subsequently enter.
One of the things that's very striking to note, and I see it living in Fayoum and I've seen it over and over again – invariably the areas that are most open to very radical Islamism are areas which prior to that have been highly secularized. For instance, when I lived in Beirut the very population, the very group that is now the community in southern Beirut that rallies to Hizbullah, thirty years ago was the hope of the Lebanese Communist Party. They were highly secularized, they had been torn away from the traditional countryside. The Lebanese Communist Party indeed relied on them. I remember all sorts of scholarly works by some of my colleagues at AUB, where I got my master's degree. The professors were talking about how this was the future of proletarian Lebanon. Then these areas switch over.
The problem with the madrassahs is not the madrassah per se. For instance, in Indonesia the largest Muslim group in Indonesia, which is a traditional group, which sends its youth movement during Christmas out to protect churches from being attacked by extremists, their whole system is rooted in a traditional madrassah system.
On the other hand, we can't deny the fact that madrassahs, particularly in Pakistan and along the border with Afghanistan, were the recipients of funding and encouragement and ideological inputs which had nothing to do with the traditional madrassah program from groups, particularly in the Arab world, that identified very much with what would be considered extremist versions of Islam. That's the problem, not the madrassah system per se.
Question: Ambassador Murphy, is promoting democracy in the Arab or Muslim world in the US national interest?
Murphy: Is it in our national interest to promote democracy? It's in our national interest, to take one step sideways, to remain true to our values. It's not going to be taken as in the interests of many regimes which we support, which we work with very closely. But I find if they get fussed, at the same time they shrug it off and say, well, Americans are like that.
I don't see how we can not talk about democracy and the values that it's meant to us and what we stand for in our own country. We have to be certainly a lot more sensitive to how it can be spread by us. Some say the problem is we try to impose it on others, to impose the American system – in terms of two houses and a Congress and a presidential term and elections. We've made mistakes and we have seen the problems created when we emphasize elections in societies and countries which have not had the development of the civil institutions which form the context in which the sort of democracy we've advocated can spread. They can be twisted, they can be perverted and manipulated for purposes which are not ones we support. I'm having to stay very general on this, but I think we do have to be careful in saying we've got all the answers, they're summed up in freedom and democracy. It's worked extraordinarily well for our country. Our forms have worked extraordinarily well. They've worked in different ways in Western Europe. I think we have to find a way to present the concepts and values of democracy and freedom in a way which is understood. It's worked for us – would you like to try it? Don't come across as evangelists saying we've got all the answers.
In that connection, I hear the same reaction from some in the Muslim world. I can remember a senior Saudi saying that the problem we have had in spreading the word about the value of the Salafi practice of Islam is that we have sent out too many stupid emissaries to teach the ignorant. That's a recognition that there needs to be profound studies of your own values and presentation in a way which is less coming as if from on high – the only solution is to do it our way. But I see the same reaction on the part of Islamic leaders as they watch the spread of their faith.
Akbar Ahmed: I will conclude by making one observation. It's been a fascinating discussion because these three extraordinary panelists are really activists. They are involved, they have a passion for their subject. But I do want to inject a note of optimism for all of you. It is born of a very interesting intersection of Israel, Pakistan, Islam, Judaism, America, the Muslim world. That is the example of my friend Judea Pearl, the father of Danny Pearl. I was with him yesterday in Canada in one of our dialogues. I really was thinking this morning that here is the extraordinary story of a man who lost his only son to what we call terrorists, who slit his throat and put that on video. That is not an Islamic action at all and was condemned roundly by everyone. He converted that personal tragedy into an effort – and now a very successful effort – in bridge-building with the Muslim world. That has picked up so much momentum outside government circles that it is changing the way that Jews and Muslims and Americans and Muslims are able to relate to each other, talk to each other, and from that dialogue hopefully create friendship.
So I leave you with that optimistic note. A happy and round and loud applause for our panelists.