Sunday, September 5, 2010

The "Ground Zero Mosque": a Teacheable Moment?

The New Middle East is a blog intended not only to offer analysis but to suggest solutions to the problems of the Middle East as well. In that spirit, I examine one of the latest issues to bedevil American politics and create much controversy and acrimony, the so-called “Ground-Zero Mosque.”

This posting makes two fundamental points. First, by not confronting the controversy, the US encourages distorted stereotypes that the US is engaged in a “war on Islam.” Second, this controversy offers the possibility to confront head on the misunderstandings that exist in the US about Islam and Americans of the Muslim faith. For Muslims outside the US, such an approach can clarify how Islam is treated in the US. In other words, the controversy surrounding the lower Manhattan Islamic center can become a “teachable moment.”

First, let’s clarify some issues. There is no “Ground-Zero Mosque.” The 13 floor Islamic Center that is proposed in lower Manhattan will be a multi-use building. It will include a conference center, auditorium, swimming pool and a prayer area. It will not be a mosque. Second, it is not at Ground Zero, but two blocks away. Third, the builders of the community center are within their constitutional rights to derive benefits from their property and to enjoy one of our most cherished protections, namely freedom of religion.

Apart from these facts, Park 51, the group that seeks to build the proposed Islamic community center, has been accused of being “insensitive” to the feelings of Americans who lost loved ones during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and non-Muslim Americans generally. Here the controversy takes on a particularly troubling tone. The assumption underlying the “insensitivity” argument is that the attack on the United States was an attack by Islam. In other words, because the attackers were Muslim, 9/11 represents, in a larger sense, an attack by Muslims on the US.

It is clear, from numerous eye witness accounts, that the leader of the 9/11 terrorists, Muhammad Atta, was someone who enjoyed spending time in bars, drinking and playing video games. This is hardly the behavior of someone whose motivations for attacking the World Trade Center were religious in nature. If his hostile act was motivated by religious feelings, one would think that he would have spent time engaged in reading holy texts and religious reflection. Instead, his behavior points to the fallacy of seeing the 9/11 attacks as linked to Islam. It underscores the manner in which some Middle Easterners have attempted to use Islam in extremist ways to create hostility towards the West. What is really at work is the attempt to legitimize terrorist acts that are political in nature, by tying them in a perverse way to religion.

Most radical Islamists have no more than a superficial understanding of Islam. This became clear to me many years ago when I first began analyzing radical Islamist movements while analyzing trial proceedings of members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. When asked by a judge, himself thoroughly conversant in Islamic (as well as civil) law, as to why they had engaged in acts of violence, the accused tried to justify their atcs by invoking Islam. However, when the judge asked them to explain how what they did related to Islam, all they could provide was slogans. It was apparent that their efforts to justify their behavior in religious terms was not only superficial but wrong.

An American parallel to these extremist groups is the Ku Klux Klan. Just because the Klan has used the burning cross as its symbol, does not make it a Christian organization. This is also true of many other radical groups in the United States, such as the Posse Comitatus and the Aryan Nation. Efforts to evoke a bogus “tradition” to support their ideology and behavior is not supported by the historical record. Whether the Klan or al-Qa’ida, what we are really seeing is an “invented religion” that is not recognizable by the overwhelming majority of orthodox believers.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Islamic community center controversy is how it plays out in Muslim majority countries throughout the world. Many of this countries are our close allies, such as Turkey, Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim country), Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Arab Gulf states. How can the US win over public opinion in these countries when it appears to their citizens that restrictions exist on the ability of Muslims to practice their faith in the US? If political authorities were to prevent the Islamic community center from being built, this would enable anti-American elements to accuse the government of supporting “attacks on Islam” and working against the country’s national interests. This who seek to manipulate the controversy for political ends do not realize the damage they are doing to US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Many analysts argue that the controversy is all about the coming November congressional elections. While there is truth ins this assertion, the problem of Muslim minorities in Western countries is much larger one. It is clear that the US economic crisis and the changing demographics. Paralleling ethnic and racial conflict in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much of the controversy today is based on fear. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (like myself) are a declining ethnic demographic as we move to a majority Latino and East Asian society. We will not solve our economic woes and reverse the changing ethnic and religious makeup of the US through conflict. As the examples drawn from our earlier history show, only dialogue and education can create meaningful solutions.

How then can the controversy become a teachable moment? One way would be to create a presidential council on interfaith dialogue in the US. This would include clergy of all the major faiths in the US to meet on a regular basis and make recommendations to the President and Congress on how to promote religious tolerance and to confront problems that reflect religious tensions. Another efforts could entail a series of national town meetings - broadcast around the world - in which President Obama brings together clerics from major faiths to discuss the basic tenets of our country’s different religions, to emphasize the many ways in which they share values and beliefs, and how different religious groups are cooperating to solve economic, social and cultural problems throughout the country.

Many Americans have little understanding of Islam, which is understandable given the relative lack of study of Islam in our educational system. Many Americans think Islam is a political ideology. Others think it is a religion that has borrowed from Judaism and Christianity, the other great Abrahamic faiths, and thus is not a true religion at all. But even a superficial study of Islam indicates that it views itself as completing God’s prophetic message that began with Judaism and Christianity.

Throughout Muslim countries, one finds the names Musa (Moses), Aisa (Jesus), Ishaq (Isaac), Ibrahim (Abraham), Mariam (Mary) and Yusif (Joseph), reflecting that the prophets of Judaism and Christianity are also those of Islam. In the Qur’an, Christ has the power to make the dead living, a power not ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad, who is considered the last (seal) of God’s prophets. That the prophets of Judaism and Christianity are also considered prophets b y Islam explains why the Qur’an reads in many places like the Torah and the Bible. But unlike Christ, Muhammad was someone who was chosen, for reasons known only to God, to bring the final part of his prophetic message to mankind.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States. Millions of Muslims contribute on a daily basis to making the United States a better country. To give an example, this past year, Hany Mawla, an American of Egyptian heritage, left his law firm to become the first Muslim (and youngest) Superior Court judge in the State of New Jersey. A graduate of Rutgers University’s Department of Political Science, where I had the pleasure to work with him, Judge Mawla was formerly the president of the State of New Jersey Arab-American Heritage Commission. Under his leadership the commission worked with other heritage commissions, such as State of New Jersey Holocaust and Amistad commissions, to develop educational curricula that help promote greater understanding between Islam, Judaism and Christianity and between Caucasians and African Americans in New Jersey.

In a larger context, the hostility towards Islam in certain quarters in their country continues a tradition extending back to the 19th century when the Irish Italians, East Europeans, Slavs, Jews and Chinese all found themselves facing discrimination after emigrating to the United States. The anti-immigrant activities of the American or "Know Nothing" Party and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were only the opening salvos of a "culture war" that has been going on up to the present. In the 1960 presidential election, John Kennedy, as a Roman Catholic, had to assure American voters that he would not follow orders from the Pope. At that time, Paul Blanchard' s book, American Freedom and Catholic Power, was still popular in many Protestant circles.

Islam has been part of the US' cultural fabric since the early days of the Republic. John Adams praised the Prophet Muhammad in his writings. The famous author, Washington Irving, wrote the best selling Mahomet and his Successors, in 1850, which followed his equally popular, Tales of the Alhambra, about the famous mosque in Muslim Spain. The first American mosque was built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1934, even though Muslim communities existed well before that. As Islam becomes known to more non-Muslim Americans, we can expect that it will enter the cultural mainstream and that Muslims, from a variety of national backgrounds will, like other immigrant groups before them no longer be viewed in hostile terms.

The question at the end of the day is the following: wouldn’t the United States be better off as a society were it to try and tackle the misunderstanding and lack of knowledge surrounding Islam, rather than trying to politicize it? Islam is only going to grow as a religion in the United States. It is time to confront that fact rather than sweep it under the carpet.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Operation New Dawn: A Serious Policy Initiative
or a Codeword for Leaving Iraq ?

What can we expect from Operation New Dawn? Does this policy have any substance or is it just a cover for the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq? If the latter is the case, this is a great mistake because the stakes in Iraq are extremely high, not just for Iraqis and the US, but for the entire Middle East. If Iraq can continue to develop politically and economically, its current government crisis notwithstanding, its impact on a region where democracy is largely non-existent could be salutary indeed. While the contours of Operation New Dawn are still in formation, the tenor of President Obama’s speech on Iraq last evening certainly did not leave the impression that the US views Iraq as a critical component of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Despite continued violence and the inability of Iraq’s political elite to form a government following the March 2010 national parliament (Council of Representatives) elections, Iraq has nevertheless made considerable progress towards democracy. Free and transparent parliamentary elections were held in January and December 2005 and in March 2010. Arab provincial legislative elections in January 2009 and Kurdish Regional Government parliament elections in July 2009 brought many new legislators into the political process. Voter turnout has reached or exceeded 60% and has been as high as 70% in Iraq's Kurdish region. Voters have shown considerable maturity in voting for services instead of supporting sectarian parties. In the March 2010 national parliamentary elections, all political parties were forced to make cross-ethnic appeals and 62% of the sitting delegates lost their seats due to their perceived incompetence. Over 20% of the new delegates are under the age of 40, indicating that young Iraqis are interested in politics. In a March 2009 poll, 64% of Iraqis said that democracy is the best form of government. In Iraq’s Kurdish region, a new democratic movement, Gorran (Change), is challenging the entrenched, authoritarian political elite controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Clearly, democracy enjoys widespread support in Iraq.

Rather than helping Iraq consolidate these gains, the US is shifting its focus to Afghanistan, threatening the progress it has made to date. The disastrous consequences of Western inaction in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s defeat in late 2001 behoove the US not to make the same mistake again in Iraq. The West and the Afghani people are now paying the price for the international community's failure to deliver on the numerous promises of development aid that never materialized.

Now that Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended, US policy-makers assume that the US’s future role must be limited to military training and urging Iraq’s political elite to adopt a more civic approach to politics. This minimalist approach is deeply flawed. Rather than acting like nervous spectators, the Obama administration should adopt a bold international initiative that addresses the many problems that threaten to send Iraq back to the violent conflict of the pre-2008 period. Without such help, Iraq will find it difficult to continue to democratize.

At this critical juncture, the Obama administration’s international reconstruction initiative should include the European Union, our Arab oil-producing allies, and moderate Islamic states such as Indonesia and Malaysia to address Iraq’s myriad problems. A serious shortage of services has created deep resentment among Iraqis. Electricity levels have improved little since 2003. June riots in Basra and the south over the lack of electricity left at least two people dead. Medical care is sporadic and jobs are hard to find. Unemployment is especially high among Iraqi youth, who constitutes 65% of the population under the age of 25. Demand for education is high, but only the private system meets the needs of more affluent Iraqis.

Due to the Iran-Iraq War, the bloody uprising against Saddam Hussein following the 1991 Gulf War, and post-2003 sectarian violence, Iraq has a disproportionately large number of female headed households. Mothers are often forced to send their children to join criminal and even terrorist organizations because otherwise they face starvation. Former Awakening Movement members, who helped the US defeat al-Qaida in Iraq, may be returning to the insurgency because the jobs they were promised haven’t materialized.

This social and economic environment is tailor made for a revival of insurgent groups such as al-Qaida’s front organization, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq. Even if the US can create an efficient Iraqi army and police force, and cajole Iraq’s political elite to form a new government, none of this will matter if the populace cannot find jobs and obtain basic services. Extensive government corruption (Iraq is 175 of 180 countries on Transparency International’s list of most corrupt countries) pours more oil on the fire. As Iraq signs more contracts with foreign oil companies and oil revenues increase, popular resentment will only rise. The disconnect between the lifestyles of Iraq’s political class and the deprivation suffered by much of the populace at large creates the “perfect storm” for renewed violence and instability.

The US already has an effective model in place for helping Iraq address its social reconstruction needs in the form of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Developed in embryo by US forces in Iraq, the PRTs were later formalized by General David Petreaus and former Ambassador Ryan Crocker to provide Iraqis with critical services. Where implemented, the Iraq PRT model has been enormously successful. Rather than following a top-down approach, the PRTs help Iraqis implement projects that they define. The result has not only been successful projects but the creation of strong ties between Americans and Iraqis who feel that they are being listened to and respected by the US.

Instead of reducing its scope as the Obama administration has proposed, the PRT model should be expanded. As part of an international effort, it could be funded in large part by our wealthy oil-producing allies. Saudi Arabia has every interest in a stable and prosperous Iraq so as to limit Iran’s influence there. (And Iraqis have consistently made clear that, while they seek good relations with Iran, they do not want the Islamic Republic to meddle in their internal affairs.) For the Arab Gulf monarchies that have large restive Shiite populations, good ties with Iraq, a majority Shiite country, can provide political benefits at home. And investing in social reconstruction can bring enormous future economic dividends to those who help Iraq now once its oil and natural gas industries are modernized and develop.

Rather than nervously biting our nails in the hope that Iraq will become politically stable, the US must be more proactive. A dramatic increase in technical support not only provides jobs for Americans but wins the gratitude of Iraqis, especially if they, not the US, continue to set the development agenda. If situated within an international effort, and funded by our allies, providing this technical support will not tax our overstretched budget. Failure is not an option in Iraq, especially with Iran, a would-be nuclear power, on its border. Iraq, like Afghanistan, is a long-term project and one that requires creativity to achieve success. If the US really takes democracy seriously in Iraq, it should heed the Arab proverb, “patience is the key to happiness.”