Monday, August 4, 2008

A New and More Dangerous Era Part II


By Anthony J. Dennis

2nd part of 3


In addition to instituting strict Islamic rule inside their own countries, fundamentalists from several different areas of the Muslim world also have advocated a program of cultural destruction which ought to be roundly condemned by Muslim and non-Muslim alike. In Turkey, the Islamic party, known formerly as the Refah (Welfare) Party and more recently as the Islamic Virtue Party, advocated banning ballet as a degenerate art form and the closing of women’s shelters. The party has also advocated the destruction of those historical monuments and archeological sites within Turkey that do not glorify the nation’s Muslim past. At one point, the fundamentalist mayor of Istanbul even called for the destruction of the magnificent and historic Byzantine-era walls around the city. It was only after the threat of an international outcry and expected pressure from Turkey’s secular national government that this program of cultural destruction was at least temporarily abandoned. Nothing in the Qur`an would appear to authorize, let alone compel, this kind of cultural vandalism yet these disturbing initiatives appear to be part and parcel of the fundamentalists’ domestic program.

Farther east in Afghanistan, the Taliban engaged in the most infamous act of cultural vandalism in recent times when, in March, 2001, it ordered and swiftly carried out the destruction of thousands of irreplaceable, ancient Buddhist statues that resided in the Kabul Museum and the dynamiting of the two largest, stone-carved Buddhas in the world at Bamiyan. The Taliban claim they were compelled in the name of Islam to engage in this morally bankrupt action. Having destroyed an irreplaceable part of our world heritage, the Taliban has now proceeded to require Afghan citizens who happen to be Hindu to wear a special identifying yellow badge on the outside of their clothing reminiscent of the yellow Star of David which Jewish citizens were required to wear in Nazi Germany. With each passing year, it seems the political agenda of the Muslim fundamentalist movement becomes more morally and ethically disturbing.



Although I find the human rights abuses and the persecution of religious minorities (both of which lie outside the scope of this essay) extremely troubling from a moral as well as an international human rights law perspective, it is the fundamentalists’ implacably hostile foreign policy and highly emotional rhetoric demonizing America and other Western nations which is of most concern to me because of the implications for future acts of terrorism against the West and because of the national security implications generally. We all know and have heard the slogans uttered by the highest levels of successive Iranian governments over the last twenty-two years which characterize America as “the Great Satan”. This has been followed by chants of “Death to America!” in officially organized street demonstrations in Teheran. Sadly, this kind of rhetoric is common in fundamentalist circles and represents yet another barrier to productive communication between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.

A few more examples, out of many that could be recited, should suffice: In 1993 Sheikh al-Tamimi, then the leader of Islamic Jihad, was publicly quoted as saying, “I pray that Allah may tear apart America just as the Soviet Union was torn apart.”9 For his part, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman made many tapes for his followers in which he called the US a “den of evil and fornication”.10 More recently Osama bin Laden called the US “the head of the snake”. Besides the bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on August 7, 1998 which left 257 dead, Osama bin Laden is perhaps best known in the West for his February 23, 1998 fatwa or religious decree calling for Muslims worldwide to kill Americans and their allies – civilians and military – wherever and whenever they can find them. “This is an individual duty for every Muslim” and “is in accordance with the words of Almighty God,” stated bin Laden as part of his decree.

Even the Palestinian Authority has gotten into the act. On July 22, 1997 The Wall Street Journal carried an excerpt of a July 11th sermon of Palestinian Authority Mufti Ikrama Sabri (an Arafat appointee, noted the Journal) at the al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Sabri publicly prayed in part: “Oh Allah, destroy America, for she is ruled by Zionist Jews…Allah will paint the White House black!”11 At the time Arafat’s appointee was publicly praying for the literal destruction of the United States and its historic symbol, the White House, American taxpayers were providing Arafat’s organization with millions of dollars in aid as part of the Clinton Administration’s efforts to buy peace in the Middle East.



There are several reasons for the Muslim fundamentalist world’s hatred of the West. First of all, as a puritanical movement aspiring to return Islamic society to the early days of the faith, Islamic fundamentalism by definition is hostile to any outside influence that makes the achievement of that objective harder to attain. The world has become smaller with the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, the globalization of trade and the ease with which non-Western populations are able to access Western music, movies, theater, literature, television shows and so forth. These developments are taken as a serious cultural threat by fundamentalist leaders who have called the Western cultural onslaught “Westoxification”. Hence, we see vigorous efforts in many traditional Islamic countries to confiscate and destroy satellite dishes and radios as a way to prevent ordinary Muslim citizens from being exposed to Western culture and the free expression of ideas.

Hatred of the West also springs from feelings of jealousy, resentment and insecurity, and an inclination at times to blame others for one’s own problems.12 If the fundamentalists are living and governing according to God’s law as they believe, then why, might they ask, is their civilization less advanced, their military less powerful, their people less healthy and less wealthy than the infidels living in the West? This is a source of great consternation and embarrassment to the fundamentalists. The fundamentalists view themselves as the heirs of the ancient Arabic Empire founded by the Prophet, and they are acutely conscious of their failure to live up to that grand inheritance. They are also painfully aware of the fact that the material, scientific, political, military and technological achievements of Western civilization dwarf the achievements of their own Islamic civilization in the modern age. Instead of blaming themselves, at some level they blame America and the West for reminding them of their own failings. The unqualified triumph of the West in defeating the Soviet Union in a virtually bloodless fight only adds to the pressure the fundamentalists feel either to define an alternative Islamic world order or be forced to fall in line with Western values and political and economic ideals.

Fundamentalists, of course, take their hatreds and insecurities to extreme and unprecedented levels. They want to do more than simply expunge Western influences from their own societies and define their own alternative Islamic political order. These groups and governments have declared a rhetorical as well as a literal war on America and its allies. As L. Paul Bremer, former head of the United States State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism, has stated:

The agenda of these people [Muslim fundamentalists] is to attack us for what we are... They don’t like American culture, our movies, pornography, women, etc. It’s something very hard for Americans who live in a multi-cultured and secular society to understand.13

Unlike the IRA or the Basque separatists, the Muslim fundamentalists aren’t seeking merely the transfer of territory or the release of political prisoners. Nor is it America’s longstanding record of friendly relations with Israel which alone make it a prime fundamentalist target. The stark and simple fact is the fundamentalists hate Americans (and other Westerners) for who we are and therefore, there is nothing we can do, no cognizable demands we could ever satisfy, short of stepping into a cultural gas chamber that would ever satisfy the essential demands of the Muslim fundamentalists.



President Mohammad Khatami of Iran deserves mention for the novelty of his ideas and the courageousness with which he has expressed them. He is that rare and endangered creature – a moderate politician in a fundamentalist Muslim state. Khatami is important because if the “Khatami revolution” sweeps away the unreconstructed aspects of the Iranian revolution leaving Iran with a less confrontational, more moderate and participatory form of Islamic-based government, then such an event will have removed one of the biggest stars in the fundamentalist constellation.

In his writings and public pronouncements, Mohammad Khatami has attempted to replace conflict between Islamic civilization and the Judeo-Christian West with dialogue.14 Khatami uttered his now famous call for a “dialogue among civilizations” in an hour-long interview on the Cable News Network (CNN) which was broadcast worldwide on January 7, 1998. His statements stand in stark contrast both to the statements of the transnational fundamentalist movement and to the remarks of many of his colleagues in the Iranian government, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who continues to adhere to a harsh, anti-American and anti-Western line. The appearance of individuals like Mohammad Khatami is a hopeful development because it provides an individual with whom it is potentially possible to have a peaceful and productive dialogue and because it breaks the monopoly the fundamentalists have held on much of the political speech emanating from the Islamic world of late. If Khatami survives and succeeds in his political quest, his presence will give powerful encouragement to other moderate, democratic forces working from within the Muslim world to combat the fundamentalists.

Anthony J. Dennis

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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