As revelations emerge of more and more American citizens becoming receptive to the Jihadist message- from Nidal Hassan to the Minnesota Somalians to the five Americans most recently captured in Pakistan- we must increasingly ask ourselves what is so appealing about this radical ideology. What motivates these people and why do they choose violence? Moreover, why are moderate Muslim voices so silent about the brutal acts of their more extremist faithful? Why do a bunch of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad earn more Muslim ire than suicide bombers that kill innocent Muslims or Chinese authorities that brutalize Muslim Uighurs? This is a valid question that a number of Western intellectuals, like Tom Friedman and Moises Naim, have rightly raised. Angry demonstrations, burned out consulates, and protesting Arab diplomats greeted the publication of the Danish cartoons, considered by many Muslims as blasphemous for ignoring the orthodox Islamic prohibition on physical representations of the prophet. For many in the West this goes to the heart of the Muslim bias against the West- Muslim thought leaders have the time to rail against a silly cartoon in a country with a free press that does not discriminate when it comes to faith bashing, but they utter scarcely a shout when there is innocent blood, mostly Muslim blood, on the streets.
Perhaps the key attribute uniting the motivations of all radicalized Muslims is the perception that Islam itself is under attack from the West and must be defended. This is Al Qaeda’s central call to arms- that American and Israeli hegemony in the region, backed by client regimes from Egypt to Turkey, are shedding the blood of innocents from Gaza to Afghanistan. But Muslim insecurity on this issue has been long standing, it hasn’t simply emerged since 9/11 when America and the West suddenly became interested in the psychology of Muslims around the world. It stretches back over centuries of declining empire and global status. This is critical historical context that many of our policy makers either don’t appreciate or don’t care to understand.
We must remember that at one time the Islamic world was the known world, a vast empire stretching from Spain to China. Military might was not its sole achievement. There were vast libraries devoted to Plato and Galen when Europe had long forgotten these masters of Greek reason. There were agricultural and mathematical innovations that gave us the words for sugar and algorithm. Jews and Christians were taxed and probably discriminated against, but they nonetheless thrived in multi-ethnic cities where religious minorities governed themselves by their own laws at a time when Europe was butchering other religions. The wealth, knowledge and relative tolerance of medieval Muslim cities dwarfed anything on the planet.
Then, things changed, as they often do. Europe began to get its act together at the same time that the Islamic world fell into a vicious spiral of religious regression and bad governance. Societies rarely develop in a straight line. A rising Europe seized its chance- by the eve of World War II most of the Muslim world had been carved up and apportioned between the great powers. Herein lies a second source of the Muslim insecurity towards the West- when European powers colonized Muslim lands, they often used the rhetoric of bringing civilization, bringing real freedom and prosperity, to the Islamic world to justify their control. Sound familiar? This is why the suspicion runs high, and why Western cartoons garner more attention than Jihadists and have a ready and willing audience among the Muslim masses. There is a long history here that our intellectuals don’t bother to explain.
The past shouldn’t be an excuse for Muslims. They cannot ignore the glaring hypocrisy of their actions when they protest a lampooning cartoon and remain silent on the violent perversions that are distorting their own faith. But unfortunately, in a region where memories are long, the past cannot be just dismissed and overcome in a matter of decades. It does not help, of course, that the previous U.S. administration used rhetoric that was for many Muslims reminiscent of colonial times to justify their military adventures. This has continued under the Obama administration in Afghanistan, although more effort has been made to emphasize the self determination of the Afghan people.
There are also potent signs that this Muslim silence is changing as a new generation emerges. Half the population in the Muslim world is under 30. This demographic time bomb is more interested in Facebook and mobile phones than they are in tradition and paranoia. In Iran, a reform movement is now openly condemning the complete failure of political Islam in that country. In Turkey, an historically paranoid political system obsessed with secularism at all costs is learning to live with a moderate Muslim political party in power. Youth movements in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan are rejecting violence propagated either by their secular governments or the various Islamic movements that are increasingly opting to participate in the political system rather than outside of it.
How can we encourage and facilitate this positive change? It means devoting more resources to things like technology and civil society development. (not as profitable as a missile defense system that doesn’t even work or a fighter jet that crashes in the rain, but far more effective and less costly). And less resources to the kind of large-scale military adventurism that ultimately convinces some moderate Muslims they need to defend their culture and way of life.
Of course, the best thing we can do is to stop the hypocrisy of our own policy makers and thought leaders. The U.S. government supports a broad array of repressive governments in the Muslim world, from Egypt to Jordan to Saudi Arabia. These regimes breed the next generation of extremists- through oppression and bad governance. And we give them money and support. We can’t say “they hate us for our freedoms” when these societies are anything but free.
And then there is Israel. On the surface, Israel has one of the strongest democratic traditions and civil societies in the region, certainly more free than any of its neighbors. That is, if you can claim Jewish blood or are part of the tiny Arab minority that has been granted Israeli citizenship. Four million Palestinians-herded into ghettos boxed in by Israeli settlements and military checkpoints- do not qualify. However valid the justifications for this policy, it is a lingering eye-sore in our fight against Muslim extremism. Muslims around the world look at the destitution of innocent Palestinian civilians and the billions in annual American aid that supports their continued oppression and all of our lofty rhetoric about freedom and opportunity rings hollow. They say to themselves- “why should we stand up against our own radicals within Islam when the West does nothing about their own?”
This does not mean we should advocate opening up the flood gates for Hamas suicide bombers to freely cross over into Israel. No. We must take the fire out of Islam. To do that requires a smarter policy of empowering moderate groups and neutralizing our own extremists. It means pressuring Israel to give ordinary Palestinians more control over their own future and to deal with their own fundamentalist settler groups. How do we do that? Well, maybe a start would be for intellectuals like Friedman and Naim, staunchly pro-Israel for obvious reasons, to start writing about our own double-standards for a change. Maybe then, some in the Muslim world would do the same. Wouldn’t that be something to see…