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Keeping Fear Alive

January, 2015
By Michael Pixley (from BSM of January 2011)

Sometime in September (the precise date escapes me), I happened to hear a portion of a discussion on NPR discussing the latent emergence of  Islamophobia in the United States and how or if this was a partial manifestation of that fear that had already gripped significant portions of Europe.  Some symptoms of that disease in Europe were blatant: seeking to prevent Muslim women from wearing clothing that hid everything but the eyes (the hijab), or, in Switzerland, voters blocking the construction of minarets (tower from whence the summons to pray is announced) etc.  The speaker lamented these actions as unhelpful, unfair and counter-productive.  I found myself agreeing with his observations.  He then suggested that much of this Islamophobia had roots in Medieval Europe and the exaggerated nature of the threat posed by Islam.  That is when I snapped.

What the learned professor intimated was, in effect, that European fear/concern/suspicion of Islam was, in essence, unreasonable.  For him, the train bombings in Madrid, which killed over 200 people, and the London bombings that left another 50+ people dead seemed almost trivial.  Attempts to place bombs on numerous international flights, which would have claimed over a 1000 victims had they not been thwarted, were apparently of no consequence.  Sporadic murders such as that of Theo van Gogh  (a vocal Dutch critic of Islam), by the same token, were seemingly of no import.  And as for the hundreds of Europeans who died on 9/11… well, that is ancient history.  Truly ancient and worth forgetting, he seemed to imply, was the thousand year period of history (roughly 634 to 1683) when Muslim armies were on the move against European empires – and normally winning.  Also forgotten are the thousands of raids against Europe carried out by the Barbary pirates who, over the course of three-plus centuries, captured and enslaved around 1,000,000 Europeans ¹.  If Europeans are becoming more critical of Muslims (or Islam), it is not without cause.  It is not wise, in my view, but it is not something concocted by 11th century theologians and nurtured to this day by Opus Dei.

In the follow up to the discussion on Islamophobia, hundreds of individuals sent in their comments.  Not surprisingly, some bordered on the tedious point of view that Islam was less a faith than a militant ideology bent on world conquest.  More than a few, while critical, appeared reasonable and open minded.  The ones that struck me hardest, however, were those who appeared to contend that Muslims were blameless for whatever happens and any and all problems there are the products of the West: this is the Ramsey Clark school of  thinking.  One charged that the West had brought "infanticide and genocide" to the Middle East, another averred that slavery was introduced there by the West while another baldly proclaimed "we are the ones who attacked them."  No facts were presented; just anonymous, raw and poorly conceived notions (they are hardly ideas). 

I have been accused, quite rightly, of being sympathetic towards Islam.  It does not mean, on the other hand, that Muslims should get a free pass or be absolved of personal or collective responsibility for their problems and their actions towards others.  Fortunately, I am not famous.  Prof. Bernard Lewis, however, is famous, and when he wrote his book, What Went Wrong ( Oxford, 2001), it generated absolute outrage amongst some Western scholars of Islam.  Possibly the most vitriolic criticism of Prof. Lewis came from Prof. Juan Cole, a noted scholar of Islam who teaches at the University of Michigan and who is also a gifted self-publicist.  He published a review of Lewis' book (Global Dialogue, 27 January 2003) that was not merely scathing: it was downright mephitic..  Indeed, it was glorious to read and brought to mind Winston Churchill's acute observation on the academic class:  "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."  Some of Prof. Cole's observations were fair, others debatable: in several cases they were quite unreasonable but that is what makes it all so enjoyable…

Most phobias are rooted, to one measure or another, in ignorance.  It is more than fair to contend that most Americans are clueless about Islam (and American history, for that matter…):  on the other hand, why should they be knowledgeable about that religion when they are, more often than not, ill-informed about Christianity?   There are, however, opportunities to learn for those with the  motivation.  Throughout North America and Europe, there are scores of universities offering doctorates in Islamic Studies, Middle Eastern languages and history.  The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), founded in 1966, boasts a membership of over 3500 individuals and 60 institutions.  There are more than a few periodicals published in the West devoted to the study of Islam and the number of serious books and articles regarding Islam and the Middle East published by Americans and European scholars over the last hundred years runs into the thousands.  And we still get it wrong from time to time….to time.

And yet…..let us turn that around and look eastward: how well do “they” grasp “us”?  I have tried – and failed – to identify a single university in the Arab Middle East that offers a BA in what I would describe as “Western Studies” or  “Western Civilization.”   One can do a “minor” in that area at the American University of Beirut but a “major” in Western civilization… not possible.  Before starting this article, I contacted a former American president of MESA and posed that question: he could name no such institution in the Middle East.  I further suspect that if one tried to name all the Arab Muslim scholars who have written serious academic studies of various Western societies or regarding Christianity, that list would be extremely short.  I may well be wrong on that point but I fear that I am not.

What seems even more perplexing is the attitude toward the study of Islam itself by radicals in the Muslim community.  At one point, I began reading  “Islam on Line”  (on the internet, of course) in an effort to gain more insights into contemporary Islamic commentary (and, I should note,  IOL seems to represent a conservative (and seemingly extreme in some cases) point of view.  In response to a query about allegations of rivalry between Fatimah (the daughter of the Prophet) and his wife, Aysha, the commentator explained that there was no substance to such stories.  He also cautioned the questioner not to put much reliance on early historians “since they were acknowledged to be inaccurate.”  (this is not a precise quotation but the gist is accurate.)    In another response, the Shaykh addressed the question of why the Muslim armies sallied forth in the 7th century against the Byzantines and the Sassanians.  The response was…remarkable.  The Shaykh explained that in view of Islam's compassion, the Muslim leaders had an obligation to save Christans from being fed to lions…somehow, the fact that the Byzantines had converted to Christianity in the 4th century seems to have been missed.   Interesting, both of the “opinions” have since disappeared from IOL.

If some extremely conservative Muslim commentators have an odd approach to history, that also spills over into a critical examination of the bedrock text of Islam: the Qu'ran.   In January 1999, Toby Lester published a fascinating article in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “What is the Koran?”   In the article, Lester notes how a trove of old parchment and paper documents (numbering in the thousands) was discovered during the renovation of an old mosque in Yemen.  The Yemeni director of antiquities received the documents and eventually loaned them to Prof. Gerd-R Puin, a German scholar of Arabic paleography.  He quickly discovered that many of the leaves were examples of Quranic texts, possibly from the eighth or even seventh century: it was quite probably the oldest example of the Quran.   Part of his research into these writings was eventually included in a book edited by Ibn Warraq, What the Koran Really Says  ( New York, 2002).  (N.B. this book is not for the faint of heart; consider reading an essay such as The Qur'anic Concept Al-Gizyatu 'an Yadin.)

What Prof. Puin might construe regarding the nature of the Qu'ran was one thing: if a Muslim scholar became involved, that was something entirely different.  In the 1990s, the Egyptian scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid became a member of the advisory board for the Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an, an ambitious multi-volume study of the Qur'an to be published by Brill.  Despite his outstanding academic credentials in the area of the Arabic language, Prof. Abu Zaid eventually became marked for severe criticism concerning his research in early Islam.  In 1995, the Egyptian government declared him an apostate and, in 1996, he was ordered to divorce his wife on the grounds that an apostate could not be married to a Muslim woman.  Death threats soon arrived and he was forced to flee Egypt, eventually ending up in Leiden where he taught.

The tribulations of an Egyptian professor of Arabic in Cairo do not, perhaps, contribute much to any discussion of  Islamophobia in the West.   If memory serves me correctly, directly after 9/11,  a Hindu (mistaken for a Muslim) was gunned down in the United States: widespread carnage, however, did not occur.  On the contrary, news footage of Palestinians celebrating the attack was quickly dropped and President Bush was not slow to exclaim that Americans should not hold Muslim-Americans accountable for 9/11: rightly so.  Despite these efforts, since 2001, Christian bigots in the U.S. and elsewhere  threatened to burn Qur'ans, practiced collective stupidity, defaced or (in rare cases) burned a mosque or otherwise harassed Muslims going about their ordinary lives (with most threats made under the shield of anonymity).   All things considered, these are not the norm (as best I can judge) and Muslims attending Friday prayers have not been subjected to car bomb attacks or mass shootings.  Sometimes I even (foolishly no doubt) hope that many Americans appreciate the fact that American Muslims constitute the first line of defence against attacks by radical Muslims.  Has it been easy for American Muslims?  Absolutely not.  The U.S. is supposed to be a land of tolerance, both political and religious (after all, consider the great tolerance shown to newly-arrived Irish Catholics,  Jews and Mormons.  Well, maybe not…)    That, however, is the very point: the most dangerous place for a Muslim to live as a Muslim is not in the U.S. nor in Western Europe: it is within the Muslim-dominated countries in the Middle East and  Asia.

Throughout the course of four “formal”  Arab-Israeli wars (1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973), Arab combatants lost roughly 65,000 men.  Palestinian lives lost during various uprising probably added another 10,000 to 13,000 casualties.  By way of comparison, however, these are fairly low numbers.  Consider several other essentially intra-Muslim conflicts² :

North Yemen Civil War (1962-1970):

Approximately 125,000 Yemeni and Egyptians killed.

Indonesia (1965-66):

Circa 500,000 slain, most of whom were regarded as Communists.

The Bangladeshi Civil War (1971):

between 1,000,000  to 3,000,000 killed, mostly by Pakistani military forces.

The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988):

Between 1,500,000 and 3,000,000 killed or wounded.

In view of such numbers, the slaughter of at least 10,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama (1982) by the Syrian  government seems almost trivial³.  During the reign of Saddam Husayn,  Iraq demonstrated far more vigor: at least 30,000 Shi'a were murdered in the aftermath of an abortive uprising in 1991.  In April 1988, roughly 100,000  Kurds  were rounded up and shot during the last Anfal campaign.  Almost unnoticed were the routine executions of prisoners in Iraq during Saddam's rule, which add another 50,000 victims to the total….

These were not, however, conflicts over religion: they were issues of political power.  The question of faith (or perhaps, more correctly, the right kind of faith), eventually became a deadly affair in both Iraq and Pakistan.  And the prime movers in both these areas have been two religious rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, each supporting its respective side in the historical divide between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims.  The Soviet Union and the West had the Cold War: for Saudi Arabia and Iran, it was (and remains) a battle over which side can lay claim to green, the sacred color of Islam: and thus we have the Green War… 

Writing for the publication "IPRI Journal" (Winter 2010), the writer Moonis Ahmar offered insights into Pakistani sectarianism in an article entitled “Sectarian Conflict in Pakistan: Some Lessons from the Irish Experience.” (an enjoyable piece if one needs a good dose of poly-sci jargon...).  Prior to 1989, sectarian violence was virtually nil.  Between 1989 and 2006, however, nearly a thousand individuals perished in various bombings and shootings.  In three years, 2007 to early 2010, it virtually tripled.  With over 80% of Pakistan's population being Sunni Muslims, it is not surprising that the general weight of mayhem has fallen upon the ‘wrong’ Muslims: Shi’as, Sufis (Muslim mystics) and a very small sect called Ahmadiyas.  The Pakistan government, just to show its keen sense of fair play, has barred Ahmadiyas from describing themselves as Muslims: those who do risk being labeled apostates, a charge that carries the death penalty.  Fortunately, a  similar effort to declare the Shi’a to be apostates failed: perhaps the logistics of possibly executing 20% of the population was deemed too daunting…  Fueling all this, of  course, is Saudi money, with billions of dollars spent to aid and arm the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, while many of those dollars also go to Saudi-sponsored religious schools (madrasas) where the Saudi brand of Wahabbi Islam is nurtured, along with its impartial hatred of practically everybody.  Even as I write this (7 October), the news out of Pakistan describes a suicide bombing aimed at a Sufi shrine: with ‘only’ eight Sufis killed, it almost seems a quiet day on the Eastern Front…

Iraq, however, had to face a more devastating round of sectarian slaughter, largely brought about by one man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  From the time he arrived in Iraq around 2003 to his death in June 2006, Zarqawi orchestrated a campaign of bombings that primarily killed Iraqi Shi’as.   His goal seemed to be to bring about a civil war between Iraq's Sunni and Shi’a populations, a struggle which could have resulted in the deaths of countless thousands of people.  By the time of his death, thousands of Shi’a had been slaughtered.  Not to be outdone, however, Shi’a death squads began roaming the streets of Baghdad, kidnapping, torturing and executing hundreds of hapless Sunnis.

Throughout all of this, both in Iraq and Pakistan, local citizens and pundits sought an explanation for the carnage.  Predictably, both citizens of Baghdad and Islamabad blamed…. Jews and Americans.  In the case of Iraq, more than a few observers also accused Zarqawi (who, according to Muqtada al-Sadr, did not even exist) with being a triple agent for Tehran, Washington, D.C. and Tel Aviv.  In the case of Pakistan, commentators ignored Iran's activities in the region and concluded that it was (and is) the Indians who, with the U.S. and Israel, were targeting Pakistani minorities in an effort to…well, make Pakistan look bad.  Normally added to this is the assertion that the U.S./NATO invasion of Afghanistan sparked sectarian murders in Pakistan (even though these killings started over a decade before the American invasion of Afghanistan).   The fact that the Taliban repeatedly take credit for bombing Sufis, Shi’as, etc… is inconvenient, so it is generally ignored.  This tendency to avoid reality is, in passing, discussed in a book by Daniel Pipes, In the Path of God.  Islam and Political Power (New York, 1983).   Pipes alludes to the strong tendency of many in the Middle East to find answers in foreign conspiracies instead of trying to address issues which are generally home grown.  For all of Pipes' efforts, he was awarded a pricelessly scathing review by Parvey Mansoor in the "Muslim  World Book Review" (Vol 6, no. 4, Summer 1986).   In that review, Mansoor describes Pipes' book as "impudent in style, shallow in insight and replete with inane assertions."   As for Mansoor's less flattering observations (one asking that if Pipes were a donkey, would he have long ears?), I have deliberately left these out…

And yet…. Islamophobia does exist and I doubt that it will go away soon, whatever our best intentions.  It is no surprise that this emotion is stronger in Europe than in the US.  Aside from current attacks and a millennium of clashes between the Islamic world and Europe, there is another reason: the arrival of millions of Muslims seeking economic betterment and a chance to escape their less than happy homes.  In the 1950s Europe in general (and Germany in particular) welcomed such arrivals.  They were the “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) who would man the factories and help drag Europe out of the ruins of the Second World War.  Those who moved to western Europe were generally poorly educated but they were employed and experienced a fairness in government generally lacking at home.  And….they stayed.  The assumption that most of them would leave proved false: go back for what?    And if Europeans did not exactly embrace these new immigrants, neither did the newcomers work very hard to assimilate Europe's culture which was so alien to them.  That alienation remains true today: in parts of Copenhagen, for example, there are areas of that city that are, in essence, ‘no go’ areas for the police, districts where the imams, and not city authorities, hold sway over their brooding flocks.

The experience for Muslims arriving in the U.S. has been, on the whole, more positive but much of this is because these immigrants tended to be far more educated and willing to embrace a different way of life.  Two of my daughter's best friends are the children of Palestinian doctors: indeed, my current doctor is an Iraqi Muslim.  The imam of the mosque in Annapolis is Egyptian and he came to the U.S. because of the freedom he tasted here, a flavor quite lacking in Cairo. 

Usama bin Ladin and his ilk will doubtless continue to explore new ways to create mayhem and destruction.  That is their hallmark: to bomb rather than build.  And, no doubt, we will face future outrages that test our patience.  That is their objective: to spread intolerance and to spark fury aimed at Muslims, wherever they reside and thereby create more support for their intolerant vision of Islam. 

Let us hope they fail.  It is, after all, our choice.


¹See Prof. Robert Davis:  White Slaves, Muslim Masters, (2004)

²There is a seemingly well-balanced website on 20th century conflicts, prepared by Mr. Matthew White, which offers good data on these matters:  Death Tolls for the Major Wars and Atrocities of the Twentieth Century.  Other traditional sources include the following:  Anthony H. Cordesman:  The Lessons of Modern War.  Vol. 2. (The Iran-Iraq War)  [Boulder, 1990].  Dana Adams Schmidt: Yemen. The Unknown War (New York, 1968).  Jonathan C. Randall:  After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? (New York, 1997).  Kanan Makiya: Republic of Fear (New York, 1989).

³Thomas Friedman:  From Beirut to Jerusalem.  (New York, 1989)

Michael M. Pixley served for 22 years as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State, with 17 of those years overseas, primarily in Turkey and Iraq.  He began his second career as a bookseller (Eastern Approaches Books, Annapolis, MD) in 1999, specializing in the Middle East.