Blaming Islam for the lack of democratic and scientific developments in Muslim countries is not a new idea but an old enterprise, rooted in the nineteenth and twentieth century European Orientalism. The late Edward Said succeeded, in the 1980s, in unmasking Orientalist notions within Western academia and exposing its false pretense. In his seminal work, “Orientalism,” Said demonstrated that Orientalist views of Islam were used to justify the European colonial ambitions in the Muslim world. Said’s monumental work was pivotal to the eventual transformation of Middle Eastern studies in Europe and the United States, as it forced academia to embrace more scholarly and objective methods when studying the Muslim world.
Specialists who were intent on presenting Islam and Muslims in a negative light were unhappy with the positive portrayal, as were those who previously considered their work to be objective. Many were particularly disturbed by the rise of authentic voices that presented Islam as a vibrant religion, whose followers share many of the values and concerns of the West. Led by Princeton University historian, Bernard Lewis, they attempted to refute Said’s work and defend Orientalism. But Said’s thesis was profound, and Orientalists never fully recovered.
The September 11th terrorist attacks on the mainland United States gave a new momentum to the Orientalist spirit. Bernard Lewis once again led the effort to revive Orientalist notions with the publishing of his 2002 book, “What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response.” Using subtle arguments, he indeed placed the blame on Islam and Islamic traditions for the failure of Middle Eastern societies to develop and modernize like the West. Lewis’ book has since been followed by an avalanche of similar articles and publications, mostly by neoconservative journalists and pundits, who reinforce Lewis’ thesis and even blame Islam for the rise of terrorism as well as the rising tension between the West and the Muslim world.
The blame game is led today by neoconservative pundits who often present Islam as the new villain to be confronted by American military power. They have consistently presented Muslims as incapable of democratic rule, and who espouse values that are antithetical to world peace and religious tolerance.
To ensure that their views are not challenged by the academic community, neoconservatives are working hard to undermine academic freedom by intimidating scholars that present a balanced view of the Middle East. Martin Kramer’s “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America,” a diatribe against Middle East studies in U.S. universities, and Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch, an organization devoted to smearing professors critical of U.S. foreign policy and Israel”s treatment of Palestinians, are two such examples. This campaign is one that aims to intimidate free thinking on Middle East politics and silence voices that challenge their perspective.
Although many of the anti-Islam writers and neoconservative pundits play on the fear of the general public by publishing books for a general audience, others have been done for policymakers under the cover of respected institutions and think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the RAND Corporation. Readers should note that this activity began in 1992 when Defense Department staffers I. Lewis Libby and Paul Wolfowitz drafted the “Defense Policy Guidance” and was followed more discreetly and in more depth in a report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” published in 2000 by the Project for the New American Century.
The neoconservative attitudes of, and approach to, Islam and the Middle East are well illustrated by a widely publicized report written by Cheryl Benard and published by the RAND Corporation in late 2003 under the title “Civil and Democratic Islam.” Like other neoconservatives, Benard blames the rise of intolerance, anti-democratic tendencies, and terrorism on all Muslim individuals and groups that closely adhere to Islamic values and practices. RAND openly advocates “religion building” as the only way to counter terrorism and anti-Americanism.
Religion building is an invitation to world powers to reform Islam. It is a call for reinterpreting Islam and restructuring Muslim societies so as to counter the rise of militancy in Muslim societies. There is no contention over the need for reform, and the need for cultural and social reforms in Muslim societies and communities was well articulated by Muslim intellectuals long before Islam became the main focus of Western reporters and pundits. Indeed, reform has been underway for more than a century now, and Muslims have been engaged in an internal struggle to redefine modern Islamic societies in ways that aim at empowering civil society and ensuring democratic control.
The contention is rather over how reform is to be achieved, and who is more capable of leading the reform. The contention is over whether reform can or should be imposed by outsiders who have little understanding of Muslim societies and a vague sense of the nuances of local cultures, and who call on world powers to use their political and military clout to impose sociopolitical design on Muslim societies and communities. A call for external intervention to restructure the Islamic faith and rebuild Muslim societies is faulty, and is guilty of misreading Islam and ignoring the sociopolitical reality that gives rise to global terrorism.
Religion building is perilous, complex, ill-conceived, and practically untenable. It is a distraction and a blatant attempt to avoid any serious evaluation of the responsibility of world powers for the radicalization of Muslim politics. The rise of radical Islam cannot be explained purely on the level of religious doctrine. Radicalization of Muslim politics is directly connected to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Muslim societies. Authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes that suppress open debate and silence opposition have long enjoyed the support of successive U.S. administrations.