DOHA — One of the useful new trends in the Middle East is the proliferation of weapons of mass conversation, exemplified by the non-stop international and regional conferences that are hosted in places like Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other aspiring capitals of talk. Some gatherings are useful and enlightening, including the fifth consecutive that was held in Doha this weekend, jointly sponsored by the Brookings Institution in Washington and the Qatari ministry of foreign affairs.
This gathering of several hundred engaged and activist individuals from the United States and the Islamic world, being an annual event, allows us to track evolving patterns of sentiments and attitudes in both worlds. One constant, affirmed again this year, is that most public officials in the United States are flaming cowards and prize-winning hypocrites when it comes to addressing Arab-Israeli issues honestly — given their fear of being truly even-handed, which in America’s distorted political culture means they will be branded as pro-Arab or anti-Semitic. So they fold, don their chicken feathers, and get on with the politician’s task of being expedient rather than principled. This is not surprising, just perpetually sad.
On the Arab-Islamic side, the sadness comes from immobility in the power structures that define most Muslim-majority countries. Millions of activists and ordinary decent men and women are paralyzed before their power structures — unable to prod them towards credible democracy in most places, and unsatisfied with the prevailing top-heavy control systems. Because massive political impotence defines much of the Arab-Islamic world, tens of millions of dissatisfied citizens have moved to empower themselves by joining mainstream Islamist movements: Hamas, Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and others. They offer an alternative form of political identity, service and security delivery, and citizen action.
This is why relations between the United States and the Islamic world — broadly defined — are now stuck. Americans broadly have second thoughts about promoting democracy in our lands because they fear Islamist victories, and Arabs-Muslims see this American hesitation as confirmation of a deep streak of insincerity and hypocrisy. A fascinating theme at this year’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum was clarity in the overall perceptions and priorities of both worlds. Some broad patterns do prevail in these widely diverse societies. The one that I found most fascinating was the divergence in Muslims’ emphasis on “respect” and Americans’ emphasis on “interests.”
A fascinating new global poll by the Gallup organization, covering societies with one billion Muslims, clearly reaffirmed something that those of us who live in Muslim-majority societies have long recognized as a prevailing reality: Muslims most resent the West’s “disrespect of Islam,” and are critical of many American foreign policies, not American values. The commitment to democratic norms — and even the definition of democracy — are virtually identical among Americans and Muslims, the poll found. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed have just published an important new book on the poll results, entitled “Who Speaks for Islam.”
Backed by massive polling data that is not so new in itself — other polls have shown similar results, but never on such a global scale — they make a critically important point that cannot be over-emphasized: Muslims’ sense that they and their religion are disrespected by the United States leads to a widespread feeling of humiliation, and also of being threatened and being controlled by others. This can spill over into radicalism in some cases.
The centrality of “respect” for Muslims, Arabs, and others, who resent American or Western double standards and mistreatment, needs to be better appreciated. This is especially true if we wish to reduce global tensions and the violence that is now routinely practiced by the American armed forces and assorted official and private armies throughout the Arab-Islamic world.
The good news is that this message is getting through to some Americans who make the effort to listen and understand, and in turn expect Arabs and Muslims to reciprocate the courtesy. One example was the concluding review of the gathering by Brookings Institution Vice President Carlos Pascual. He acknowledged the “reinforcing paranoias” in both societies, affirmed the need for law-based regional and global orders that treat all people equally, and concluded that “respect” was the elusive point of convergence that could gather together the rights and aspirations of all concerned. This “call to coexistence,” he said, requires reciprocal understanding, human capacity, good policies, and action.
While Americans and Muslims continue to meet and talk, the tensions and active conflicts between their societies seem to get worse. Responsible and sensible people who take the time to identify the basic causes of tension, however, usually find a way to overcome them by affirming the importance of mutual respect as the starting point for coexistence, security, and prosperity. It is a shame, however, that no such people hold public office in the United States or most of the Islamic world.
One day, I have no doubt, the politicians and autocrats amongst us will rediscover their own humanity, and let us assert ours as well.
© 2008 Rami G. Khouri