A Conference at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia Raises Ideas That May Be the Basis of Future Foreign Policy.
9/11/. Iraq. Iran. Hamas.
For many people, these summon up a flood of images of radical Islam, jihad, nuclear weapons, suicide bombers—in a word, terror. It is the stuff of headlines—and, throughout much of the West, of fear.
In an effort to get beyond the headlines and the fear, the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, in partnership with the Trusts, sponsored a conference this spring on Islam and the West.
The occasion was also an opportunity to honor Bernard Lewis, the doyen of Middle East historians who for decades has interpreted the world of Islam for the West. Dick Cheney, in luncheon remarks honoring Lewis, called him “always objective, thoroughly candid and completely independent” as well as steeped in knowledge and rigorously disciplined of mind.
And so it was appropriate that Lewis, in his remarks, made one of the most incisive comments. The conference’s title was oddly discrepant, he noted, because “Islam is a religion, a civilization, while the West is a compass point—vague, imprecise and illdefined”— which accurately expresses “the self-perception of the Western world at the present time.
“We really don’t know who we are or what we stand for . . . in confrontation with the various adversaries we from time to time identify,” he said, pointing out that, over the centuries, roughly the same geographic area has been known as the Free World, Europe and, in the remote past, Christendom. Religion and state have been disjoined in the West, he noted, while they are united in the Islamic world.
Lewis spoke at the end of a day filled with such acute and wry observations, as academics and politicians explored the reasons for the many challenges that Islam poses for the West and offered possible solutions. Some speakers portrayed a gloomy vision of an apocalyptic “clash of civilizations,” the now-famous phrase coined by Lewis in a prescient article in The Atlantic Monthly in 1990.
Most described angst over how best to save the situation in Iraq and generally agreed that a precipitous withdrawal would be a disaster not only for that country but also for the entire world.
“Neighboring countries would rush in to fill the vacuum,” Henry Kissinger predicted. Iran would be “sorely tempted” to take over the southern, Shiite part of Iraq, and Turkey might face the rise of a Kurdish state within its borders. “Jihadists would achieve a greater voice” in Southeast Asian countries with large Muslim populations as well as within Europe, he said. All told, the result would bring the United States back to the region in some manner, possibly as part of an international coalition.
Some speakers expressed even greater concern over Iran’s potential emergence as a nuclear power. While a few presenters sounded encouraging notes, the consensus was that, at best, conflict with Islam was a condition that the West will likely confront for years to come.
Islam and the United States
The good news, according to the three academics on the morning panel, was that the United States was not the sole focus of the wrath of radical Islamists.
The bad news: The “clash of civilizations”— the collision between capitalism and modernity on the one hand, and a society circumscribed by fundamental Islam on the other—was not going to end anytime soon. In fact, warned Walter Russell Mead, the “better we are”—the more sophisticated our science, the stronger our economy—the more difficult it becomes for the more restricted and rule-bound Islamic nations to accept.
It is that confrontation between Islamic and Western civilizations that produces the hatred of people such as Mohammed Atta, the most recognized of the suicide terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center, noted Francis Fukuyama, who pointed out that Atta did not learn to hate the West at a madrassa, or religious school, in his native Saudi Arabia, but while studying engineering in Hamburg, Germany.
“The human species is facing a huge historical, culture problem, and we’re as much a part of it as anyone,” said Mead. “For reasons that have very little to do with the U.S., we need to face the fact that we’ll be living with this for a very long time.”
At one time, he said, the Arab world looked upon the U.S. more favorably than on other Western powers because— unlike the British and the French, for example—it did not have the legacy of colonization.
But now the United States has been reviled, and not only by Arabs. As Akbar Ahmed observed, Arabs represent less than 20 percent of the world’s Muslims. “The problem is global— Indonesia, Iran,” he said. “It’s not an Arab world anymore, it’s an Islamic world. If you don’t understand this, you’re deluding yourself.”
The solution, in part, is to try to bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Muslim world, particularly by reaching out to the friendly nations. Americans need to recognize that the Arab world is heterogeneous. “I hear words like Islamist, jihadist,” Ahmed said. “What is this? Most of the Islamic world is mainstream.”
While some Muslim countries are the greatest terrorist states in the world, he said, other Muslim countries are the U.S.’s greatest allies. He recommended that the United States develop economic ties to more countries in the Middle East and encourage Saudi Arabia—among the richest and friendliest nations—to nurture the economic development of its neighbors.
According to Ahmed, the United States was also overlooking an important resource within its own borders. “Why don’t you use your friends?” he asked. “For the last five years, the greatest ally of America is the American Muslim community.” Yet, he added, it has been demonized and marginalized. He repeatedly stressed the need for Americans—who, even living abroad, are hidden behind high walls—to get out and meet Muslims, at home and elsewhere.
Islam and Europe
Immediately after 9/11, said Fouad Ajami, Europeans thought that it was the Americans who had a crisis. Then came Madrid—the coordinated bombings against commuter trains in March 2004 that killed 192 people; Amsterdam— the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in November 2004 after the screening of his film Submission, about violence against women in Islamic societies; London—the suicide bombs planted on subways and buses in July 2005 by individuals living in England; Paris and numerous other cities in France—three weeks of arson and scattered rioting last fall by angry young immigrants, most of them Muslim, after the accidental slaying of two North African youths; and Denmark, where the publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad touched off a tidal wave of fury that swept over much of the Muslim world earlier this year.
With these events, said Ajami, “Europeans now understand that they have their own war with radical Islam.”
A key difference between the United States and Europe is that, as Josef Joffe observed, Europe’s terrorists were “homegrown.” Although several million Muslims live in the United States, they have assimilated far more than those in Europe.
In fact, some of the speakers said, Muslim immigrants to Europe were more likely to be radical Islamists than Muslims who had remained in their own countries. When he listens to call-in shows on Al Jazeera, the Arab news network based in Qatar, Ajami said, the callers from Yemen and Damascus sound comparatively moderate. By contrast, the radicals phone in from Europe—“‘I’m calling from the land of unbelievers.’”
Why has Europe become a breeding ground for radical Islam while the United States has not? One reason, the panelists agreed, is that Europe’s economies are relatively stagnant, offering few opportunities for immigrants to move ahead. While the welfare states of Europe offer a soft landing for immigrants, they also deprive them of the motivation to make something of themselves through education and hard work.
Indeed, the situation has become more critical over time: Statistically, noted Joffe, the third generation of Turks living in Germany is faring worse than their grandparents.
Secondly, assimilation is more difficult in Europe. While America may not be truly a melting pot, it is easier to blend in. “You buy an SUV, shop ’til you drop, eat turkey on Thanksgiving—there are a number of ways to go up the ladder of integration in America,” suggested Joffe, only partly in jest.
More seriously, he added, American nationality “is a matter of documents— the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution.” But in Europe, where the nation-state was invented, the sense of what it means to be Dutch or French or British is more complex.
“You can become British, but it takes a generation to become English,” interjected Lewis, who was born in England and arrived in the United States in 1974. More pointedly, he added, “In 1,000 years, Germans couldn’t accept 6 million Jews. What hope is there to accept 2 million Turks?”
In fact, the panelists agreed, the Holocaust itself offered another explanation of why Europe has nurtured radical Islamists. Exhausted by its own two world wars, horrified by Nazi genocide, Europe has sought to appease rather than confront.
“The fight got kicked out of Europe in the 20th century,” said Joffe. After the Holocaust, “We said, ‘Never again, we will never be racist again, we will not draw distinctions between us and the other.’ In the process, we went overboard.”
The legacy of World War II, Ayaan Hirsi Ali concurred, was that Europe refused to keep records that classified people by religion or ethnic group. “In Europe,” she said, “we’ve forgotten how to draw the line.”
But it is precisely that line that needs to be drawn, the panelists agreed. “There’s nothing wrong with people seeking new lives and new lands, as long as they show respect for the new lives and new lands,” said Ajami—who, like many of the speakers, was an immigrant himself, having left Lebanon for the United States. “You should not apologize for asking people to be Danish or Dutch.”
In fact, several speakers said, there was a moral imperative to not apologize. “We fought bloody wars to separate church from state,” said Joffe. “It would behoove us to say, ‘These are our values, we need to stand up for them.’”
In doing otherwise, said Hirsi Ali, “I see condescension.” At the same time, she added, to insist on Western mores in the West is “explosive but unavoidable.”
For Hirsi Ali, who had written the van Gogh film Submission, women’s rights represent the single most important issue facing the West in coming to terms with Islam. According to her, the West has been too tolerant of Islam’s subjugation of women—a principle that, she maintained, is embedded in the Koran.
The West has tried to steer an impossible course between radical Islam’s treatment of women and its own value system, she asserted: “To say, ‘respect human rights and also have sharia [Islamic law]’—that’s not going to work.”
As an example, she cited the new Iraqi constitution, which includes an “according to their choice” provision stating that Iraqis are free to choose their family laws according to their own religion. Washington hailed this compromise. That, said Hirsi Ali, “shows that people in the West don’t understand.”
Like the Islamic societies he has studied for more than 60 years, Bernard Lewis takes a long view of history. Almost as if it occurred the other day, he conjured up the ancient clash between medieval Islam and the Christian crusaders.
Despite—or perhaps because of— their longstanding warfare, he said, Islam and Christendom were “as alike as peas in a pod.” In both cases, worshippers believed that they were the unique recipients of God’s word, and that they had a God-given mission to spread that word; they also believed in the apocalypse. The result: “the Crusades and jihad, conquest and reconquest.”
For the West, this is ancient history— and, as Lewis noted, “In our society, history means ‘over.’”
In Islamic society, however, what happened centuries ago still shapes how Muslims see themselves and the rest of the world, he said. Osama bin Laden relied on that historical sense when he said, in one of his pronouncements, “For more than 80 years, we [the Muslim world] have been suffering humiliation.” He was referring, Lewis explained, to the suppression of the caliphate by the Turkish Republic in 1924, the partitioning of the last of the great Muslim empires.
To understand Muslims, the West needs to understand that history, Lewis noted. It is simplistic merely to state, as the U.S. Government frequently does, that the West is fighting terror, because terror is not an enemy but a tactic, he said, adding, “It is useful to know the issues and the enemy. We have shown surprising reluctance to identify either.”
A similar kind of ignorance seems to afflict the West in its attempt to graft Western-style democracy onto Islamic countries through immediate elections. Lewis said it was “absurd” to believe that Jeffersonian democracy could be transplanted. Free elections, he added, should be the end-point, not the start, of the process.
Still, he said, the concept of democracy is not entirely alien: Historically, “the traditional Islamic government was authoritative but not despotic. Consultation is mandated in the Koran. There are precedents for limited, consensual and contractual governments.”
Ironically, Lewis said, it is Europe that can be blamed for the spread of despotism in the Middle East.
In his view, the problem began in the 19th century, when Middle Eastern rulers became aware that they were falling behind the modern world and so, desperate to catch up, they adopted European systems such as strengthening the power of the state. Then, in 1940, when France fell to the Nazis, much of the colonial empire chose to side with Vichy France rather than de Gaulle, a choice that left many countries in the Middle East open to the Nazi ideology and style of government.
A strong advocate of invading Iraq, Lewis admitted that he had not foreseen the current crisis there. His worstcase scenario, he said, foresees the continuation of a bitter struggle between Christendom and Islam, leading to racial and religious wars “throughout Europe and beyond” and mutual destruction, with the future—”if there is one”— left to China and India, the “undoubted superpowers of the late 21st century.”
His best-case scenario anticipates the development of open, democratic societies in the Middle East.
Lewis said he is hopeful that the latter scenario will prevail, based on signs of nascent democratic movements in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt and other countries, and particularly the way Iraqis embraced free elections last year. Islamic countries could either “return to their older, better traditions” of government or “adopt the Western model” of democracy, he said.
Artfully dodging a prediction, Lewis concluded, “I leave it to you to work out all the intermediate steps.”
The Web site of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia is www.wacphila.org, where materials on the conference can be found.
Sandra Salmans is an officer in the Trusts’ Executive Office.
A Synopsis of the Day
The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia conference “Islam and the West,” co-sponsored by The Glenmede Trust Company and The Pew Charitable Trusts, was held on the occasion of the 90th birthday of Bernard Lewis, Ph.D., the Princeton University professor emeritus and leading scholar of the history of Islam, particularly in the Middle East. (His publications include The Muslim Awakening of Europe and What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.) The event was moderated by PBS journalist Judy Woodruff.
Guest speakers in the morning included Vice President Dick Cheney, who spoke briefly to honor Lewis; Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who offered a peace plan for Iraq that he said would attempt to head off civil war by dividing the country into three largely autonomous provinces—Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish—under limited central government; and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, Ph.D., who offered his thoughts on Iraq and Iran.
The afternoon offered two panels. The first, on American interests and the Middle East, featured Francis Fukuyama, Ph.D., the Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University; Walter Russell Mead, the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York as well as project director of religion and foreign policy at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; and Akbar Ahmed, Ph.D., the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University.
The second panel, “Europe: A Fracturing Union?” included Josef Joffe, Ph.D., publisher and editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit; Fouad Ajami, Ph.D., professor and director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins; and Somaliborn Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of Parliament in the Netherlands. Shortly after the conference, Hirsi Ali, who has been subjected to death threats by Islamic extremists and was protected by armed guards, yielded to pressure from the Dutch government and announced she would be leaving the country to join the American Enterprise Institute in the United States.
Clash of Perceptions
Do people in the West generally see those in predominantly Muslim countries in a rather one-sided way? Yes—and the narrow perceptions are reciprocated. Many in the West see Muslims as fanatical, violent, and as lacking tolerance. Meanwhile, Muslims in the Middle East and Asia generally see Westerners as selfish, immoral and greedy as well as violent and fanatical.
This considerable divide has been documented in the latest survey of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, an effort of the Pew Research Center. Conducted among some 14,000 people in 13 nations, the survey finds that publics of predominantly Muslim nations have an aggrieved view of the West, and they feel much more embittered toward people in the West than vice versa.
In one of the survey’s most striking findings, majorities in Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan say that they do not believe groups of Arabs carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In addition, anti-Jewish sentiment remains overwhelming in predominantly Muslim countries.
For their part, Westerners are broadly skeptical of Muslim values. Many Westerners, including solid majorities of the general publics in Germany and Spain, say that there is a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. And Westerners are less optimistic about the prospects for democracy in the Muslim world than are Muslims themselves.
In a rare point of agreement, Westerners and Muslims both believe that Muslim nations should be more economically prosperous than they are today.
But they gauge the problem quite differently. Muslim publics are much more likely than Americans or Western Europeans to blame Western policies for their own lack of prosperity. For their part, Western publics point to government corruption, lack of education and Islamic fundamentalism as the biggest obstacles to Muslim prosperity.
Other key findings include:
- European Muslims’ more moderate outlook. For the first time, the Global Attitudes Project conducted interviews with Muslim minorities in four Western European countries— Great Britain, Spain, Germany and France.
While Europe’s Muslim minorities are about as likely as Muslims elsewhere to see relations between Westerners and Muslims as generally bad, they more often associate positive attributes to Westerners, including tolerance, generosity and respect for women. European Muslims also are less likely than non-Muslims in Europe to believe that there is a conflict between modernity and being a devout Muslim.
- Decline in Muslim support for terrorism. In Jordan, Pakistan and Indonesia, there have been substantial declines in the percentages saying suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets can be justified to defend Islam against its enemies.
The shift has been especially dramatic in Jordan, likely in response to the devastating terrorist attack in Amman last year; 29 percent of Jordanians view suicide attacks as often or sometimes justified, down from 57 percent in May 2005.
- Flashpoints in relations. Western publics, by lopsided margins, do not think of Muslims as “respectful of women.” In turn, Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries say the same about Westerners.
And perhaps no issue highlights the divide between Muslims and the West more clearly than their responses to the uproar this past winter over cartoon depictions of Muhammad. Muslim publics blame the controversy on Western nations’ disrespect for the Islamic religion. In contrast, majorities of Americans and Western Europeans more often say Muslims’ intolerance to different points of view is more to blame.
The full survey is available at the Pew Global Attitude’s Web site, pewglobal.org. Read a description of the new book America Against the World, an analysis of the rise in anti-Americanism drawn largely from the work of the Pew Global Attitudes Project.