April 22, 2008
What Is Wrong With McCain’s Talk About Islam
First it was Mitt Romney who wrote in Foreign Affairs that “radical Islam’s threat is just as real as that posed before by the Nazis and the Soviet Union.” And now, last week, it was John McCain saying the US needed a leadership “to confront the transcendent challenge of our time: The threat of radical Islamic terrorism”.
To realize what poisonous nonsense this is you only have to turn back a page to the time of the Palestinian liberation movement, whose daring terrorism at the Munich Olympics and constant plane hijackings kept the world as jittery as it is now with Al-Qaeda. The IRA managed, together with its Protestant opposite numbers, to hold hostage to violence a whole province of the United Kingdom, beside murdering the queen’s uncle and nearly succeeding in murdering the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. These were very disturbing events, and if the terrorists had had just a tiny bit more success, with a lucky hit like 9/11 — and it wasn’t for lack of trying — they really would have rocked Western societies. But to my recollection no one, neither politician nor commentator, said this was “the transcendent challenge of our time” or likened these minority movements to the threat of the biggest military powers of the 1940s and 1950s. If anyone had it would have been considered over the top, clearly noncomparable to the threat of Nazi conquest or, later, world wide atheistic communism whose creed was permanent revolution. Likewise, it was noncomparable to the economic angst of the 1980s or to the oppression in southern Africa or to the maliciousness of dictatorship in South America.
Hold on, wait a moment will say my critics. Romney and McCain said “radical Islam”. They were not tarring the whole of the Muslim religion. But context is everything.
Those in the Islamic world who follow the Western debate know their texts and how it all began. First with the academic scholarship of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. Huntington’s words in his world-famous book, “The Clash of Civilizations” still chill the bone: “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism, IT IS ISLAM, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power”.
If McCain wants to continue like this in the campaign to come, I would ask him first to reflect on the recent remarks of Zbigniew Brzezinski who observed in response to Romney’s statement, “ A candidate who says that kind of stuff either thinks, probably correctly, that the American people are not well informed — in which case he’s demagoguing — or he’s stupid enough to believe it himself. In either case it offers a compelling argument as to why such a candidate should not be president.”
This in a nutshell is what is wrong with McCain’s talk. The recent election in Pakistan should give him pause. One good reason given by the anti-Musharraf voices for having an open election was that with the parties competing in the western border areas, where the Taleban are active and the Al-Qaeda leadership may be hiding, was that it would make it more difficult for the Islamic fundamentalist parties, then in power, to win another election. The Americans and the British refused to buy this argument, preferring Musharraf to kill off the militants. But this indeed is what happened. The militant religious parties were roundly defeated in the North-West Frontier Province by a moderate regional party, the Awami National Party. Although Pathan-based they want to end the violence not by military might but by sustained dialogue and reviving the neglected economic development of the province.
The conclusion is obvious. Even in the most desperate of situations if the Islamic masses are given the vote and open choice they will often enough vote for moderates who shun violence. In recent years they have they done so consistently in Indonesia and Turkey, Islam’s two most populous states. So have they done in Malaysia and Nigeria.
Every time some outrageous act is committed by the fundamentalist supporters of an extreme version of Shariah law the Western press, and now some of its politicians, highlight it. What they should do instead is to highlight the last 1400 years of Islamic behavior. When confronted with Islam the Christian nations have persecuted it. But the Islamic world when confronted with Christians in their midst preferred tolerance.
Islamic terrorism is a marginal force still. Its adherents and sympathizers have grown because of the crudity and violence of the policies of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. McCain seems to be heading to stir the pot even more. Then the chickens really will come home to roost.