Time to Paint U.S.-Islamic Relations on a Brand New Canvas


July 07, 1992|By EMILE A. NAKHLEH

Emmitsburg, Maryland. -- The rise of political Islam is the most dramatic development in the Arab/Islamic world since the end of the Gulf Crisis. Is this phenomenon inherently inimical to the West and to Western values of democracy and pluralism? Will it lead to a conflict with the United States? Is it a new and potentially hostile ''ism''?

While these questions have been at the center of policy debate in Washington in recent months, happily in a recent policy address on the subject, Assistant Secretary of State Edward P. Djerejian gave a definite ''no'' answer to these questions.

Mr. Djerejian's speech also made several positive and important points:

* Although U.S. policy aims at protecting the country's vital interests, it also supports such ''fundamental values'' as human rights, pluralism, women's and minority rights and popular participation in government.

* U.S. policy in interacting with Islamic countries recognizes the tremendous diversity that characterizes the region and that in spite of differences, the United States and the countries of the region share many common aspirations.

* Washington does not view Islam as a new ''ism'' confronting the West and world peace; the former East-West competition is not being replaced by a confrontation between Islam and the West.

* Islam is one of the world's three major religions and has contributed greatly to Western science, art and culture.

* The United States has good relations with countries of all religions throughout the world, and Washington does not view religion as a determinant -- positive or negative -- in U.S. relations with other countries. Islam is no exception.

Assistant Secretary Djerejian's speech is based on several basic and correct assumptions about Islam as a religion, a culture, a mode of behavior and a political and social system. The most important assumption is that Islam is not inimical to democracy; some Muslim autocrats, like Saddam Hussein and others, are. Islam's three basic concepts of shura (consultations), ijtihad (reasoning), and ijma' (consensus) are compatible with deliberation, majority rule and accountability in democracy.

While the participatory qualities of classical Islam have often been ignored in many Muslim states in the 20th century, it is possible for Western democratic systems and interested Islamic polities to find common grounds for collaborative action. This is the only way to dispel misperceptions between the Christian West and the Muslim world.

Furthermore, Islam is no longer present only in the South or in the East; in fact, Muslim populations have increased significantly in recent years both in the United States and in Europe. Political Islam is neither monolithic nor belongs only to the poor. It is highly diverse and encompasses educated and trained people throughout the world, from Morocco to Malaysia, from the United States to Pakistan and from Canada to Kazakhstan.

The world of Islam does not determine its relations with the West solely on religion. Economic, political and strategic considerations play an equally important part in these relations. Because of these views, Mr. Djerejian's policy speech was received favorably in many Muslim countries. Prominent newspapers in the Persian Gulf published a complete translation of the speech and even carried several related Op-Ed pieces.

Having expressed willingness to engage political Islam constructively, Washington still faces a formidable challenge in formulating policies and programs toward Muslim countries. However, this challenge can be addressed effectively if U.S. policy makers adopt several specific strategies:

* State clearly our commitment to the fundamental values for which this country stands; popular participation, pluralism, compromise, respect for human rights, and freedom of expression and thought.

* Stop talking about the ''world of Islam'' as if it were a monolithic whole; instead, use ''Muslim countries.''

* Invite Muslim scholars to visit the United States, where they would observe how Muslim communities live and prosper in pluralist America.

* Translate appropriate books about American values into the languages of major Muslim countries (Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, etc.).

* Stop talking about ''democracy,'' especially since it is viewed in Muslim countries as a Western (and therefore alien) idea; instead, use the phrase ''participation in decision making,'' which is more commonly used by Muslim elites.

* Emphasize the common elements and values that unite Islam and Christianity and avoid divisive factors.

* Finally, while being sensitive to Muslim culture and practices, adopt a proactive approach toward engaging Muslim interlocutors in substantive discussions -- both in the countries themselves and elsewhere.

* Confidence-building measures to succeed must work both ways. In spite of Washington's interest in establishing a constructive dialogue with Muslim countries and its commitment democracy, pluralism, tolerance and freedom, U.S. policy makers should continue to speak out forcefully against extremism, fanaticism, violence, coercion, oppression, intimidation and terror.

By adopting these policies, the new post-Gulf-crisis and post-Cold-War world will be better served and Muslim peoples would find in the United States a champion of human rights and democracy. Only then we can embark on a truly ''new world order.'' This is why Assistant Secretary Djerejian's May speech at the Meridian House International was such a major policy pronouncement.

Emile A. Nakhleh is the John L. Morrison professor of international studies and a department chair at Mount Saint Mary's College.

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