Scholar criticizes Islamic world, war on terror

Syrian analyst speaks on policy at Hopkins

September 13, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

At a town hall meeting here last night on U.S. foreign policy, a former Pentagon spokesman and a Syrian scholar found much to criticize not only in the Bush administration's war on terror, but also in the Islamic world and the underlying causes of terrorism there.

The United States cannot improve relations with Muslims while it continues to kill them in Iraq, said former Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon, who urged the United States to develop the kind of coherent, long-term strategy for fighting terrorism that it did to defeat communism during the Cold War.

Many of the problems affecting Muslim societies today are rooted in centuries of intellectual stagnation, said Syrian social analyst Ammar Abdulhamid, who noted that Muslims must learn to accommodate modernization and catch up to the West as quickly as possible.

Bacon and Abdulhamid spoke as part of a panel at the Johns Hopkins University focusing on one of the most challenging questions of our time: What should U.S. foreign policy be toward the Muslim world in the era of global terrorism?

Bacon, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in the Clinton administration, led off by criticizing U.S. policies toward the Islamic world as "incoherent." He said the United States is seen by most Muslims as siding with Israel against the Palestinians.

"It's going to be extremely difficult for us to have any reconciliation with the Islamic world as long as we are perceived to be occupying Islamic countries and killing Islamic people," Bacon told an audience of about 80 people, mostly students.

Bacon said many Muslims see America's Middle East policy, including its support for authoritarian regimes, as hypocritical, and polls show rock-bottom ratings for the U.S. in the Muslim world.

Abdulhamid, a novelist and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, agreed with much of what Bacon said but took a different tack, focusing on underlying problems in Muslim society that he said have contributed to terrorist violence. Abdulhamid pointed to what he called centuries of "intellectual stagnation" that have left many Muslims unprepared for and resentful of modernization's onslaught.

"Why do Muslims feel humiliated?" Abdulhamid asked. "We are supposed to be at the center of the universe, and here we are at the margins of it. For 500 years, we have not contributed to human progress."

But Abdulhamid also asked Americans to appreciate the speed with which traditional Muslims are being forced to confront change. The West, he noted, had centuries to develop democracy, go through the Industrial Revolution and grapple with issues such as gender equality - challenges that many in the Muslim world must confront in a much shorter period.

"The West never had to go through this," he said. "You had time; we didn't."

Yesterday's discussion is among more than 30 town hall meetings over the next month at campuses around the country in a series titled "Hope not Hate." Sponsored by Americans for Informed Democracy, a nonpartisan young-leadership organization, they are designed to commemorate 9/11.

Marissa Lowman, a Hopkins senior who organized the session, said her goal was to get more students thinking about U.S. foreign policy. Lowman said she was inspired in part by her experience last year studying in Germany, where she became acutely aware of European opposition to the Iraq war and other U.S. policies overseas. Lowman said that despite Hopkins' national reputation for study in foreign affairs, many students aren't engaged.

"Even though there are a lot of I.R. [International Relations] majors, it doesn't seem as if there is a large community to discuss international issues," said Lowman, 20, a German and creative writing major.

Another town hall meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. tomorrow in the Grand Ballroom at the University of Maryland, College Park. Among the speakers will be Shibley Telhami, a UM professor and analyst on Islamic radicalism.

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