Anxiety And Engagement

Anxiety And Engagement

My new book is a series of case studies in US and NATO relations with a Muslim country or movement, and I feel vindicated that I chose well. I talk about Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, all of which are in the headlines as the book appears in bookstores. These areas in particular pose dilemmas for the Obama administration, and I have a lot to say about how we got where we are and how we might get out of the serial morasses bequeathed us by eight years of Bush-Cheney.

I believe that the United States and its NATO allies are destined to have more and more to do with the Muslim world over the coming decades. Some estimates of world population growth suggest that it will level off about 2050 at 9 million or so. Nearly a third of humankind at that point may well be Muslim (the proportion is more like one-sixth to one-fifth today). Muslims will be the labor pool of the 21st century. And while we all wish that we could wean ourselves from fossil fuels in only ten years, likely a majority of our energy will still be being generated by them in 2050. The deepest known reserves of petroleum and natural gas are in Muslim-majority regions such as the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. As the shallower reserves elsewhere run dry, or as the populations of those countries with limited reserves begin using these resources themselves, industrialized nations will become even more intimately intertwined with the Muslim producers. Ironically, these hydrocarbon producers may also be the ones who have the capital to partner in trying to move to solar energy, the only real solution to the crisis (and one that should be attractive to the Muslim world, which has a disproportionate amount of sunlight and deserts).

Despite this growing relationship of production and consumption, of supply and dependency, relations between the two worlds are rapidly worsening. That combination of increased need for one another and increased distrust for one another could be explosive. The Muslim world has America anxiety, because of the recent history of coups, interventions and outright invasions, and because of Washington”s one-sidedness on the Israel-Palestine issue. The US and to a lesser extent Europe have Islam Anxiety, because of al-Qaeda and other terrorism, because of perceived intolerance and tendency to theocray, and because of what is seen as an irrational anti-Western sentiment. I argue in the book that Muslim terrorism is a significant but definitely fringe phenomenon, and that it resembles the far right of gun nuts and white supremicists in the US. We have to see things in proportion to make good policy.

Muslim publics are forthright in saying what they want. They want the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan and they want the Palestinians to cease being stateless and oppressed by a foreign military occupation that is expropriating them and/or depriving them of basic rights of life and property. They also would like more actual civilian development aid rather than grants of F-18s to their generals. And they want more easily to be able to travel to and learn from the United States. I think the Obama administration could hope to give them a majority of the things they say they want from us, and I think doing so would lay the groundwork for progress on the other outstanding issues. We don”t, in other words, have to be at war or to recreate the cold war, this time with the Muslim world instead with international communism. Muslims like democracy and private property way too much to be good stand-ins for the commisars.

This book came together for me because of the prospect that Bush and Cheney were on their way out of office. The departure of Blair in the UK and other changes in European politics also held out the possibility that these states and their publics might be open to new policies toward the Muslim world and more specifically the Middle East. Putting forth plans seemed pretty futile as long as the Bush administration was in power, because they were incredibly stubborn and unbelievably insular.

I felt a strong responsibility to write the book because I have lived in both worlds. Altogether, I probably spent about a decade in the Muslim world. I still travel there a lot, and keep in close touch nowadays through the internet even when I”m back here. I also have a lot to do with the American Muslim and Arab communities. I can”t tell you how upset I am about the bigotry and racism I see deployed against Muslims, at home and abroad, by rightwing pundits in this country. It is having an effect. I mean, a very large proportion of Americans has begun questioning the loyalty of American Muslims to the United States. In one poll, a quarter of Americans said that they would not want to live next to a Muslim.

That sentiment is ugly, especially if you know the history of race relations in the US. There were laws about where people could live based on race. The racial segregation of neighborhoods in Los Angeles, e.g., was carefully plotted out, as my colleague Scott Kurashige has shown, and had legislative and judicial backing. Japanese suffered from it, as well as African-Americans Even the 1948 and 1953 Supreme Court rulings that struck down restrictive racial covenants only made it impossible to enforce them in the courts, but did not stop whites from informally continuing the practice. When you say, in the US, that you don”t want to live next to a person because of his or her ancestry, you are buying in to a very powerful history of bigotry and social control. It used to be Jews, Blacks and Asians who were targeted for such residential restrictions. At least in some Americans” minds, it is now apparently Muslims.

Inasmuch as I am a historian, I view this book as a species of contemporary history. Although my main focus is on the present, I think knowing both Middle Eastern history and the history of European and American relations with the region is essential to formulating good policy. Recognizing that most Iraqis viewed their country as the victim of British colonialism, and that much of twentieth-century Iraqi history was about gaining independence from London, would have told us that most Iraqis would not greet invading Western troops as “liberators,” however happy they might have been to see Saddam Hussein overthrown. Understanding that both the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations strove mightily to build up Wahhabi Saudi Arabia as the central leader of the Muslim world allows us to see the irony of present-day American politicians” denunciations of the alleged pernicious influence of the Saudis on their coreligionists.

Now it may seem trite to insist that America Anxiety and Islam Anxiety can be overcome by better information and more intensive dialogue and negotiation, but I just want to point out that these steps are not the ones that have been being taken during the past 8 years, so we don”t know how effective they could be if pursued seriously. Actually the most dramatic example of showing respect to Muslims and working to get them on the side of the US versus radicals was the Awakening Councils in Iraq, where Sunni Muslims went on the US payroll to fight what Washington calls “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.” The American Right keeps lauding the success of this program without seeming to recognize that they oppose similar policies with regard to other, much less virulent movements. They don”t even want us to talk to the nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood. Why?