Make Friends with Muslims not with their Rulers

The West has to learn how to cultivate relations with Islam. The affluent world must take into account the demographic, economic and political realities of Islamic societies. To deal with growing violence the industrialized countries must partner with Muslim people and not only with their rulers.

There are 1.3 billion followers of the Prophet Muhammad; every fifth person prays facing Mecca; every fifth country celebrates Ramadan. Muslim populations will increase.

But rapid population growth makes it hard for Muslims to prosper economically. In the past it was possible for the rich to overlook poverty. Not anymore. The internet, media and new modes of transportation have converted the world to a “village”. There is no more world security without “neighborliness”.

The world has three contrasting standards of living communities. One is too rich, one just managing and one struggling to survive. Muslims tend to live in communities of harsh economic and political survival, often in the shadow of elites that squander wealth.

Experiencing poverty today is even harsher than in the past. Poverty does not only mean lack of resources; it is also an experience of observing the rich with envy. When deprivation is felt physically as hunger, sickness and miserable shelter that is one type of experience. But when poverty is felt as a condition of sharp contrast with the neighbor, poverty turns into a malignant political condition.

As the poor organize openly they may improve their conditions. But too often the destitute are unable to organize politically in open society. When political organization is punished severely underground politics emerge.

Under autocratic regimes covert religious politics operate with immunity: the ruler is too insecure to punish the pious. Since Muslims often live in states of autocratic injustice there underground politics thrive. Rebellion is directed against the ruling regimes and their Western supporters.

Fundamental elements find shelter in their wider society but they usually do not achieve approval. Their money and human resources are generated informally, covertly and without limits. The radicals live sequestered and the rest of society goes about its business. The man on the street is not motivated to fight radical elements when he is upset with political conditions at home or abroad.

The best way to limit underground Islam is by allowing Muslim countries the freedom and the space they need to evolve their traditional political systems. Muslims need not be taught democracy; they have the necessary political values to build a democracy that suits their culture.

Muslim communities would however, benefit most from industrial empowerment, cultural cooperation, and a climate of regional coordination. Today the Middle East sells oil and buys consumer products and endless weapons for defense of immensely insecure regimes. In the Muslim world the economy is background for violence.

The region lacks industrial infrastructure to produce its basic commodities. Why can not the Middle East organize a common market the European way? For sure relevant higher education and training are pre-requisites for such advanced regional planning. It is here where the West can help the Middle East restructure massive human investment. Only an economy that balances agriculture with industry and services can generate good employment, social security and political stability.

When young people in the developing world are unemployed or underemployed they spend too much time in underground political activities that promise easy political solutions. If the West were to invest a fraction of what it spends on war in programs of economic empowerment of the Middle East it will create a socio economic renaissance in the region.

Consider what the American University of Beirut (AUB) has done to generate a wealth of good will between the Arabs and the West. I am a graduate of this institution of cultural exchange. It is on this campus where I learned to appreciate my Christianity, love Islam and defend America. AUB has trained several hundred thousand leaders for the Arab and Muslim world since its inception in 1866. The cost of supporting AUB over the past 140 years is equivalent to what the US spends in Iraq in two to three months.

Diaspora Muslims are natural agents of intercultural exchange with the West. The open political environment is likely to give the overseas Muslim community opportunities to contribute political innovative ideas to the home country. Since industrialized nations will continue to need the labor of overseas immigrants, Islamic communities in Europe and the US will expand. The Diaspora can accelerate the dialogue with host societies if they are properly approached. Immigrants will moderate if embraced with friendly public policies. Islam in the West is an “experiment”; with our attitudes we can help shape it.

With support from abroad Muslim societies can transform the energies of radical Islam at home or abroad. People to people friendships last; deals with rulers may not.