Seven Questions: Western Promises
In the current issue of Foreign Policy, Geneive Abdo argues that the leading organizations heading up an interfaith dialogue between Muslims, Christians, and Jews are terribly misguided. Now, she answers FP’s questions about the efforts that have so far characterized the attempts to bridge East and West.
PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images FOREIGN POLICY: In your article, you mention how disillusioned you became after going to work for the UN’s Alliance of Civilizations project. What were your expectations when you were hired for that project?
Geneive Abdo: It wasn’t so much that I was disappointed initially. It was how the project evolved, which I think is just one small example of a greater trend that has developed much more so since the alliance was formed in 2005. People are dancing around what are the more serious issues regarding the differences between Islamic and Western societies…. Even though I use the UN as an example in the piece, I don’t mean to place such a great emphasis on this project because it’s just part of a big picture that includes this whole sort of movement toward interfaith dialogue. I was just in Egypt last week and I met and interviewed some sheikhs at the seat for Sunni learning in the Islamic world—a huge mosque and university complex that is more than a thousand years old—and I asked them about some of these issues and how they view the so-called divide in a political and religious sense, and they made the same point. They think that most Islamic societies are extremely anti-American and that now is the time to address what the problems are and not cover them over. So the reason I wrote the piece is to try to present what I think is a more realistic view from the Islamic world rather than how these issues are viewed in the West.
FP: Was that perspective from the Egyptian sheiks you spoke with characteristic of the other people you met when you were doing your work for the UN? What did they tell you?
GA: When I worked for the Alliance, we didn’t really seek the opinion of people in the Islamic world. As I said in the piece, that was part of the original mission, but it never materialized. But in the general sense, that’s the problem, which is that you have … Muslims who are supposedly representing [all Muslims], but they are Westernized and are not really the people that Western governments—particularly the United States—should be engaging. The U.S. government should be engaging Muslims across the Arab world and across the Islamic world who have grievances. They shouldn’t be speaking to the choir. That’s the whole point of foreign-policy approaches, or should be. So, I do think that the people that I met this week in Egypt, their views definitely reflect what is the mainstream. That’s why I wrote the article, because the U.S. government is engaging the wrong Muslims.
FP: This does get to a larger point in current U.S. foreign-policy debates. Couldn’t you argue that talking to a few extremists or people on the fringes legitimizes their point of view, perhaps even alienating the larger majority of moderates who would probably also appreciate an audience with high-ranking officials and prominent journalists?
GA: Well, I think that sitting down to negotiate with al Qaeda is probably not very effective. But the Muslims I’m talking about that should be the focus of any sort of foreign-policy strategy aren’t necessarily the “extremists.” We have to define who is an extremist. I think that’s necessary. I know that, for example, there have been some talks between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt and U.S. congresspeople recently—about a year ago, there was a meeting in Cairo—and I think that those kinds of meetings are very constructive. And I think that whether or not the United States should be talking to Hamas and Hezbollah, I think that their argument goes different ways, but we have to consider realpolitik: These movements … can no longer be dismissed. There needs to be a new strategy with the next administration. How they talk to these groups or how they talk to what I consider to be groups that reflect much more mainstream opinions, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
FP: Do you think that any of the interfaith groups are doing something right?
GA: I think that the more sincere ones aren’t using this in an opportunistic way. There are some small Muslim organizations, for example, that have been in touch with churches, and church groups that have given Korans to their parishioners—I think that things that are being done on a more interpersonal level [is] helpful, but I think that what’s important is that they’re relating to each other on a much more human level. Where I think things get a bit disingenuous is when you have these large or high-level interfaith campaigns that have a subtext that [promise] to solve the political problem. There are a few well-funded imams in America, for example, who say they are engaging in interfaith dialogue—but when they give public lectures, they talk about how all the Christians and Muslims and Jews need to do is get together to solve the Palestine-Israeli conflict. That’s just idiotic. The interfaith movement, as it’s developed on a big scale, is on the wrong track and is deceptive. But what people are doing on a much smaller scale as individuals, churches, and mosques can be helpful because they’re not trying to pretend that it’s anything but a conversation of people getting together.
FP: So many Western governments have put stock into a cultural approach, trying to as you say, win the hearts and minds of Muslims through Hollywood movies. Why do you think that kind of approach is doomed to fail?
GA: It can be helpful in the long term, just as education can be helpful in the long term. Universities now have Islamic studies programs, many more than existed before 9/11—and so we can hope that the next generation, just as people who watch Hollywood films, will develop more sophisticated attitudes about the Muslim world. But the point of my article is that if the same amount of money that’s being spent toward what could be classified as a “cultural approach,” were to be devoted instead to what I think is a much more urgent problem, which is extremism and the anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, that it would be much more effective in the short term. That should be the goal of the policy establishment.
In the short term, [the bigger organizations] aren’t going to make a significant difference in ways that will address the very serious issues that we are facing. At the same time, it’s part of a larger strategy of some Arab governments to make it seem that they are “aiding” the United States in the “war on terrorism,” which is the subtle message behind a government like Qatar giving millions and millions of dollars to these kinds of cultural projects.
FP: That leads into the discussion that you’ve touched upon about the Muslim lobby in the United States and elsewhere. Why do you think that the influence of these lobbies is perhaps more dangerous than that of other interest groups in the U.S.?
GA: Their message is misleading. Again, recently, when I have taken trips to the Middle East, there is a lot of interest in Muslims in America. I was very surprised in Egypt. I asked a lot of these people who came to my talks and lectures, “Are you comfortable with Muslims in America speaking for you and speaking for the Islamic world?” They said, “Of course not, we have nothing in common with them.” Most of the [Muslims] who are now part of the debate or are now some of the leaders are second-generation Muslims and are very detached from their families’ countries of origin. They are not Islamic experts, they are not Middle East experts, and some of them know very little about their own faith. It’s very misleading for them to either inform policy discussions or to speak about the views of Muslims abroad.
A high-ranking State Department official described this anecdote of taking Muslim Americans to Cairo. They went to a lecture there and talked about integrating the U.S. Army and how they were more fluent statistically than the average American and one person stood up in the audience and said, “Everything is so great in America, you even have better Muslims.” I think that’s a really telling anecdote and I think that it’s the kind of sentiment I have experienced in my travels in the Middle East.
FP: Looking forward, what would you consider to be progress on this interfaith front? What steps would you like to see on the part of Western governments and NGOs when it comes to engaging disaffected Muslims?
GA: In some ways people are confusing two things that are not necessarily related. People confuse cultural adaptation with some kind of favorable opinions of the United States. This has always been, at least under the Bush administration, the United States’ approach. I experienced this particularly in Iran, where all these Americans and Europeans—journalists and others—would come to America and say, “All the Iranians are watching Titanic,” or “All the Iranians are watching pop music [videos], so they must love America.” But whether Iranians like America, their opinions are not necessarily formed over whether they like Titanic. And the reason that Muslim opinion about the United States is so negative is because of our foreign-policy approaches. There is also a lot of confusion about the approach that somehow was effective during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union and [assuming] that could be effective with the Muslim world. Again, that is a false comparison. The conditions were different. Egypt is not a closed society. Egyptians have access to American films. There are dozens and dozens of cinemas in Egypt where people can watch an American film anytime they choose. Egyptians can listen to American radio and music. That doesn’t really address their anti-American sentiment and their grievances. So if you want to have cultural programs, that’s fine, but don’t pass them off as addressing the political problems and the political conflicts.
This whole cultural approach aside, and the interfaith dialogue aside, there has to be an acknowledgement that the big problem is still hanging out there. I think that that will take time. But it needs to be addressed in the new [U.S.] administration through not only different policies from the Arab-Israeli conflict to Afghanistan to Iraq to Iran, but also the language and the rhetoric. In President Bush’s trip that he just made to Europe, he even acknowledged that [his] language and rhetoric did not help the United States’ case after 9/11. There needs to be some sort of engagement with people who are disgruntled. Regardless of who the next president is, everyone is now aware of that, and that it’s a matter of finding the right strategy to do so.
Geneive Abdo is a fellow at the Century Foundation and author of several books on contemporary Islam, most recently Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).