Wishful US thinking

Wishful US thinking

There is a truism understood among the more astute foreign policy analysts in Washington regarding America”s comprehension of the Middle East region: Whatever happens, whether it is the victory of Hamas, the downfall of the reformist movement in Iran, or most glaringly, the monumental humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq, you can count on a misreading of such events for at least three or four years after they have occurred before realism sets in. There is also another truism: when it comes to nuance in Muslim behaviour, not even time can produce US understanding.

So it should not have been surprising when The New York Times on 17 February published a front-page article about economically-strapped Egyptian youth, which claimed: “In their frustration, the young are turning to religion for solace and purpose, pulling their parents and their governments along with them. With 60 per cent of the region”s population under the age of 25, this youthful religious fervour has enormous implications for the Middle East. More than ever, Islam has become the cornerstone of identity, replacing other, failed ideologies: Arabism, socialism, nationalism.”

Thirty years after the American body politic was first exposed to Islamism, Islamic revivalism, Islamic identity and all the buzzwords used to explain societal transformation in the Arab world, the same flawed rationale is apparently just as valid today as it was then. Religiosity among Muslims is intensifying, the theory goes, because other ideologies have failed and economies are on the skids. Eighteen years ago, the same newspaper published a similar story about Algeria with the headline, “Militant Muslims grow stronger as Algeria”s economy weakens.”

The cause-and-effect relation between economic despair and religiosity is used as an explanation for everything from the increase in proportion of women who wear the hijab in countries like Egypt to the high-rate of mosque attendance in some Arab countries and the overwhelming escalation of hostility to and contempt for the United States in Muslim societies. This school of thought believes that Islam”s surge could be mitigated with economic development, which would include easy access to apartments and houses for the young, and an increase in leisure time and entertainment. To put it differently, the discussion and proposed solution are framed around the age-old contrast between Islam and modernity that continues to be advanced by columnists and intellectuals, such as Francis Fukuyama, who predicted in The End of History and the Last Man that consumerism would be the death knell to radical Islamist ideology. The argument rests upon the belief that globalisation and political Islam are at odds.

After 9/11, the explanation that poverty in the Arab world contributes to extremism and Islamism was particularly rampant. In a column in The New York Times in December 2001, headlined, “Getting at the roots of Arab poverty,” Yale University Professor Alan Schwartz made the following argument: “Since the terrorist attacks, Americans have learned that in many Arab and Muslim nations there are large numbers of angry young men with time on their hands, unable to find jobs — or jobs that make use of their education — because of their countries” poverty. We”ve also learned that many Muslims blame us for their poverty. But in fact they are not poor because we are rich; they are poor because of the policies their countries pursue.”

Schwartz, at the time a professor of law and management, ended his column with the following warning: “September 11 has taught us anew how important it is for the United States to take this kind of active interest. If we do not promote economic growth in Muslim nations, we will by default promote growth in the supply of potential terrorists.” This general presumption continues to be repeated in the media, at think tanks in Washington, and inside the US government.

But how much truth lies in this theory, especially when there is overwhelming evidence that the divide between the haves and have-nots is not a religious one? One only need look at Turkey, where the Justice and Development Party has risen to power on the heels of unprecedented economic development in that country. In the past five years, growth in GDP exceeded seven per cent annually, and exports more than tripled to more than $95 billion for the year that ended in June 2007. Unemployment, however, has remained high for that country, but not as high as in many Arab states. In Turkey, unemployment is about 10 per cent, compared with six per cent in 2000.

In Egypt, the economy has been strapped for decades. Educated Egyptians are still earning, at times, only $200 per month. According to some statistics, approximately 600,000 to one million jobs must be generated each year but only 500,000 are created. This gap affects youth the most.

But is this the reason an elevator operator prays before he pushes the down button, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once observed while visiting Cairo? Is this the reason a majority of Egyptian women wear the hijab ? Or the reason the influence within society of Al-Azhar”s fatwa committee has increased? Or why religious programming on Egyptian television has grown over the last 20 years? And most puzzling to the American mind, if poverty can”t possibly be the reason a rich, former Egyptian actress opened a beauty salon in Heliopolis for veiled women, then what is?

In a perpetual search to find a reason — one that can be detected and addressed neatly through foreign policy approaches — America longs for an answer to Islam”s surge. Underdeveloped economies provide a reasonable, plausible explanation, and can be addressed with foreign aid and new policies. This is one reason this theory is embraced by the media and the US government.

But more accurate and truthful illustrations of the importance of Islam can be found across the Arab world. Islam has become an important force and moral compass in the lives of Muslims, whether they are unemployed and living without running water in Imbaba, or whether they are wealthy movie stars who left the big screen. Even in the United States, second-generation Muslim-Americans, who are college-educated and come from affluent families, have begun attending mosques with greater frequency, wearing headscarves, and joining Muslim Students” Associations on college campuses to become better educated about their faith and to form a community with other young Muslims. They are finding that their comfort zone lies more in Islam, rather than in secular, mainstream American society.

One might assume that after years of scholarship about Islamic societies, public and policy debates, and the US government”s direct intervention in the Middle East, clichés would have been replaced by facts on the ground. But the cliché that Muslims turn to Islam out of desperation, poverty and discontent is still alive and well in America.

The writer is foreign policy analyst at The Century Foundation in Washington, DC, and author of No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam.