Thursday, 31 May 2012


The Muslim Question: An understanding for difficult times

by Ali Ahmed

August 1, 2011

Attending summer school at the University of Oslo, I had the opportunity to witness Norway in its grief and resilience first hand over the last week. In solidarity, I joined the flower march attended by some two hundred thousand, one third the population of the capital.
Anders Breivik has acquired everlasting notoriety for his single-handed perpetration of the largest massacre of students in human history. He has given his concern with immigration and multiculturalism in his defense. While all have distanced themselves from his methods, there are resonances of his political thinking in conservative perspectives across the western world.
The distrust is best evidenced by virtually everyone suspecting an Islamist hand in the Oslo bomb blast on the Friday of the dastardly killings. This is explicable in light of the happenings over the preceding decade. Why does the image of a Muslim come so readily to mind? That it turned out otherwise this time round provides a juncture to reexamine verities.
Conservatives politically distressed discount one reason why it is not unnatural for most of us to have briefly associated a Muslim visage with this tragedy in our mind’s eye. It is the nature of the west’s presence and purpose in Muslim countries. In the Arab world, the west is seen as not having served its democratic ideals as it should have. In South Asia, it is engaged in a war that has turned out as America’s longest war.
That the issue of immigration does exercise conservative forces is evident from this incident. In this case the right wing extremist, Breivik, targeted the government and the political formations that control it by killing innocents. Violence for political purposes such as this is not unknown. Back in India there are reports of majoritarian extremists indulging in terrorist acts. The difference is that they use the popular anti-Islamist narrative to depict their acts as terror strikes by Indian Islamists.
If this is the case in mature democracies, it can well be imagined that similarly inclined elements in Muslim societies would be equally, if not more, active. That their violence is more extensive owes to their angst being of larger dimension than the significance of immigration issue in right wing thinking in Europe.
In first place, it is lack of democracy and instability in Muslim lands that causes immigration. Insofar as economics is a driver, yet again this is a consequence of the needs of energy security of the west that lead to a relationship of a particular type. Insofar as the west finds the consequence in immigration disconcerting, then western governments need to reexamine their own policies that have led up to such immigration.
In the second place, such policies have, at least partially, resulted in the Islamist challenge and the extent to which it finds resonance in Muslim imagination. This makes for improving the profile of the right wing. Given this, there is a reluctance to support democracy in Muslim lands in western governments. A vicious cycle develops.
How can the consequence be grappled with? An easier answer is in ending the military component of the west’s engagement in Muslim lands. First is in speeding up the end of what was earlier referred to as the ‘war on terror’. Even though it is seemingly headed towards drawdown in ‘AfPak’, it continues to have potential to destabilize. One reason why the Oslo bombing was initially mistaken by many to have an Islamist signature is due to Norway’s presence as part of NATO in the ISAF in Afghanistan. Second is in discontinuing the military misadventure in Libya. Such interventions place the military instrument to the forefront; giving antagonists there an advantage over the rest of the political spectrum in Muslim societies.
The more difficult part is in extending the wisdom of the prime minister of Norway, Stoltenberg, encapsulated in his tribute to the victims at Utoya and Oslo. He said, ‘That the answer to violence is even more democracy.’ This has been the spirit of the discussions prompted by the sad event. This needs to be extended to Muslim countries. The fear that the extremist right would take over has been decisively exposed as a rationalization for supporting authoritarian regimes so far.
The outcome of such redefined engagement or reengagement but differently with Islamic nations would be in their taking over of their own reins. Then the west would not need to exert to fight religious extremism. It would be done by democratic means by Muslims themselves. With the western ‘Other’ receding from physical proximity and political consciousness, it would be easier grappled with once rise of Islamists over the short run of such reengagement is done with. As for energy security needs of the west, that is ‘root cause’ of what is seen as ‘neocolonialism’ in Muslim eyes, their need to continue selling oil will remain.
Insofar as immigrants pose a challenge in terms of integration, their plight needs understanding. Firstly, their presence is result of western policies on two counts. One is that growing economies needed them, and secondly, instability in areas from where they migrate out of also has something to do with policies of western governments. Secondly, integration and assimilation perhaps require more than a couple of generations and cannot be fast tracked. Thirdly, dissent over their government’s policies in the second generation owes to their seeing these polices as wanting through the very prism of western ideals and education. Therefore, even as much is expected from immigrants, host societies need to glance inwards too. The debate over the past week indicates that Norway for one is succeeding in doing this admirably.
It bears recall that Enlightenment did not happen in a historical vacuum. It is outcome of the ebb and flow of ideas and ideals between civilizations; indicative more of interdependence rather than ‘clash’. It is time for Europe and America to return a favor to the ‘Middle East’.

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