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Town Hall: Islam and the West

by Maryam Syed Sarrafe and Ryan Holeywell
The Globe (George Washington University)
10/01/2003

On Friday, September 12, a Town Hall meeting was held at the Elliott School under the auspices of Americans for Informed Democracy, a non-partisan organization that aims to promote more multi-lateralism in world affairs. With the date intentionally set for the day after September 11, the title of the Town Hall, “Clash of Civilizations or Common Ground?,” ultimately asked the question of whether or not cooperation was possible between the U.S. and Islamic world in the aftermath of the Iraq war. The speaker-panel consisted of four outstanding speakers, each of whom gave a short seven-minute speech as to where the US and Islamic world stood, and sought to clarify this generalization. General William Nash, journalist and diplomat Husain Haqqani, Ambassador and current GW Professor Karl Inderfurth, and bureau chief of the Washington office of al-Jazeera Television Hafez al-Mirazi all shared their opinions with the audience. The main concern, they explained, was not the threat of the Muslim world facing the United States, but rather the perception American policy-makers normally have toward the Islamic world. Though no one can deny that terrorists do exist amongst Muslims, and that military means may be necessary to root them out, it is not the most realistic approach in dealing with the entire Muslim world, which makes one-sixth of the world population.

Mr. Haqqani emphasized the importance of realizing that terrorists are individuals and not representative of Arab sentiment as a whole and that they are enemies of both the U.S. and Arab world. However, he used a little math to show the audience how important it is to confront terrorism. If just 1% of the 1 billion Muslims in the world hate the U.S., that is 10 million people. If 10% of them are willing to act on that hate, that leaves an army of 1 million people. All of the panelists emphasized that a group of this magnitude could not be fought conventionally, and that the best way to stop it would be for the U.S. to show a genuine commitment to the Arab world.

“When you hear Islamic extremism, chop off the first word,” said William Nash, a John Vessey Senior Fellow and the Director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Anti-Arab prejudice is considered the last legitimate prejudice in the U.S., and we just can’t stand for that,” Nash said. Mr. Nash reminded us that we have a history of racism in our country, and that we must first remember who we are, and then base the term on that prejudice.

On the same note, the perpetual blame-game played back and forth by those in the Islamic world and those in the United States, according to Husain Haqqani, is ineffective in pursuit of any type of common ground. Quoting Ghandi, he said, “an eye for eye will make the whole world blind.” Instead, according to Haqqani, we need to realize that the Islamic cause is not an event, but a process. While September 11 was an event, terrorism is a process. Similarly, our approach to dealing with democracy in the Islamic world should be procedural, and Muslim nations should be given that opportunity to evolve. “With the pervasive and everlasting stereotype of Muslims as incapable of any form of advancement, and with the history of US intervention in the Middle East solely for national interest, the image of the United States in the region has much room for improvement.

“The U.S. spends money on improving its image in the Muslim world, but we need to find out what created that bad image in the first place,” Mr. Al-Mirazi said.

Prof. Inderfurth specifically prescribed actions that the U.S. would have to take to accomplish this task of cleaning up the Islamic perception of America. First, the U.S. needs to internationalize the rebuilding of Iraq. Second, he said that America needs to secure peace in Afghanistan where the Taliban is reemerging as a threat. Third, the U.S. needs to redouble its efforts towards peace in Israel. Finally, he explained that a hostile INS and the Patriot Act are causing “intimidation” and “humiliation” within the Muslim community, so America needs to establish a “cross-cultural dialogue” towards improving relations with Muslims domestically and abroad.

Haqqani emphasized that despite the small group of Muslims that hate the U.S., many Muslims love the U.S. and want to help bring America’s type of democracy to their countries. “Democracy is possible in the Middle East; it is not a doomed region,” Haqqani said. He pointed out that democracy is relatively new, and that the country’s largest democracy, India, only became one within the last half century.

The brief overviews by the speakers were followed by ample time for question and answers. One gentleman raised the question of Christian/Muslim relations in the Middle East. With the repressive and anti-democratic regimes in place, and based on the shari’ah (Islamic law), he wanted to know how he could help out fellow Arab Christians subject to such rule.

“Christians have lived with Muslims [under Islamic law] in the Middle East longer than Christians have lived with Muslims in this country,” replied Haqqani. He further explained that any repressive regime to the Christians is likewise a detriment to Muslims also. Under the Taliban, for example, not only were Buddhist statues demolished but seven Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan were killed.

The Town Hall meeting gave students and faculty on and off campus a refreshing insight into the political world of Islam. “I think it’s a good start to getting a dialogue started between Western ideals and Islamic culture,” said Sacha Kathuria, senior in the Elliott School, “[it is] a chance for more moderate Muslims to express their views and show how Islam is actually conducive to democracy.”

“I was left with encouragement that people in the government believe in peace. They’re not just all about wars,” Freshman Jenny Hebets said.

“Our differences make us special, and if we learn that, we’ll be okay,” concluded Inderfurth.

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