By AHMED SHOKER
MUSLIMS should applaud all investigations and hearings on security in North America or elsewhere and their position must be made clear to all, including Congressman Peter King, who led recent hearings on “radical Islam” and its link to American homeland security. One might have expected Congressman King to take this opportunity to hear directly from Muslim leaders, but he didn’t. Accordingly, I would like to present my viewpoint on the subject, after personal discussions with dozens of Muslims in North America and abroad.
In this day and age, people living in the West know that freedom is an indisputable human right. Democratic Western societies embrace and even legislate many basic human rights. Thus it may seem inconceivable to them that Middle Eastern people of all ages and from all walks of life would need to risk their lives to demand the kind of democracy we have long taken for granted in the West.
For many years, Muslims have questioned the tendency of Western governments to support corrupt overseas rulers, often for decades at a time. They cannot fathom how Western governments can justify their relationships with these oppressive regimes or fail to link their results to terrorism. By contrast, the average Western person is also asking why it is so difficult to change Arab leaders through a democratic process. Who is responsible for the absence of basic human rights in the Arab world? And what are the consequences of this absence? I am among many Muslims who believe that these questions were relevant to Mr. King’s hearings, yet were completely overlooked.
Muslim activists repeatedly express a popular opinion that a deceitful “Machiavellian” relationship exists between some Western governments (especially the USA) and certain elements of the Arab world – namely corrupt Arab governments that maintain an iron grip on power while selling back the false notion that their unchallenged rule is essential to maintain stability and protect Western interests. A classic example is found in the fabricated fear promulgated against other political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been particularly targeted as a scapegoat in order to incite distrust and fear in Western democracies. The Maher Arar case in Canada is a vivid reminder of the West’s abdication of democratic ideals in the name of security. Even though Western governments are fully aware that these corrupt leaders embezzle billions of dollars from their countries into outside banks, the West continues to support well known autocrats and dictators who ignore basic human rights.
Another unfortunate fact is that most people living in the West do not have accurate information on what happens on the street in other countries and therefore do not realize the painfully high human cost of these sordid relationships. Arabs of all religions have lived in fear and disgrace because these immoral leaders painted their own societies as being polluted with radicalism and subject to violence. Consequently, Western governments assumed that Arabs and Muslims are unworthy to live in human dignity under Western standards of democracy and must be ruled by force. Add to this troubling scenario the tendency of some Western media outlets to spin current events into marketable distortion under catchy titles such as “radical/fundamental Islam,” terms offensive to all Muslims. Coverage of the Iraq war and the ongoing Afghanistan conflict often emphasizes images of backwardness, supposedly based on the practice of Islam.
With judgment clouded by the personal benefits of this self-serving political arrangement, many of the Arab/Muslim ruling class overlooked the fact that persecution triggers anger and is therefore unsustainable. Many Muslims and non-Muslims alike fled to the West so as to live with basic human rights and practice their faith without fear. Others, unable to leave, had no chance to improve their lives. Not surprisingly, many were attracted to a culture of radicalism, the cost of their leaders’ political convenience. Additionally, the predominantly negative Western view of Islam provided further motivation to young and often ignorant people, recruited by “radicals” to target Western interests (especially American ones) with the scourge of terrorism.
We must grasp the real lessons of the Middle East uprisings to make hearings on “Radicalism” more meaningful. First, it is immoral for Western governments to prop up ruthless dictators to ensure regional stability. It is also immoral to trade the free flow of oil in exchange for innocent human blood. All ordinary Arabs want the oil to flow anyway for their own benefit, so there is no justifiable excuse for sacrificing people’s basic human rights for it. Arabs already paid a steep price of oppression when the West was attacked by terrorists who sprouted out of the tainted relationship between Middle East dictators and certain first-world governments. I suggest to Congressman King that he needs to acknowledge the perpetual link between what has been happening in the Arab / Muslim world and terrorism.
I believe that part of the remedy lies in changing Western attitudes. Let us abandon ambiguous terminologies such as “radical” and “fundamental” in association with Islam. Such adjectives are blatant insults because they label Islam as a religion that condones radicalism and encourages the public to fear Muslims. It is outrageous to vilify billions of Muslims through guilt-by-association.
Freedom of religious belief and freedom from suspicion are basic Western democratic values, yet they have not been automatically applied to Muslims in North America. For example, the U.S. never investigated Italian Americans during major Mafia investigations. Nor were Irish Americans put under the microscope during the decades-long sectarian conflicts in Northern Ireland. Those anomalies aside, if Congressman King’s methodology is accepted as legitimate, one could justify profiling all communities based on prison demographics alone. Therefore, the title of the Congressman’s hearings -- “The Extent of Radicalization in the Muslim Community and That Community’s Response” -- was nothing short of discriminatory.
Religious belief remains strong in at least 80 per cent of American families and Western values embrace freedom of religion; logically then, that should include followers of Islam as well. Encouraging empathy and embracing basic democratic values could be the best antidotes against radicalism. We must all have the courage to create dialogue on how inter-faith understanding, rather than confrontation, could help eradicate human conflicts.
We need to build a better understanding of “radicalization,” seeing it not as aberrant behavior that automatically spells terrorism, but as a symptomatic stress-response to chronic conditions of deprivation and absence of basic human rights. I look forward to future discussions in non-politically motivated hearings where theologians and religious leaders from all communities would have a voice.
(Dr. Ahmed Shoker is a Regional Director of CIC and Chair of the Muslim Communications and Outreach Committee – MCOC, in Saskatoon.)
CIC Friday Magazine