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‘Islam at war’ vs ‘War within Islam’

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By Marwan Bishara

Muslims have a long memory and deep distrust of Western motives when it comes to provoking war or invoking Islam.

Not a day passes without certain pundits sharing their newfound “insights” about Islam; “Islam at war”, “Islam’s war within”, or “Islam’s inherent violence”, etc.

These headlines and their derivatives are neither new nor original, and despite being repeated countless times in the West, they remain fashionable. Partly because of what they say about the continued escalation in violence in the region, but more importantly for what they say about their manufacturers.

These can be divided into two opposing camps, but they have more in common than meets the eye.

The first camp claims “Islam is at war” and demands that the West respond with more of the same, war. It advocates deliberate, sustained and wide ranging use of force against Islamic radicals and their sponsors anywhere they might be.

Its proponents criticise the Obama administration’s strategic restraint and condemn its withdrawal from Iraq and its retreat or redeployment in the rest of the region.

‘ISIL is not Islamic’

They also question US President Barack Obama’s judgement that ISIL “is not Islamic” and ridicule his administration’s claim that the terrorists are the “enemies of Islam”.

In their mind, Islamism is an ideology that preaches extremism and terrorism and must be confronted and eradicated by force. Some go as far as to claim that Islam as a religion spouts hate and breeds violence and therefore must be radically reformed and/or confronted head on.

The most vocal among these are the ultra Zionists and neo-conservatives. They reckon “cowardice and multiculturalism” is partially to blame for the leadership failure to confront Islam, and warn against the dangers of abandoning “moderate” allies and emboldening the Islamic radicals throughout the world.

They insist the West must emulate Israel’s aggressive tactics and war strategies throughout the globe.

The liberal or realist camp argues that Islam is waging a war with itself, which the West cannot hope to win and therefore shouldn’t get involved in, except when US national security is directly threatened.

Liberals and especially liberal Zionists, who oppose direct interference, have criticised Muslims for shying away from getting directly involved against religious extremists.


When it comes to Islamism, its advocates reckon military force is not sufficient or adequate to fight an ideology; and that only Muslims can, and should, engage in their own battles militarily and otherwise. The West can only help them fight.

In the words of Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, the realists are right about this: The United States and its NATO partners cannot “win” the war inside Islam.

This is ever more so when it comes to the cross-regional sectarian conflict between Shia Muslims and Sunnis. Whether Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, etc, the liberals warn it’s short-sighted as it’s dangerous to interfere militarily in what essentially is a civil war within Islam.

They argue the West must draw the right conclusions from its failures over the past dozen years and avoid overextending its military footprint in the greater Middle East region.

Where are the Muslims?

Liberals and especially liberal Zionists, who oppose direct interference, have criticised Muslims for shying away from getting directly involved against religious extremists.

“There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today,” wrote Fareed Zakaria. “A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbours deeply reactionary attitudes towards women and minorities. While some confront these extremists, not enough do so, and the protests are not loud enough.”

“Islam is in crisis, a religion at war with itself,” argued Roger Cohen and added: “The West is a spectator to this internal conflict and a victim of it. Up to now, the reaction of Muslims to the horrors committed in the name of an ideology of hate and death drawn from a certain reading of Islamic texts has been pitiful.”

His colleague, Thomas Friedman went further. Muslims need to organise a million-person march against the jihadists across the Arab-Muslim world, organised by Arabs and Muslims for Arabs and Muslims, without anyone in the West asking for it”.

I don’t know where these Western liberals (who don’t speak any of the regional languages) get the idea that Muslims do not speak out against extremists. If anything, Muslims are the harshest enemies, bravest fighters and worst victims of extremism.

People gathered to commemorate the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris [AP]

Are they at least aware that Muslims cannot demonstrate in much of the Arab World?

On the other hand, if it’s so easy to demonstrate in New York and Los Angeles, why aren’t they calling on the Jewish majorities to demonstrate against Zionism and in favour of peace and a two-state solution.

That’s not to say there are no radicals, extremists and fundamentalists like ISIL and al-Qaeda, but the real major problems facing the Arab today goes beyond religious texts.

Frustrating frustration

There’s something terribly annoying about the repetitiveness and recklessness of those who invoke Islam with each and every issue confronting the greater Middle East region. Even more irritating is their attempt to repackage their arguments in an aura of originality.

But while doing my research, I drew solace from the fact that I am not alone in my frustration. As Rami Khouri put it:

“We suffer enough stress and danger in the Arab region from political violence, ageing tyrants, foreign invasions, local criminal and militia groups, colonial settler expansions, and frayed, haemorrhaging socioeconomic systems that we do not need this added intellectual bludgeoning by the international battalions of perplexity and confusion who find comfort in old-fashioned wholesale racism and reductionism [‘Islam is this, Islam is that’] that explains nothing other than their own bewilderment.”

I wonder whether it’s bewilderment or opportunism.

Remember, the Friedmans and the Zakarias of Western punditry, who supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq among other post 9/11 military adventures, are scapegoating Muslims for theirs and their government’s follies.

They deflect Western geopolitical failures on Islam; failures and blunders that culminated in evermore antagonisms and divisions.

And they complain about how Muslims don’t speak loud enough against the extremists, when Muslims are the foremost victims of extremism.

It’s the context, dummy

It’s rather cruel to ask Muslims to demonstrate against the recent killings in Paris, for example, when they can’t even demonstrate against the mass murder in their own homelands. They can’t even demonstrate for jobs and justice.

Moreover, why are Muslims asked to demonstrate against religious extremism while Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and Muslims are not asked to demonstrate against Israeli occupation or speak against Western wars and global injustice?

There’s no doubt that unlike the neo-conservatives, liberals’ approach to the Muslim world tends to be more rational, less militarist and less racist, albeit with hypocritical twist of self-endowed surplus morality.

However, both camps look at the region through imperial lenses. Both evade responsibility for their role in the terrible state of affairs in the greater Middle East.

But after decades of colonial invasions, interventions, and occupations, neither camp should be surprised that Muslims have a long memory and deep distrust of Western motives when it comes to provoking war or invoking Islam.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera