It has become almost impossible to invoke Islam or Muslims without reference to the vague and ever changing categories of moderation and extremism.
Two years ago, the Rand Corporation, a think-tank close to decision-making circles in Washington, issued a 66-page report entitled Civil Democratic Islam: Partners & Resources, which identified three elements within the Islamic mix, “the traditionalists, the fundamentalists, the modernists and secularists”.
The document recommended a strategy that strengthens the latter, or those who are “closest to the West in terms of values and policies” and compatible with “the contemporary international order”.
The report did not hesitate in championing a policy of using the so-called traditionalists against the fundamentalists, and in favour of the so-called secular modernists.
The labels employed here are neither neutral, nor innocent, but are designed in light of foreign stakes and interests. The conflicts that continue to rage in the Middle East region cannot be separated from this instrumentalism that exploits one side against another and all sides in the wider game of American regional and global strategies.
But how is this strategy faring on the ground today? We need not look further than Iraq for an answer. In the recent elections held in the country, the “modernists” were entirely swept aside by the Shia Islamists headed by the Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani.
They won a dismal share of the vote, much to the American administration’s dismay. As the political joke in Washington goes, the war is over and Iran has won.
Were open, free elections to be allowed in other Arab lands, the same scenario is likely to be replicated, which may explain Washington’s weariness of democratic change in the Arab region.
The problem with “Arab democracy” is that the forces it is likely to yield will not be the West’s proteges, but the so-called hardliners: those committed to their nations’ sovereignty over their lands and resources.
That the political status quo has remained resolutely unchanged in the Arab world has nothing to do with culture or religion. It is all down to the global strategies of dominance that require a domesticated democracy at the service of foreign interests in the region.
In Egypt, demands for political reform and an end to the corruption of the Mubarak regime reverberate in every corner of the vibrant and dynamic Egyptian civil society. But Washington and London prefer to look the other way.
Nor are the mountains of pressure piled up on neighbouring Syria designed to generate a credible democratic alternative to the existing senile regime of Damascus.
In the corridors of Washington and Tel Aviv the talk is of a successor to Bashar al-Assad from within the minority Alawi sect, who preserves the regime’s existing structure intact, but dramatically changes its foreign policies.
The change orchestrated by the powers with a heavy stake in the strategic Middle East can only take it from bad to worse: from despotic regimes with a measure of national independence, to tyrannical puppet regimes.
In the minds of the architects of American policies in the region, the equation is all too simple. Since democracy is unlikely to yield the desired alternative, pressure is exerted in varying degrees on the de facto regimes of the day to effect changes to their foreign policies.
Thoroughly experienced in brutality and deception, these long standing governments have mastered the rules of the game: A few cosmetic retouches here and there, open communication channels with Tel Aviv and “free trade” agreements with the American administration and its multi-nationals and you are a golden member of the American democratic club. This policy is now actively pursued in Egypt, Pakistan, Bahrain, Tunisia and Jordan to name a few.
There is nothing new about the strategy of promoting certain elements of the Muslim body at the expense of others.
Consecutive colonial administrations in the Arab and Islamic world have sought to marginalise the Muslim masses and their local institutions in favour of domesticated Westernised elites allied to the stakes and interests of foreign dominance.
The erosion of the traditional learning centres generated an institutional vacuum, which paved the way for the symbolic and cultural anarchy reigning across much of the Muslim world today. Amidst this chaos, shadowy figures such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Usama bin Ladin could rise to the surface and proclaim for themselves the right to pronounce on behalf of millions of Muslims worldwide.
The policy of engineering the cultural and political Islamic map through pockets of alienated elites imposed on the Muslim majority is at the root of the crisis of confidence and climate of tension marking relations between the Western world and Islam.
Rather than reaching out to the Muslim masses through their real representatives, the West has been indulging in a futile monologue, conversing only with those who echo its own words and speak for its own interests.
In this one-sided discourse, the finger is always pointed to the Muslim body, its way of life, history and cultural traditions, never to the complexity of reality, with its power struggles and power mechanisms.
Dialogue conferences with the “Muslim world” can in this sense turn into a meaningless public-relations exercise.
The term dialogue implies difference, while those who sit on the stage and speak through the microphones on both sides are often clones who share the same view, direction and language.
The carefully chosen Muslim interlocutors speak on behalf of their American or European hosts and say what they wish them to say. The latter can then wash their hands of any responsibility for the calamities of the region, its crises and problems.
Serious dialogue takes place between different, even conflicting forces, willing to reach a state of compromise and accord.
The truth is that if the Americans and their European allies do not review their policies in the region and continue this talk of the deaf with a handful of isolated elites and corrupt despotic regimes, they will only deepen the resentment and frustration of the swathes of men and women desperate for real change in the region.
The terms “moderate” and “fundamentalist”, it must be remembered, do not exist in a vacuum. For over two centuries, they have been an integral part of the cold and hot conflicts playing themselves out across the vast stretches of the Muslim world.
Take the turbaned Shia clerics who have lined up behind the American invasion of Iraq.
These we are told are “enlightened” “moderates”.
Not the turbaned Shia clerics a few miles away in Tehran though. Those are “dangerous” “fundamentalists”.
“Reform” and “traditionalism”, like “moderation” and “extremism” are best seen as key words in the dictionary of global hegemony, subject to the will to power, with its erratic whims and turns.
The people of the region are more than convinced of the need for serious political reform and are in no mood for eulogies on democracy, civil society and good governance.
The question is: Will the American and Europeans ever be so convinced? Or is the “democracy” of occupation, anarchy and foreign protectorates Iraqi style the only alternative?
First Published in Aljazeera, Thursday 20 October 2005