Today's date:
Winter 2008

Modernization Will Arrive in Arabia From Asia

Spring 2002

Rabat-New York — Upon invoking Allah's mercy and conveying a "lofty message" from King Mohammad V, the secretary general of ISESCO (Islamic Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization), opened the symposium on "The Image of Islam in the Western Media" held in Rabat, Morocco, in late January.

Minutes into his remarks about "forces" and "elements" trying to divide Islam from the West by attacking Saudi Arabia, it was clear I was in for another bout of ritual incantation against "Zionist agents" in the media ignoring Palestinian suffering while defending Israel and waging an image war against Islam.

Called upon to respond, I first of all allowed that Ariel Sharon, who even the Israelis hold responsible for the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps outside Beirut, was no friend of peace. But, as hard as it is for Arabs to understand, I further argued, Americans simply do not look at the world through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If anything, the negative popular view of Saudi Arabia has more to do with the women's lobby than the Jewish lobby.

Above all, I reminded the assembled leaders from across the Arab world, it was Osama bin Laden, not the Western media, who claimed his actions were in the name of Islam when he hit the United States with terror. He mightily reinforced a highly negative image of Islam that has been settling into the popular American mind for decades.

It is not so much that Americans don't care about the rest of the world and its problems, I explained. It is just that, unless it intrudes upon them in a sensational manner, they don't think about it. They are preoccupied with the future and their own pursuit of happiness. They don't look back, and they don't look around.

For that reason it is hard to break through the isolationist, even narcissistic, temperament and be noticed. Moreover, since America is a post-textual society that obtains information mainly from movies and television, it is not concepts that break through, but images—images that stick and often ossify into stereotypes.

Thus, paradoxically, in America the Islamic people of the Book are defined in the popular consciousness by images. They do not see a religion about peace, balance, compassion, charity, learning, justice and family. Rather, the image of the Islamic world—which to Americans is the same as the Arab world and Iran (and now Afghanistan)—is one of anger, violence, corruption and oppression of women.

These images of Islam did not arise from any predisposition against Muslims—Americans, in fact, felt they were saving starving people in Somalia, protecting Muslims from genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo and helping the Palestinians rightfully gain a state through the peace process—but were imbedded in their otherwise isolated awareness by sensational acts precisely designed to gain attention through the image media.

If Americans were asked to freely associate the images of Islam in their minds, here is what would flow out: radical Palestinians hijacking planes and blowing them up in the desert; the ski-masked Black September group taking Israeli athletes hostage at the Munich Olympics (though these groups were mainly nationalist and secular); Saudi oil sheiks gambling in London casinos with money from the OPEC oil embargo while making their women sit in the back seat and cover up; the Abu Nidal group taking the Achille Lauro and killing an old man in a wheelchair; angry students seizing the American embassy in Iran and taking its diplomats hostage; the face of Khomeini proclaiming the US the "Great Satan"; Saddam Hussein threatening the West with mass destruction weapons; the Taliban blowing up an ancient Buddhist statue (though protested by mainstream Islamic groups); and, of course, the horrendous attack on the World Trade Center towers and then the videotape of Osama bin Laden saying "praise Allah" repeatedly in apparent amusement that the damage was even greater than he had hoped.

Anwar Ibrahim, the former Malaysian deputy prime minister, is thus right to say that, as a result of the World Trade Center attacks, "never in Islam's entire history has the action of so few of its followers caused the religion and its community of believers to be such an abomination in the eyes of others." Asharq Al Awsat, the Arab daily, is right to editorialize that, as a result of the WTC attacks, "Islam has been put on the chopping block."

Now Islam's image must live with the consequences of sensationalist terrorism. The brilliance of exploiting the weaknesses of Western media to gain attention has backfired. The attention Islam has now has little to do with knowledge of Islam itself. And there is little awareness of the struggle for moderation within the Islamic world, especially coming from Asian Islam, from the secular separation of government in Turkey or even the tortured cultural reconstruction going on in Iran.

Without doubt, the Western media, whose skills and judgment have atrophied over the last decade with the infotainment focus on O.J. Simpson or Monica Lewinsky, need now to follow the first injunction of the Koran—to read—and learn more about Islam in all its diversity.

At the same time, I concluded, the condition for a fairer image of Islam in the West is a freer media in the Islamic world. To call for a "new order" in the world media that will be more objective toward Islam without calling for free expression in the Islamic world itself is just the whining of the weak who blame their frailty on others.

The Western press needs both access to sources and accuracy from the media of the Islamic countries. There is no greater invitation to misperception than asking the West to guess what is going on in the minds and hearts of Muslims.

After suffering through a cascade of vitriolic blame all morning in response to these remarks—especially from Iranian President Mohamad Khatami's chief aide for "the dialogue of civilizations"—a splendid feast was spread out at the palatial residence of the Saudi ambassador in Rabat, with its miles of marble, fine tiles and inlaid wood from the artisans of Fez.

Over a whole roasted lamb and couscous (no wine, only still water in the wine goblets and sparkling water in the drinking glasses), I finally heard a new voice. "Don't you think it is time for the Arab world to stop complaining about colonialism and start thinking about cloning, that is, the challenges of the 21st century?" I had asked the guests at my table. While most remained silent or gasping, the chief editor of Al Jazeera online responded. "Absolutely. But what we need is leadership. Nearly everywhere in the Muslim world, the leaders are corrupt, hostage to the religious hard-liners and afraid of the future. Only Mohamad Mahathir of Malaysia stands out because he is the one Muslim leader who has modernized his country."

This remark very much unsettled my friend Munawar Annees, the former editor of Islamic Periodica who had been imprisoned by Mahathir on trumped-up charges in connnection with a vendetta against Mahathir's fomer deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Nonetheless, the Al Jazeera editor from Qatar was right.

This became even clearer to me two weeks later when I sat down for a talk with Prime Minister Mahathir at the World Economic Forum meeting in New York. "The Arabs are still too hung up about having been dominated by other countries," Mahathir told me in reference to their blame game. "There is nothing in Islam that prevents modernization; it is the people who interpret Islam—the ulamas—that stand in the way. It is because of these ulamas that Muslims have become backward. While the early Muslims were scholars excelling in math and the sciences, today's Muslim ulamas are generally backward in most fields of learning. As a result, the Islamic civilization has fallen behind. Bereft of non-religious knowledge, the great Islamic civilization declined and faded away."

Mahathir went on to talk about how the ulamas arise every time development takes place in a Muslim country to brand the leaders secular "infidels" and agitate for a "return to Islam."

Despite his autocratic ways and what some regard as megalomaniac visions (such as the multimedia technology corridor), Mahathir marks a break with the downward spiral of Islam. For him, modernization is not a threat but the path to a renewed promise for Muslims.

Having survived the crucible of the Afghan campaign, the defeat of the Taliban and the crackdown on local Islamic militants, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is now saying much the same thing, calling on the Muslim "ummah" to join together not in a fight against modernization but, on the contrary, in a "jihad against illiteracy, poverty, backwardness and deprivation as envisaged by the Holy Prophet." Musharraf has noted that there are only 430 universities in the entire Muslim world, while Japan has 1,000 and that "the Muslim ummah produces 500 Ph.ds a year while Britain alone produced 3,000."

The instinct of the Arab leaders in Rabat was, once again, to go around the cul-de-sac, to blame the West for their bad image rather than cleaning up their act. Decade upon decade, this has led them back to the same sorry spot they find themselves in today.

Mahathir's attitude could not be more different: "Let's get over it and get on with it." That is the road ahead for the Muslim world. Islam's revival, if there is to be one, will surely arrive in Arabia from Asia, the opposite path, paradoxically, of the historical rise of Islam as a civilization.