Read Dr. Ahmad’s presentation on American Democracy and the Muslim World

Dr. Ahmad

This is a recent presentation given by Dr. Ahmad.  Some portions of this presentation were originally delivered in part of a lecture he delivered at Key West, and was included as a chapter in a book published by Truman University Press.

I am grateful to all of you for being here today, and to the Chiesman committee particularly its chair, my good friend, Dr. David Wolff, for organizing this event, and inviting me to speak.  I am delighted and honored.

Today, as most of you know, has been specifically designated to be a day when we think about the ideals, texts and institutions of American democracy.  In that sense it is a celebratory occasion, when we appreciate the profoundness of the constitutional experiment, the foundational texts and our democratic commitments that have taken this great country to its position of power and moral authority in the world.   But, at the same time, this day should also give us a moment of pause, a time for reflection and judgment, an instance for critical engagement with larger themes.  Interrogating the narrative will be no less of a service to it, and the occasion itself, than an easy evocation of its obvious greatness. 

It is in this context that I would like to raise an enduring question about American democracy – is it peculiarly time-bound, culture-specific and contextually determined? OR, does it capture something universal, transcending time and space, equally relevant in all political cultures and in all efforts towards human progress?  There used to be a time when most of us would agree with the argument of the writer Karl Kaysen who suggested that the American revolution and what followed from it, is nothing less than the “great rehearsal” that all nations are destined to emulate and absorb.  Today, our optimism has been moderated to some extent.  But that acceptance has been a bit hesitant and begrudging.  Why is it, we asked, can they not see the wisdom, the justice, the stability, the morality and the progress which our system can surely generate?  Can they not see how it has informed and encouraged our own path to power and advancement?  How can they not see, and admire? Why can they NOT want to be like us?

There are very few areas of the world where that question is raised with greater frequency, or greater passion (and perhaps with greater frustration) than about the Islamic world.  Last week was a grim reminder of 9/11, one of the most terrible tragedies our nation suffered, when some people, misguided, bigoted, and stupid, hurled their bitterness into our very soul, killing thousands, affecting millions, and shocking all.  We were touched with something that appeared to be brazenly vile and wicked.  And, since every one of the perpetrators were supposedly Muslims it confirmed our worst fears about them – that they were people incapable of rational thought, human feelings, or moral considerations.  The syllogism that offered itself was that they hate us, we are the leaders of the democratic world, therefore, they hate democracy.  Many of our commentators and pundits articulated this popular perception that Muslims did this, because they despise our freedoms, our rights, our liberties, our democratic way of life.  The discourse was quickly flattened into convenient contradictions – us versus them, good versus evil, democracy versus the Muslims.  The rest of my remarks today will be dedicated to deconstructing those simplistic and exaggerated binaries.

It should be pointed out that rumblings about their “unfitness” for democracy had been heard for some time, even before 9/11, e.g. public opinion polls in the United States in the 1990s revealed a fairly consistent pattern of Americans labeling Muslims as “religious fanatics” and Islam as totally “anti-democratic” in its ethos.1  
 But, these perceptions were not merely reflected in popular consciousness or crude representations in the media.  Respected scholars have also contributed to this climate of opinion by writing about the supposedly irreconcilable differences between Islam and the West unfolding as the famous “clash of civilizations” that is supposed to be imminent and inevitable.  For example, Professor Peter Rodman worried that “we are challenged from the outside by a militant atavistic force driven by hatred of all Western political thought harking back to age-old grievances against Christendom”.  Dr. Daniel Pipes proclaimed that the Muslims challenge the West more profoundly than the Communists ever did for, “while the Communists disagree with our policies, the fundamentalist Muslims despise our whole way of life”.  Professor Bernard Lewis warned darkly that “the West is facing a mood and a movement far transcending the issues, or the policies, or the governments that generate them.  This is the historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the expansion of both”.  Professor Amos Perlmutter asked, “Is Islam, compatible with human-rights oriented Western style representative democracy?  The answer is an emphatic NO”.  And Professor Samuel Huntington suggested with a flourish that “the problem is not Islamic fundamentalism, but Islam itself”.2

It would be intellectually lazy and simple-minded to dismiss their positions as based merely on spite or prejudice.  In fact, if one ignored some rhetorical overkill, some of their charges, though awkward for Muslims, are indeed relevant to a discussion of the relationship between Islam and democracy in the modern world.  For example, the position of women, or sometimes non-Muslims, in some Muslim countries, is problematic in terms of the supposed legal equality of all people in a democracy.  Similarly, the intolerance directed by some Muslims against some writers and activists who are critical of Islam (e.g., Salman Rushdie in the UK, Taslima Nasrin in Bangladesh, Prof. Nasr Abu Zaid in Egypt, cartoonists in Denmark, and others) ostensibly jeopardizes the principle of free speech essential to a democracy.  It is also true that out of more than 50 members in the Organization of Islamic Conference, less than 10 have institutionalized the principles or processes of democracy as understood in the West, and that too, tentatively.  Finally, the kind of internal stability and external peace that is almost a pre-requisite for the functioning of democracy is vitiated by the turbulence of internal implosion or external aggression evident in many Muslim countries today (Somalia, Sudan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, and others).

However, in the context of this discussion, it should be remembered that democracy is, after all, a “contested concept”.3   Its meanings can be various and its practices very different.  There may be authoritarian regimes that describe themselves as “people’s democracies”, and varieties of Western systems of governance where the institutional and habitual loyalty to the principles of democracy may co-exist with severe economic disparities, judicial inequities, racial prejudices, social pathologies, and alienation and apathy experienced by many of its citizens.  It is possible, indeed necessary, to separate the notion of democracy into its procedural and substantive aspects.  On the one hand democracy may be considered as a set of practical arrangements to determine “who governs” usually on the basis of majoritarian principles, but on the other hand also as a political system which is committed  to some normative and humanistic ideals.4  In this sense, it is not so much the functional arrangements that define our system of government, not merely the mechanics and instruments we have created, not only the ideas of federalism, or electoral college, or bicameral legislature, a system of checks and balances between different branches of government, or the separation of church and state, or judicial review, or two party dominant system, or specific rights and liberties given to us in the constitution that distinguish our system of democratic governance.  More importantly, it is the spirit, the ideals, the values that our democracy represents and promotes that are more relevant.  We can probably try to identify some of them – the idea of republicanism (i.e., of government based on the consent of the governed through elected representatives who are responsive and responsible to the people); of pluralism (indicating a commitment to the inclusion of diverse social forces in a spirit of negotiation and tolerance), of the rule of law (suggesting the supremacy of the constitution and hence the equality of all people in the eyes of the law); of individualism (emphasizing essential freedoms to make personal and professional choices, but also responsibility and accountability for one’s actions and decisions); and of social justice (promoting the construction of a societal order based on fairness, equity, and the public good which enhances the dignity, the humanity and the moral integrity of the citizens).  Scholars here asked, isn’t Islam incompatible with every single one of these principles and commitments?

But, before I get to that question of Islam let me clarify something else.  Orientalist scholarship that led to the exoticising of the east, presented the Muslims in the Middle East as particularly strange, and vicious and mysterious.  We do not know them, they are not worth knowing, we have no history with them, who needs them?   However, I just wanted to point out that all the three monotheistic faiths emerged there.    It was because of Arab translators and commentators that the classical heritage was reconnected to Europe, and the Renaissance would not have unfolded the way that it did without the agency of Arab and Muslim intellectual mediation.  The very first country to recognize the US was Muslim (even though the first ambassador in the US came from the Netherlands); the US Embassy in Tangiers is the first property that the US had owned abroad and the only building on foreign soil listed in the US National Register of Historic Places;  the Morocco-American treaty of friendship is the oldest friendship Treaty that the US has ever signed.  More immediately, those of us who drank coffee today, put gas in our cars, wore sandals or pajamas, used words like almirah or admiral, ate kebabs or drank sherbets or slipped an olive in our martini, slept in a four poster bed or sat on an ottoman, or struggled with algebra have all experienced them in our lives.  As a matter of fact, even the graduation ceremonies we have, and the academic regalia we wear today, reflect Middle Eastern influences.  Actually they are much closer to us than we ordinarily think. To get back to the question about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy it is frequently asked, isn’t Islam inherently hostile towards Judaism and Christianity, so how can it ever aspire to a pluralist structure?  Let us simply see what the Quran (i.e., the Holy Book of the Muslims) says about this.  The reason I am quoting from the Quran is that it is the supreme authority for Muslims, supposedly the exact and inerrant words of God that no Muslim can violate, and perhaps it is better that I quote from it directly rather than provide paraphrases and assertions.   I crave your indulgence for the next 5-7 minutes because while it may be a bit trying it is important to set the record straight, and with reference to the original source clarify some misunderstanding regarding democracy and the Muslim world.   

In chapter 29 verse 46, the Quran explicitly states, “And dispute you not with the People of the Book [i.e., Jews and Christians] but  say, ‘We believe in the revelation which has come down to us, and  in that which came down to you, our God and your God is one, and  it is to him we bow in Islam.’” Islam accepts the prophethood of Moses and Jesus (and others mentioned in the Tanakh and New Testaments), accepts the stories contained therein (Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark, Jonah in the whale, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.),  accepts almost all the miracles and stories attributed to Moses and Jesus (the parting of the waters, the burning bush, the miraculous birth of Jesus, the curing of lepers, the raising from the dead, and so on). As a matter of fact when Muslims take the name of the prophet Muhammad, they say parenthetically, as a mark of reverence to him, “May peace be upon the Prophet.” And when they take the name of Moses and Jesus, they say exactly the same thing. There is no doubt that both of them are revered as God’s chosen messengers, however Islam contends that it is possible that the books revealed to them, in human hands, gradually evolved in ways that could have compromised their original purity. It should be pointed out that, contrary to popular opinion, the Quran never refers to believing Jews and Christians as “infidels.” The Quran tells us, “We believe in Allah, in what has been revealed to us, what was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and what was imparted to Moses, Jesus, and the other prophets from their Lord, making no distinction between any of them, and it is to him we submit” (2:136 and 3:84). In a similar vein, and more explicitly, the Quran states, “Those who believe in the Quran, and in the Jewish scripture, and the Sabians and the Christians, who believe in God, and the Last Day, and work righteousness, on them shall be no fear nor shall they ever grieve,” a refrain that is repeated in exactly the same language in two different chapters in the Quran (2:62 and 5:72). 

But isn’t Islam opposed to the other religions? Well, the Quran reminds the faithful that God has sent messengers to all the nations (16:36, 10:47), that all prophets, some mentioned by name in the Quran and some who are not (4:164), are bearers of divine law, teachers and reformers, engaged in similar ministries, and those who believe in them “and make no distinctions between them, will receive their just rewards” (4:152). Their messages and good tidings were to ensure that “humanity may not have a plea (or argument) against God” (4:165). The Quran itself proclaims that “if he <[Allah]?> so willed he could have made us all one people” (5:51) but he did not, and made us into various nations and tribes, with these diversities themselves representing a sign from God (30:22). These differences extend beyond physical characteristics, and the Quran asserts that “to each among you we have established a law and an open way”—not to engender discord and confrontation but—“so that we may know each other and not despise each other” and compete in excelling each other in virtue and piety (5:51, 49:13). Even though Islam presents itself as the final expression of God’s messages, it suggests, quite categorically, that “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256), and holds out the possibility that not all will submit to the teachings of Islam or commit to its message. Thus, the Quran says that even though the truth has been conveyed, and while it would be a mistake to deny the messages and signs from God, “let who will accept, and let who will reject” (18: 29). While it proclaims that it presents the “straight path” to God, it does not specifically claim that it is the only one. There is a pluralist expansiveness evident in chapter 109, entitled “the Unbelievers,” where the entire chapter of six lines is dedicated to only one message instructing Muslims to say that “ye will not worship what I worship, nor will I worship what ye worship…to you your way, to me mine.”  

But doesn’t Islam envision a theocracy where the clerics will rule and the people’s voices become irrelevant? The religious coexistence I referred to earlier hints at Islam’s commitment to democracy—democracy not as a set of institutions and procedures, but in terms of its substance and spirit, what some scholars refer to as “deep democracy.”  In this context, the concept of consensus becomes relevant. Chapter 42 verse 38 indicates that those people are dear to God “who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation.” While some conservative scholars interpret this as consultation only among a select group of advisors, family members, or the ulema (the learned ones), the chapter itself indicates no such limitation. In fact, in chapter 3 verse 159, it is suggested that Muslims should try to forgive and pray for those who may have been weak in faith and judgment and “consult even them in affairs of the moment.” Hence, there is no test of virtue or intellect that limits the franchise or restricts the people from participation. Moreover, the Quran emphasizes the significance of human will as a transforming instrument. The faithful are reminded in chapter 13 verse 11 that “verily never will God change the condition of a people unless they want to change it themselves.” thus suggesting that the believers are not supposed to be passive or timid recipients of the ruler’s dictates, serving merely as objects of history, but should be engaged participants and active agents in the betterment of their lives and communities. 

But isn’t there a lot of injustice in Muslim countries? Perhaps, but that would be inconsistent with the foundational tenets of Islam. The Quran exhorts the faithful to “stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourself, or your parents, or your kin, or whether it be against rich or poor (for God can protect both). Follow not the lusts of your heart, lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, God is acquainted with your deeds” (4:135). The believers are supposed to be absolutely honest and fearless in their understanding and administration of justice, not even sparing or showing partisanship to their families and kin. Therefore, the argument (or the excuse really) that Muslims cannot condemn some acts of wanton brutality committed by some wayward Muslims because, after all, they are Muslims, is inconsistent with Quranic doctrine. In fact, the Quran enjoins the believers to make sure that not even their anger or anguish or hatred can make them act inequitably. “Be just,” the Quran reminds us, “for that is nearer to piety” (5:9). 

But isn’t that legalistic concept of justice rather indifferent to social inequality and oppression? The widely shared perception of Islam is that it is defined purely by some legal and ritual commitments, and that as long as some of these rules (or pillars) are followed, Muslims are assumed to be on the right path. However, the Quran tells us that “it is not righteousness that we turn our faces towards the East or West” in prayer, but that we fulfill our responsibilities to our community through helping the vulnerable and by meeting our contractual obligations (2:177). The Quran asks, “Hast thou observed him who believeth faith? It is he who repels the orphan and urges not the feeding of the needy” (107:1–3). In chapter 51 verse 19, the Quran suggests that in the wealth of the rich “the beggars and the needy have their due share,” thus indicating an entitlement rather than a mere dependence on the charity of others. God’s favor and grace is always intended for the poor and oppressed amongst us, and most of the prophets (with some exceptions) came from among them as leaders and inheritors (28:5). God’s anger is not necessarily directed against the rich, because, after all, wealth and success can also indicate God’s generosity, but is leveled at the vanity, the arrogance, the ostentation, and the selfishness that the rich are wont to demonstrate, particularly those “who pileth up wealth, and spend it not in the way of the Lord” (104:2–4 and 9:34). Indeed, the weak and distressed are encouraged to challenge the illegitimate and unjust rulers “who oppress humanity with wrongdoing, and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land defying right and justice” (42:42). The pomp and power that some kings and noblemen may display could disappear quickly if, through their oppression, they incur the displeasure of the people, and the wrath of God. The Quran warns: “And how many townships have we destroyed while it was oppressive, so that it lieth to this day in ruins, and how many a deserted well and lofty tower” (22:45). As the prophet Muhammad so famously said, “O Lord, I seek refuge in thee from poverty, scarcity, and indignity, and I seek refuge in thee from being oppressed and from oppressing others.” 

But isn’t Islam inherently violent and doesn’t that jeopardize any pretentions or hopes for democracy the people may possess? There is no doubt that Islam permits, indeed encourages, robust retaliation against those who unjustly initiate war against the faithful. However, it also reminds us, “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, but do not begin hostilities, for God likes not the aggressors” (2:190). In typical biblical tradition, it accepts the argument of appropriate punishment (eye for an eye ..), but adds, “The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto, but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from the Lord” (42:40). This theme of forgiveness extends even to groups in conflict with the Muslims, those who may cease and desist from oppression or violence, or offer peace or surrender, or wish to extend their hand in friendship. No conflict is permanent, except against oppression and injustice, and the Quran reminds the believers that “it may be that God will grant love (and friendship) between you and those whom ye now hold as enemies” (60:7). Therefore, opportunities for reconciliation between contending parties should never be foreclosed and the Quran suggests “if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou also incline towards peace, and trust in Allah” (8:61). For those who do not fight the believers on account of their religion, or do not make it impossible for them to practice their faith, or do not turn them out of their homes, the Quran encourages the Muslims “to be generous to them, and deal with them justly” (60:8). While bravery in the battlefield, for a just cause, is glorified, the Quran also suggests that “If anyone slew a person (unless it is for murder or spreading corruption) it would be as if he slew the whole people, and if anyone saved the life of a person, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” (5:35). War is never a first choice for Muslims, but the last alternative they may be forced to follow, but which they must undertake if it is thrust upon them. The Quran tells us, “Know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves” (9:36), and that the faithful should be fully aware that they are supposed to be “a community in the middle way so that (with the example of your lives) you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind” (2:143). Indeed, in chapter 5 verse 31, the Quran counsels the faithful: “If thou stretch thy hand to kill me, it is not for me to stretch out my hand to kill thee, for I fear Allah.” And, in referring to the sacredness of all life, it suggests that no life can be taken except “by way of justice and law” (6:151, 17:33). A pithy admonishment probably captures the gist of Islamic teaching rather well: “Cultivate tolerance, enjoin justice, and avoid the fools” (7:199). 

Is it possible that I myself am using the Quran selectively to present the idea of a progressive and democratic Islam?  Perhaps. But I am convinced that I am presenting the essence of Islam accurately and honestly. It is true that one can read into the scripture whatever one wants. Every act of reading is a textual deconstruction, every act of understanding, an interpretation. What you read into a text is what you bring to it, and want from it. If you want to find peace, justice, and compassion in the Quran, you can, as you can in most sacred texts. If you want to discover anger, hate, and violence in the Quran, you can do that too, as you can in most sacred texts. It is most curious, and probably sad, that some who hate Islam, and some Muslim fanatics, are both reading it in the latter way.
It can further be asked that what I have just presented is really a wishful thinking of a liberal, and that it does not reflect the facts on the ground as it were.  Not really.  In February 2005, the Pew Research Center published some findings from their Global Attitudes Project carried out in 2003 and 2004. In a multi-nation survey, when Muslims were asked whether democracy is a Western way of doing things, and would not work here” only one Muslim country supported that proposition (Indonesia with 53%)  while only 12% in Bangladesh, 16% in Kuwait, 25% - and 30% in Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Morocco, about 35% in the Palestinian Territories and Turkey), agreed with that statement.  When asked whether it was VERY important to live in a country where people can openly criticize the government, majorities in only Jordan and Uzbekistan did not think so, whereas vast majorities ranging from 56 to 83%, in Mali, Turkey, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Pakistan and even Indonesia thought so. Even among the politically radicalized Muslims in the Arab countries (defined as those who support suicide bombings) Gallup reported that almost 50% held that “moving towards greater governmental democracy” will foster progress in the Arab and Muslim world. Incidentally, in spite of ambiguities about who perpetrated the horror of 9/11, only 7% of Muslims consider it completely justified.

In the same vein it may be pointed out, that while 46% of Americans think that bombing or attacking civilians is “never justified”, 74% in Indonesia, 80% in Iran, 81% in Bangladesh, and 86% in Pakistan indicate that terrorist attacks against civilians is “never justified”.  It is interesting to point out that while 32% of Americans say there is nothing to admire about the Muslims, the percentage of Muslims who say that they admire nothing about the West is significantly lower (about 10% in Saudi Arabia, 6% in Jordan, and 1% in Egypt).  And, what they most admire about the West are, its technological and scientific development, its value system based on hard work, individual responsibility, and cooperation, and finally, its political systems with emphasis on human rights, freedom of speech, and fairness. 

However, and unfortunately, America itself does not figure as favorably in the Muslim consciousness.  In 10 predominantly Muslim countries, while admiration for US technology and progress are acknowledged, 68% think that the US is ruthless, 66% consider the US aggressive, 65%  that it is conceited, and 64% that it is morally decadent.  A majority does not believe that the US is serious about establishing democratic systems, and do not think that the US will allow the people in the region to fashion their own political future without US interference.  And, herein lies the crux of the problem.  Americans who are generally brought up to believe that we are good, virtuous and compassionate, find it difficult to accept that so many people in so many parts of the world disagree with our self-evaluation.  Consequently, instead of examining ourselves or our policies, or trying to understand the historical context and cultural realities in other countries, we naturally assume, that if democracy flounders elsewhere, it must all be their fault.

We sometimes forget that democracy gradually evolved in the west over the last 250 years or so, beginning with some imperfections and weaknesses, that were eventually addressed.  Coincidentally, throughout most of this period most of the Muslim world languished under various subordinate arrangements imposed by Western colonialism.  Therefore, the modern period in which the west could progress in democratic directions, was precisely the period denied to the Muslim world by an often cynical, usually exploitative, and always oppressive rule of the imperial powers that ultimately left them with artificial borders, undemocratic leaders, dependent economies, and a sense of defeat and powerlessness.  We do not demonstrate the patience that our own journey required, nor the sensitivity towards the historical burdens so rudely imposed on others.

We also sometimes ignore the fact that the West, particularly the US, has tended to support, even at times create, some of the most brutal and durable dictatorships in the Muslim world (in Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey and various Arab countries), both in the past, and even today.  For the same West, led by the US, to claim that they support democratic forces in those countries sometimes appears to be a bit hollow and inauthentic. They remember that we were perfectly willing to sacrifice our democratic ideals and principles to achieve short-run objectives of fighting the Cold war, or the profit-driven motive to secure access to cheap oil.

We sometimes fail to note that our single-minded and reflexive support for the state of Israel in a most complex and heart-rending conflict in the Middle East, cast us not as arbiters of peace and justice, not as honest brokers capable or even willing to negotiate a just resolution of this continuing tragedy in which both sides suffer so grievously, not as a conscientious agent pursuing democratic ideals of fairness and equity, but as willing partners of Israel complicit in its policies of occupation and harsh rule in the territories, and indifferent to the claims and miseries of the Palestinians.  It is not an exaggeration to say that it is like an open wound in the heart of the Muslim world, and we have not tended it with any degree of objectivity or understanding.

We sometimes overlook the fact that both the Muslim world as well as us we may become prisoners of our respective and distorted perceptions.  We look upon them as barbaric and menacing terrorists, see suicide bombings and corrupt leaders, and focus on the conflicts and perverse bloody-mindedness that they sometimes demonstrate, seize upon stories and events that reinforce these images, and use them to frame our stereotypes.  They fixate upon Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo, aggressive interrogation techniques (called torture elsewhere) and extraordinary renditions, felt humiliations and deprivations, and the rhetoric of insult and threat that sometimes come from our own political and religious leaders, that help to shape their own judgments about us.  We are frustrated that a simple cartoon can cause so much outrage and mayhem, they are appalled that we are so cavalier about humiliating their revered Prophet.  We see a Muslim woman wearing the hijab (head scarf) and assume that it is a symbol of a repressive world derived from male domination and patriarchy, they see a Western woman in provocative dress and assume that it is a sign of a promiscuous world designed to serve male domination and patriarchy.  We see the doctrine of the pre-emptive strike as a necessary and appropriate tool to ensure our safety and security in the world, they see it as evidence of a xenophobic and over-eager militarism.  We see our brave soldiers fighting heroically to establish democracy in their lands, and they ask, can you really have military solutions to political problems, can you really pursue moral objectives through immoral means, can you really force people to be free?

It is not American democracy ladies and gentlemen that is problematic in Muslim lands.  It is actually the perceived deviations from our glorious democratic traditions and ideals that generate issues of credibility and acceptance.   Thus it is not the messiness of our electoral system, or the apathy of so many citizens, or the seeming pettiness of our campaigns, that helps to alienate the Muslim world.  Though I must point out that no good Muslim can ever understand our obsession with pigs and lipstick.   It is American policies, perceptions, and pronouncements, which create most of the misunderstandings.  And, of course the lunatic fringe in many of those countries, who often wear the mantle of religious authority, exploits the economic uncertainties, political alienation, cultural dislocations, and felt humiliations, that many people face, and channel those into a vicious and visceral hostility towards us.  If only we can redesign the war against terror into a war against hunger, and disease, and ignorance, we could probably go a long way to de-fang these purveyors of hate and violence.  To seek to defeat terror without addressing the root causes that provoke it is incomplete at best, and at worst, plays right into the hands of those we want to eliminate.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have so much to offer the world, so many blessings we can share, so many ideals we can promote, so many dreams we can inspire.  The barriers to democracy in the Muslim world are formidable, but they are man-made, not based on text or religion. Therefore, they can be overcome.  Not with our power, not with our superior technological and military resources, and certainly not by making them into the dreadful “other” and turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We can help the process through our humility, our courage, our grace, our moral authority, and through remaining consistent with our own democratic values and traditions. Whether we will make that effort or not is our choice, and our challenge.  Perhaps we should make that commitment not for their sake, but for ours.

Thank you, and God bless America.

Dr. Ahrar Ahmad - Professor of Political Science
Presentation given on Sept. 17, 2008