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America and the Challenge of Islam

Akbar S. Ahmed

Idriss Mosque, Seattle, Washington. Photo by Joe Mabel (2009). Via Wikimedia Commons.

At the start of a millennium that promises to accelerate the irreversible processes of globalization, which are advancing dizzily before our eyes to envelope even the most remote people of the world, we seek global answers as to how we can best adjust to one another. How can different world cultures learn to live with each other? How can local cultures retain their sense of identity and dignity in the face of the onslaught of globalization, with its non-stop satellite television, instant high-tech communications, and so on? How much of a symbol of globalization is the United States of America to the rest of the world? Are the attacks on McDonald’s after September 11th to be read as a rejection of globalization or of America?11xAn earlier version of this essay appeared as “Towards the Global Millennium: The Challenge of Islam” in The World Today (August/September 1996): 212–16; these ideas are further developed in my book Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World (Cambridge: Polity, 2003).

Given the high degree of uncertainty surrounding these questions, it is not surprising that we are often given superficial and shoddy answers. Even the experts can get it wrong. The relationship between Islam and the Westin particular the an example.22xFor this discussion, I use “Islam” to mean Muslims, wherever they live, especially in those countries that have a Muslim majority; by “the West” I mean North America and Western Europe, with its leadership, often challenged but rarely shaken off, clearly residing in the United States. While using the terms “Islam” and “the West” as short-hand, I need to add the caveat that reducing the two highly complex and internally diverse civilizations to such simplistic terms may create more problems than it solves. In this essay, I will point out why some of the most influential current global theories about Islam’s relations with the West are inadequate. I will then explore an alternative method of understanding what is happening in the Muslim world through a discussion of Muslim political structures and leadership. This will help explain Islam’s present predicament and its sometimes thorny relations with the U.S. In conclusion, I will suggest ways to improve mutual understanding.

In the process a host of important questions will be raised, not all of which will find answers in this essay: Who speaks for Islam? Why is Islam such a potent symbol of resistance in our times? Why has Osama bin Laden emerged as such a powerful symbol of resistance to many Muslims after September 11th in spite of the universal condemnation of the event from Muslim governments?

An understanding of Islam is important in our world. The U.S. is currently involved in settling Afghanistan after a war and dealing with the aftermath of its war with another major Muslim nation, Iraq. In post-Saddam Iraq the U.S. is physically located in the heart of the Muslim world. There are 55 Muslim states, and over 1.3 billion Muslims with abundant vitality and passion. Muslims control much of the oil and gas reserves of the world. They live in the West in large numbers as permanent citizens. The challenge to Western-backed Israel from Islamic organizations like Hamas; the resurgence of Islam in countries that matter strategically to the West like Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, and Algeria; and the nuclear ambitions of several Muslim countries make Islam important.

More Muslims have made an impact on the global media positively (Benazir Bhutto) or negatively (Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, the 19 hijackers of September 11th) than those of any other non-Western civilization. Can the Western man or woman in the street name any Russian leader apart from Gorbachev and Putin, or any black African except Mandela? And how many can name any Latin American, Japanese, Indian, or Chinese leader?

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