A Fervor Americans Can Recognize
By Dan Morgan
The Washington Post, Sunday, October 21, 2001; Page B01

The aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States exposed a much bigger failure than the government's inability to track the movements of a few dozen terrorists. It also revealed America's isolation from a vast, borderless,religion-based movement that has become a principal outlet for the aspirations and grievances of Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia.

Of all countries, the United States should be able to relate to the kind of religious populism that now seems to be inspiring millions of people, not just terrorists. America is easily the most religious of all the industrialized nations. Its own history is full of "awakenings" in which tumultuous religious revivals set the stage for cataclysmic political change. Such a "Great Awakening" brought together American colonists at rousing camp meetings, gave them a sense of unique nationality and set the stage for the American Revolution. More recently, the Christian right, a grass-roots cultural phenomenon, has brought thousands of new players into the political process.

The late historian William G. McLoughlin described American awakenings as "cultural transformations" that begin when we "lose faith in the legitimacy of our norms, the viability of our institutions and the authority of our leaders." Quite apart from Islam's hate-spouting sheiks and terrorist fanatics, similar stirrings now seem to be occurring in the Muslim world. Like storefront evangelists in periods of religious enthusiasm here, imams in garages and prayer rooms are calling on their followers to reject corrupt secular authority and find true liberty in submission to God. A kind of holiness movement, with shades of theone that swept America in the late 19th century, mobilizing people in urban slums and the back country against Darwin's theories and the excesses of an emerging industrial society, seems to be in full swing. "It's a bottom-up movement that's diverse. People are adopting religious values, religious dress and going to neighborhood mosques as they try to figure out who they are and how they're going to get through life," says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

Yet the U.S. government's efforts to come to terms with this phenomenon have often been clumsy and counterproductive. While the government has made halting efforts over the past decade to develop a response, cultural biases and military/strategic considerations keep getting in the way. In Algeria in 1992, Washington raised a red flag after a well-organized Islamic united front party appeared on the verge of becoming the first militant Islamic government to be elected democratically in the Arab world. In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the U.S. government has kept its distance from Muslim opponents of those countries' pro-Western, but repressive, regimes.

In dealing with a resurgent Islam, policymakers do face a real conundrum: Were genuinely democratic elections allowed, the winners in some Muslim countries might be Islamic extremists such as those who exploited the revolution in Iran to seize absolute power. But Muslims have adopted a wide variety of political systems in which there is some measure of democracy. They have been cabinet members and elected members of parliamentarian countries as diverse as Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Yemen, Kuwait, Malaysia and Indonesia. Former Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan headed an Islamic party that accepted Turkish democracy and its rigid separation of church and state.

In 1992, Edward P. Djerejian, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the first Bush administration, outlined a new approach to countries with strong Islamic movements, stressing outreach to Muslim moderates, economic aid, and help in resolving ethnic and religious conflicts. Terrorism, Djerejian said, not Islamic fundamentalism, was the enemy.

Djerejian, who now directs the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, believes the United States must now turn words into action. "We have defined globalization in the last several years as basically a system of commercial, economic, trade, scientific and financial flows. In my eyes, what hit us in such a brutal fashion on Sept. 11 was the other side of globalization: religion, culture and extremism. We have to understand that social injustice is a major point of exploitation by extremists, and to get at it, the U.S. must proceed on dual economic and political tracks. The political track is to urge governments in the region to broaden political participation according to their own cultures and traditions -- not to promote Jeffersonian democracy in the sands of Arabia."

The U.S. government, a highly secular institution representing a multicultural society, does not seem particularly well-suited for this task. "People in our government are trained to think of the world in terms of a giant ivory chessboard where states make highly rational moves to checkmate their opponents and there is no room for cultural forces," says sociologist Peter L. Berger, director of the Institute of Religion and World Affairs at Boston University. His group, which is financed by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust, plans projects and seminars aimed at educating people in government and the media to what Berger calls the "furiously religious world" in which we live.

Graham E. Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the Central Intelligence Agency, has put it even more starkly: "As a nation, we are culturally ill-equipped to understand the passions of religious policy." Muslim scholars tend to concur. "In the U.S., there is a sense that history is moving along a certain trajectory and in this trajectory religion is seen as primitive. . . . It doesn't have a role to play," said Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani ambassador to London who is now chairman of the Islamic Studies department at American University.

In the case of Islam, there are also cultural biases to be overcome. Sarah Lawrence College professor Fawaz A. Gerges, whose book "America and Political Islam" chronicles U.S. policy in the Muslim world, found that "at the heart of the U.S. reservoir of images and ideas on Islam lie not only fear and bewilderment but also deep misgivings about mixing religion and politics. The blending of the two seems to challenge fundamental aspects of the U.S. liberal tradition -- the separation of church and state and the reduced role that religious faith plays in the construction of identity in a secular society."

"We expect everyone to be the way we are and when we see religion influencing politics we get nervous," says Esposito. "In our country, at least, the Christian right is part of the political consciousness. Our gut instinct is that the mixing of religion and politics is explosive or backward. We're still dealing with the idea that you can have modern elites in Islam that are religiously rather than secularly organized."

Along with these cultural handicaps, the United States is also constrained in its dialogue with Islam by two overriding strategic interests: the need to protect Israel and to guarantee access to the world's oil supplies. To maintain good relations with pro-Western regimes that are crucial to those objectives, the United States has consistently tiptoed around the issue of those regimes' Muslim religious opposition.

In 1998, for example, a now declassified study for the State Department recommended that the Clinton administration "initiate a dialogue with the Saudi Arabian religious establishment." But according to the author, Nawaf E. Obaid, a Saudi businessman and scholar, the recommendation went unheeded.

From a strategic standpoint alone, this appears to have been a mistake. The huge Saudi oil revenues that piled up beginning in the 1970s were a windfall for the kingdom's highly conservative religious community as well as the ruling Saud family. The Sauds lavished oil money on the clerics, who used it to export the puritanical brand of Saudi Islam known as Wahhabism. In an ironic twist, the West's oil payments were channeled to Islamic charities and new mosques from Los Angeles to Manila, and finally to the Taliban.

In the increasingly restive but isolated Wahhabi culture, clerics and students alike were radicalized after the Gulf War by extremist rhetoric that tied American infidels to a repressive dynasty. But those concerns were largely ignored in Washington, according to Obaid. U.S. intelligence, he wrote, was blindsided by Saudi support for the Taliban.

In a sense, history was repeating itself. In 1976, three years before the Islamic revolution in Iran, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran had reported to the State Department that it was "having difficulty developing information about dissidents . . . because of Iranian sensitivities and the government of Iran's disapproval of foreign contacts with these groups."

U.S. officials underestimated the importance of the mullahs, and had almost no contact withAyatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or his followers. In 1978, with street demonstrations rocking Tehran, the Carter administration responded by authorizing the sale of tear gas canisters, small arms ammunition and riot control equipment to the shah's regime. After the fall of the shah and the U.S. hostage crisis that followed, the Reagan administration adopted a policy of confrontation toward Khomeini's Islamic regime, supplying intelligence to Iraq and accelerating arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Painful as this history is, many believe there is still hope for a rapprochement with the forces now swirling across Islam. It is too late for a dialogue with terrorists and extremists who are cynically using religion to attack a straw man: "Christian" America that is "crusading" against Islam. But U.S. foreign policy can do more to respect the Muslim awakening, as President Bush himself has seemed to be trying to do in his recent statements on Islam. That will involve risks. America has fought to save Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo and Kuwait, but reaching out to Muslim dissidents in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Algeria could pose greater political risks. Even so, our security now depends on finding ways to show we are on the side of peaceable Muslims, even fundamentalists, who are using religious principles in a legitimate struggle for better societies. That, after all, is what Americans did when they battled colonialism, slavery, corruption and the abuse of human rights.

Dan Morgan is a reporter on The Post's national staff and the author of "Rising in the West" (Knopf), a biography of an American Pentecostal family.


Home Page | Al-Hewar Center | Calendar | Magazines | Subscriptions | Feedback | Advertising About Us
Copyright 1999-2001 Al-Hewar Center, Inc. All rights reserved.

For more information, please
contact Al-Hewar via e-mail
at alhewar@alhewar.com