The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Club launched its speaker series last Wednesday with a widely attended speaker event, featuring Professor William Graham, who gave a brief lecture on the historical roots of Islam before taking questions from the audience. Most questions were concerned with current events in the Muslim world as well as the role of the U.S. in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world. Professor Graham is an authority in the field of Islamic civilization and culture; he is professor of Middle Eastern studies, professor of the history of religion and Chairman of the Near Eastern Studies Department at Harvard University. The following are some highlights of the discussion:
Are democracy and Islam incompatible?
Muslim nations have not been given the opportunity to experience democratic transitions, the way much of the Western nations have. Colonial powers prevented the rise of educated, liberal masses during their rule and then, after the independence period of the 1950-1960s, favored the emergence of minority elites who would ultimately replace the colonists. When certain countries experimented with democratic elections (e.g., Algeria in 1991) and Islamist parties were successful, Western nations have generally encouraged military coups to “stabilize” the countries with what were perceived as “friendlier” regimes. This has prevented emerging Muslim nations from living through true democratization processes. The current democratization process in Iran might, however, lead to the first democratized regime in less than 20 years, especially after Iranian President Muhammed Khatami was chosen in what were mostly regarded as free elections.
On the recent emergence of Islamic parties
In most Muslim countries, the political and social void left by colonial powers has led to the establishment of either allegedly corrupt regimes or socialist experiments that have failed spectacularly (Syria, Iraq, Libya and others). As a result, the need for a civil society and basic social welfare in general has remained largely unanswered. Islamic parties have gained credibility in the last 20 years mainly by filling this social void (e.g., the Welfare party in Turkey, the non-militant wing of Hamas in Palestine).
Are Islamist parties anti western?
The immense majority of Muslim religious movements are solely focused on improving the social, political and economic situation in their own countries. As a result, their movements are inward looking and pre-occupied with domestic concerns. A tiny proportion of Islamist movements (although disproportionately represented in the Western media) have recently voiced anti-Western sentiments, especially in the light of the deterioration of the situation in the Middle East (Gulf War, Iraqi embargo, Israeli-Palestinian conflict).
Contrary to common belief, there has never been a monolithic or united voice among religious scholars or Muslims, and therefore, this tiny proportion of Islamist parties should not be seen to represent the immense majority of Muslims who are yearning for sustainable, democratic and liberal societies. There is not one Islam but rather a large variety of Islams, which represent the diversity of over 1 billion people in the world.
On jihad, suicide and Paradise
Professor Graham has reiterated the true meaning of jihad as “struggle” (to improve oneself) and not “holy war”. He also reminded the audience that suicide was condemned in Islam, perhaps even more than in the other monotheistic religions. However, he recognized that while the religious imagery of “those who die for a just cause will go to Paradise” exists, it has largely been adopted by an extreme fraction for its own political use. Religious imagery in periods of conflicts also manifests itself in Western countries (e.g., President Bush’s “crusade” remarks following the September 11 attacks).
Professor Graham insisted on the need for the U.S., as the only world superpower, to creatively redefine its relations with Muslim nations and allies. The U.S. should seize this unique opportunity to help develop human capital in Muslim countries and establish sustainable bilateral relations that are built on trust, mutual understanding and respect.