Hope, Not Hate: On the future of Western-Muslim World Relations

Hope, Not Hate: On the future of Western-Muslim World Relations

By Mas’ood Cajee

We Americans are blessed. We have the biggest libraries in the world, and the fastest Internet connections. We have iPods loaded with 10,000 songs. But we get precious little in the way of perspective and context from our elected officials, our media, our schools, and our houses of worship. That is why community forums are so important.

This forum’s title— “The Future of Western-Muslim World Relations”—contains several assumptions. One assumption is that there is a future. I think everyone hopes that there is a future, and that it will be better than the past. Or even the present. Another assumption is that there is something we call the West and something we call the Muslim World.

But what does “the West” mean in a world where American consumer products—from Coca-Cola to Baywatch—can be found around the planet? Where almost every country in the developing world is a former European colony and today has an American military presence?

And what does “the Muslim World” mean? Today there are Muslims in Peoria, Illinois, and Lodi, California; and Muslims form significant minorities in Europe, Russia, India, and China. What does it mean that a 13th century Muslim mystic and theologian, a genius of Islamic civilization—Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi—has been the best-selling poet in America for the past five years?

As Americans, just where do we start dissecting the body of “Western-Muslim world relations?”

Maybe we should first ask how we got here, so that then we can figure out how to get out of the mess we are in. And ladies and gentlemen, it is a mess.

In the 1980s, as a middle schooler in Seattle, Washington, I participated in numerous citizen dialogues just like this one regarding US-Soviet relations.

Back then, the Cold War was still on. Remember the “good old days?” Reagan was president. Iran and Iraq were fighting a bloody war in which one to two million people died.

We now know that the US government aided both countries in that war, shipping (among other things) arms to Iran and anthrax to Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld was Reagan’s envoy to Iraq. We still have that famous photo of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam, who was our man in Baghdad. And back then, even Osama bin Laden was our friend. He was building tunnel complexes in the Afghan mountains for his family construction company with CIA money—American taxpayer money—to help the Afghans fight the Soviets. That war is also said to have cost one to two million Afghan lives. The 1980s were not good for Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan.

A lot has changed in the world since then, but a lot hasn’t.

War continues to define the lives of Iraqis and Afghans.  America’s biggest export to Muslim countries continues to be military weapons.  And the biggest US import continues to be oil.

What’s different today is that indiscriminate violence isn’t something that just happens “over the seas or over the railroad tracks.” The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and 9/11/01 all showed that indiscriminate violence could happen here too.

What’s different today is that we don’t now—as we did in the past—merely outsource the failed policies of torture, detention without trial, kidnapping, and assassination. Today we ask the men and women of the United States armed forces and other law enforcement agencies to sacrifice their self-respect, dignity, and honor by committing human rights violations on behalf of our national security in the name of fighting a “Global War on Terror.”

Perhaps this is where a discussion of American-Muslim relations ought to begin.

But what happens if we dig deeper…to the very beginning of American-Muslim relations? Where do they begin?

Those relations begin in the hulls of slave ships transporting human cargo across the Middle Passage. Historians estimate that a quarter of African slaves brought to America were Muslim. When Alex Haley traced his roots, he traced them through Kunte Kinte to a Muslim village in West Africa. Historian Sylviane Diouf has eloquently described this experience in her book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York University Press, 1998).

American-Muslim relations also begin in the vision of the US Founding Fathers. According to James Hutson, chief of the Library of Congress’s Manuscript division, the Founding Fathers — especially Thomas Jefferson and George Washington—”explicitly included Islam in their vision of the future of the republic.” Jefferson was more proud of his effort to pass Virginia’s landmark Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786 than he was of his presidency. (Some say a future president would be similarly more proud of his stint as the manager of a baseball team in Texas.) In his Autobiography, Jefferson praised the Virginia Statute’s “mantle of … protection,” which included “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and the Infidel.”

American-Muslim relations begin with the hand of friendship extended by the Sultan of Morocco, who made Morocco the first country to recognize the independence of the United States. Isn’t it amazing that it is a Muslim land that has that honor? The 1787 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Morocco and the United States stands as the basis for the longest unbroken treaty relationship between the US and any foreign country in the history of the Republic.

The relations begin with the piracy of American ships by Barbary pirates, who captured and enslaved American sailors and merchants off the coast of North Africa. This led to the first overseas engagement of the United States Marine Corps. The first verse of the “Marines’ Hymn” recalls the battle, which lives in Marine tradition: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” The Marine Corps officer sword, adopted in 1826 and used to this day, is modeled after the Mameluke sword given to Marine Lieutenant O’Bannon by his Muslim ally Hamet Karamanli from the battle at Tripoli.

The relations begin with that great American landmark, the Washington Monument, which stands on the Capitol Mall in Washington, DC. The monument was completed in the 1880s in part through a gift of funds from the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. As caliph, the sultan was also the figurehead leader of all Muslims. His subjects included the populations of today’s Middle East hot-spots: Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. If you go to the Washington Monument, you can see the sultan’s commemorative plaque inside. It features a specially commissioned calligraphed poem in Arabic script for the American people.

American-Muslim relations also sadly begin with the first American colonial conquest and occupation in the Muslim world. That occurred in the first years of the 20th century, during the Philippines-American war—a war in which about 1.4 million Filipinos died. General Pershing then accomplished in ten or so years what the Spanish hadn’t been able to do in four centuries. Fresh from fighting the Sioux at Wounded Knee, Pershing helped conquer the Muslim Moro peoples of the southern Philippines. The Colt .45, which was the standard-issue handgun of the US Armed Forces until 1985, was invented specifically for the conquest of the Muslim Moro peoples. In one fateful siege, the Battle of Bud Bagsak, American troops killed 2,000-3,000 Muslim men, women, and children.

All of these historical beginnings occurred in the first 125 years or so of the American republic.

In the 1950s, Richard Nixon visited Cairo. He was given a hero’s welcome, a parade with hundreds of thousands in the streets. Today, Bush can’t even have an open-air parade in Crawford, Texas.

What lessons can we learn from all this?

That American-Muslim relations have for the most part, been characterized by friendship and respect, and even admiration.

That Americans and Westerners must reckon and atone for a history of great wrongs and injustices, from the slave trade to the Philippines war to Iraq today.

I’m not going to let Muslims off the hook either. Muslims, too, must recognize and account for past wrongs, from slavery and Tripoli to 9/11/01.

Finally, that the Founding Fathers envisioned a place at the table for people of many faiths, including Muslims. We need to recognize that our traditions of pluralism, democracy, and freedom are the true might and strength of our republic—not Halliburton, not weapons of mass destruction, not the Department of Homeland Security, not the PATRIOT Act, not Guantánamo, not Abu Ghraib. Our challenge as Americans will be to decide whether we want to be citizens of a free republic or subjects of an empire.         


Mas’ood Cajee is a founding board member of the Muslim Peace Fellowship http://www.mpfweb.org/  and former vice-chair of FOR national council. This article is adapted from a presentation made at a town hall meeting in Stockton, California, on September 29, 2005.

Originally published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation at http://www.forusa.org/fellowship/nov-dec_05/cajee.html  and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.


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