Does Islam Have Bloody Borders?

Category: World Affairs Topics: Muslim World, United States Of America Views: 2546
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There are two opposite visions that animate American scholarship on Islam and Islamic societies. In the days, months and years ahead, a great deal will hinge on which of these visions informs US foreign policy.

One projects Islam as an enemy that must be destroyed, or it will destroy us. This is the camp of warriors, led, among others, by Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer. Their thinking is reductionist and ahistorical: they believe that Islam is fundamentally at odds with the core values of the West. These warriors urge United States to confront this menace now and contain it militarily before it threatens the West.

The second camp takes the view that Islamic societies are diverse, and each contains tendencies--religious, cultural and political--that pull in different directions. They do not think that political Islam rejects modernity: instead, it seeks to indigenize modernity, to give it a local habitation and a name. This is the diplomatic camp, led, among others, by John Esposito and Bruce Lawrence. They believe in engaging political Islam, and taming its force, among other things, by adopting a more balanced foreign policy towards the Palestinian question.

It is worth noting that, in the world of scholarship, the warriors are a minority. However, together with their neoconservative allies, they enjoy considerably greater political and media clout than the diplomatic camp. This clout increased greatly after the end of the Cold War. And now, after September 11, President Bush appears to be embracing their objective of waging pre-emptive wars against major Islamic countries. We know that in the present climate of opinion, it would be all too easy to start these wars, but they may be harder to stop.

Bloody Borders

In recent years, Samuel Huntington has lent his authority to the camp of warriors, with his talk about Islam's "bloody borders." In his book, The Clash of Civilizations, he also claims "Muslim bellicosity and violence are late-twentieth century facts which neither Muslims nor non-Muslims can deny." In support of this thesis, he offers a list of inter-civilizational conflicts on Islam's borders in the 1990s. He also provides some quantitative evidence purporting to show that Muslims had a disproportionate share in inter-civilizational conflicts during 1993-94.

A more careful examination of the data tells a different story. Jonathan Fox, in the Journal of Peace Research (2000), has shown that Islam was involved in 23.2 percent of all inter-civilizational conflicts between 1945 and 1989, and 24.7 percent of these conflicts during 1990 to 1998. This is not too far above Islam's share in world population; nor do we observe any dramatic rise in this share since the end of the Cold War. It would appear that Huntington's "facts" about "Muslim bellicosity" just do not pass muster.

In any case, we have to be careful when we talk about "bloody borders." A hard look at the geography of civilizations soon reveals that the length of these borders varies strikingly, and that Islam's share of such borders is disproportionately large. On the one hand, Islam's geographic sweep across the Afro-Eurasian landmass brings it into contact--both close and extensive--with the African, Western, Orthodox, Hindu and Buddhist civilizations. In addition, we must count the internal borders between often large pockets of majority Islam within non-Islamic countries and vice versa. It is my impression that if we added up all of these borders, Islam's share of borders might well exceed the combined share of all others. Recognition of these facts might help to place observations about Islam's "bloody borders" in a less prejudicial perspective.

Yet Islam Remains A Problem

If Islamic societies have not shown a greater propensity to wage wars with their neighbors than other civilizations, why is Islam a problem for the United States?

This problem is born of a tension between a great power, United States, and a historical adversary, Islam. United States enters into this contest with its vast powers, Christian evangelism, the constraints of domestic lobbies, its energy needs, and a vision of itself as a great civilizing force. Islam enters the equation as a fractured, wounded civilization, humiliated by two centuries of Western domination, divided into ineffectual political units, without a core state, rich in oil resources it does not control, with a colonial settler state planted in its heartland that daily adds insults to its injuries. It appears that history has produced an explosive dialectic.

And now this dialectic, in its most recent convulsion, has produced a decentralized, secretive, fanatical and violent Islamist enemy, which, because it cannot strike down its domestic tormentors, has decided to attack the more vulnerable United States. Having destroyed their only safe haven, and convinced that the Islamists who intend to perpetrate terror are still lurking in the shadows, United States desperately searches for appropriate, accessible Islamic targets.

This is what is driving United States into the camp of the warriors. The warriors offer us easy targets: It's the Islamic world, stupid. Just get rolling and take it out--root, stock and barrel. In the present climate, this temptation will be hard to resist. It will be hard to resist because America's evangelism, messianism, and civilizing missionary zeal have been roused. Americans are also convinced of their overwhelming power to inflict damage, without taking any losses.

We might perhaps take a leaf from Israel. It too has long enjoyed overwhelming military superiority over the Palestinians. It too can rain down terror on the Palestinians. But it has achieved neither security nor peace. In this contest, the greater responsibility for restraint rests upon United States. This burden lies with us because we are the greatest power on earth--and this power lies in the hands of august persons, educated, civilized, privileged, and possessing an understanding of the modern world, which their fanatical Islamist foes lack.

At this hour, when it may already be too late, we can pray that United States will take up this historical burden, and show the world that it is not only a great civilization: it also cares for civilized values.

Copyright: M. Shahid Alam. Alam is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115. His recent book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations was published by Palgrave (2000). He may be reached at [email protected].


  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Muslim World, United States Of America
Views: 2546

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