Americans and Europeans hate Muslims

Bridging cultural divides
Invitation to prayer: Mutual tolerance - especially with regard to Jews - was far more evident in Islamic countries than in Christianity until the establishment of the State of Israel. (© Reuters)
Francis Ghilès looks at the relationship between the Arab world and the West and how NATO could improve its image among Arabs.
In 1603, Ahmed al-Mansur, the Sultan of Morocco, proposed to his English ally, Queen Elizabeth I, that England should assist the Moors in colonizing America. The Sultan suggested that Moroccan and English soldiers should attack the Spanish colonies in America with the help of English ships, drive out the hated Spanish enemies and then take possession of the land and "subject it to our (common) rule forever". There was a catch, however. Wouldn't it be more sensible, suggested the Sultan, if most of the future colonists were Moroccans and not English? "Residents of your country do not consider themselves suitable to endure the extreme heat there, whereas our people can endure it very well, since heat does not harm them."

After extensive consultation, the Moroccan offer was rejected. Such a proposal may seem very unusual today, but it did not attract much attention back then. After all, the English were close allies of both the Moroccans and the Ottoman Empire; the Pope even regarded Elisabeth as “an ally of the Turks”. The English had reservations about Islam, but those reservations were negligible compared to their fear of papism.

When Charles II commissioned a certain Hamilton to ransom some Englishmen who had been captured on the barbarian coast, the mission failed because they did not want to return: all the men had converted to Islam and lived a life that they would in their homeland could not imagine. "They are tempted to give up their belief out of love for Turkish women," he wrote in his report. "These ladies," he added, "are generally very pretty."

These anecdotes clearly reveal a serious aspect, as they show that Muslims and Christians have at all times traded, studied, negotiated and loved one another regardless of religious barriers. If one examines the relationship between the two cultures at any point in history, one finds that the neatly separated cultural blocks imagined by writers like Samuel Huntington quickly dissolve into nothing. But it is true that there have been some schools of thought in Islam (especially the Wahabi and Salafi schools predominant in modern Saudi Arabia) which have always met Christianity, Judaism and other non-Islamic religions and cultures with deep hostility - just as there have been some Christian schools of thought that have always harbored extremely hostile feelings towards Islam.

Until about a generation ago, the Wahabi fundamentalists were a theological movement of purely local importance, and as a rule they were viewed by most Muslims as an alien sect close to the unbelievers (Kufr ) came. Modern Saudi Arabia's oil wealth has enabled Wahabi fundamentalists to spread their narrow-minded and intolerant form of Islam, largely through funding, since the mid-1970s, with the devastating consequences we see today extremist Madrasahs (religious schools) as well as books and tapes.

The Islamic world as a whole, especially in the states on the southern Mediterranean coast, has never shared such views, and this also applies to the overwhelming majority of Muslims who have become citizens of European countries. If Europe and - more generally - the West wants to understand these people, then more empathy must be shown than in recent times. Empathy does not mean accepting whatever Muslims believe in or whatever action they take. But empathy requires that one strive to understand why this religious community feels hurt, why so many Muslims feel humiliated, and - most importantly - why so many Arabs and Berbers are so desperate to partake of freedom and prosperity featuring America and Europe.

Even so, we should not forget that the ideology of all "progressive" movements of medieval and early modern Europe, including the ideology that laid the foundations of English-speaking America, was expressed in religious terms. This does not, however, lead to the conclusion that the new Muslim fundamentalism will have similar consequences. Today, however, it can be said without a doubt that Islam comes closer to a universal system that encompasses all aspects of human existence than Christianity and Judaism have been for many centuries. The enlightened representative of the West - or the representative of the West - can decide for or against a belief, for or against his / her religious heritage. Islam understands or grants this possibility just as little as Christianity at the time when Christians also brought the lives of heretics, atheists and blasphemers to a violent end. The Western tradition of skepticism itself has a central value, namely to examine all existing values ​​and - if necessary - to question them. However, these far-reaching generalizations cannot do justice to the complex character of the West or the Middle East. Conservative Jews in Israel lead a life similar to that of many devout Muslims. In the Middle East and Europe, many Muslims - whether they are married to Muslims or not - live a life that is no different from that of their non-Muslim fellow citizens.

Mutual tolerance

This mutual tolerance - primarily with regard to Jews - was far more evident in Islamic countries until the establishment of the State of Israel than in Christianity. Regardless of the restrictions Jews faced in Islamic countries, they were never treated as cruelly as when they were expelled from England and France in the 13th century, and never as despicable as after the conquest of Grenada by Catholic kings (1492), when the Jews came out Spain were driven out, never as harshly as during the anti-Semitic pogroms that were so typical of the Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union, never as inhuman as during the Holocaust. In Islam, Jews like their Christian brothers like second-class citizens (dhimmis ), but Jesus - Aïssa - is a prophet in Islam, and in this religion there is no parallel to earlier anti-Semitic teachings of the Catholic Church. Too many observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - not least among Jews - ignore this historical fact.

Islam was and still is far from being always tolerant, but in the face of Israel's refusal to recognize at least the existence of a Palestinian people, the anger of many Arabs was directed more against the West than against Israel itself. Boy Unlike their parents, Arabs have never experienced what it is like to have Jewish neighbors. As a result, they are easy prey for state propaganda and for government leaders who take advantage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to deny their people their fundamental freedoms. The Arab belief that Washington is clearly on Israel's side explains much of the deep hostility toward the United States that can be seen among even the most educated and modern Arabs. A different attitude is taken towards Europeans, because in the last 25 years more and more Europeans have realized that one cannot simply deny the existence of the Palestinian people. Rather, it must be recognized and taken into account if the hope for a lasting peace is to be possible at all.

There is also another aspect to consider. One of the main reasons for the increasingly radical attitudes of some of the Palestinians is the living conditions of everyday Palestinian life. The state of Israel is dominant in economic, political, military and symbolic terms. Everything reminds a Palestinian of the inferiority of his people. The subaltern peoples of the era of European imperialism recognized the superiority of the colonial powers, but symbolically neutralized them by strengthening their community and by maintaining a physical distance between themselves and their colonial masters. The social cohesion of Europeans and the strong cultural identity of the colonized societies meant that the bitterness was in some way absorbed in community structures.

The elements that previously ensured the stability of the colonies no longer exist today. Community ties have lost their strength, and the process of individualization has further weakened the collective barrier. The spatial separation has been abolished, and television allows the unhindered dissemination of images across cultural and geographical boundaries. Modern individualism means that submission to Israeli suzerainty is no longer possible - in contrast to the time when a colonial mentality convinced the colonized peoples of the superiority of their colonial masters and thus became the psychological support that legitimized colonialism.

Both Israelis and Palestinians are wholeheartedly committed to modernity, and in this regard their thinking is shaped by a modern egalitarianism, even if racists on both sides can supposedly prove the superiority of their own peoples. In short, they live in a world pervaded by modern egalitarianism, while the social relations between the two sides are based on a neo-colonialist model. This also applies, to a lesser extent, to many aspects of relations between the Arab world and the West as a whole.

Colonial Legacy

However, we have to look back over the last two centuries to understand why, for many people in the states south of the Mediterranean, the fear of American and European military supremacy remains at the fore. The fact that the (often corrupt) ruling elites of Arab states often use such fears for their own selfish ends does not in any way diminish the real fear that prevails among the population at large. Colonial rule was often characterized by brutality. Between the two world wars, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy attacked their opponents in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa and Abyssinia with chemical weapons. France followed their example in Algeria in the late 1950s. The details of the majority of these wars have been kept secret for decades and, in many cases, official documents on the subject have still not been made public.

The political and military leadership of European countries was well aware of the effects of the most destructive of these chemical warfare agents, mustard gas. Mustard gas had resulted in deaths and terrible injuries on the battlefields of World War I before protective clothing was introduced for soldiers. But it is precisely this mustard gas that European armies use in the areas mentioned, and their victims were often older men, women and children because these targets were easier to attack and had no means of protection. The new standards that Europeans wanted to apply to warfare were not extended to military action against their opponents in the colonies. All indigenous people who rejected the advantages of a superior culture had to be taught a harsh doctrine - in their own interest. In 1919, Winston Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, expressed his displeasure that the British Air Force was reluctant to drop mustard gas bombs. "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas," he wrote. "I am a staunch advocate of the use of poison gas against uncivilized tribes."

Investing in dialogue will pay off, but only if we do not limit such contacts to elites, who all too often are not representative of the complex societies they rule.
The European military, of course, were not the only armies using chemical weapons in this part of the world. The former King of Morocco, Hassan II, was by no means more squeamish as Crown Prince than Winston Churchill. He bombed the northern tribes of Morocco with napalm in 1957 after gaining independence until they surrendered, and he did the same with the Sahrawis, who fled the Moroccan army in the winter of 1974/75, which advanced into the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara. The Algerian army also used napalm in the mid-1990s to drive radical Islamic groups out of their remote hiding places. Saddam Hussein's use of napalm against Iranian soldiers and Kurds is even better documented. Of course, none of these atrocities say anything about Christianity or Islam, because no religion would approve of this practice.

At the same time, however, the question must be asked who actually remembers how local Algerian and Moroccan soldiers supported the Allies during the two world wars. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the capture of Monte Cassino south of Rome, the contribution of Polish soldiers was honored at the beginning of last year. Algeria and Morocco, on the other hand, were not invited to take part in the commemorations. Arab autocrats are far from the only heads of state with selective memories. Leading politicians in the democratic West are just as good at this art. This also applies to chemical weapons. Arab leaders may not have protested when Saddam Hussein first used chemical weapons against the Iranians and then against the Kurds, but who among Western leaders said a word? Any hope of convincing the Arab public that the West is serious about its desire for a dialogue with the Arab world is any hope of reassuring the average Arab citizen that NATO will not be used against him in the future contingent on our admitting past mistakes. Maneuvers of deception may be the order of the day for many Arab leaders, but European leaders do not always do much better. The events surrounding the Iraq war have led many Europeans - not to mention Arabs - to believe that deception and fraud have also become an integral part of their own established democracies.

Arab despair

Over the past 50 years, more and more Arabs have given up hope of the future amid the long list of suspected setbacks. These setbacks include the establishment of the State of Israel, a series of military defeats inflicted on them by the new state, the failure of Arab nationalism and recent economic reforms aimed at high growth and employment rates, the civil wars in Algeria and Lebanon, and the current situation in Iraq. Many younger, more educated Arabs flee - if they dare - to America and Europe. Those who stay behind feel like they are trapped, largely because tough visa requirements make travel to Europe excessively difficult.They live a schizophrenic life: in the evening they watch programs on Arab and Western satellite television, and in the morning they are confronted with the sad reality in their cities. They live in cities where sexual freedom, freedom of expression, chances of getting a decent job or shelter are at best relative opportunities; in cities where state television programs broadcast the local version of Soviet-style news, where wealth and power are all too often in the hands of a few people, where elections are usually alibi events that are popular with Western leaders as well wants to please those western journalists who want to be fooled.

In the south, however, nobody can be fooled. If Arab governments take the view that they are waging an existential struggle against the religiously motivated radical movements in their countries, only a few can do it for them. On the other hand, it is seen that governments use the radicalism of a few religious forces to label the religious political opposition as part of a radical fringe group and deny it any legitimacy. The West all too often underestimates the subtlety and intellectual sharpness of ordinary people, who may be illiterate, but are by no means stupid. Freedom - be it economic, sexual or political - is out of reach for most. But all Arabs, and especially the younger generation, who make up more than half of the population, long for it. Many Arabs realize that the fight against terrorism has become a slogan that holds us captive. Some Western heads of state and government agree with this. Some Arab leaders may be right, but the claim that they are waging an unqualified war on terrorism is simply nonsense - and not just from an Arab perspective.

Contrary to what many in the West have been led to believe, the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the countries on the southern edge of the Mediterranean seek the same things as Americans and Europeans. They don't want them to be branded as "terrorists" as they see it; they oppose the way in which Islam is all too often portrayed by the Western media as fundamentally backward and violent; they feel contempt for the hypocrisy of those Western heads of state and government who congratulate their often autocratic masters on holding fair elections, the outcome of which is usually determined in advance; They watch in amazement as American diplomats give lectures to Iraqis in Baghdad about the need to separate mosque and state, while the American president repeatedly invokes Christian values ​​to support his politics. These factors partly explain why many poll after polls say Osama bin Laden is their hero. However, that does not mean that they will follow his example. They are simply delighted that the United States, which in their eyes is arrogant, is being humiliated - the leading power of the western world, which sees itself as the source of every civilization and simply cannot help teaching the native population.

Explain NATO

With many Western Europeans still equating NATO with the United States, especially in France with its traditional anti-Americanism, countering negative views is an enormous challenge. Nor should it be forgotten that, even in North America and Western Europe, few people outside the ruling elite really understand what NATO stands for, what it does, and what it has achieved in more than 50 years of existence. As a result, NATO’s efforts to open up to the Middle East, launched at the Istanbul Summit in 2004, are seen as a US-led initiative. The ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan is considered - rightly or wrongly - as a force waging a proxy war in the interests of the United States. Whatever NATO does in Iraq, that impression will only strengthen. The only exception is the Balkans: many Arabs recognize that NATO has protected Muslims here. On a more basic level, however, everything has Military from the Arab perspective the smack of despotic and corruption.

Arabs have a penchant for conspiratorial theories; this is probably the result of the lack of information or the systematic distortion of facts practiced by the official media in most of the countries on the southern edge of the Mediterranean. Words instill fear in Arab leaders almost as much as ideas. Watching the news broadcasts on state television leads to a world of paranoid delusions and distortions, which explains why some states appear to be hotbeds of wild anger in the West, even if the West is only partly to blame. Fortunately, the same viewers can also watch Arabic and Western satellite broadcasts. But only a few will be able to imagine what a military alliance of democratic states actually aims at. Some fear that NATO could turn its attention to the Arab world now that communism is no longer a threat. We will have to struggle with the consequences of the war in Iraq for a long time. If a former UK Foreign Secretary believes the Iraq war is the worst mistake since Suez, why should the Arabs argue against this analysis? If a former Assistant Secretary of State in the Ministry of Defense speaks of “criminal nonsense,” why should the Arabs take a different view?

Against this background, the shared view that NATO and the United States are one and the same poses a challenge to those who want to explain what NATO really stands for. The challenge here lies in the complex context. Passions are so strong and so closely linked here that you inevitably have to set modest goals. In these circumstances, extensive propaganda campaigns would be counterproductive. In the end, the result - and that is hardly an original thought - is that you can hardly do anything without a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the longer term, we in the West will be better able to understand ourselves if we learn more about Arab history, do not forget the wounds we have inflicted on many people in the region, and if we - what is crucial - understand that the conditio sine qua non for better relations is that we show compassion for the citizens of these states and enter into a dialogue with them. Investing in dialogue will pay off, but only if we do not limit such contacts to elites, who all too often are not representative of the complex societies they rule. This dialogue must also be conducted with Muslims living in America and Europe. Few of them want to be martyrs. The martyrdom that a few aspire to is not the childhood disease of Islam, but something through which Muslims regain the dignity that has been denied them by Western states and their anti-Islamic policies. Such a development would call into question the image that many representatives of the West have of the Islamic world. But we have to face this challenge.

To bet on solving economic problems, which is extremely unlikely in the short term, it would be a crude form of determinism that will not work. Finally, we must not forget that a few years ago the Institute for the World Economy in Washington published a study that did not provide any evidence that countries with a high Muslim population or a Muslim majority have slower economic growth or a slower increase in productivity than other countries. The fact that such a study was commissioned at all shows how far the West still has to go if it is to put aside its ignorance of Islam. A solution to the political problems is almost impossible under the current circumstances. At least, however, NATO could try to convince the Arabs - including those now living in Germany, France, Spain, the United Kingdom or other NATO countries - that NATO will not inevitably be used against them at some point. That will be difficult enough as it is.