January 11, 2011
On a recent trip to the Pyramids, my tour guide interrupted his perfunctory regurgitation of obscure dates to emphasize, “Today, we are Muslim and Christian – but there is no tension. We are all Egyptian.”
I was en route to Malaysia, a country that made similar claims of oneness between Muslim and non-, but where, during my seven years there, I had witnessed a destructive swing toward a conservative, more intolerant strain of Islam. While part of the regression related to domestic history and politics, it was also being informed by a broader shift in outlook among Muslims since 9/11 – to feel under siege by non-Muslims and view life more narrowly through the prism of their faith.
Naturally then I was left to wonder, if such intolerance was festering on the Muslim world’s “moderate periphery,” why – how – could Egypt, home to the Muslim Brotherhood and a full-swing religious revival, be immune?
As this holiday season has so tellingly shown, neither Egyptians nor Muslims elsewhere are immune.
The New Year’s Day bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria capped off a month in which news space usually reserved for Christmas tree-lighting ceremonies and popping champagne corks had to make way for report after report of Muslims bent on jihad.
Bombings in Sweden, Kenya and Nigeria; foiled plots in Maryland, Oregon, and before that the UK, France, and Germany. Somali Muslims vowed fresh attacks on my country of residence, Uganda.
It’s useful to note that the slew of rage comes as we turn the corner into 2011 toward the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. If that morning announced the presence of an ailment, the eve of 2011 revealed its degeneration into a full blown virus, with, tellingly, the years in between marked by repeated insistences that there was no major illness; the rage was isolated; nothing a little Tylenol won’t fix.
In reality, the Muslim world over the last decade has been more like an AIDS patient rejecting treatment and pretending he’s not going to get sicker fast.
Insofar as the ailment has been acknowledged, it has usually been explained away through finger-pointing, conspiracy theories, and passive convictions about the superiority of the faith which will lead to inevitable triumph.
This pathological denial persists right up to the present, as seen in response to the New Year’s Day church bombing, with Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak pinning it on “foreign hands,” a Lebanese Shi’ite leader and Iranian television blaming the “Zionists,” and a prominent Egyptian cleric throwing the CIA into the mix.
Through the decade more than a few “moderate” Muslims have secretly rooted for the extremists, believing they are dutifully resisting Western “hegemony.”
But the real loser in the advance of extremism has been the Muslim world itself.
Since 9/11 extremists have almost universally failed to advance their aims, whether that be impeding Western achievement or making territorial gains. The few terror plots that have been executed as planned have failed to turn terror into a bargaining chip, or even to sustain a mental state of terror in the societies targeted; from London to Bali to Kampala, despite the minor hassle of tighter security, commerce and the pursuit of happiness continue largely unabated. From Malaysia to Lebanon to Palestine they have failed to establish modern, job-creating political systems.
What the extremists have managed is to heighten suspicion and bolster resistance among the four-fifths of the planet that is not Muslim; to advance the notion that Islam is violent and out of touch – to in sum deny Muslims greater acceptance and opportunity in the larger world. Even in the beacon of plurality, America, favorable opinions of Muslims dropped from 41% to 30% from 2005 to 2010, while those who think Islam encourages violence more than other religions rose from 25% in 2002 to 35% last year, according to an August Pew Research survey.
And yet by and large Muslims have clung stubbornly to the self-deluding assumption that the cause of the crisis is external; that, for instance, American policy under George W. Bush was to blame for the uptick in Muslim rage.
A number of recent polls do show that Muslim support for terrorism is waning. For example, a separate Pew survey found a significant decline in the number of people in Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon and Bangladesh who endorse attacks on civilian targets.
Unfortunately these findings don’t account for the fact that, as the holiday season shows, Muslims are showing a greater inclination to act on their rage.
A multitude of factors, from domestic politics to the humiliation of coming terms with Western civilization’s resilience, may be feeding the surge.
But ultimately it’s an internal problem, one for Muslims to sort out. At a minimum, that will require humbly reflecting on where they have collectively gone wrong over the last 10 years and aggressively confronting the self-defeating forms of resistance like those on display this holiday season. Otherwise, alas, yet another decade will be lost.