During the Cold War, for nearly four decades, most Muslim countries remained the closest of allies of the US and other Western countries in the common fight against the spread of Soviet communism. Pakistan, along with Saudi Arabia, played a leading role by providing bases, facilitating training of jihadists and extending logistic support. Afghan jihadi leaders were heroes, not only in their own countries but revered as freedom fighters by no less a person than the late President Reagan. America has since come full circle. Disdain and prejudice for Muslims in America is on the rise and the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump misses no opportunity in targeting and demeaning Muslims with particular focus on Pakistan. What are the implications of this and how should Muslim countries, individually and collectively, respond to such an attitude?
One option would be to ignore Trump’s rhetoric and expect that if he ever does get elected, realism will dawn on him and he will recalibrate his policies. Many consider his nauseating remarks as empty bluster that is unsustainable. Strategic and political compulsions and economic opportunities in Muslim countries will demand that the US remains closely engaged with the Muslim world. Similarly, most Muslim countries are heavily dependent on the US for regime survival as well as a prime source of weapons and equipment, for economic assistance and for enhancing national power.
Even if one were to accept Trump’s remarks to be frivolous, it would be naive on the part of the Muslim world to take such innuendoes lightly as these reflect a strong undercurrent of resentment against Muslims in America and the Western world. This level of alienation cannot be attributed to any individual or single event but is the result of interrelated phenomena. Terrorist attacks in the US, especially the iconic event of 9/11, and the series of individual or group attacks in the US and the rest of the Western world that have occurred, in which Muslims were involved have played a chief role. In contrast, Muslims hold Americans responsible for creating mistrust. They attribute the failure of the American military-oriented policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and the Middle East as the root cause of alienation. Support for unrepresentative regimes to advance narrow strategic and economic interests has led to their strengthening and perpetuity.
Moreover, the failure of large segments of Muslims to integrate into Western societies and the discontent of youth has found expression in violence. Mass migration of Muslim refugees from war-torn countries to tight labour markets of Europe and depressed economies are triggering a backlash. Trump is taking advantage of the unpredictable and restive economic and political conditions that prevail worldwide despite the US’s relatively better economic performance. Britain’s exit from the European Union would provide him a further boost to promote anti-establishment and anti-Muslim sentiment. His gloating over Britain’s exit was reflected in his remarks to the press and he considers this event as a vindication of his exclusivist policy. And as seasoned international columnists and commentators are predicting if traditional Britain can opt out of Europe and take a leap into the unknown, the Americans, too, may decide to gamble with Trump as a sign of disgust with the establishment. However, it is encouraging that recent polls indicate Hillary Clinton leading with a reasonable margin and likely to sustain or even improve this lead.
Irrespective of whether Trump loses or wins, he has already caused much damage to Muslims through his rhetoric. The prejudice generated against them during the election campaign coupled with recent high-profile terrorist acts in which certain deranged Muslims were involved would reinforce the trend. It is a huge challenge for Muslim countries and Muslims in general to respond to this phenomenon, especially when the Muslim world is not a monolithic entity. Countries are at different economic, political and cultural levels and no one solution can possibly apply to all. Nonetheless, this situation provides an opportunity for serious reflection and the undertaking of corrective measures at the national and collective levels. Unless Muslim countries do not improve the conditions of their people by focusing on education, health, governance and rule of law, they will neither command the respect of their public or that of the international community. Presently, there is very little effort to change the status quo and reorient policies to achieve a certain level of autonomy and reduce dependence on the West. Another positive outcome of building of trust between Muslim rulers and their people would be that they will not have to rely on foreign powers to suppress internal opposition. A classic example of this is what we are now witnessing in Yemen, Syria, Libya and many other Muslim Asian and African states. Many Middle Eastern and Central Asian states have tried to impose order through promulgation of draconian laws and strict regimentation. This may achieve peace and calm on the surface but fails to actualise the potential of peoples and nations. Most of these nations are also heavily dependent on the West for ensuring internal and external peace and stability. Unfortunately, when voices of dissent become louder, the state turns more repressive. Suppression has given rise to internalising hatred for authority as terrorism and extreme ideologies take root. The strong bonds and links that you see in Western democracies between the state and people are missing in most Muslim countries. There is heavy economic dependence on foreign countries and internally there is social turmoil and political confusion.
Only a few Muslim countries, like Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, and to some extent, Pakistan, have representative governments and are striving hard to be a part of the modern world. Others, especially the Middle Eastern countries, on the basis of their oil wealth have made impressive strides in developing infrastructure and modern cities but are far away from democratic rule and lag in education and human development.
In this tough international environment, there is no other option for Muslim countries than to reform. Otherwise, they will continue to be humiliated. As most Muslim states are incapable of undertaking this challenge, it is for the people to organise themselves by strengthening civil society and pressing for political and economic reforms.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 29th, 2016.