Intolerance and terrorism are the problem, not Islam
"Islam plays an ever increasing role in Muslim countries, in public attitudes and in the politics of the Middle East." "Secularism is in retreat." While I do not know of any scientific polls that could validate these statements, many Americans - including experts on the region - would agree.
Certainly mosque attendance in the region, as in the United States, has increased; but so too has the population. And because of the political nature of the issue, accurate statistics are very hard to come by.
Go to any Christian Web site and you will think that Islam is increasing at a declining rate compared to Christianity. A Muslim Web site will give you an entirely different story. Regardless of the statistics, circumstantial evidence of a retreat of secularism in the Arab and Muslim worlds is strong and in many cases visible. Take the pictures of the graduating class of the American University in Cairo over the years and you will find a marked trend among women graduates, from Gucci in the 1960s to hijab, or the head scarf, in the 1990s. The trend may be clear, but the underlying reasons are not.
While I was serving in Syria in 1978, a good Syrian friend from an educated, secular and Westernized background pointed out that his daughters had turned to religion and had taken up the hijab. He put it down to generational rebellion. In Egypt, during the mid-1990s, the minister of education engaged in a fight to prevent coercion by school administrators and teachers against girls who would not wear the hijab.
A number of women have expressed the same view as one Canadian-born Muslim woman, that the hijab is "liberating" and that it diminishes unwarranted physical attention in social interaction. Certainly, peer pressure and fashion trends also play a part. But regardless of the motivation, Islam is the unifying and most important factor.
In a May 2004 poll, conducted by Zogby International and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, a majority of Arab respondents in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and a plurality in Morocco and Jordan, identified themselves as Muslims, not Saudis or Jordanians.
Only in Egypt and Lebanon did a majority claim nationality as their primary identity. Substantial pluralities in Jordan, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia felt that the clergy should play a greater role in the political system. In Egypt, the respondents were almost evenly split, while only in Lebanon and Morocco did slight majorities feel that the clergy "should not dictate the political system." In every country polled a substantial majority felt that the clergy played "too little" a role or a "just right role."
The question, however, is not whether or not secularism is declining and Islam is increasing in influence. Let us assume that this is the case. The question is: "So what?" In the United States, I venture to say that most of us would find this fact disquieting and even threatening. And that may be the real problem that we should be facing. Why should it bother us that in these difficult times that more people are finding religion to be a source of support and constancy?
Polls of Americans by the Pew Global Attitudes Survey for 2005 indicate that we, as a people, or at least 58 percent of us, feel we are not religious enough. In this we agree with Arab attitudes toward us. So our problem is not an aversion to religion or the strong hold of secularism.
The obvious, perhaps too obvious, answer to our fears is a mixture of the September 11, 2001 attacks, attacks by Islamic jihadists in Spain and London, terrorism and terrorists in Iraq and Israel, and the highly publicized appeals for violence against us that come from a few mosques scattered across the globe. We are at risk of allowing the few, the violent, the perverted to define a religion and a people. Perhaps there is growing recognition in Arab and Muslim countries and among religious authorities that these violent elements must be brought to heel in the interest of the nation and of Islam. Some of the indicators suggest this. Yet the preachers of hate continue to speak out, as they are doing in England, in ways that inflame relations between communities and create the conditions for terrorism and for virulent prejudice in response.
This is a problem for Islam, yet the problem is not all on the side of Islam. The violent jihadist minority would not have had such a profound impact on our attitudes had we not been already predisposed to think the worst of Islam. If we are going to defeat this vicious brand of intolerance and the resulting threat of terrorism against us, then we have to start by recognizing that religion is not the problem and, specifically, that Islam is not the problem. We need to be able to say "so what?" when it comes to our neighbors going to the mosque in greater numbers, whether they live next door or in a country apart, and to welcome them for what they are and do.
Edward S. Walker, Jr. is president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. He is a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.