From Rahul Mahajan at Empire Notes
Weekly Commentary — Our Profound Ignorance of Muslims
Long-time readers of my commentaries will know that I do not subscribe to the liberal notion that our main problems in the Middle East derive from our blundering in without really understanding the peoples and cultures of the region – any more than I believe that the situation in Iraq right now derives from our lack of understanding that “Shi’a and Sunni have been killing each other for 14 centuries in Iraq.”
Instead, I believe that the significance of “our” failure to understand “them,” enormous as that failure is, pales in comparison with that of “our” failure to understand “us.” Instead of a deep analysis of the Shi’a-Sunni question in the Middle East, even a basic understanding of what we did in the Vietnam War, and why we did it, would have served us in much better stead in deciding whether or not to go to war.
Still, it is shocking, and not of minor importance, that over 5 years into the “war on terror,” we understand so little about Islam and Islamic cultures.
The proximate cause of this commentary is the recent flap over right-wing attempts to smear Barack Obama through claims that, while living in Indonesia as a boy, he attended a “madrassa.” In our current climate, this is much like claiming that the Pope was a member of the Hitler Youth.
The claim originated with a magazine linked to the insane megalomaniac, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, fellow traveler with numerous right-wing terrorists beloved of an earlier era of U.S. foreign policy. John Gibson of Fox News immediately jumped on it, speculating over the effect of radical Islamic indoctrination on Obama. CNN, with at least a modicum of actual journalistic sensibility, sent a reporter to Indonesia, who found that it was a normal public school.
Liberals then jumped to defend Obama, saying the claim he attended a madrassa was a lie.
Throughout the whole thing, we were told by countless ponderous TV pundits that a madrassa is a Saudi-funded school for religious fanatics that teaches Wahhabism and terrorism. Never mind that there was precious little Wahhabism in Indonesia over 35 years ago, when Obama was in school there. The word “madrassa,” after all, means what it means.
Except, of course, that it means no such thing. It is the most generic word for “school” in the Arab world, and in some other Islamic countries, where the language is full of Arabic loan words. It means a place of studying or learning. Considering everyone who has been to a madrassa as a terrorist in will then require that we take on the whole Muslim world.
This sort of ignorance is widespread. Jeff Stein, a reporter for Congressional Quarterly, found that numerous figures in the FBI and Congress did not know the difference between Sunni and Shi’a; more shocking, many did not know whether al-Qaeda and Hizbullah were Sunni or Shi’a – including the incoming Chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
To get slightly more sophisticated, Nicholas Kristof, one of the supposedly more intellectual regular columnists for the New York Times, developing the bubble-gum-wrapper historical theory that Islam needs to go through something like the Protestant Reformation, wrote a column several months ago called “Looking for Islam’s Luthers.” If he understood anything about Wahhabism, he would know that its founder was Islam’s Luther, and that more recent extremists like Sayyid Qutb were similar to founders of other Protestant sects. They are protesting the corruption of Arab leaders who are cozy with the West and getting paid hand over fist for it just like Luther and others criticized the medieval Catholic Church for its cozy relations with princes and potentates and its sale of offices and indulgences.
Examples can be multiplied infinitely, at every level of the public discourse. And they are more than just fodder for gotcha games. They have real consequences. The ignorance and lack of ability to reach even the most rudimentary understanding of another culture have certainly played a role in the fashioning of a “war on terror” that has been even more mindlessly destructive and damaging than it had to be; it is also helping to make sure that we don’t learn the lessons of this latest disaster we have inflicted. And so, in the end, it further reinforces “our” lack of understanding of “us.”