By M. Serajul Islam
23 Feb, 2015
President Barack Obama was heavily criticised at home and abroad when he failed to show solidarity with world leaders that had gathered in Paris last month against violent religious fundamentalism that led to the terrorist attacks on the Hebdo journalists. The White House had at that time issued a statement that the President would hold a summit in Washington to address the issue as USA's input to countering violence and extremism in the USA and worldwide.
That two-day summit was held in Washington on February 18-19. President Obama opened the Summit with an address at the White House to set the tone of the deliberations. Although the gathering came together under the banner of a "Summit on Countering Violence and Extremism", no one was left in any doubt that the sum and substance of the deliberations would be about the violence now being committed in the name of Islam, most particularly by ISIS or ISIL in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram in Africa and, of course, Al-Qaeda worldwide.
President Obama drew a clear line between Islam and the violence and terror being committed in its name. He released Islam from the dock where his predecessor had placed it with his war on terror that he called, albeit inadvertently, a modern-era crusade. President Bush later tried to make amends that his war on terror was not against Islam but against those who commit terror in the name of Islam. Nevertheless, those who pursued that war during the Bush presidency, Carl Rove, Ronald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and their colleagues pursued the terrorists but made Islam responsible for the actions. They followed the script of the conservative political thinker Professor Samuel Huntington who had argued in his book Clash of Civilisations that the West must fight both covertly and overtly the so-called Islamic civilisation to dominate the world.
President Obama through the summit has tried, much belatedly though, to do what his predecessor tried insincerely; namely to establish that the war on terror was not against Islam. Thus in his address inaugurating the summit, President Obama clearly identified three elements in the way to tackle groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. First, it must be recognised unequivocally that the United States is "not at war" with Islam. Second, groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS are terrorist groups who have "warped Islam into twisted ideologies". Finally, the USA and those fighting these terrorist groups must not allow these groups any Islamic credentials because that would give them the legitimacy they seek. Amidst applause, the President said: "We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with the people who have perverted Islam."
The summit and President Obama's address come at a time when ISIS has gone well beyond the limits and deep into blatant savagery that has not just abhorred the West; it has likewise abhorred the overwhelming majority of the 1.2 billion Muslims of the world. The Muslims have been yearning for a voice in the West to articulate that they also hate ISIS as much as the West. In fact, they want the West to believe that they hate these terror groups because they not only give their religion a bad name that it does not deserve by any stretch of imagination, the actions of these groups jeopardise the lives and livelihood of 20 per cent of Muslims who live in the West permanently.
Thus following the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians by ISIS in Libya, the Grand Mufti of Al Azhar Mosque, an extremely well-respected voice in the Muslim countries, condemned the killings in terms as extreme as condemnations in the West. The Mufti said: "The blood of our Christian children and brothers is the same blood as that of Muslims... which belongs to the Egyptian nation." He said that ISIS has no understanding of "the great tolerance of Islam" and have made erroneous interpretations of certain sayings of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon Him).
Thus today terrorist groups such as ISIS have totally alienated themselves from Muslims worldwide. President Obama wanted to use this alienation to good purpose. The US has over seven million Muslims who have shown their determination to live in the country like American of any other colour, creed or religion. They are not just integrating into mainstream USA; they are doing better than many in mainstream USA. Muslims in the USA are now the most affluent in the USA after the Jewish community. Against 28 per cent mainstream American women with a college degree, the statistics among Muslim women is 46 per cent.
The reason why American Muslims are doing so well is because things have changed for the better for them in recent times. After living under suspicion for over a decade following the 9/11 attacks, they are now well aware that for their own well-being, they have to come out openly against those who use Islam for their political and terrorist ends and they have. As a community they now keep contact with the authorities against those among them with violent dispositions where the pro-Islam rhetoric that was once visible is now a matter of the past. Reciprocally, there are now many US government-sponsored programmes and initiatives for better understanding between the Muslims and other American communities. Not too long ago, the State Department on its website had placed a document it had prepared on Islam and Muslims with the objective to let mainstream Americans understand Islam and Muslims better.
The summit could go a long way to remove the wedge between the West and the Muslims of the world that President Bush's war on terror had created. Bush's stance has been providing the reasons and incentives for ISIS and Al-Qaeda to exist and function and even win favour among some Muslims. It will undoubtedly have positive effect on American Muslims. The seven million American Muslims have many more millions of relatives spread around the globe, particularly in the 57 Muslim-majority countries in Africa and Asia. These millions of Muslims worldwide would undoubtedly also be positively influenced by Obama's deliberations in the summit to absolve Islam of any responsibility for the actions of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram terrorists.
In particular, they will take positive note of the reference of President Obama to a young Muslim girl in America in his address in the summit. The 11-year-old Sabrina sent the President a Valentine's Card in which she asked him to tell everyone that "we are good people and we are just like everyone else". The President termed the young girl's words as words of wisdom of "a little girl growing up in America like my daughters growing up in America." Obama's words and the direction he set at the summit mark a paradigm shift from the direction that was set by President Bush. He has attempted to bury the dangerous prescription of Professor Samuel Huntington and replace it with the rational one of bringing the West and the Muslims together to unitedly tackle the dangers of violence and extremism.
The success of the initiatives of the US government in recent times and the directions that Obama set for the United States in the summit, paradigm shifts as these are, will depend to a large extent on his opponents. They continue to believe that Islam is the root cause for emergence of ISIS and similar terror groups. They want to attack Islam and these terror groups in the same breath. They have thus been particularly upset that Obama avoided using "radical Islam" to describe the actions of ISIS/Al-Qaeda/Boko Haram. They control the Congress with whose support the directions of the President to tackle terrorism and extremism in the name of religion could be still-born.
It is now for Obama's opponents in the USA and the West to act upon the direction that he has set with the Washington Summit. The Pope had hinted at directions as those Obama did at the summit. Theirs have been the voices of reason in the West towards bringing the Western and Islamic countries together in a joint fight against violence and extremism. Their voices are also the only way to deal with violence and extremism of ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda.
M. Serajul Islam is a former Bangladesh Ambassador