Brian O''Neill Brian O''Neill, 2/26/2010 [Archive]

Clashing Realities in the Muslim World

Clashing Realities in the Muslim World

By Brian O'Neill

Words have been around for as long as we have been human - they may even be what makes us human. They inspire us, shape our minds and control our perceptions.Certain phrases can raise or deflate, and alter the

We live in an age of instant controversy. The polarization of our politics, combined with the accessibility of information, has led to the ability to manufacture outrage and accusations of hypocrisy at a moment's notice. A paper published in college, an off-the-cuff mark to reporters, an extemporaneous answer in a public setting- all of these can now come back to haunt people years later, even if they are removed from context, and even if- possibly especially if- they are antithetical to what the person now believes. All of this is used for political gain.

The latest pseudo-controversy involves President Obama's appointment to the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), a disjointed and ideologically heterogeneous body to whom appearance is more valuable than substance. The appointee, Rashad Hussain, is accused of being sympathetic to radical Islam and of being a closet jihadist. Several statements are used to back this up, including his claiming in 2008 that '"[T]he terrorist ideology is advocated by small, fringe groups and rejected by a vast majority of Muslims . . . as American policymakers and leaders have recognized, Islam rejects terrorism.'

The OIC post is symbolically important, and I think it is decent to have a Muslim who is sympathetic to Islam, as part of this war we are fighting is a propaganda war. I feel that the ideological gap we have over the radical fundamentalists outstrips even our vast military superiority, and promoting our diversity helps to further the understanding of that reality.

I don't know much about Hussain. Writers whom I trust, from all over the political spectrum, and whose anti-jihad credentials are impeccable, have rushed to his defense, saying that he is a Muslim who hates the jihadi strain. I won't judge him one way or the other, as all I know are a few random quotes. It would be nice if those jumping to smear him felt compelled to use the same restraint.

Hussain is right, but he is also being misleading. The numbers of committed jihadis are vanishingly small, and their sympathizers outnumber them by a relatively small amount. Most people in the Muslim world are far more interested in their day-to-day lives, either scraping by in a moderate state or working in the shadows of an oppressive or incapable government. Most people in America aren't as obsessed by politics as we junkies believe, either.

But the uncomfortable fact is that the most powerful non-governmental actors in the Middle East and to differing extents the broader Muslim world are the various jihadi movements. While they are outnumbered by peaceful NGOs, those actors are limited both by their missions and by governments only willing to give the smallest amount of breathing room needed to forestall revolution. Jihadi movements, fueled by resentment, testosterone and a dangerous, infant-like messianic sense of self-worth, feel no such restraint.

So it is easy to see why people's eyes roll at the seemingly Pollyannish statement that 'only a few Muslims are terrorists'. After all, numbers don't matter, only power does. And it is important to recognize this reality, especially when making policy.

But an important part of policy is perception. A country can contradict itself- it can know that the major strain in the Muslim world is the radical mindset, and work to defeat that, but still talk as if it is a fringe. You can use intelligent contradictions to help further your goal. In dealing with the OIC, America needs to show that we know that not all Muslims are our enemy. There is no better way to make more enemies than to assume that everyone is already one, and to use diplomacy to project that assumption.

Treating the Muslim world with a modicum of respect- even if it isn't entirely earned- is a small but not inconsequential step in defeating the jihadi mindset. To smear someone, to block a nomination, because he is sympathetic to the viewpoint of ordinary Muslims, in order to cynically hand Obama a defeat, is not only childish, it is self-defeating.



Brian O'Neill, a former writer and editor at The Yemen Observer, is currently an independent analyst and Yemen security expert based out of Chicago. He has been published on Yemen in a number of journals, and blogs at Always Judged Guilty, which is largely, but far from entirely, about Yemen.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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