Thursday, August 19, 2010

Understanding Islam: "howling at the moon"


The Korean War raged as Hank Williams neared his death in 1953.

Who knows how this Alabama boy interpreted the seemingly simple clash between communism and capitalism.

But he
would surely be "howling at the moon" if he were alive today -- as Americans debate "what to do about Islam."

In the wars of this century Americans are most deeply involved in parts of the world which they are least prepared to understand.

The nuances and "remoteness" of Islam for the U.S. make it virtually impossible for large numbers of Americans to understand the challenges -- let alone respond in a rational way.

We live in rich fields for demagogues to spin history -- to enlist media to build emotion to build their political careers.

The journalistic principle of balance guarantees ideologues and demagogues will have plenty of voice.

For every person with knowledge of Islam interviewed by media, a shrill demagogue will be chosen to demonstrate fairness.

One purpose is to promote the controversy that will draw audience interest and boost ratings.


Just as important there are few American Muslims in the public eye.

Unlike American Jews, they have not widely penetrated into the media, university faculties, American political races, or the diplomatic service.

Thus most Americans have little concept of Muslims other than as strange foreigners wearing funny clothing -- or even carrying bombs.

The worlds of university and scholarship are just as useless as the media world in enlightening American public. They offer little that is understandable, concrete and useful to the non-specialized reader.

Serious scholarly books and magazines are far too complex and time consuming for most Americans to understand.

Most "serious" published work on Islam is largely irrelevant except at the "elite" highly educated level.

Islam is distant, exotic, full of bizarre names, leaders and sects -- ever changing, wrapped in historical nuance.

Without travel and or detailed study very few Americans can understand it.

Too many negative images already deeply enshrined by war, terrorism, 9/11, degradation of women, and the seemingly unending hostility to Israel found so widely in the Islamic world.

This leaves an enormous vacuum for demagogues and ideologues to fill.

And so lots of us are "howling at the moon."

The bottom line is that dogmatic anti-Islam feelings are becoming a mainstay of American conservativism -- at the political, intellectual, religious and grassroots level.

Like anti-communism in the days of yore, anti-Islam is the current platform on which extreme American nationalism is built.

Political scientist, historian, and former CIA analyst Graham Fuller has just published a provocative book to probe the nuances of Islam, "A World Without Islam."

To help Americans grasp the nuances of this issue that raises fear and confusion among many.

Fuller, former Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council of the CIA, and formerly CIA station chief in Kabul, Afghanistan, is now adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia.

He rejects current notions of a clash of civilizations or of conflicts fundamentally based on religion. He calls for a rethink in some of our discussion.

He sees radical Islam as sometimes giving expression to grievances flowing from interaction of the West with the Middle East.

But he focuses on enduring "geopolitical conflicts" which might well have been there even without Islam.

Conflicts between tribes, over territory (as with Palestine), over resources, over who holds power.

"If there had never been an Islam, if a Prophet Mohammad had never emerged from the deserts of Arabia, if there had never been the saga of the spread of Islam...wouldn't the relationship between the West and the Middle East today be entirely different? No, I would argue, it might actually be quite similar to what we see today."

(Listen to Graham Fuller interviewed on NPR or watch this interview with him below)

There are many other ways of understanding Islam's history and contemporary challenge.

Most, like Fuller, are not easy reading.


Television and newspapers are largely useless for educating Americans on Islam.

For many the subject is incomprehensibly "boring" -- unless hyped with images of savage violence or argumentative rhetoric.

Red hot political controversies (such as the proposed Islamic center near "Ground Zero") drive out programming with perspective.

Talking heads with not so hidden agendas spout out slogans aimed at inflaming emotion.

"In time of war the first casualty is truth."

Despite the confusion and fear, there are deep reservoirs of tolerance in the U.S which are likely to carry the country through.

But do not count on understanding.

Taliban in Battle

Americans in Battle

There's not "a snowball's chance in Hell" that Hank and most other Americans can understand the nuances of Islam's complicated history -- or of how and when it may become extreme, a threat which must be countered.

Hank could make a beginning stab by consulting "Islam" on Wikipedia.

There is even a Wikipedia Site for him to check out if he wants information on Islam and Secularism. Still another Wikipedia site deals with controversial Islamic Sharia Law

The Wikipedia entry Islamic Symbols contains a chart of Islam links and a link to Wikipedia's "Islam Portal."

Would Hank really have the patience to dig further through a website on Islam and Islamic Resources? He would quickly notice many of these links do not work.

Google shows there are only fragmentary web resources on Islam. Most of them are clearly slanted in one direction or another.

There seems to be no real on the ground literature or website which brings to life the wide variety of Islamic life in terms of concrete life styles from country to country.

In human, understandable terms.

The absence on the web of reliable and understandable resources on Islam is a fundamental threat to American understanding and national security.

It virtually guarantees that journalists writing on Islam will have few reliable resources.

The absence of serious web resources submitted by Americans or others is truly remarkable given the decades of American involvement in the Islamic world.

Not to mention continuous warfare with Islamic states since 2001.

A wealth of resources is scattered on many varied websites, but little systematically brought together as "links" on "gateway" pages linking to Islam-related information.

For Americans a focus on topics such as pre-emptive war, weapons of mass destruction, and the Arab--Israeli conflict appears to have crowded out focus on the cultures and histories of the Islamic world.

It is a recurring American weakness to be ignorant of the minds and cultures of other peoples.


Hank would be the first to concede we are a country largely unprepared to understand the relationship between al-Qaeda and Islam.

He would scratch his head when asked if all Islam is a Nazi like force threatening the U.S. He would know little of the varieties of Islamic experience in a variety of "remote" countries, and how that experience has changed over time.


It is unrealistic to expect to educate the American people on Islam.

Anyone seeking to change American views will need to manipulate them with skilled propaganda and public relations.

"In time of war the first casualty is truth."

Fuller's "A World Without Islam" can be a whiff of fresh air -- if you are not willing to be herded like sheep, if you would liberate yourself from media, if you would like to think about alternate views.

It may help you stop "howling at the moon."

But it will take work, very rewarding work -- especially if your knowledge of world history is weak.

One thing we know about Americans: they are "babes in the woods" when it comes to world history.

Images of Islam: they vary