In its spring issue, Foreign Policy, a US-based political magazine, published a list of the world’s 100 top public intellectuals in alphabetical order. The magazine then asked its readers to vote for those they deemed most deserving of the highest honours – 500,000 public votes later, an interesting fact emerged: the top 10 was dominated by intellectuals of the Muslim faith. Until the publication of the results of the vote, the only other American list in which Muslims dominated the ranking was the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists.
Foreign Policy’s rankings may have come about as a result of two powerful forces merging: the high degree of political awareness in the Middle East combined with what the magazine called the “Muslim Effect”. Ironically, Foreign Policy was cofounded by none other than Samuel P Huntington; the author of The Clash of Civilisations, which argued that post-Cold War conflicts were most likely to occur between the world’s major civilisations, such as the Western world and Islam.
Tune in to any international news channel and the chances are at least one of the headlines features negatively a part of the Muslim world, whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan or Palestine. Recently, and for a variety of reasons, even secular states such as Turkey and Indonesia have been receiving negative news coverage.
As a result of this continual bad press over the years, there has been a real sense among Muslims that they are being doubly victimised. First, the vast majority of casualties and injuries from worldwide terrorist attacks are Muslims. Second, law-abiding, moderate Muslims feel they are unfairly bundled casually – in official circles and the media – with extremists.
This isn’t the case with followers of other religions. For example, although the issue of faith played not a small part in the northern Ireland conflict, one never heard the description “Catholic terrorists”; nor do we casually refer to Italians, Greeks or the Spanish collectively as terrorists due to the actions of the Red Brigades, November 17 and ETA respectively.
Many Muslims also feel their representatives aren’t doing enough to combat radicalisation within their communities, or in presenting the moderate face of Islam. Recently, a progressive Muslim proletariat class broke their silence, using modern tools such as the blogosphere, chat rooms and, indeed, the media to present a more civilised image of the faith.
Today, the number of internet users continues to increase in the Middle East, with the latest estimates putting the figure at 42 million in a region of 200 million people. Although the internet has been utilised as a recruiting tool for extremists (the Pentagon itself monitors close to 5,000 extremists sites), its use is mainly concentrated in wealthy states such Turkey and the Gulf region, where fluency in English and religious moderation is not uncommon in the educated young populations.
Such countries were included in a USA Today/Gallup Poll published in May, in which the results of an extensive six-year survey of Muslim opinions were released. When asked what they disliked most about the West, the answers included the denigration of Islam and Muslims. Extremism was what they admired least about their own societies, while the respect of human rights, gender equality and democracy was what they admired most about the West.
When asked what Muslims should do to improve relations with the West, the respondents answered that they must respect the West’s values of freedom of speech and religion, reduce and control extremism and terrorism, and to “modernise”. These results showed that Muslims and Westerners were more likely to agree than disagree, that a clash between their civilisations is not inevitable and that any conflict “is more about policy than principles”.
It is ultimately an issue of common sense: the West stands a better chance of defeating terrorist organisations if it ceases to bundle the moderates with extremists. The UK prime minister Gordon Brown realised this when he banned his government from using the word “Muslim” when referring to terrorists. It is time for other Western leaders to follow suit.
It is evident that the very progressive answers supplied verbally to USA Today/Gallup Poll were translated by hundreds of thousands of moderate Muslims into actionable votes and resulted in what Foreign Policy called the “Muslim Effect”. The magazine noted that “educated, upwardly mobile Muslims were eager to cast ballots” and ultimately voted in large groups to have Muslims such as Mohammed Yunus, Orhan Pamuk and Shirin Ebadi, all Nobel Prize laureates, top a list for a change instead of Osama bin Laden and the other usual suspects.
When given a real opportunity, Muslims voted for righteous Muslims in defiance of Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations.
That is the Muslim Effect.
Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is the founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai and Chairman of the Young Arab Leaders in the UAE