In a recent Wall Street Journal article, terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann said that anti-Muslim rhetoric in America is bad news for anti-terrorism efforts: “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”
By many accounts, the man who could blunt the power of that coup is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader behind the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero. The imam has been surprisingly mum on the issue while he travels in the Middle East. What message of faith could he offer to Muslims and non-Muslims alike that could turn this moment of division into a time of healing?
Anti-Muslim speech has been curtailed in the U.S. since 9/11 so far as official channels go. Popular sentiment and right-wing radio are another matter. The Bush administration has been chastised for using terms like “war on terror” and “clash of civilizations” as code for an attack on Islam itself. The Obama administration has tried to erase those phrases. But words don’t cause wars, not directly. They reflect the consciousness of the speaker, which is a much more potent cause of conflict. By his relative silence, Feisal Abdul Rauf is following his long-avowed policy of not getting his hands dirtied with nasty politics. Yet many moderate Muslims have tried this tactic, only to find that they are leaving a vacuum that is quickly filled by extremist voices.
Like attracts like, and in the Muslim world the most powerful magnets are extreme. You are known by the company you keep — so the adage goes — but also by the words you share. When Sarah Palin tweets about stopping the “mosque at Ground Zero,” she knows who will take the bait. Most obviously, it will be her base, but she is also rousing the opposition, people who know that there is no mosque being planned and that the location of Rauf’s Islamic center isn’t at Ground Zero. Palin knows this too, but demagogues don’t bother with fact-checking. They want the war of words to continue. Their aberrations are deliberate and crude, mirroring the attitudes of xenophobia and intolerance that are part of their consciousness.
What is difficult here comes down to two things. The first seems hard enough: how to get moderate Muslims to begin to pull their weight against the jihadis. Al Qaeda stands for nothing that would build a future in any Arab country, but circumstances favor the irrational right now. Burgeoning birth rates, a surplus of unemployed young males, and a history of oppressive governments who ignore educational reform — these are familiar obstacles throughout the Arab world. As long as they exist, consciousness cannot rise. When the only book you know is the Koran and it is being interpreted by firebrands in the guise of holy clerics, your future is spelled out in ignorance and hatred of Islam’s enemies.
If the first obstacle seems daunting, the second is worse. Everyone is convinced by their own level of consciousness. How could it be different? You can’t look beyond your own mind, and for all of us, the most powerful beliefs that guide us are hidden; we inherited a vast amount of conditioning from the past that remains unexamined. To overcome the unconscious requires self-awareness. That’s the ultimate solution to the whole Mideast mess. Only if people become self-aware will they look at obvious facts in a new light. It’s obvious that Israel and Palestine must come to an accord that suits both sides. It’s obvious that oil-rich Arab countries could resolve the poverty on the West bank with a fraction of their yearly income. It’s obvious that Iraq and Iran are going to form a Shia alliance one day, that the Iranian bomb is a foregone conclusion, that despotic regimes in the Mideast cannot last forever — and on and on it goes.
If the West wants to end the war of words, we should seriously enjoin every Arab country to reform its educational system and move toward democracy. I’m not saying anything new. But by continuing the endless cycle of provocation that has marked Mideast history in the postwar era, both sides act as if consciousness-raising isn’t an issue. Actually, it’s the only issue if you want to go to the heart of a problem that desperately cries out for a solution.