Timothy Garton Ash looks at views on the 'War on Terror'

[size=18]What we call Islam is a mirror in which we see ourselves[/size]

[size=16]Six views of the west's problems with the Muslim world
reveal as much about those who hold them as the
conflict itself[/size]

[b]Timothy Garton Ash[/b]
Thursday September 15, 2005
[url= Guardian[/url]

Sitting in the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a metal arrow on the ceiling of my hotel room pointing to Mecca and the television showing a female news presenter in full hijab, I feel impelled to write about our troubles with Islam.

Four years after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, which were perpetrated in the name of Allah, most people living in what we still loosely call the west would agree that we do have troubles with Islam. The vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, but most of the terrorists who threaten us claim to be Muslims. Most countries with a Muslim majority show a resistance to what Europeans and Americans generally view as desirable modernity, including the essentials of liberal democracy.

Why? What's the nub of the problem? Here are six different views often heard in the west, but also, it's important to add, in Muslim countries such as Iran. As you go down the list, you might like to put a mental tick against the view you most strongly agree with. It's logically possible to put smaller ticks against a couple of others, but not against them all.

[b]1 The fundamental problem is not just Islam but religion itself, which is superstition, false consciousness, the abrogation of reason. In principle, Christianity or Judaism are little better, particularly in the versions embraced by the American right. The world would be a much better place if everyone understood the truths revealed by science, had confidence in human reason and embraced secular humanism. If we must have a framed image of a bearded old man on the wall, let it be a photograph of Charles Darwin. What we need is not just a secular state but a secular society.[/b]

This is a view held by many highly educated people in the post-Christian west, especially in western Europe, including some of my closest friends. If translated directly into a political prescription, it has the minor drawback of requiring that some 3 billion to 5 billion men and women abandon their fundamental beliefs. Nor has the track record of purely secular regimes over the last hundred years been altogether inspiring.

[b]2 The fundamental problem is not religion itself, but the particular religion of Islam. Islam, unlike western Christianity, does not allow the separation of church and state, religion and politics. The fact that my Iranian newspaper gives the year as 1384 points to a larger truth. With its systematic discrimination against women, its barbaric punishments for homosexuality and its militant intolerance, Islam is stuck in the middle ages. What it needs is its Reformation.[/b]

A very widespread view. Two objections are that such a view encourages a monolithic, essentialist understanding of Islam, and tries to understand its history too much in western terms (middle ages, Reformation). If we mean by Islam "what people calling themselves Muslim actually think, say and do", there is a huge spectrum of different realities.

[b]3 The problem is not Islam but Islamism. One of the world's great religions has been misrepresented by fanatics such as Osama bin Laden, who have twisted it into the service of a political ideology of hate. It's these ideologists and movements of political Islamism that we must combat. Working with the benign, peaceful majority of the world's Muslims, we can separate the poisonous fruit from the healthy tree.[/b]

The view promulgated by Qur'an-toting western politicians such as George Bush and Tony Blair. Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? They're not going to insult millions of Muslim voters and the foreign countries upon which the west relies for its imported oil. But do they really believe it? I have my doubts. Put them on a truth serum, and I bet they'd be closer to 2, while many atheist or agnostic European leaders would be at 1. On the other hand, this analysis is made with learning and force by distinguished specialists on the Muslim world.

[b]4 The nub of the problem is not religion, Islam or even Islamism, but a specific history of the Arabs. Among 22 members of the Arab League, none is a home-grown democracy. (Iraq now has some elements of democracy, but hardly home-grown.) Needless to say, this is not a racist claim about Arabs but a complex argument about history, economics, political culture, society and a set of failed attempts at post-colonial modernisation.[/b]

A case can be made. There are democracies with Muslim majorities (Turkey, Mali). The political scientist Alfred Stepan has written a fascinating article suggesting that, in the democracy stakes, non-Arab Muslim countries have fared roughly as well as non-Muslim countries at a comparable level of economic development. But I'm struck by the fact that even in a traditionally anti-Arab country such as Iran, very few people think the trouble is just with Arabia.

[b]5 We, not they, are the root of the problem. From the Crusades to Iraq, western imperialism, colonialism, Christian and post-Christian ideological hegemonism have themselves created this antipathy to western liberal democracy; and, at the extreme, its mortal enemies. Moreover, after causing (by the Holocaust of European barbarism), supporting or at least accepting the establishment of the state of Israel, we have for more than half a century ignored the terrible plight of the Palestinians.[/b]

A widespread view among Muslims, and by no means only among Arabs in the Middle East. Also shared, from a different starting point, by some on the western left. Of course, even if this simplistic version of history were entirely true, we couldn't change the past. But we can acknowledge the historical damage for which we are genuinely responsible. And we can do more to create a free Palestine next to a secure Israel.

[b]6 Whatever your view of the relative merits of the west and Islam, the most acute tension comes at the edges where they meet. It arises, in particular, from the direct, personal encounter of young, first- or second-generation Muslim immigrants with western, and especially European, secular modernity. The most seductive system known to humankind, with its polychromatic consumer images of health, wealth, excitement, sex and power, is hugely attractive to young people from often poor, conservative, Muslim backgrounds. But, repelled by its hedonistic excesses or perhaps disappointed in their secret hopes, alienated by the reality of their marginalised lives in the west or feeling themselves rejected by it, a few - a tiny minority - embrace a fierce, extreme, warlike new version of the faith of their fathers. From Mohammed Atta and the Hamburg cell of al-Qaida, through the bombers of Madrid to those of London, this has become a depressingly familiar story.
I wish I could find some compelling evidence against this claim. But I can't. (Can some reader help?) Even if we were to assist at the birth of a free Palestine and pull out of Iraq tomorrow, this problem would remain. It threatens to make Europe a less civilised, comfortable place to live over the next 10 years.

Now, which of the six views got your largest tick? In answering that question, you will not just be saying something about the Islamic world; you will be saying something about yourself. For what we call Islam is a mirror in which we see ourselves. Tell me your Islam and I will tell you who you are.