The Perils and Promise of Pax Americana in the Muslim Middle East

By July 26, 2005

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 8

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The Muslim Middle East has two basic problems with the US in the role of democratic reformer: what America is, and what America is not. The perils and promise of America’s difficult mission civilisatrice, and the Bush Administration’s faith-based approach to exporting freedom, may ultimately help America win friends and influence people in the Middle East.


The Muslim Middle East has two basic problems with the U.S. in the role of democratic reformer: what America is, and what America is not. This article examines the perils and promise of America’s difficult mission civilizatrice, and suggests that, paradoxically, the Bush Administration’s Christological or faith-based approach to exporting freedom may ultimately help America win friends and influence people in the countries of the Abode of Islam.

Imperialism in the Middle East

The Western imperialist adventure in the Middle East has ever been characterized by a failure to communicate. From the Indian uprising of 1857 to the Iranian Tobacco Boycott of 1891, from the Dinshaway incident in Egypt that led to Lord Cromer’s resignation to the Husayn-McMahon correspondence that paved the way for the Arab revolt during World War I, the inability of the invaders to speak the cultural and political language of the populations they would subdue and reform has doggedly plagued the shouldering of what Kipling controversially called “the white man’s burden.”

Today, in what many in the Arab and Muslim world see as Round Two of the Western imperialist plot to dominate the Abode of Islam and exploit its resources, the opposing sides in the struggle continue to talk past each other. America – whose people do not excel at learning the languages and cultures of other countries, primarily because they believe that those other countries have already assimilated their language and culture (or that they ought to do so forthwith) – is especially vulnerable to such problems of miscommunication. Among the many examples of the mixed signals aggravating the current conflict and obscuring the path to an effective Pax Americana in the Middle East, the comparatively minor one brought here is particularly instructive, perhaps even symbolic.

The Guantanamo Bay Incident As Metaphor

In its May 9, 2005 issue, Newsweek reported that guards at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility had flushed a Qur’an down the toilet and otherwise mistreated the Muslim holy book. The magazine then retracted the story – not before dozens of people were killed and injured in riots throughout the Islamic world – and its editors were severely castigated by the American government and by much of the American public. A subsequent military inquiry concluded, however, that the Qur’an had in fact been abused on a number of occasions by Guantanamo personnel including deliberately by certain interrogators.

The report was quick to point out, however, that such instances were extremely uncommon, and that for the most part American soldiers and jailors scrupulously followed army regulations regarding the proper handling of the hallowed volume. Indeed, the report hastened to add, those very soldiers and jailors were responsible for distributing the copies of the Qur’an in question to the Muslim prisoners in the first place. Moreover (a senior officer later elaborated), the U.S. armed forces are so anxious to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities in this area that all relevant American personnel have been issued meticulous instructions regarding the acceptable manner of picking up, handling and putting down a Qur’an, together with stern warnings against carrying the sacred document under one’s armpit or in a pants pocket, banging on it with one’s fist to make a point, entering the lavatory with it, or placing it under, rather than on top of, other books or objects.

All of this is highly ironic for one simple reason: on the spine of most Qur’ans, as well as in the minds of most Muslims, is etched a single scriptural verse that epitomizes a unanimously upheld ruling of Islamic law: la yamassuha illa al-mutahharun – “only those who are ritually pure may touch this codex.” Now, a different verse of the Qur’an decrees “verily the infidels are impure.” Based on this latter verse, Shi’ite Muslims rule that all non-Muslims are essentially impure. Sunni Muslims, while for the most part rejecting this Shi’ite position, nevertheless also consider all non-Muslims to be unclean because they do not perform the purification procedures prescribed by the shari’a (religious law). In other words, the verse on the spine of the Qur’an is in fact addressed directly to the military personnel of Guantanamo Bay, and it means: “You may not touch this.”

And so we end up with the rather comical spectacle of the U.S. government frenziedly striving to reassure the world’s Muslims that its soldiers and agents consistently handle the Qur’an with the utmost care and respect, while in Muslim eyes – as is made clear in commentary after commentary in Arab and Iranian newspapers and interview after interview with erstwhile Guantanamo inmates – that very handling is the root of the problem and the crux of the insult.

This seemingly superficial misunderstanding can serve as a metaphor for a far more profound problem affecting America’s plans to overhaul the Muslim East. Just as at Guantanamo Bay it is not so much how the Qur’an is handled but who does the handling that is at issue in Muslim eyes, so in Iraq, Afghanistan and what lies in between, it is not so much what America does or how it goes about reconstructing these states and societies that earns the ire of the region’s inhabitants, but rather the very fact that it is America doing it.

America’s Identity: A Double-Edged Sword

The Muslim Middle East has two basic problems with the U.S. in the role of reformer: what America is, and what America is not. What America is not, of course, is the Iraqis, or Afghans, or Iranians, or Palestinians, or Syrians, or Egyptians.

Even among the most vehement proponents of reform in the Islamic world, the first choice and obvious ideal would be for Muslim societies to fix themselves, independently. Many feel a deep sense of shame that these foreigners should come in with their superior attitude and paternalistic swagger and presume to rebuild civilization in the land that was once the cradle of civilization. As an Iraqi intellectual recently put it in a column in al-Ah?l? – a self-proclaimed “liberal” Baghdadi newspaper that no one could accuse on most days of anti-Americanism – “This new-fangled country that was practically born yesterday, with its benighted president who can barely speak his own language, presumes to instill culture in those who invented culture, and teach just government to the descendents of Muhammad, Anushirvan and Hammurabi?”

This is a serious obstacle facing the ambitious plans hatched by the forces surrounding the Bush administration for the future of this region. Even if America is successful in its difficult mission civilizatrice, this very success will almost assuredly breed a legacy of resentment.

The last time outsiders took over Middle Eastern countries and tried to expedite their progress toward what Europe saw as modern political ideals, the project was by no means crowned with success: Muslim experiments with democratic institutions imported from, and supervised by, Western mandatory authorities invariably failed, and were replaced by regimes and ideologies that made the earlier “oriental despotisms” look like laissez faire liberalism by comparison. No foreign forces imposed democracy or constitutional government on Britain, France or the United States: theirs was a slow, natural and almost entirely internal development in the direction of more freedom and greater egalitarianism. America must beware the long-term historical consequences of marching in and imposing what it considers the best of all possible worlds on Muslim populations. The artificial interruption or diversion of a society’s natural growth pattern is always fraught with danger for all concerned.

The Iranians since the revolution of 1979 have consistently employed a single term to refer to the Western powers, and specifically the U.S.: estekb&acircr, a word that simply means “arrogance.” However noble its intentions, America is currently confirming the accuracy of this cognomen as never before in the eyes of Iranians and many other Muslims.

The Great Temptress

Even more problematic for the Pax Americana than what America is not – i.e., that it is not an indigenous force for change – is what America is, what it represents to the collective Middle Eastern and Muslim mindset. Perhaps the best way to combine the many aspects and elements of this conception is to use the word “temptation.” America has been perceived for decades as the great temptress that seeks to lure Muslims away from their religion, their tradition, their authenticity. And the threat is quite real, for the influence of America on the cultural level penetrates every nook and cranny of Middle Eastern life, even as far as the fortified bastions of Islamic fundamentalist discourse and doctrine.

The most conservative candidate in Iran’s recent presidential elections, the hardline former commander of the Revolutionary guards Mohsen-e-Reza’i, accused the Bush administration of trying to interfere with the Islamic republic’s vetting process: “Amrika candidha va-system-e-democrocy-e Iran ra kontrol nemi-konad,” he reassured his supporters, employing no less than five English words in a seven word Persian sentence (“America does not control the candidates or the democratic system of Iran”). Referring elsewhere in the interview to the right-wing camp’s inability to oust their reformist opponents in the last two presidential elections, Reza’i sought to raise the spirits of his camp with a not-so-Iranian metaphor: “Strike-e-sevom na-khahad bood” – “there will be no strike three.”

On the front page of the pro-regime daily HamShahri, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Sayyid Ali-ye-Khamene’i was quoted at length vociferously lambasting the United States for its actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iran and throughout the world, using expressions like “megalomaniacal evildoers,” “bloodthirsty warmongers,” “insane genocidal monsters,” “enemies of religion” and “relentless corrupters of humankind.” Six pages down in the farhang or “culture” section of the same paper on the same day was a full-page spread, complete with reader survey, color pictures and expert analyses, devoted to the burning question: Who is the greatest living actor, Robert Redford or Robert De Niro?

America is therefore doubly dangerous, for it gets under the skin and into the veins, insinuating itself into one’s very speech patterns and infesting one’s lexicon and systems of reference. America in the eyes of Islam seeks to overhaul not just Muslim political systems, but to conquer Muslim hearts and minds, to infiltrate and ultimately overthrow the entire Muslim way of life, and replace it with what is in many ways its diametric antithesis: the American way of life.

America’s campaign is thus perceived as a two-pronged attack: one military, diplomatic, and political; the other cultural, ideological and philosophical, with U.S. economic interests providing the fuel for both thrusts. The fear of gharb-zadegi, West-toxication, fills the pages and airwaves of the Muslim media. America is conceived as the Great Satan.

What Is America’s Way Forward?

All this having been said, and however many misconceptions may have informed the U.S. undertaking in the Middle East since its inception, for America to turn tail and run now would be a disaster of epic proportions, both for its own international standing and especially for the populations of the region.

What is America’s way forward? There is no easy answer to this question, but judging from the reactions of the Muslim street, the Muslim mosque, the Muslim chat-room and the Muslim press, it is crucial that the two main issues outlined thus far be addressed seriously by the American administration. These are not questions one solves overnight, but rather profound conundrums that require years of thought and planning – years of thought and planning that, given the desperate circumstances, could not take place before the American invasions.

First, how can a foreign power contribute to the genuine metamorphosis of a nation-state and its people, without sowing the seeds of a future indigenous backlash based on the resentment of alien interference and the desire to regain national pride and authenticity?

Second, can America successfully export democracy without exporting the culture, ideology and life-style that accompany it in the West, a culture that is anathema to the Muslim world but enticing at the same time? President Bush has consistently emphasized that the war he is conducting is not a war against Islam. But what chance does a secular, egalitarian and democratic regime have of actually taking root in the midst of a traditional Muslim society that has not yet adopted the cultural and ideological prerequisites of such a system? Should an entire wing of the American army be devoting itself – as many Muslim fundamentalist pundits already accuse it of doing – to the widespread distribution in the Islamic world of music videos, DVDs, fast-food, risqu? magazines and John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”?

Or might it be that the desire for political participation is a natural – albeit latent – instinct among all human beings, and that once the torch of freedom and empowerment is lit, the majority of Iraqis, Afghans, Egyptians, Iranians and Palestinians will struggle hard to keep it burning? These are some of the frightening, and at the same time fascinating, questions that will face us in the coming years.

Coexistence Between Faith and Democracy

Paradoxically, the philosophy underlying the Bush Administration’s strategy may be helpful in solving some of the conundrums and reconciling some of the contradictions just noted. President Bush and many of those associated with him avowedly proceed according to a conservative, Christian, “family values”-based platform, not only in terms of domestic policy, but on the foreign front as well. The President has regularly alluded to the idea that his religious values are what lead him to believe that democracy and human rights are the path to a brighter future for all societies everywhere.

While at first glance the heavy emphasis on the Christological or faith dimension might seem to add fuel to the anti-American fire currently blazing in much of the Muslim world – groups like the Ansar al-Sunna in Iraq routinely boast of how many “crusaders,” i.e. American soldiers, they kill in operations – it is possible that, to the contrary, this specific approach will in the (very) long term be the one to win friends and influence people in the countries of the Abode of Islam.

The “Bush method” involves – whether this was the conscious intent or not – the all-important element of preaching what one practices, of the world’s most powerful and successful state functioning as a model for none other than the effective co-existence of democratic institutions with traditional and religious values. For the first time in decades, what America is selling need not be identified with full-blown secularism and atheistic hedonism in the minds of potential buyers. However, let us purvey no illusions: this new idea will in no way resonate among the Baathist or Fundamentalist insurgents of Mesopotamia. Only if and when these extremely determined and unprecedentedly vicious fedayeen are truly rooted out will it have a chance to resonate with the populace.

The U.S. under Bush is, in a sense, exporting its own revolution: the revolution that envisions vox populi working with, rather than against, vox dei. This is a message well suited to the Middle Eastern Muslim ear. First, however, the bombs will have to be silenced so the people can listen.

Click here to see a PDF version of this page

Prof. Ze’ev Maghen
Prof. Ze’ev Maghen

Prof. Ze’ev Maghen is a professor of Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research asociate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]