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Same planet, different millennium
Westerners and Muslims, though living on the same planet and entertaining many contacts, are not contemporaries

April 6, 2004

As the American presidential campaign unfolds, some of the questions debated among the candidates and/or in the press seem baffling if not totally alien to outside observers , especially in the Muslim world . Thus for instance many Muslims are flabbergasted by the discussions about legalized abortion or same-sex marriages . Indeed, to Muslim masses in general and to radicals in particular , these subjects touch to domains which have been regulated once and for all by Allah and his Prophet.

Anti-Western extremists make use of such occurrences in order to fan up suspicion in the mind of ordinary people and sell their fantastic conspiratorial theories about America's intent to erase Islam from the surface of earth. Indeed , some people around the Muslim world firmly believe that the CIA with the help of Mossad attacked the Trade Center towers in order to trigger the so-called war on terrorism and the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Many Muslims, especially in the Arab world, are shocked by what is going on in the United States (or other Western countries for that matter ) whose laws, media and governments are spreading concepts contradicting "God's commands": Equality between men and women; sexual freedom; acceptance of homosexuality; mixing of the sexes in public including schools; interdiction of "Islamic headgear" in state funded schools; miniskirts; nudity ; separation of religion and government; right of criminals to a fair trial; prostitution; women climbing to senior positions; human rights; children's rights; animal rights; and so on...

The news media and movies are full of stories of adultery, child abuse by priests, rape, gay festivals, same-sex marriages; gambling hotels in Las Vegas and Atlantic City; beauty contests and the like (Do you remember the riots in Nigeria when a beauty pagent was planned there?). To a majority of ordinary Muslims and especially to the radicals, these facts are tantamount to a declaration of war on God.

Whenhe arrived in the United States to complete his education in the 1950s, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian teacher wholater became the leader of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, thought he had entered Sodom and Gomorrah! Upon his return, he wrote "Signposts" a book condemning the West and inviting Muslims to wage a holy war against the West .

Already in the late 18th century Muhammad Abdel Wahhab, visiting Baghdad was appalled by the "innovations" introduced under Ottoman rule. He returned to his native Arabia and started preaching his puritanical doctrine. He converted the Saud tribe and pushed them on the war path. He didn't live to see the birth of Saudi Arabia and the imposition of his doctrine. And now, bin Laden is following in his steps and extending his war into the heart of "enemy" territory.

It was also in reaction to the Shah's modernization that Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed "Islam in danger" and seized power in Iran. He branded America the "Great Satan" and Western countries "small" satans. But As a Shiite he couldn't win the following of the Sunni majority, though he was able to create Hezbollah in Lebanon and mobilize Shiites elsewhere.

Now, in response to the 9/11 attack, America has launched an all-out war against terrorism and invaded two Muslim countries, in order to introduce democracy in the "Greater Middle East". But to the likes of Khomeini and bin Laden, democracy itself is in total opposition to Islam: indeed only Allah can legiferate. Humans must obey Him, period. Moreover the Almighty has already given the Law, the Sharia, which should be implemented on the whole planet.

Americans and other Westerners consider bin Laden and Khomeini as extremists who do not represent the majority of Muslims. This is true and false at the same time. True because the majority of Muslims do not espouse bellicose theories and rather look after improving their own lives. And false because 12th-century fundamentalist interpretations of Islam have won the upper hand and continue to constitute the basis of meanstream Islam.

Therefore, even if they are not ready to respond to extremist appeals, Muslims find some familiar tang in their discourse. As a result they hesitate to cooperate with Americans and Europeans. Their leaders, for their part, do not welcome democratic reforms that would strip them of their privileges and grip on power. They play a double game. On the one hand they say that they agree with the necessity of reform, but on the other hand they criticize America's policy as an attempt to "dictate" change.

The long and short of all this is that Westerners and Muslims, though living on the same planet and entertaining many contacts, are not contemporaries. One is in the 21st century while the other never left the 12th. As long as nothing is done to fill this gap, America and other open societies will be perceived by the latter as enemy of Allah.

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Fereydoun Hoveyda was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations from 1971 to 1978. He is the author of The Broken Crescent: The Threat of Militant Islamic Fundamentalism (2002), The Shah and the Ayatollah, Iranian Mythology and Islamic Revolution (2003). He is a Senior Fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and a lecturer at Benador Associates. To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their web site >>> Features

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