American Muslims, along with many other concerned Americans, are becoming increasingly apprehensive about the foreign as well as domestic policies of the Bush Administration.
The muddled and unending war on terrorism, the imminent attack on Iraq, and the undiscerning policy of pre-emptive strike have all exposed the new face of the American empire. Equally disturbing for American Muslims, the US Department of Justice has seriously undermined the civil liberties and rights of Muslims and Arab-Americans in the name of national security. The situation was totally different before 11 September 2001 (‘9/11′).
There are more Democrats than Republicans (40%:23%) among American Muslims. However, the majority of them voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential elections, following Bush’s endorsement by all major US Muslim political organisations. According to the first ever systematic poll of American Muslims, conducted during the initial phase of the war against terrorism by Zogby International and sponsored by Georgetown University’s Muslims in the American Public Square (MAPS) Project, two-thirds (66%) of US Muslims agreed with the Bush Administration’s assertion that the war was against terrorism, not Islam. Half (51%) of America’s Muslims supported military action against Afghanistan.
Cause for disillusionment
Why then have US Muslims become disillusioned with American foreign policy? First, policy-makers in Washington have defined the entire issue of terrorism in binary categories of “us” versus “them”: others hated America simply because they despised our values and way of life. There was absolutely no mention of any policy fault or intelligence failure on our part in the public discourse. It took Congress over a year to form a bipartisan commission to investigate the 9/11 terrorist attacks; although reluctantly approved by the White House, the commission is still not functioning at full gear.
American Muslims have expressed a different point of view on this issue. Over three-fourths (79%) consider that US foreign policy in the Middle East led to the 9/11 attacks. Two-thirds (67%) suggest that a change in America’s Middle East policy is the best way to wage war against terrorism. The vast majority (84%) of American Muslims agree that the US should support a Palestinian state; seventy per cent favour a reduction in US financial support to Israel.
Second, the unfortunate turn of the war against terror: from destroying al-Qaida and toppling the Taliban to regime change in Iraq and readjustment of the political geography of the Middle East. What next? Although a majority (61%) of American Muslims agree that the US should not support undemocratic regimes in the Muslim world – and many more oppose the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein – they vehemently disapprove of the new American hegemonic designs pushed by Bush Administration hawks. Muslim communities participated enthusiastically in all recent US-wide major demonstrations against war on Iraq.
Third, the fruitless public diplomacy efforts of the US State Department. Since 9/11, President Bush and his foreign policy advisors have become more worried about America’s image among Muslims worldwide. The Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs was assigned the special task (and a multi-million dollar budget) of enhancing America’s image in Muslim eyes. However, recent opinion polls coming out of the Muslim world have shown once again that TV ads and public rhetoric cannot substitute for a substantive change in US foreign policy.
The American Muslim community – the most diverse anywhere – is the ‘best buy’ for American policy-makers seeking to build a bridge with the Muslim world. Here we have Muslims from eighty different countries, representing all religious schools of thought, intellectual trends, political ideologies and Islamic movements and including large numbers of highly qualified professionals, scholars and experts in all fields. They should be co-opted into the policy making process, thereby harnessing a significant US ‘soft power’ asset to help refine and advance America’s wider global interests. Unfortunately, present Administration policies do not encourage such possibilities.
As things stand, were a further survey done today the majority of American Muslims would say that the war against terrorism has become a war against Islam. That view reflects a major failure of America’s foreign policy apparatus. Meanwhile, US Muslims are learning from the past experiences of other US ethno-religious groups and fighting to reclaim their rights and dignity, and to build a “kinder”, “gentler” America.
ZAHID H. BUKHARI Dr Bukhari is Director, Project MAPS (Muslims in the American Public Square), Georgetown University, Washington, DC. For further information on the Poll and Project MAPS, see: http://www.projectmaps.com/