Political commentators observing developments in the Muslim world have a tendency to project their own fears and prejudices onto the Ummah. This is particularly true of Westerners who like to speak about the “moderate” majority of Muslims -- ie. those who are not anti-American, and welcome the US’s civilizing and democratizing mission against “Islamic extremism”. But it is also true to Muslim commentators, even Islamic movement ones. For example, there is great concern nowadays about the rising sectarianism in the Ummah, much of it deliberately intended to isolate the Islamic State of Iran as the US prepares for its next attempt to destroy it. And we at Crescent are no less guilty of this than many others.
However, the results of a survey published by the Brookings Institute on February 9 should be reassuring. The face-to-face survey of nearly 4,000 Muslims in six “moderate Sunni Arab countries” (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) , conducted by Zogby International late last year, found that nearly 80 percent of people consider the US and Israel to be the greatest threats to their security. After months of Western fear-mongering about Iraq, only 6 percent cited Iran. What is more, over 60 percent of the respondents supported Iran’s right to develop nuclear weapons. Nearly 40 percent of Arabs listed US president George W. Bush as the world leader they most disliked, followed by Ariel Sharon (11 percent) and Ehud Olmert (7 percent). In contrast, Shaikh Nasrallah topped the bill of most admired world leaders, with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad third.
Asked about the implications of the survey, its designer, Shibley Telhami, said: “The public of the Arab world is not looking at the important issues through the Sunni-Shi’i divide. They see them rather through the lens of Israeli-Palestinian issues and anger with US policy. Most Sunni Arabs take the side of the Shi’ites on the important issues.”
The Brookings Institute is of course part of the US political establishment, and the survey (conducted annually for the last five years) is intended primarily to guide US policy-makers. But perhaps there are lessons for us in the Islamic movement as well. Like all commentators, and many political activists as well, both within the Islamic movement and elsewhere, we tend to live in a world dominated by the chatter around us, particularly the chatter of other commentators (and political activists) like ourselves. But the reality is that ordinary Muslims in the Ummah are perhaps more steadfast in their opinions, and sounder in their political understandings, than many commentators give them credit for.
The late Dr Kalim Siddiqui often spoke of the innate political instincts of the Ummah. Perhaps we need to trust it a little bit more. The US and its allies in Arab capitals can try all they like to promote the idea of an approaching war between Sunnis and Shi’is; some misguided Islamic activists can insist of seeing the world through sectarian lenses; and some scared, stressed Muslims in places like Iraq and Pakistan can offer evidence of the potential for sectarian conflict within all Muslim societies.
But it appears, alhamdulillah, that the vast majority of Muslims have the common sense remain above such divisive issues and see the bigger picture of the challenge facing the Ummah.