In the March 9 issue of Newsweek magazine, Fareed Zakaria, the magazine’s editor and formerly both an adviser to the Bush administration on US policy in the Middle East and a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, published an article under the heading “Learning to Live with Radical Islam” and the tagline “It’s time to stop treating all Islamists as potential terrorists”.
Despite having elements of his resume that he would rather people forgot, Zakaria is no crude and unreconstructed neo-con. In fact, he is regarded as a liberal (at least by US standards), a point that should remind us that there was far greater support for Bush’s aggressive militarism in all sectors of US society than many care to remember now. Zakaria’s standing as a public intellectual owes much to his perceived expertise on Islamic and Middle Eastern affairs, emphasised by his Muslim name and heritage. (He counts himself a Muslim, although he shows all the zeal of the convert in his commitment to all things American.) It is these liberal credentials and perceived expertise that demand that we take his writings on US policy in the Muslim world seriously, because they can be regarded very much as reflecting the sort of thinking that is probably guiding policy-making in the new, liberal administration of Barack Obama.
What then of his article and argument? Well, there can be no doubt that is looks very different to the sorts of writings on Islam that were commonplace during the neo-con era. Instead of the usual sweeping generalisations about violent, backward Islam, Zakaria now attempts to present a different image of political Islam for Newsweek’s readers. There are, to give credit where its due, hints of insights which would greatly improve most Americans’ understanding of the situation if they were taken on board, considered and understood; for example, his observation that “people want to find their own balance between freedom and order, liberty and license”. However, these are few and far between, and quickly qualified lest anybody think about them too much. Instead, the argument he builds is ultimately as west-centric as anything produced by the neo-cons.
His basic argument is that America should recognise that not all Islamists are al-Qa’ida or pose a direct threat to the West. Instead, there is a variety of groups and understandings, ofwhich the anti-Western jihadi approach is only one and marginal. He also points out that most Islamic movements are predominantly concerned with local issues in their own societies, rather than fighting the West. The West’s immediate concern, he says, needs to be with destroying al-Qa’ida and similar groups that threaten it directly; other Islamists can be ignored or co-opted to this greater struggle. That is not to say they are not bad people; they need to be fought and defeated in due course ; but that is an objective that a) can wait and b) may be better pursued by political means rather than military ones.
For some Muslims, this appears a change of tone to be celebrated; copies of the article were circulated by Muslims welcoming it as a positive change in American thinking. This is short-sighted to the point self-delusion. In fact, Zakaria misrepresents Islam and Muslims as much as any neo-con. The examples of Islamists he cites are of the Taliban and such groups; Islamic Iran, the Ikhwan, Hizbullah and other Islamic groups that present a more nuanced understanding of Islam are ignored. He also calls for a war in Islam, although he couches it in different terms: “We should mount a spirited defense of our views and values. We should pursue aggressively policies that make our values succeed.” Behind the considered tone, his argument is a lot less different from that of the neo-cons that he would like readers to think.
In truth, the article’s tagline says is all: “It’s time now to stop treating all Islamists as potential terrorists.” Implicit in this is the admission that the US has always known that Islamists and terrorists are not the same, but deliberately chose to treat them as the same. A change of strategy is now required because the previous strategy failed; but Islam remains a problem to be to be “aggressively” confronted. In trying to explain the US’s new approach to both Americans and Muslims, Zakaria exposes it.
There are, remarkably, still Muslims who expect some positive change in US policy towards Muslims under Obama; sooner or later, they must recognise their error, and articles such as this one should help them do it.
Iqbal Siddiqui publishes a personal blog, A Sceptical Islamist