The Western world has seldom seen public demonstrations on the scale that occurred during the weeks preceding the invasion of Iraq earlier this year. Millions of men, women and children marched in the streets of London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington DC, in the hope that this public outcry would stop the impending attack. One important aspect of this public declaration was the emergence of a loosely organized network of peace activists who provided "human shields", hoping that the US and Britain would not bomb their own citizens. All of this, however, proved totally ineffective against the war machine. Not only did Washington go ahead with its plans, it used some of the deadliest weapons and munitions ever used in any war. It is instructive to examine how the US and its ally Britain have been able to neutralize one of the strongest public protests since the second world war.
This utter disregard for public opinion was possible because those who now rule the US and Britain knew full well that this outrage would really mean little, that the demonstrators would exhaust themselves and go home to watch the next hockey or soccer game comfortably at homes; the few voices that would continue to harp upon the theme could easily be drowned out by the uproar that would flood the media.
This is exactly what happened. During the intense bombing of Baghdad, while hundreds of homes were being destroyed, the men, women and children who had marched in the streets of Western cities could do nothing but watch the devastation in horror, with a sense of helplessness. True, there were some who showed up at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire; campaigners in a Greenpeace hot air balloon even dropped 500 anti-war leaflets over the air base. But they did this with the express intention of "not disrupting" the workings of the base, and had checked with authorities that no flights were due at that time. This ineffective measure was perhaps the most these anti-war demonstrators could undertake.
This public outrage against an unjust invasion was weathered by the ruling groups of the US and Britain largely on the strength of a counter-offensive that saturated the media in the weeks preceding the attack. This was largely comprised of raising the level of fear through repeatedly invoking the non-existent weapons of mass destruction and making unsubstantiated links between September 11 and Iraq. Thus a barrage of warnings, danger alerts and possible strategies in case of an attack by Iraq kept the public's fear and apprehension at a level that paralysed rational thinking; it was undoubtedly the most sinister psychological warfare in modern history.
Some aspects of this psychological warfare, based on the most evil strategies, have come under scrutiny in recent weeks both in Britain and the US, but for all practical purposes, these inquiries into the making of a war machine are petty affairs whose outcome is already a matter of no consequence.
The multi-billion dollar war machine constructed by the US to colonize the Muslim world has numerous components, ranging from lethal weapons to that of paid collaborators who submissively speak the mantra of reform that Islam supposedly needs "in order to cope with the challenges of modernity". This huge war machine is at work both around the clock and around the globe.
One important component of this new strategy to colonize the Muslim world is a two-pronged, sustained and focused effort. Its first aim is to build a consensus of public opinion in the West that is uneasy about Islam and in the presence and awareness of Muslims, at the very least. Its other is to undermine the Islamic tradition in the Muslim world from within. To this end, the US has allocated a large sum to be used to promote a "modern" and "tolerant" Islam. These two strands of the plan are being implemented, piece by piece, through a multi-million dollar media war that reminds one of the infamous European witch hunts of the sixteenth century.
The case against Islam is being built upon a tradition of "scholarship" that goes back to at least the eighteenth century. This tradition has produced numerous "scholarly texts" on Islam that bring out a host of ideas and images in the Western mind which stand in stark opposition to their intellectual, emotional and psychological makeup. This creates fear and hostility; there are, of course, many obvious religious, psychological and political reasons for this. Some may argue that we are now well past the stage of invoking the Crusades to rationalize this overbearing attitude toward Islam, but in any serious analysis one cannot discount history. What constitutes the most basic ingredient of this response to Islam by an average Westerner is the perception that somehow Islam is outside the framework of his or her life.
This may not seem like an important factor in shaping attitudes toward Islam and Muslims, but at the psychological level it is indeed a remarkable factor, because anything outside one's frame of reference is bound to induce fear, which can then produce numerous other reactions. This fear of the unknown is, however, not working in a vacuum; it operates within the atmosphere created by an entire industry of "scholarly and scientific" institutions and studies which, since the early eighteenth century, have contributed to the West's "understanding" of Islam.
That there is a definite connection between our contemporary situation and the works of early Western commentators on Islam, such as Peter the Venerable and Barthelemy D'Herbelot, is beyond doubt. That Silvestre de Sacy, Edward Lane, Ernest Renan and Hamilton Gibb built upon this foundation is equally true. That this whole tradition has been and is being promoted in the name of learned, objective scholarship, is likewise indisputable. One has only to look at the range of contemporary sociological, anthropological, and political works of scholars who "teach Islam" and Middle Eastern studies at Princeton, Harvard, Chicago and other American universities to know that history is, indeed, at work in these "unbiased" and "scholarly" studies.
One has only to dig a little deeper to uncover numerous links between proponents of the doctrines of "the end of history" and "clash of civilizations" and the arrival of B-52 bombers. These "scholarly studies" of Islam are, in fact, the concentrate from which the media manufacture their more poisonous representations of Islam and Muslims. There are battalions of scholars in 'respectable' academic institutions devoted to the creation and propagation of a public image of Islam that paints it in the darkest possible colours. Under their minute scrutiny, everything 'from Islam's social values to its most sacred practices' is made to seem loathsome, unacceptable and backward. Of course this media war against Islam and Muslims is not new. But what is new is the wedding of the media and the "scholarly apparatus" that "studies" Islam, and the use of this media war as part of a strategy for the recolonization of the Muslim world. These two connections are the new contours of a re-energized effort to hollow out the Islamic tradition.
This process of recolonization of the Muslim world has numerous parallels with the British and French invasions and colonization of the Muslim world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In retrospect, we can map the contours of that earlier wave of colonization and see how both France and England proceeded with their occupations, following a period in which various "scholarly" studies of Islam and Muslims paved the way for the acceptance of this occupation by building public opinion that looked at the Muslim world as something exotic and backward, and a polity in dire need of "enlightenment" and "progress". A remarkable technical modernization then made "oriental studies" a specialized field of study, best left to "experts" whose opinion became the only reliable source on Islam and Muslims.
We know, for instance, that Napoleon Buonaparte considered it of the utmost importance that his invasion of Egypt in 1798 should include a sophisticated group of scientists in order to study, first hand, that exotic land of "Moslems". We also know that during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, under the leadership of de Sacy, French institutions of Oriental study created a tremendous amount of new material about the Islamic West, the Maghrib, which played a key role in enlisting public support for the French occupation of Algeria in 1830. The same holds true for Britain, where a great deal of interest about the Orient was generated by a remarkable series of scholars who built up exotic images of nabobs and harems.
This is not to establish a directly causal link between "scholarship" on Islam and invasion and colonization, but to underscore the mechanism that operated during the era of colonization and that is working again in this new phase of recolonization. It is the construction of a general atmosphere, a medium, through which the war machine passes its lethal plans, that is the point of reference here. One can test the effectiveness and importance of this atmosphere simply by examining the details of numerous incidents which have occurred since September 11, 2001 in the US, Canada and Britain in which many innocent citizens have been implicated merely on the suggestion that they have links to "al-Qaida". The mere use of the label "al-Qaida" is now enough to generate "accusation", "evidence" and "proof" of guilt. This happens because the word has been given meaning through an organized and sinister effort that puts to shame the worst propaganda efforts of the Nazis and the Soviet communists.
Those who planned the invasion of Iraq are now proceeding with the next phase. They know that empires are not born spontaneously, nor occupations maintained without further effort. Their new plans will make use of all the experiences from the British and French invasions and colonizations of the earlier period. They know the importance of "local" elements; that is why, so early in their occupation, they enlisted Hamid Karzai and members of the so-called "governing council" of Iraq as their allies. They constitute, along with a score of other usurpers, the backbone of occupation. Their role in this new phase of colonization is twofold: they are to provide cannon-fodder when needed, and they are there to undermine the Islamic tradition from within, in the name of a "modernizing" or "progressive" Islam.
[Dr Muzaffar Iqbal is President of the Centre for Islam and Science, Sherwood Park, Canada.]