Tortured by Stereotyping: An Islam the West Can Relate to
LOS ANGELES -- Hey, I have a
candidate to replace embattled U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld,
should it come to that. Which I hope it does.
Okay, I admit my man's a real
For starters, he's not a U.S.
citizen, though, come to think of it, with all the anti-Americanism around
the world, this could prove a plus. Nor is he a military man, though, come
to think of it, that could be another plus, especially when you consider the
daunting magnitude of the military's recently revealed misconduct in Iraq.
How despicable and repulsive is such widespread abusive detention and
interrogation? Is war too important to be left to the generals and the
Defense Department? Oh, yes.
Okay, so my guy's a Muslim cleric,
in Indonesia of all places. But let's not be bigoted. Maybe if we had a few
more Muslims in high places in America, fewer Muslims around the world would
so hate us.
Besides, Prof. Syafi'i Ma'arif is
a real gem -- very unbigoted himself. In fact, he says he actually likes
George W. Bush. When he met the president, during his visit to Indonesia
late last year, he told Bush he didn't like the Iraq war at all. As he
explains in the current issue of "The Sydney Papers," the influential
Australian political quarterly, "I asked him: 'What kind of moral right do
you have to invade another country, another sovereign state?' He said: 'Oh,
because Saddam Hussein was bad, because Saddam has killed many Iraqi
people.' Yes, of course. But I said: 'Why did you go there? That is not your
Syafi'i Ma'arif, one of
Indonesia's leading academics and head of the large social-welfare Islamic
organization Muhammadiyah, tells us that although he didn't like the
president's answer, describing it as "rather unsettled," he likes Bush
anyway and thinks him a "good listener."
But he’s still sorry American
invaded Iraq. Muslims mistrust U.S. motives, and the Arab world in general
is not, he argues, such a wonderful bet for an out-of-left-field experiment
in democracy. Ever since the fourth caliph, "centuries ago ... Arab nations
have [had] difficulties dealing with democracy," he instructs.
Indonesia, according to this
cleric and academic, is a far better bet for that. His nation's Islamic
movement (almost 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslims) is largely peaceful
("rather different from the type of Islam in the Middle East") and largely
opposed to terrorism ("uncivilized and inhuman"). And it is not at all
opposed to democracy.
What about its home-grown
terrorists, then? Explains Syafi'i Ma'arif: "I can say that those who were
involved in these [Bali and Marriott] tragedies were people who have no
future. They have nothing to offer humanity. They want to take a short route
to achieve their pragmatic purpose and objective on behalf of Islam, and
this is very wrong. I have tried to understand them, but I can't."
But are we in the West trying hard
enough to understand people like Syafi'i Ma'arif and other leaders of the
all-important moderate Muslim world? Surely not. In a timely and pointed
speech the other day, Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong warned that
fighting the war against terrorism will fail if our arsenal is limited to
armies and policemen and excludes the ideological dimension of ideas and the
invaluable contributions of religious and community leaders who are the best
ammunition to throw at those Muslim militants exploiting the West's
And have we in the West given
adequate attention to the extraordinary march toward true democracy in the
nation that is home to more Muslims than any other? Indonesia in fact goes
to the polls in July to directly elect its national leaders. Earlier this
week, incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whom Syafi'i Ma'arif
supports, tapped one of his colleagues (the head of Indonesia's largest
Islamic social organization) as her running mate. Megawati, the secular
daughter of Indonesia's founding father Sukarno, hopes to revive her
struggling campaign by reaching out to Islamic voters.
The West needs to make some
Megawati moves -- and soon. We cannot support or celebrate moderate Muslim
religious and community leaders enough. "Terrorism is not the authentic face
of Islam," Syafi'i Ma'arif counsels.
President Bush should seek to
revive his struggling presidency, now terribly rocked by the evidence of
past U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners, by reaching out to Muslim leaders around
the world, to people like Syafi'i Ma'arif, who concludes: "It is high time
for us to foster mutual respect and mutual trust .... Humanity is one. We
have to develop a constructive dialogue -- a dialogue among religions, a
dialogue among civilizations, on an equal basis."
Some demographic estimates suggest
there are now as many Muslims in the United States as there are Jews. But
there are very few Muslims in prominent U.S. government positions. I realize
that Syafi'i Ma'arif has as much chance of replacing Rumsfeld (if he does
go) as, oh, I do! But would it really be such a bad idea to have an American
Muslim in such a position? The president, with his religious-outreach
tendency, in any event, might look to get a Muslim in his Cabinet soon.