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熱鍋上的倫斯菲爾德

Tortured by Stereotyping: An Islam the West Can Relate to

Tom Plate

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 long-shot.

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 country..."

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 shortcomings.

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.

 
 

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