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 Nine crucial issues for the Muslim World

By Arthur Scott

The Middle East and the larger Islamic world at the beginning of the millennium find itself confronted by several essential issues revolving around identity, meaning, and purpose. These issues and the American responses to them will have a profound effect in shaping the texture of the twenty-first century. I regard the following 9 issues as crucial for the future of the Muslim World that need to be addressed:                                        

1. Islam's Relationship to the West 

The first issue is the quality of Islam's relationship to the West and vice versa. Historically, within the Islamic world, the modern responses have run the gamut from initial blind imitation as witnessed by the liberal constitutional governments that emerged during the British and French Mandate post-WWI period centering on Iraq, Syria, Iran and Egypt to violent nationalistic opposition beginning with 1956 Suez Crisis and becoming increasingly religious/fundamentalist under Khomeini in 1979. The relationship question between Islam and the West becomes even more intense because of Western revolutions in science, computers,  information systems, and now green technology. Yet Western technology has been geopolitically neutralized by the fact that the greatest reserve of oil is still to be found in the Middle East led by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran. As the global power tension between Western technology and Middle East oil intensifies it contributes to increasing the gap between rich and poor nations, which is being accelerated or promoted under the label of globalization as the rich nations of the north attempt to negotiate favorable markets agreements with the developing countries in the south. (You can also see what the World Bank thinks about the issue.)Aggravating the relationship to the Middle East is that America has become a debtor nation with a horrendous imbalance of trade, sixty-one billion a month, forcing Washington to depend on the petro-dollars of authoritarian regimes many of whom are resistant to democracy but nonetheless hold up the American economy as the recent housing melt down illustrates! Thomas L. Friedman in his Hot, Flat and Crowded, argues that as oil surges authoritarian regimes become more centralized and are able to manipulate forces of modernization through oil welfare checks. In addition, the West’s oil addiction makes it difficult for America to talk straight with the Saudis about how their funding of Wahhabism/madrassas from the Levant to Pakistan has created a dangerous pool of revolutionary terrorist that Al Qaeda and others can easily recruit or for the British Government to back off from the lucrative $80 billion jet fighter contract with Riyadh which involved bribing key Saudi officials to the tune of $ 2billion. Blurring the American understanding of the Middle East is the philosophy of "Orientalism" that has prevailed in Western capitals going back to the days of Napoleon. Orientalists (Western scholars, academicians, state department experts) are the great advocates of imperialism and neocolonialism. They present the peoples of the Near East as backward, ignorant, and needing the blessings of a superior West to progress. That Western perception of superiority has been challenged by the “Islamic resurgence” -- a movement that questions many of the sacrosanct Western values comes as a great shock in particular to American sensibilities.

2. Nationalism and Unexpected Consequences 

The regimes that have dominated the Middle East since World War II have been either primarily military (Egypt/Pakistan) or authoritarian (Iraq/Libya), committed to nationalistic goals sometimes laced with notions of pan-Arabism or religious, Islamist, Fundamentalist views as represented by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nationalistic/religious goals have led both states to create powerful armies and armaments at the expense of their people’s welfare as their humanity has been jettisoned in favor of geopolitical/messianic considerations. Military expenditures in these authoritarian countries rose from $6 billion in 1983 to $542 billion by 1993, with the U.S. arms industry being the major supplier of the explosive growth in armaments. The military elite that run these authoritarian regimes live in lavish, ostentatious, Western ways, alienating the population and further paving the way for terrorism and ultra-fundamentalism. In 2008, Riyadh was offered $12 billion by Washington because of its opposition to Iran even though it has been one of the major suppliers of Jihadists,9/11, and certainly not short of petro-dollars! 

A classic example of this pattern exists in Egypt. Under President Hosni Mubarak, successor to Sadat and former Air Force commander, constitutional rule has been largely suspended since the mid-1990s. The state has ruled arbitrarily through the National Democratic Party, which controls 94 percent of the seats in the Public Assembly. Egyptian radical Islamists responded by attacking the $3 billion, cash-cow tourist industry, leading to the death of sixty-four tourists at Luxor in 1997. Tourism revenues fell sharply at the millennium. Mubarak declared a state of national emergency, hundreds were arrested, and 100 were executed as the governmental attempt to eliminate terrorism. Egyptian society has become so polarized that even Naquib Mahfouz, the only Nobel laureate in the Arab world, was seriously wounded by Islamists. Unfortunately, the excesses of radicals restrict the growth of moderate Muslims who are attempting to return Egypt quietly to the principles of social justice grounded in the Shariah. One Egyptian spokesman declared: "The problem confronting Egypt is not one of terrorism, but lack of 'democratic institutions' and economic opportunity." Although Mubarak held elections in 2005, they were hardly fair and the country still faces increasing poverty, 25% unemployment, fueled by a population explosion and a government trapped in cronyism and corruption. Over the years, America has provided Mubarak with $50 billion dollars to provide access to Suez and to stabilize the Middle East around Israel. Unfortunately, Washington largess has retarded democratic reform in Egypt. Fear of Shiia influence connected with the Maliki government in Iraq and Iran in the Persian Gulf area as slow down the pressure for political reform. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice in 2008 promised Mubarak $13 billion over the next ten years to assist Washington in neutralizing Syria and Iran.

3. Sectarian Violence: Sunna/Shiia

One of the great divides in Islam is between Sunna/Shiia. Sunnis, which literally means following the “tradition” of the Prophet Muhammed, are orthodox and socially conservative. They represent 85 percent of the Muslim world. Shiia, on the other hand, 15 percent literally means the “party of Ali” and disputed the succession that occurred after the death of the Prophet Muhammed. The other critical difference between Sunni /Shiia revolves around leadership and Shiia insistence that imams’ must be direct descendants of Muhammed. Shiia dominate Iran and represent 65 percent of Iraqis’ centering on Basra in the south. Other countries in which Shiia have sizeable presences is Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. The Khomeini Revolution in 1979, the Iranian/Iraq War of the 1980’s, along with the sizeable gains made by Hezbollah in Lebanon culminating with the Iraqi War of 2003 has facilitated a Sunni resurgence that the conservative Sunna Gulf Kingdoms lead by Saudi Arabia find threatening to their religious orthodoxy and their global petro influence. The Shiia threat has inspired the Saudis to fund literally thousands of Wahhabi madrassas running from Afghanistan thru Pakistan into India. Although 60 percent of all Iraqis are Shiia there are important differences with Iran: Iraqis are Arabs, speak Arabic and have a different historical orientation than their Farsi/Persian neighbor. The sectarian nature of Iraq with Kurds in the north, ruling Sunnis in Bagdad and religiously marginalized Shiia in the south around Basra, was initially exploited by American military as a way to divide and weaken Iraqi resistance. Playing off secular governing Sunnis and religious marginalized Shiia was illustrated by the American mistake of dissolving the secular of army of Saddam Hussein and the emergence of Shiite Muqtada al- Sadr’s Al –Mahdi Army which has been a robust critic of America. Unfortunately sectarianism and its terrible affliction on Iraqi society has made it very difficult for the Maliki government to heal the wounds and to create a government that all groups, Sunni, Shiia, and Kurds can buy into. The political future of Iraq looks uncertain, even though Maliki has had success in reestablishing control over Basra, Sadr City in Bagdad and Kurdish Mosul as America prepares to withdraw its troops by 1911. Lack of clear leadership in Bagdad and sectarian violence still plagues the central government. Iraqi bitterness about the war and America is powerfully captured by women author Yasmina Kahdra in “The Sirens of Baghdad” in which she explores how innocent Iraqis are transformed into “righteous” terrorist by actions of ignorant GIs and indiscriminate missile attacks on Iraqis. 

4. Terrorism: Al Qaeda (The Base),Hezbollah (Party of God), Hamas (Islamic Resistance), Iaish E-Muhammed (Army of Muhammed), Laskhkar–E-Tayyaba (Soldiers of the Pure),Taliban (Students) 

Terrorism and terrorist groups are major political ingredients in the global mix for the foreseeable future. Terrorist see themselves as “Freedom Fighters”, revolutionary romantics who are often inspired by either religious jihadist beliefs (Obama) or by issues of poverty/injustice or by nationalistic themes (Kashmir) or simply by power, heroics, greed, ego, and ignorance. In many cases all of the above. Terrorists embody the archetype of the “orphan”, one who has experienced a great personal (death of a father) or social (destruction of home) or national loss as in the case of the Palestinians, the loss of their land. Terrorism intentionally strikes at the civilian population as a way to compromise and marginalize the existing regime and plays the media as a way to mobilize public support. You see this in the David/Goliath scenario between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006 when the latter invaded Lebanon to secure its northern border and was forced to retreat because of global outcry against “disproportionate” destruction rained down on Beirut by the Israel air force. Terrorist acts are highly metaphorical as in the case of “9/11”: World Trade Organization representing American corporate capitalism, the Pentagon, military-industrial elite and the White House executive seat of the American Empire. Similarly the terrorist attack on Mumbai, commercial/financial capital of India in December 2008, was implemented by Islamist Laskhkar-E-Tayyaba supported in all probability by Pakistani Intelligence Service, ISI, as a way to embarrass Indian economic stature and to undermine détente building between New Delhi and Islamabad by creating suspicion between Hindu majority and Islamic community of India which represents 13.5% or about 150 million people that Muslims cannot be trusted. This terrorist act fanned the Indian/global prejudice that although “all Muslims are not terrorists; all terrorists are Muslims.”  

What makes terrorism so difficult to combat is that its organizational structure is flat or paradoxically democratic meaning that terrorist organizes themselves into independent cells without a hierarchy. Al–Qaeda, for instance, has cells globally that act independently of one another: Europe, Africa, and Middle East. In addition, Western globalization and 40 years of war has intensified resentment, impoverished and scarred Muslim youth from Algeria to Palestine, to Iraq to Afghanistan, making it susceptible to jihadist recruitment. It is predicted that Muslim youth will constitute 30% of the world’s population by 2030—a generation that has been radicalized by the actions of America and Israel. A serious danger difficult for authorities to defend against that could wreck havoc in the urban world is the emerging new technology or packaging of biological or portable dirty nuclear bombs by militants. 

Another form of terrorism is state terrorism where states commit violent acts of terrorism against their own civilians or classes or minority groups leading to “ethnic cleansing”. The Balkan conflict of the 90’s was a classic in which Serbia turned on its Muslim population or Saddam Hussein on the Shiia following the First Gulf War or in Chechnya seeking redress from Moscow. Today “state terrorism” exist in Darfur in which 100.000’s have died at the hands of Sudanese state sponsored Janjaweed in what many describe as a “holocaust”. Many times states including the United States use proxies (Blackwater) or “Special Forces or Ops” to do mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan so as to protect its moral sensibility! Washington similarly works through other states to further its geopolitical objectives including Israel. Israel has been in conflict with the Palestinians for sixty years and at the end of 2008-9 bombed, strafed, and bulldozed Gaza City ostensibly to eliminate Hamas but with little regard for “collateral damage” that its boycott/military action is rendering on the civilian Palestinians. The Arab League met to protest Israel action but little movement followed as many of its members are handsomely paid by the United States to support Israel: Egypt,$13 billion, Saudi Arabia, $12 billion and Israel $3 billion a year for a whopping total  of $3 trillion dollars! Gandhi always pointed out that two wrongs do not make a right and that in life political means are much more important than ends as they set the ethical tone/character of a people to play fair and just thereby elevating everyone’s humanity in the process.

Unfortunately, historically even the Arab nations in the region have used the Palestinians as pawns in the Great Game of oil/power in the Middle East but hardly have proven consistent supporters. Egypt was bought off @ Camp David 1 & the Saudi's are too deeply tied to Western oil & the profits which flow from it to do much for the Palestinians & are always concern about the dangers of Iranian Fundamentalism & secularism to their precious monarchy.
At the same time the occupation of Palestinian areas (West Bank & old Jerusalem) by Israel since 1967 has proven to be socio- economically and politically harsh on Arabs within Israel. What makes the discrimination ironic is the morality of the Old Testament & the lessons of holocaust has little impact on the actions of the Knesset! 

5. Israel/Palestine 

One of the most painful enduring diplomatic quagmires is that of Palestine/Israel and the question of establishing a separate Palestine state in a geographic area the size of Rhode Island. The Second Intifada, “Shaking Off”, occurred in September 2000, when Ariel Sharon’s armed visit to the Temple Mount offended Muslim religious sensibilities! Prior to Sharon’s actions, the Middle East Peace Summit held at Camp David in July  2000 brokered by  United States President Bill Clinton to work out a two state solution between, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, had failed with both sides blaming the other for the failure of the talks. There were four principal obstacles to agreement: territory, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, refugees and the 'right of return', and Israeli security concerns. These central issues still remain, compounded by the split in the Palestinian Authority with the death of Arafat in 2007 into Fatah and Hamas. There have been suspicions raised about Arafat’s death? Nevertheless Fatah, “Conquest”, is led by Mahmoud Abbass which in 2006 lost its support of Palestinians because of the ruling party’s corruption/indifference to socio-economic needs of the people to Hamas. Currently Fatah controls the West Bank, is recognized by the United States, seeks to work out a two state solution with Tel Aviv consisting of Gaza, West Bank, parts of Jerusalem, and recognizes Israel right to exist.

Hamas, “Zeal”, founded in 1987 in Gaza was historically part of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and unlike Fatah is committed to the destruction of Israel and envisions a Palestinian state that will include all of Israel within its territory. Its election success with Palestinians arises from its concern with health, education and medical needs of Palestinians. In 2007 Hamas took over Gaza and suffered the lost 1 billion dollars of American aid and has been placed under a tight Israel economic/military boycott bringing much pain and suffering to the people. Hamas does receive some aid from Iran/ Hezbollah, Syria/Gulf States. Hamas in Gaza is led by Ismail Haniyeh who today is much more popular among Palestinians than his counterpart Mahmoud Abbass. The attempt by Israel to destroy Hamas in winter 2008-09 has created a powerful popular global reaction against Israel with specific diplomatic actions taken by Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon in protest. America and its client Egypt however have remained staunchly supportive of Israel military action even though peoples of Gaza are deprived of medicines, food, and humanitarian assistance. Gaza represents the overriding metaphor for Palestinians-a desperate people who have been victimized by the Israeli occupation for decades pushed to the brink of political suicide.

Recently, a worldwide attitudinal shift has appeared about events in Palestine starting with former American President Jimmy Carter in his 2006 work “Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid” in which he criticized the honeycombed of Jewish Settlements in the West Bank as it fragmented the territory depriving Palestinians of access to the Jordan River thereby making the creation of a contiguous state well–nigh impossible.. Moreover as Carter points out economic movement/activity between Palestinians/Israelis is handicapped by check points, by a 436 mile Wall which although reducing “suicide bombing” facilitated Israel incorporation or stealing of Palestinian land? These events have created in Europe the belief that Zionism has become a serious threat to world peace.  Reinforced by the closely guarded secret that Israelis have had nuclear weapons since the 70’s, with  a stockpile of 100 nuclear weapons giving it an incredible military advantage vis-a-vis other Middle Eastern countries and which accounts for its keen opposition to Iranian uranium enrichment program. Similarly within Israel itself there is much reflection on what is happening to Israeli identity as reflected in the writings of Avraham Burg in his 2009 work entitled: “The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes” in which he argues for a secular, not religious state, that” law of return” needs to be modified and that Israeli Arabs were being discriminated against as badly as Jews in 1930 Germany. Bernard Avishai in his recent work “The Hebrew Republic” continued by bemoaning the fact that the Hasidic and other religious groups have stolen the country away from the secularist as it is they who decide the essence of Israel identity which is religious /ethnic. Avishai calls for an egalitarian Israel bases on nationality and democracy in which all groups: religious, fundamentalist, secular and Arab would be treated equally before the law. Even within America, reassessment of Washington’s blind loyalty to Israel as reflected by forty American vetoes in Security Council against resolutions critical of Israel, is emerging as exhibited in the study work of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt , “The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy”. The basic theme is that the Israel lobby has succeeded in hijacking American foreign policy and by so doing contributes to radicalization of Muslim youth, promotes nuclear proliferation ala Iran as well as jeopardizing the movement of oil through the Persian Gulf.

In conclusion the Israel government must go back to UN Resolution 242, the core of the “Roadmap for Peace”, which demands Israel withdrawal from occupied territories, calls for finding an equitable formula for Palestinian refugees question as well as resolving the future status over Jerusalem and finally creating a plan to remove the 209 Jewish settlements that exist in the West Bank that deprives the Palestinians of significant land. For Israelis the question is one of how to guarantee security from suicide bombers/Hamas/terrorist. Unfortunately America has waffled on the matter of a two state solution and this unevenness explains why the Arab world is so incensed with American indecisiveness. Even though Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert became committed to “Two State” solution his conflict with Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2009 undermined his efforts and his apparent heir the Likud Binyamin Netanyahu appears even less interested in seeking a solution to the Palestinian Crisis as he is more concern with status of Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps the answer to Palestinian crisis is a paradigm shift to a “one state” solution.  The great fear confronting the Zionist about it is that demographically Arabs will outnumber Israelis significantly. Yet  if both Palestinians/ Israelis could see the benefit to  a one state solution it would provide as Edward Said, noted Palestinian born American scholar, the basis for “something entirely missing from both Israeli and Palestinian realities today: the idea and practice of citizenship, not of ethnic or racial community, as the main vehicle of coexistence.”

6. America and the Middle East:

 American Empire’s involvement in the Middle East is connected first with the story of oil, especially Saudi Arabia and the pivotal geopolitical significance (Suez/Persian Gulf) of the area for future economic global expansion of the Empire, including both Europe and Japan. Second, it was fueled by the Cold War with  Soviet Union, the Truman doctrine, in which there was a struggle for dominance in Egypt (Suez Canal), Turkey/Greece/Iran, and then by the  Eisenhower doctrine which was a response to the threat of Nasserism or Pan-Arabism and brought America into Lebanon in 1958. Third, America’s growing ties to Israel as evidenced by American military aid to Tel Aviv during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 with Egypt. Israel, by the end of the 70’s, became a strategic lynchpin to Washington’s dominance in the Middle East especially when the Shah of Iran is overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini takes charge giving birth to Shiia Islamic Fundamentalism, threatening both secular and religious Arab regimes, Saddam Hussein, the Gulf Sheikdoms, and Saudis. In the 80’s, America became a silent partner in Iraqi/Iran conflict playing both sides off against the other with the expectation that by war’s end both Iraq/Iran would be too weak to be significant powers in the Persian Gulf Region. Reagan, as he came into power as President in 1980, would however clandestinely trade missiles to Iran for releasing American hostages with Israel playing middle man in the transactions. Simultaneously, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan providing Washington with an opportunity to support Mujahedeen and other mercenaries who rallied to the support of Afghanis, for example, Osama bin Laden, to defeat Moscow and to begin to build an international terrorist organization called Al Qaeda. In1991, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait triggering the Gulf War by shifting the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and global control of oil. President George H. Bush rallied the international community, including many Arab countries and very quickly the Coalition Forces defeated Saddam’s soldiers and placed Iraq under interdict devastating its infra-structure over the next few years.

In 2000 Bush was elected President. Bush, along with Cheney and the neo-cons, had developed a newer version of Empire/Unitary Presidency called the Bush Doctrine which basically called for unilateral action by Washington to spread the goals of the American Eagle.  9/11 gave the neo- cons the opportunity they sought leading to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003. The Iraq invasion was manipulated by the Bush/Cheney Administration who persuaded Congress to go to war regarding Saddam’s’ association with Al Qaeda and fear over elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction. Discussion at home was stifled by the Patriot Act, which facilitated electronic eavesdropping, suspension of habeas corpus, arbitrary arrest, renditions, torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and a weak-kneed response by Democrats who were afraid of being called unpatriotic. The war became a divisive factor in America and Bush’s popularity by 2006 plummeted to an all time low leading the Democrat Barack Obama winning the presidential election in 2008.  President-elect Obama has the serious and urgent task of renewing relations with the Muslim world based on the highest American values of equality, respect for law, liberty, by denouncing torture as an instrument of war, closing Guantanamo, withdrawing from Iraq, committing to nation building in Afghanistan through a Kabul Marshall Plan, and finally brokering an equitable two  or one state solution to the Palestinian crisis which provides freedom for the former and security for the latter, and perhaps engendering a diplomatic revolution with Damascus undermining the influence of Iran visa Hezbollah. Even within the Arab media, which is critical of Washington’s policies, most see political reform, human rights, educational and economic opportunity the primary needs of the region.

7. Ecological Challenges

 The Islamic world is confronted by serious ecological issues that undermine human dignity:  water supply, desertification, carbon pollution, deforestation and poverty. Water quality may become the number one issue and has many significant cultural ramifications. For instance , the Kurds since World War I have advocated for an independent Kurdish state but the problem is that the proposed state would not only be rich in oil reserves but also water as the mouth of the Tigris–Euphrates rivers originates in eastern Turkey is an area claimed by the Kurds  leading to irredentism outbreaks with Turkey. Similarly there is tension between Syria/Palestinians/Jordan over the Golan Heights going back to Six Day War, 1967, which overlooks Lake Tiberius that feeds into the Jordan River and has significant agricultural implications. Simultaneously Tel-Aviv has entered into an agreement with Ankara in1998 to supply water to Israel with the possibility of building a water canal between the two countries in the future. Desertification is     a serious concern in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait and throughout the Gulf areas as demographic changes coupled with growth of cities, autos, air conditioning and oil exploration put tremendous pressure on a fragile eco-system. To offset the water problem, the Saudi government has contracted for the construction of a large desalinization plant that plans to go on-line in 2010.

Oil scarcity, population growth, climate change are all interrelated and the first item explains the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq as it would insure American dominance over a dwindling global oil resource deemed critical to the Empire. Gas production, distribution, autos, chemicals, multi-corporations  create a nasty carbon imprint that takes lives, contributes to asthma, emphysema, breathing disorders  and contributes to social inequity, poverty and terrorism as petro dollars flow into the coffers of countries that can hardly be described as democratic. Oil has made the Middle East geopolitically central for nearly a hundred years. The only realistic option is for the world to move from its oil dependence, implement a comprehensive Green Policy, search for and harness alternative renewable sources of energy thereby dramatically reducing the flammable nature of the Middles East. Barack Obama has made this a central theme in his vision for a New America which hopefully can transform the globe.

Deforestation represents a serious threat to Afghanistan’s economy. For Afghan ecology to be viable, it needs forestation in15 percent of the country. Timber scarcity is the result of extensive timber smuggling to Pakistan, thirty years of war has devastated the landscape, and little electricity is available. Most Afghan families use wood to cook making its capital city, Kabul, very unhealthy with an air pollution level equal to that of Mexico City. Compounding the problem are the terrible dust storms ravaging the landscape and landmines make farming hazardous. Accordingly opium has become a primary Afghani cash cow responsible for the Taliban rebirth. By 2007 Afghanistan became the largest global supplier.  The Karzai government must free itself from “drug traffickers” both within (Karzai’s brother Wali) and without, begin to provide stronger incentives for non-poppy agriculture; restrict importation of chemicals for the manufacturing of opium and curtail its Global distribution. The Islamic world too struggles with climate change uncertainty intensified by a blurred awareness of its criticalness, aggravated by a politically charged landscape characterized by wars and sectarian violence, compounded by governmental mismanagement, broken infra –structures, population pressures, polarization of wealth and growing resource scarcity. Paradoxically the Quran waxes elegantly about ecology, about the beauty of nature and how it inspires, instructs, and needs to be treated respectively as being a profound gift from Allah! A powerful Quranic imperative or miracle is that Nature mirrors Reality, the School House of Divine Wisdom. It provides insight in the great mysteries of the Ninety- Nine Names: compassion, mercy, justice, love. Simply watching the interplay and organization of ants and bees teaches man about the dynamics of community, cooperation, collaboration, communication and harmony.

8. Women in Islam 

The great irony of the contemporary Islamic world is that Muhammad can be portrayed as a feminist whose teachings and practices brought about a veritable revolution in male-female relations in ancient Arabia by prohibiting infanticide, enabling women to be educated as exemplified by Fatimah/Aisha, to own businesses and inherit property as well as being entitled to sexual fulfillment. Moreover women were free to accept or reject marriage proposals and even initiate divorce. Even though polygamy was permitted it was regulated by the provision that the husband had to satisfy equally the psyche-material expectations of all wives. 

Unfortunately, over time the revolution in gender relations launched by Muhammed succumbed to the traditional patriarchal values of tribal cultures of Central, South and Southeast Asia that insisted that women stay home, cook, look after their children and provide for their moral education. This conservative philosophy was reinforced by the threat of Western impact and twenty century Hollywood images of the modern, sexually liberated, educated women, as well as by the political rise of the Mullahs in the period of the Islamic Revival who looked upon the American portrayal of womanhood as shaytan. 

One of the great difficulties in talking about the contemporary status of the Muslim women is the incredible variety and changes that women are experiencing and initiating in their social relations and economics as you move across the spectrum of Muslim countries from North Africa to the southern Philippines to say nothing about diversity of Muslim women in Europe/America. Many Muslim women throughout the world wear the hijab as a way to show their religious/cultural identification but secularists do not. 

Despite the challenge posed today by Islamic fundamentalism, women are still making political/cultural inroads that their American counterparts have failed to accomplish. There have been women prime ministers/presidents in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Benazir Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan from 1988-90 and from 1993-1996, Tansu Cellar was the prime minister of Turkey from 1993 to 1995. America has yet to elect a woman to the highest office in the land.

Other breakthroughs include increasing the punishment for crimes against women in Bangladesh, which culturally operated on a double standard that promoted rape, kidnapping, and acid attacks. Even in Mullah Control Iran, Shirin Ebadi a noted Iranian legalist still won Nobel Prize for Peace in 2003 for her legal efforts in behalf of women and children. She is feared by the Mullahs for speaking out against human rights violations in Iran and often experiences harassment. Egypt has denounced the practice of genital mutilation and has made it easier for women to divorce. Both Qatar and Bahrain have extended to women the right to vote and stand for office. In Malaysia, more than half of the university students are women, and many are opting for professional careers.

In Algeria there has occurred a quiet but significant gender revolution in a country historically gripped by civil war. Today more than 60% of all University students are women, 70% lawyers, 60% judges and women dominate the health professions. Algerian women are delaying marriage and often are larger household contributors than their male partners. A profound paradox in Algeria has been the liberating effect of the hijab on opening higher education to women who by wearing the hijab were no longer seen as “sex objects”! Simultaneously women are both more “religious” and “modern” than men. Shirin Ebadi discussed the same phenomenon in Iran as the Khomeini regime by clearing the Universities of their alleged western biases allowing them to be attended by women so that by the 90’s there were slightly more women in universities than men. 

It is hoped that the new government in Kabul will give Afghan women a greater voice in nation building so that their talents, skills, and abilities can pave the way for a new society grounded on gender equality. The picture for women in Afghanistan is mixed with the recent Taliban rebound. Dr. Sima Samar, a Hazara, founder of 10 medical clinics and part of the Karzai transitional team was forced to resign as Deputy Premier because of her criticism of purdah (public seclusion), wearing the burqa (head-to-foot wrap) as well as Shariah law. However Dr. Suhaila Seddiq, a Tajik feminist, still remains Afghan Minister of Health. 

 In sum, the future of the Islamic women represents an extraordinary complex mosaic influenced as it is by culture of gender relations, history, geography, language, and class embracing village, tribe and city.

9. Future of Islam

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, 19.2 %, second only to Christianity and has experienced explosive gains in South/Southeast Asia and in Europe recently surpassing Catholics worldwide at17.4%. However Islam, as an Ummah, is badly divided by Western impact, by sectarian differences, Sunni/Shiia, by different response philosophies, Islamist, secular, militarist and moderate. Islamist extremist groups including Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Wahhabi capture the headlines even though they are not representative of Islam, a religion grounded on peace/surrender, whereas the piety of Muslim millions goes unnoticed.  Pakistan is a classical example of the political tensions within Islam that assault the religion. When Pakistan was formed in1947 two competing visions emerged:  either a secular Muslim state or a religious state governed by mullahs and Shariah. Pakistan’s founder Muhammed Jinnah, a secularist, called for the creation of an inclusive and pluralist civil society promising equal rights for all citizens regardless of religion, caste  or creed. But this never sat well with the Fundamentalist whose idea of state rested on Islamist views and today is advocated by the Taliban and supported by the Military Inter-Service Intelligence or ISI for political and economic reasons. However within Pakistan and throughout the Muslim world there is another voice calling for peace/love, namely; the Sufis. In august 2008 more than 300,000 Sufis came to honor Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a mystic who immigrated to Sindh region of Pakistan in the wake of the Tartar invasion in the thirteenth century. He taught inclusivity thereby attracting Buddhists and Hindus living the Quranic injunction “that there is no coercion in religion”. He soon became venerated as a saint who was rejected by Mullahs as a form of idolatry! Benazir Bhutto and her father, Zulfikar were devotees of Qalandar. Benazir’s assassination in December 2007 paved the way for civilian government, Pakistan People’s Party, to return under the leadership of her husband Asif Ali Zardari to build a country based on Sufi principles of reason, law, inclusivity, compassion and humanity. Sufism in sum calls for the best kind of jihad, a jihad in which each person slays their inner demons in order to experience the light of mercy and compassion lurking behind the shadows. It represents the best of Islam and is the natural bridge that can reconcile the illusory differences between faith and knowledge, modernity and tradition, the West and non-West. 

Finally, fundamentalism and terrorism will not leave the Middle East or the world until a basic shift in values occurs between rich and poor nations and classes -- from greed to sharing, from competition to cooperation. Many Middle East countries are on the brink of social revolutions with strong anti-Western overtones. The social gap between the affluent and the impoverished puts many governments at risk to the excesses of fundamentalism, which can only be avoided through democratization. One powerful gesture in democratization that could materially change the political, socioeconomic landscape of the Middle East would be to grant the Palestinians the independence they seek. Only then will "swords" be transformed into "plowshares" and humanity as a species perhaps have a chance to survive in peace. 

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies of the Dominican University of California
and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies.