D.R.: The snake in the grass | VailDaily.com

D.R.: The snake in the grass

Radical Islam is a rattlesnake, not a lion or tiger or bear.

We had far more to fear from the Soviet Union than we do now from Osama bin Laden. The bigger threats of the future are those emerging Asian tigers India and more so, China.

That snake in the grass can be very dangerous, true. Watch where you step. Don’t run barefoot. But even with its venom, the rattler is more shake than bite, more coil than strike. Essentially, this is a weak creature that needs its poison to survive.

This in metaphor was what I took from the Vail Valley Institute’s annual seminar last weekend.

I’m sure that’s not exactly the prevailing view among the participants. The four-day seminar ” Socratic dialogue mixed with the insights of four leading scholars ” took up the mantle of the title: “Islam and Democracy: Are They Compatible?”

But the record-breaking attendance didn’t come from some ethereal impulse to airily debate political models and religious theory. The participants came, I believe, because of another largely unspoken question that permeated every session.

How much should we fear the Islamic world?

Without fear, who cares, really?

Bloody scripture

Unlike Jesus or Siddhartha, Muhammad was a warrior. The founder of Islam led raids and sacked cities in the name of the new faith he started.

So while the Bible ” particularly the Hebrew Bible (Christianity’s Old Testament) ” was bloody too, Muslim teachings have institutionalized violence.

One of the seminar speakers, Dr. Tawfik Hamid, an Egyptian scholar who once served in a terrorist group, warned that the mainstream Muslims today foster and even condone Islamic terrorism.

The acts themselves may be committed by a tiny fraction of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, he said, but why has no fatwa been issued against Osama bin Laden as Ayatollah Khomeini famously issued against Salmon Rushdi for daring to write a novel satirizing Muhammad?

Good question. The radical Islamists didn’t invent terrorism, but they certainly are committing an awful lot of it these days. And the mainstream of Muslims certainly has been awfully quiet about the atrocities while hundreds of thousands of them protest things like cartoons of Muhammad appearing in Western publications.

Furthermore, jihad primarily means to conquer the non-Muslims, Hamid asserted, particularly for the Arab Muslim strains of the faith. Violence is an acceptable means of expansion, in this view. That extends to Muslims who are not Muslim enough, including how fundamentalist Shias look at Sunnis and vice versa.

The scripture itself is an obstacle to moderation, and modernization.

Oil money

The Middle East has been troubled pretty much since the birth of Islam with the first revelation to Muhammad in 610. And no doubt before then.

But oil money, ironically enough, has abetted the rise of modern Islamic radicalism.

As the Saudis got rich, they exported a poisonous version of Islam, called Wahhabism, throughout the Muslim world and beyond by funding schools and mosques and preachers. Muslims who do not practice their faith consistently with Wahhabi principles are considered apostates. Bin Laden, founder of al-Qaida, is a fervent Wahhabist. He’s also Saudi.

So we in the West, with our thirst for oil and lots of it, have helped sow a particularly uncompromising, puritanical, fanatical and violent branch of Islam throughout Arabia and into places like Afghanistan, Pakistan ” and, well, London.

The United States gives Saudi Arabia aid in the billions of dollars atop buying enough oil to help make their princes the richest people on Earth.

This mystified all the speakers at the seminar.

Ken Jowitt, a Berkeley political science professor, called Saudi Arabia “the largest family gas station in the world.”

“We genuflect to the Saudis … . We protect this family,” he said, shaking his head. “We could lay the law down.”

Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in San Diego, said the U.S. should just ask the Saudis to stop funding Wahhabi evangelism.

“We don’t have to stop driving SUVs to talk tough to the Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Ah, our thirst for oil. Couldn’t we bring the Saudis and others to heel if we just conserved better and otherwise found ways to lessen our dependence on the stuff?

Satisfying as that may sound, we wouldn’t make the Saudis poor if we stopped buying their oil. China, India and the rest of the world would purchase every drop we passed up. The Saudis, and others, would still be rich ” rich enough to buy Aspen mansions and spread the religious roots of terrorism.

Still, a point the professors and participants didn’t take up: If we are less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, we’re also less vulnerable to a possible economic weapon that, in theory at least, would be more devastating to our society than suicide bombers.

Western influence

If you buy the notion that the Islamic world looks at the West with jihad at heart, we’re hardly helpless.

Our troops march on their soil, not the other way around. The West holds such sway in the Muslim world that we could draw lines rather arbitrarily in the sand and call them nations, disregarding nuances of tribe and clan. We’ve long had the naked power to mess with their politics and used it at times capriciously, not to mention remarkably stupidly.

And that’s not even our greatest weapon against radical Islam.

If this were a race of competing jihads, our economic concepts alone would have the upper hand. Resistant as the Middle East has been compared to other regions, Western-style capitalism is stronger than radical fundamentalism.

Nasr’s themes during the seminar, in his keynote address Friday night and in the presentations Saturday, tended to focus on practicality and on ordinary people.

Can Muslims practice democracy? Well, they do. India, for instance, has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, and these citizens have participated fully in democracy since 1947, he said.

In countries that have embraced globalism, such as Turkey and Malaysia, business practices have brought a great deal of change when business people have had to square their religious beliefs with economic realities. The future is hardly set, Nasr cautioned, but practical problems have a way of moderating religious views and demands in a society.

The Turkish business owner, confronted with religious edicts against “usury” vs. taking out a loan to get the store or service running, chose feeding the family over ancient texts. These are the confrontations of practical life and religion that the insular nations of all faiths will increasingly face. More often than not, practical considerations will win.

That doesn’t mean a nation will necessarily turn democratic, or stay that way. But it is progress.

In the absence of religious tenets squaring with a better life, the radicals are left with fear to try to keep a society “pure” according their vision. It’s a potent tactic, to be sure.

What’s democracy?

Can purple fingers be counted as proof of democracy? In 2005, Iraqis and Afghanis put American election turnout to shame. Today you could hardly call either country particularly democratic.

Still, 76-plus percent has to mean something. Right? Mainly that’s the power of the religious leaders. Iraq’s Shia came out in droves, at the encouragement of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani. The Sunni barely participated.

University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole talked about al-Sistani’s actions before the big election:

The Bush administration aimed to write Iraq’s constitution. Al-Sistani argued that a legitimate government came from the will of its people, not from somewhere else.

The Bush administration wanted a caucus system to restrict who could vote, with each major ethnic group holding a fixed number of predetermined seats in the national assembly. Al-Sistani demanded “one man, one vote” as the only way to guarantee the will of the people.

Then 100,000 Iraqis protested, peacefully. Please America, give us democracy.

“One of the great ironies is Washington, D.C., being lectured on democracy by an ayatollah from Najaf,” Cole said. He added that a recent study found 89 percent of Muslims favor democracy.

So why so little democracy in fact among the Muslim nations? Turkey typically comes up as leading the pack, and that’s a country ruled under the firm guidance of the military. There are democratic impulses and brief ignitions of democracy that tend to flame quickly across these nations.

Nasr calls it little “d” democracy and pointed to a host of Muslim countries with vestiges of governance that includes elections in which the opposition at times throws out incumbents.

Cole pointed out that democracy has flowered in other countries once thought to have cultures incompatible with the concept, including Japan and South Korea.

Hamid argued that Islamic fanatics will use all the tools at their disposable in their bid for power, including free elections. It’s what happens after they come into power that matters, he said. Then you see their true face, which surely includes no more free elections.

Jowitt called American democracy a mere anomaly, a historical mutation. Islamic democracy, even when it blooms, is highly unstable. Political parties there tend to be horribly corrupt and rather fecklessly try to incorporate radical Islamist groups to gain votes. Eventually the military steps in. The military does such an inept job that the corrupt political parties begin to look good again. And eventually the cycle turns again. The one constant is instability and the ever-present threat of violence. And so it goes.

In short, the Islamic world cannot govern itself. So how are they going to conquer us? Furthermore, even with the oil revenue, these are impoverished people with little order in their countries, weak militaries and the region is fragmented despite living under a more encompassing religious umbrella than we have in the West.

Yes, terrorists sometimes blow things up outside Iraq. But do we exaggerate the danger to us here just a bit?

Fear factor

Here’s a novel thought: The Islamic world has a lot more to fear from us than the other way around. We tramp around on their turf, as ignorant of them as a barefoot hiker. Any wonder so many are coiled? That they’ll bite if they get a chance?

That’s not to apologize for terrorists or a mainstream belief that condones the radicals. But it is to apply some perspective here.

We’re not dealing with lions and tigers and bears, oh my. We defeated the bear; and the Cold War, if you remember, was a lot scarier time. We can just about count on grown tigers roaming the wilderness of the future.

And us? We’re the lion. King of the beasts. But even the king had better know enough to watch his step.

Don Rogers is the editor of the Vail Daily, a sister of the Vail Trail. He can be reached at 748-2920, or editor@vaildaily.com. You can read his blog at http://www.vaildaily.com/section/BLOG

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