The “Threat” of Islam

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  • by Anup Shah
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To many people, Islam conjures up negative impressions of fundamentalists, intolerance and terrorism. Islamic movements and organizations are automatically linked with terrorism and are blamed for the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process.

Islam is also often portrayed as a threat 1 to the (mainly Christian) West. Some claim that it is the new threat to replace2 the communist fears from the Cold War. However, the stereotypical image of the Middle East is very negative. Even in certain parts of Africa3, following the August 7, 1998 bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, there has been resentment of Muslim people in general.

Islam is stereotyped as a threat to democracy without distinguishing it from terrorism or corrupt leaders who use the ideals of Islam to their own ends. Thus, US foreign policy4 has been criticized for not taking this distinction into account and also hypocritically supporting terrorist regimes in the past for its own political gains and only now doing something about it.

The above was written in 1998/1999. The atrocity of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States has strengthened the long-held belief by some people that Islam is indeed a threat to the world, and that it is not compatible with democracy. However,

  • Islam comes from the same tradition as Judaism and Christianity. They all believe in the same one god, and Islam considers Moses and Jesus to be two of the many Prophets. The more hard-line interpretation of Islam is countered by most Muslims and the three religions share many other principles.
  • As Noah Feldman, professor at the New York University School of Law and expert in Islamic studies suggests in his book After Jihad, America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy, (FSG, 2003), Islamic democracy is possible and many Muslims indeed desire this.
  • Unfortunately, democratic voices are suppressed by autocratic regimes (many supported by the West), who fear loss of power, and, after suppressing democratic movements, can point to the Islamic extremism as the alternative to themselves being in power.
  • Western interests in the Middle East, for example, have led to support and even installation of some of these brutal regimes, both in favor of this over an extremist regime, and to have puppet leaders in the region so that their own geopolitical interests (such as oil and related strategic interests) can be met. In the Control of Resources5 page on this site, this aspect has been detailed, with note that ordinary citizens in the region are often in the middle of these extremes without much voice and ability to change things. Frustration has meant some have been easily recruited to terrorism and the extremist forms of opposition to the autocratic regimes.

See also a short PBS clip of Barbara Pretzen, from Harvard University, differentiating fundamentalism, islamic and islamist concepts6. In short, she describes fundamentalism as going back to roots/origins of a religion, Islamic as applying Islam, and Islamist as a modern/radical political form of Islam making it as part of the State itself, also described as political Islam that is also associated with terrorism (not necessarily going back to the origins of the religion).

(I thought it would be worth mentioning, considering a number of people have asked, that while my last name is Shah, it is not an Islamic/Persian name and I am not Muslim.)

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