By Khaled Abou El Fadl
Not much time has passed between the first edition of Shattered Illusions and this substantially revised second edition, and yet in this relatively short time, so much that is de-stabilizing, deconstructive, demoralizing, and in fact down-right shattering, has taken place. At the most fundamental and basic level, so many lives have been destroyed and so many others have been denied liberty, physically assaulted and tortured that one struggles with the feeling that it is the very concept of humanity that has been shattered.
The sheer magnitude of the hypocrisy that has been acted out before the world in the past couple of years has made a mockery of the idea of the universal applicability of human rights standards and democracy. After the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction had become completely discredited, the Bush administration has persistently relied on the idea that it is building a democratic society in Iraq. Moreover, the Bush administration has made broader and more grandiose claims about inducing reform in the Arab world, and in fact building a new Middle East that is constructed on the principles of free markets, political liberalism, human rights, and democratic governance.
Meanwhile, however, it has become irrefutable that not only has the Bush administration engaged in proxy torture but it has directly and without mediators engaged in torturing detainees in Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay. Furthermore, although the U.S. admitted that is it an occupying power in Iraq, the Bush administration has consistently violated the Geneva Conventions, which among other things, clearly define the duties and obligations of an occupying power. The U.S. government installed a puppet administration in Iraq and adopted the illegal practice of bombardments in order to subdue Iraqi national liberation groups. The attitude of the Bush administration towards the ever mounting list of civilian casualties has been simply one of denial or in some cases the payment of inadequate reparations. The sheer amount of violence committed in Iraq after the end of the official war demonstrated unequivocally that we have returned to the paradigms of Colonialism and the White Man’s Burden according to which a Western power assumes that it knows what is in the best interests of a racially non-white people, and continues pounding them with blow after blow until they submit—submit to the higher wisdom, sagacity, and civility of the white man.
Most troublesome is that the reaction of the non-Muslim and Muslim worlds to the slaughter and torture taking place in Iraq has been mild at best. Few, if any countries seem to be taking seriously the ideas of human rights and democracy—most countries have been far more interested in the possible business opportunities that Iraq offered than in enforcing the Geneva Conventions or the so-called Universal Bill of Human of Rights. In fact, the irony is that for all the talk about building a new civil Middle East, a most troubling process has started unfolding. Countries friendly to the U.S. in the Middle East, under the guise of fighting terrorism, unapologetically increased repressive measures against their own citizenry to silence any dissent regarding the reactions of their governments towards U.S. policies in Iraq. There were new arrests of Islamists in Jordan and Egypt, and the passage of a new draconian anti-speech law in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. administration and the rest of the Western world were not interested in the marked deterioration in human rights practices in countries friendly to the U.S. Instead, the U.S. and the Europe remained obsessed with Syria and Iran. In the same way that we were consistently told that Iraq poses a frightening threat to world peace, so we are told that Syria and Iran pose the same threat. The world somehow managed to calm down about the threat posed by North Korea, but not Syria and Iran.
Of course, during all of this, there is one country that can own as many nuclear weapons as it wants, engage in as many extrajudicial killings as it wishes, indulge in as many preventive detentions as its heart desires, bomb civilian populations, blow up homes, and destroy farmlands—in other words, violate the Geneva Conventions in whichever way it desires, and pretty much invent its own version of international law without a single world of protest from the U.S. and with mild abashed murmurings of slight displeasure from the Europeans. Of course, this country is Israel, which unlike Syria or Iran can never pose a danger to world peace, democracy, or human rights.
With all of this, so many humanistic and ethical convictions have more and more started to look like illusions that are being shattered by the realities of a strange world that seems oblivious to any standards of substantive justice.
But as illusions are being shattered, others are becoming constructed. At one point in history, after having invaded and dominated Khurasan, the Mongols were threatening to invade Iraq and destroy the weak Caliphate sitting in Baghdad. The Muslim Emir in Syria was forming an alliance with the Crusader state in Jerusalem against the Muslim state in Egypt. The King of France, meanwhile, threatened to start a new crusade by attacking Egypt or Syria. In short, the Muslim world looked like it was in terrible shape, threatened from all sides. But the Muslims, after suffering severe blows, managed to get their affairs together and repel both the Crusaders and Mongols.
Today, to the average Muslim, it seems that the Western world acts as if the only sources of danger or concern that need to be addressed are exclusively in the Muslim world. Afghanistan is occupied with a puppet government installed, and so is Iraq. Syria and Iran are constantly and consistently threatened. Sudan has become a new target for the Security Council and its possible sanctions. Kashmir and Chechnya? Forget these two—they have become terrorist causes.
This Western obsessive engagement with Muslim countries as the only possible sources of danger and the trouble makers of our age is convincing many Muslims that there is a one-sided war going on in the world today. Instead of fighting terrorism and going after terrorists, the U.S. and Europe is fighting the dreams, hopes, aspirations, historical causes, and sense of self-determination of Muslims. Muslims suffer an increasing sense of siege that is only augmented by the remarkably Islamophobic acts and speech that is jovially perpetuated and tolerated in Western societies.
After World War II and in the post Colonial era, there was a virtual edifice of humanistic principles constructed with the distinct purpose of maintaining the integrity of nation-states, communities, and individuals. During this period, ethical and legal principles such as the prohibition against the use of force except in self-defense, non-aggression, self-determination, the right of people to national liberation, and the right to resist foreign domination and occupation were constructed to insure that Colonialism and interference in the affairs of other nations were things of the past. Remarkably, in the past few years, for Muslims, this whole international edifice has started looking like an illusion that is being relentlessly shattered. It appears that international law is no longer available for the benefit of Muslims—the only law applied to Muslims by their own governments and by the West is that of the law of anti-terrorism. The law of anti-terrorism is no law at all.
One belief that, far from being shattered, became painfully confirmed is the utter impotence of Muslim governments to control their destinies or offer their people any security whatsoever. Muslim governments could not protect the Bosnians as they were being slaughtered, did not have a single say in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and sat around solely on the receiving end of all Western policies.
This is a material difference between the threat felt by Muslims during the Mongol and Crusader invasions and the threat felt today. In the past, Muslims could do something to control their own destinies, but today they are entirely defenseless.
This is why these recent years have raised the fearful specter of Colonialism—perhaps it is not an illusion to think that the days of Colonial domination are back again, or maybe that they never left in the first place but only pretended to lay dormant until it took an aggressively proselytizing administration to wake it from its dormancy. After all, we cannot forget that Colonialism claimed that it shouldered the burden of civilizing the savages, and of teaching Muslims the virtues of democracy, free markets, and rationality. These turned out to be excuses for destroying the institutions of Islamic learning, especially Sharia, and for uprooting the Islamic tradition as a whole. In other words, these lofty excuses of civilization and so on acted like the sword that severed Muslims from their past and made them into orphans in the modern age. Muslims did not become entirely Westernized, but they also no longer held an authentic identity rooted in an Islamic historical continuity.
This state of uprootedness, more than anything else, is what created the terrorists of today. The true horror is that there is more than a fair chance that the Western policies of today are doing it all over again. If so, it is an illusion that the plague of terrorism will be extinguished. Tomorrow, the world can only look forward to and await a new breed of terrorists who were spawned by the disillusionments suffered by the new forms of colonialism practiced today.