Faith & Reason: Clinton and Islam: eyeless in Gaza

Akbar Ahmed
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE PALESTINIANS were delirious with joy at the beginning of the week, waving the stars and stripes. It seemed every Muslim in Gaza had turned out to welcome President Bill Clinton. They had come a long way from the burning of the American flag which had been associated with their fathers. It was as great a revolution in political thinking as one could imagine. But by the end of the week they were burning it again.

Clinton's presence and reception made several important points. It emphasised once again the supremacy of the US as the single most powerful nation on earth in the last years of the century. And it pointed out the links between what is happening in the Muslim world and the politics of Washington.

The US president's few hours in Gaza endorsed and embodied the aspirations of an entire people. The Palestinians felt as if they had almost achieved their separate nation - although Clinton, always the wily lawyer, said nothing to indicate this.

The president, with his mind on the impeachment proceedings developing in Washington, walked about as if he was dazed in Gaza. He brought to mind Milton's Samson. Each was, in his time and in different ways, the strongest man in the world. Like the biblical hero the US president had also "erred" and "by bad women been deceived". And of him too it might be said: "Ask for this great deliverer now and find him eyeless in Gaza".

For President Clinton has a terrible blindness when it comes to understanding the Muslim world, as was only too evident when the bombing of Iraq began. Saddam is without doubt a ruthless military dictator. But sending in the bombers whenever Washington needs a diversion - as was earlier done in Sudan and Afghanistan - only succeeds in building sympathy among moderate Muslims for the Iraqi leader. Few Muslims will doubt that this week's bombing was linked to Clinton's impeachment proceedings.

But there is another sign of Washington's myopia. While the Palestinians were grateful for and ecstatic about Clinton's visit, Muslims in other parts of the world felt frustrated and let down by Washington. In both Kosovo and Kashmir thousands of ordinary people - farmers, housewives, school-going children - face savage persecution. Houses are blown up and members of the family tortured. Young men are taken away by security forces and never return and young women are subjected to sexual harassment. The bombs on Iraq only add to the feeling that American justice is blind in one eye.

If course, Muslims themselves inflict damage on their own people; Algeria, Sudan, Afghanistan are examples of societies tearing themselves apart. Savagery is conducted here in the name of Islam. But once again, the West is implicated - France's support in Algeria and those US air strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan. Inevitably the theme of the power of Washington in the Muslim world will be picked up in the sermons in the mosque in the coming weeks of the month of Ramadan which starts this weekend.

The month is one of the most important for Muslims. It is when Muslims tend to withdraw from the daily routine to fast, meditate and pray. The fast itself is not like a Christian fast; it is a total abstention of food and drink from sunrise to sunset. During the fast people also abstain from anger, gossip, sexual intercourse and more. As a result the atmosphere among Muslims tends to be charged during the month to come. It is easy to dream dreams because of the lightness of the mind and it is not surprising to see Muslims expressing religious fervour. The mosques are full and people attempt to complete the reading of the entire Koran during these weeks.

For British Muslims - as for the billion or more Muslims elsewhere in the world - the month with be a time of renewal. It will be a time when Muslims will be thinking of both pious deeds of charity and of standing up to tyranny. In both cases they will be thinking of the suffering of fellow Muslims throughout the world and that is where the contradictory messages of Gaza, of Kosovo and of Iraq will become relevant and affective.

For those in the West who think of Muslims as fanatics and extremists it is well to recall the famous chant enunciated by the Sufi master Junald of Baghdad centuries ago:

In Sufism, eight qualities must be exercised. The Sufi has: liberality such as that of Abraham; acceptance of his lot, as Ismail accepted; patience, as possessed by Job; capacity to communicate by symbolism, as in the case of Zachariah; estrangement from his own people, which was the case with John; woollen garb like the shepherd's mantle of Moses; journeying, like the travelling of Jesus; humility, as Mohammed had humility of spirit.

Young men expressing their anger by throwing grenades, killing innocent civilians in the bazaar or kidnapping Western hostages - such actions are certainly not either the teaching or the spirit of Islam. But until Washington is able to open its eyes to the impact of its policies on the Islamic world such atrocities will continue. It gives most Muslims no joy to say so, but the West needs to hear it.

`Islam Today: a short introduction to the Muslim world' by Akbar Ahmed is published by I.B. Tauris next month