News and Opinion:
Islam and the West, transcending their two convenient mental constructs

By Mazen Salhi for Creative Syria

Conflict has many causes. An underlying assumption among idealists is that we can almost always identify material-based “root causes” of conflict. The assumption usually extends that if somehow, we were able to identify those needs and to address them through providing resources, then we should be in a position to resolve conflict. While it is true that alleviating need-based causes of human suffering such as poverty, inequality, discrimination, and racism have helped people and countries around the world reduce conflict, it is also true that we still have a long, long way to go.

Why is that? I believe that the fundamental reasons behind the tragic human phenomenon of perpetual strife and war are the contradicting and competing world views. World views are only loosely correlated with personal or national needs, and they have much more to do with human ego, greed, bounded rationality, and with human psychology in general. Full stomachs and full wallets aren’t going to change that.

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We don’t actually know any absolute truths. We build mental constructs that are abstractions and simplifications of the real world. We then infuse those constructs with our emotions, egos, fears, and prejudice, and we build into them fantastic claims of real world resources with the core purpose of serving us. These constructs become our world views. When different world views of different groups of people compete for the same resources, as they inevitably would, we have conflict.

The people and institutions on both sides of the growing strife between major world powers and “Islam” have competing and contradicting world views. I believe it is necessary to put Islam in quotation marks, as there are many forces and groups within the Islamic world that are also fiercely competing for the brand. Not withstanding that diversity within Islam-a diversity that has often turned lethal in its strive for the brand-there are unmistakable common themes that run across all actors that lay claim to the Islam brand. This theme stipulates that Islam has a divine mandate to dominate on Earth, that Islam is destined to one day to achieve that goal, that devout Muslims who die on the path of fulfilling this grandest of visions are martyrs and heroes, that peoples or nations that challenge our divine mandate are, by definition, evil and must be destroyed, that the same rules cannot possibly be applied to its followers as compared to its adversaries, and that pretty much all tricks in order to achieve the ultimate goal, are fair game.

The above is a world view that serves its followers and perpetrators, that does not look inward, that accepts nothing from outsiders less than total “submission” to it, and one that has indeed succeeded in the past in bringing Muslims fantastic treasure and glory. It is a world view that has credit, both from the faithful, and from history, and thus cannot be discounted easily.

On the other side of the chasm are modern regional and world, primarily Western powers that believe that their way of life is where history ends. They also believe that they’re entitled to dominate the world and to dictate social and economic laws on populations near and far, that their culture and values are inherently superior to those adhered to by other cultures, that any serious competition must be swiftly and decisively neutralized, that its own armed forced have every right to be exempt from UN legal prosecution while no one else may dare think about that, and that the entire world must accept the US Dollar as is the exclusive currency of trading, even amongst themselves. Many Western ideologues believe that espionage, assassinations, regime-change projects that destroy millions of lives, and the relentless spying on billions of people around the world are all legitimate tools of doing business.

Here, again, is a world view that serves its followers and perpetrators, that seldom looks inward, that leaves little room for outsiders other than submitting to its ever further reaching hegemony, and one that has brought the West to World dominance, immeasurable wealth, and preferential standing on all world issues. Here as well, we find a world view that has considerable self-consistency, and one that enjoys wide credit.

At their core, the conflicting and contradicting world views perpetrated by Islamists and Imperialists are not all that dissimilar. They’re in conflict not because they’re fundamentally different, but because they happen to lay claim to the same resources and thus are in competition. At their core, these world views are Win-Lose narratives: I am entitled to win, and therefore you are destined to lose.

Is it very hard to see why this is a recipe for perpetual conflict?

If we want to answer the question about root causes at any level of depth, we must challenge these world views head on. Brute force will not help either side win, as neither side can annihilate the other, no matter how much it might lust to do so. There is a catch, however, to confronting flawed world views: the exercise must be done from within.

Reform cannot be done for a people. It must be done by a people. It has to come from within, or else it would be seen as an alien assault and it would trigger the knee-jerk reactions that reckless politicians love to exploit and sell to their masses for power, as we are seeing today in the case of Turkey’s Erdogan.

The Muslims themselves have to make the decision to take a probing gaze at the mirror. We must stop pretending there’s nothing wrong with us or our World view, and that the World is just out to get us for no reason. We must stop repeating the childish and empty phrases that claim that ISIS, al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda are ‘not even real Muslims’ and ‘have nothing to do with Islam’. They are undeniably Muslims, and we must learn to deal with that fact. Hiding behind our fingers is no longer going to work.

Hundreds of millions of Muslims hold on to the narratives outlined above. We would love to see Islam dominate the world, we glee over the notion of overpowering other nations, we dream of the day we’ll conquer Rome, like we once did Constantinople. We believe that all nations are out to “devour” us like “frenzied feeders over a banquet”. Many (especially young men) dream of having sabaya (female sex slaves of war).

Yet those same hundreds of millions of Muslims, the absolute majority of whom are indeed otherwise peaceful and law abiding, were genuinely horrified at the crimes of the likes of ISIS et al, when the acts of those groups became the vivid and screaming reality we watched live on YouTube. Those very Muslims were truly horrified of the beheadings, the burnings, the enslaving of Ayzidi women, and much of the other atrocities.

This schizophrenic chasm between reality and mental constructs is devastating and cannot continue, if we want to live in peace with the rest of the world. We cannot dream of conquering the world in the name of Islam, and yet be shocked when a group attempts to do just that, starting from Syria and Iraq.

We, as Muslims, must own our problems and not revert to the perpetual denial and victimhood that we’ve been burying our heads under for so long. We must challenge our deeply rooted and sincerely cherished beliefs, and we must come to terms with what they truly mean. The writer of this piece believes that a significant proportion of Muslims today are in fact taking that challenge face on and are no longer content with the mediocre acrobatics of apologists and deniers.

The path to letting go of those prized beliefs is going to be a painful one, but there is no escaping it any more. We’ve exhausted all excuses and all superficial remedies, and they don’t work any more. We must build up the courage to face the immense pain of shedding the elaborate web of long-held, self-serving falsehoods about ourselves, our beliefs, our place in the world, and about our brethren in humanity, the non-Muslims.

During that time of reform, which is going to run into several decades, Muslim countries must try and avoid wars of aggression, yet they also have to be strong enough not to be crushed by aggressive outside forces, because the world is far from an ideal place. Many players in the world are spending billions of Dollars to keep the Muslims from freeing themselves and their societies. Many dominating world forces do not want to see a Muslim or an Arab renaissance, which makes the task even harder for modern Muslims. Many want us to remain hostage to unending irrationality.

On the other hand, Western powers, primarily the United States also has to go through its own transformation, which, quite frankly it is in a much better position to achieve successfully. The US must accept that it is a nation among nations and not a nation above them. It must agree to play fair and to not use its overwhelming super powers to crush smaller countries that it does not like. Regime change projects are evil, and they destroy millions of lives, as they have done in Iraq and Syria. The use of embargos that impede growth and make life unbearably difficult as regime-change tools never works, yet it destroys lives and livelihoods of countless millions of people. The use of Islamists to wreak havoc around the world has to stop. The US needs to abandon those evil projects and allow Muslim countries to determine their own destinies. Indeed, dictating who rules this Muslim country or that should “not be a US priority”, nor should it ever have been.

Edward Snowden is the type of patriot that the US needs more of. Someone from within the system that forces the US public to pause and take its own look at the mirror. The American public needs to read the thousands of released WikiLeaks documents and to reflect on what it feels for government agencies to have levels of power that were utterly inconceivable to the Founding Fathers. They need to extend their reflections to try and understand how smaller nations who complain about US hegemony must feel. True reform happens from within, and Julian Assange did not obtain those documents from any outside actors. They were given to him by American patriots who maintain a higher vision for what they believe the US should be: a beacon of inspiration and justice for the world, not an international thug nor a techno pervert. The world needs more heroes like that.

The challenge is immeasurably more difficult for modern Muslims than it is for the West, though. How do we reform a troublesome world view significantly enough to make a difference, yet without destroying the bedrocks of identity and self worth for hundreds of millions of people? That is one of the most critical challenges facing Muslims today.

Anyone who has been faced with dogma knows how difficult it is to deal with people who are blinded by it. If an assault on the beliefs of the dogmatic is perceived as a real threat to the belief, people will react as if it is an existential threat to their very lives and will respond with explosive levels of violence. Human psychology is very volatile and wrong moves can indeed be deadly.

Still, all hope is not lost.

There are many young Muslims today who have been rudely awakened by the naked atrocities carried out by Radical Islam. For the first time in history, atrocities committed at an obscure location can be seen live by the entire world. The horrors of what literal interpretations of Scripture mean when acted upon, now deliver instantaneous, profound and unforgettable shock to millions of believers. They now gaze at the mirror and they are terrified at the images that they see staring back at them.

So much for the original plan by ISIS et al. They had thought that broadcasting such graphic violence was going to scare their enemies into flight or submission. On the contrary, most of the energy of their raw ugliness actually ended up hitting their fellow Muslims, and those, in their millions, have reacted in directions completely contrary to plan.

The spectrum of response with the Islamic world is wide, but one common theme across that spectrum is the demand for deep, probing, non-apologetic reform. The numbers of those young Muslims have been steadily growing and the questions they’re asking have been getting increasingly more difficult for the classical Islamic institutions to handle. These young Muslims are now undergoing, albeit not in any structured way, the process of owning the realities of their collective history, beliefs, and their core identity, with all the good and bad that comes with that. They are not afraid to challenge old beliefs and world views, yet they will not succumb to self flagging and self defeat. These young Muslims are the reformists of tomorrow’s Muslim world, and are today bravely pushing the envelope in all directions. They’re doing so in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, in Egypt, in Iraq, in Syria, in Turkey, and elsewhere, and they are doing so against incredible odds. They are asking the hard questions that most of their parents and grandparents never dared ask, and they are slowly coming to the extremely painful answers. They are learning to discern and identify flaws, and slowly but surely are building up the courage to call a spade a spade, regardless of the pain and the freaking out of religious clerics. Further, the grief of losing long-held, comforting beliefs is not driving them to despair or depression. As they make profound new realizations, they are not crumbling into the dark and are fully determined to have a place in tomorrow’s world.

If the world wants peace, it has to help the brave young Muslims, Americans, Israelis and others that are learning to face the mirrors, and who are determined to do good in the world, with new rules that have less flaws than before, and that are more fair than before.

We are not going to arrive at peace by humiliating or defeating the other side through force. Even the best defense and security technologies in the world are not going to protect us from our madness. We must make the paradigm shift that only a profound change in our attitudes and beliefs can.

No one is going to come out to save us, and we must do that ourselves. There are no Messiahs, no Mahdis, and no wise aliens that are going to step in to stop us from destroying ourselves. We also cannot wait for governments to build elaborate programs while we sit idly and watch. That’s not going to work. We must be the change that we wish to see in the world, as Mahatma Ghandi once said.

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