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Trump, America, and the Muslim World

  • Published at 12:02 am October 10th, 2016
  • Last updated at 08:39 am October 10th, 2016
Trump, America, and the Muslim World

In the aftermath of the first US Presidential Debate, I made a short and exasperated observation in social media that Donald Trump’s most steadfast non-American supporters seem to be Muslims living outside the US, many of whom are quite openly rooting for Trump to win.

It was a grossly generalised statement made in a moment of despair. Justifiably, I got pushback from my social media acquaintances quite sharply. This is an attempt for a more nuanced and thought-through elaboration of my views.

So far, only a couple of general surveys have been made internationally among G20 countries to gauge opinion about Trump, and they show that Trump has more support than Hillary only in one country; very predictably in Russia. In all other countries, Trump has net negative ratings to various extents. Indonesia, India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were among the countries where Trump has largely negative ratings as a potential president.

Although statistical evidence so far show that overall, people in Islamic countries do not support Trump over Clinton, some studies on media of Islamic militant organisations and their supporters have argued that those who harbour strong political Islamist or Neo-Caliphate leanings want a Trump presidency strongly.

These studies are mostly based on anecdotal evidence, not data and statistics. One particular study in the venerable Foreign Affairs magazine -- a study on IS social media and interview with its members -- caught the attention of the world.

Why ISIS wants Trump

Islamic extremists support Trump for various reasons but two of them stand out. First of all, jihadists feel that Trump’s unrestrained anti-Muslim rhetoric will be a great recruitment tool for them both in the Muslim world and among Muslims living within the West. If he starts impulsive attacks upon Muslims countries, that will drive more Muslims into the folds of extremism.

The second reason is that jihadists feel that Trump is an unhinged, loose cannon whose erratic leadership will lead to a drastic decline in American power and also lead to a breakdown of the world order. They hope that in a more chaotic environment, their goal of establishment of a transnational Caliphate would be easier. It should be said that extremist support for Trump does not appear to come from a coherent political position.

Hardline Shias have applauded Trump for his tough words against Wahhabism and IS while hardcore Sunnis hope that a President Trump will roll back US efforts of rapprochement with Iran. But it is clear that political Islamists of all sorts follow the US election very closely as they think that their future opportunities and strategies are intimately tied with the person to be anointed on the inaugural day.

While we have read the views of Islamic extremists on a possible Trump presidency, the views of a large section of people who are politically more moderate but nevertheless somewhat sympathetic to political Islam have not yet appeared in political studies.

Based on anecdotal evidence, one can safely comment that such sympathisers are not actively wishing for Hillary to win and many of them may be rooting for a Trump triumph. What could be the reasons for wanting such an outcome? Let me briefly paraphrase the gist of the arguments very eloquently expressed in my social media circle.

No love lost

Even more than Obama or any other person, perhaps Hillary Clinton is the current global face of the US political-military-economic establishment that has been actively shaping the world order for many decades. The Muslim world has no love lost for this establishment.

This establishment has been propping up repressive autocracies and changing regimes through coups and violent revolutions whenever it suited its purposes. The establishment has launched one war after another in Muslim countries, wars that have devastated societies indelibly and caused deaths of millions directly or indirectly.

This establishment has been giving a blank check to Israel in its determination to maintain occupation and continue marginalisation of Palestinians in their own homeland.

So, when Muslims who are more sensitive to the plight of the Ummah see Donald Trump potentially supplanting Hillary Clinton in the White House, they just don’t see another presidential turnover in the US, they see an establishment-upending regime change in the world order itself. They see some kind of payback for all the destabilisation and sufferings that US power initiated in the Muslim world.      

Muslims within the US have a very different view of Trump. They have been living comfortable, secure lives, enjoying the rights and freedoms of a liberal political order. Trump is a direct threat to that political order and a direct threat to the security and prosperity of many Muslims within the US. That’s why most of them view Trump as an existential threat.

Muslims living in their hot and unhappy homelands in the subtropics already see their day to day existence as precarious; they have nothing to lose from a Trump presidency, and may even get some satisfaction in seeing destiny delivering comeuppance.

When Muslims who are more sensitive to the plight of the Ummah see Donald Trump potentially supplanting Hillary Clinton in the White House, they just don’t see another presidential turnover in the US, they see an establishment-upending regime change in the world order itself

This is a powerful statement. I cannot truthfully say to what extent this thinking reflects the views of the Muslim middle; my instinct says a lot. Those of us who think that a Trump presidency is going to be very bad for not only America but for the rest of the world, including the Muslim world, should address these sentiments directly. Disregarding the wise words “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” let me offer in this short space an argument for why I think that rooting for Trump is yet another despairing gesture by politically active Muslims to burden the US as the source of all their torments, and not go through genuine, critical self-examination.

A matter of policy?

Few objective observers of international affairs will deny that US foreign policy in the Muslim world since the Second World War has been full of imprudence and mistakes. At times, US policy and implementations were downright immoral and criminal according to standards set by ideas of international society and international justice, ideas which were crystallised hundreds of years ago.

It’s not that citizens of the US are unaware of their country’s moral failings on the world stage. Since the Vietnam era there has been great and significant internal opposition within the US to immoral foreign policies.   

All objective observers will also agree that, on the whole, Muslim countries of the world are experiencing different levels of political dysfunction and social pathology than most other countries of the developing world. In a recent NY Times op-ed, noted cognitive scientist and author Steven Pinker noted that “the world’s wars are now concentrated almost exclusively in a zone stretching from Nigeria to Pakistan, an area containing only a sixth of the world’s population. Far from being a ‘world at war,’ as many people believe, we inhabit a world where five out of six people live in regions largely or entirely free of armed conflict.”

To demonstrate that it is US policy that is the main cause of this dysfunction, one has to show that US policy has been especially malicious towards Muslim countries with a special objective of retarding social and political progress.

I firmly believe that international affairs do not show any such direct one-to-one connection between US policy and dysfunction in Muslim countries. I think that it is incumbent upon the politically aware Muslims to look inwards more for understanding the multitudinous causes of dysfunction.

***

There is a line that is quite popular in the opinion-analysis circles of the Muslim world: A country that is a friend of America needs no enemies.

The meaning is straight and clear -- friendship with the US is toxic. However, we have seen that Germany and Japan, two mortal enemies of America in WWII, became friends and clients of the US after the war and have remained so ever since within the American military, maintaining economic alliance.

They haven’t seemed to have done badly for themselves. South Korea was as poor as Pakistan or India in 1950. Korea has been within the American military and economic orbit since and has done very well. So has Taiwan, and many other US allies in the west and the east.

Meanwhile, countries like the Philippines and Thailand had mixed records of political development being US allies. In Latin America, Chile developed quite well with US friendship, while El Salvador and Honduras went to the dogs. It could be that friendship with the US is not the main reason behind political dysfunction and unsatisfactory development. The main cause is internal.

Muslim countries in alliance with the US

It could also be that US friendship is especially toxic only for Muslim countries -- the world’s largest Muslim country Indonesia, for example. As part of the alliance against communism, Indonesia had good relations with America during the long reign of Suharto. During the 1990s, there were some ups and downs because of the independence struggle of East Timor.

During the 2000s, Indonesia became a frontline for al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism and Indonesian governments were quite close to the US. Relations have been particularly good during the last president Yudhoyono and current president Joko Widodo. Indonesia is also currently receiving praise around the world for getting a good handle on terrorism, economy, foreign policy, among other things.

How about in the Middle East? Tunisia has had very good relations with the US since the 1960s, and although Tunisia was effectively a repressive autocracy under leaders like Bouguiba, Ben Ali, it was also, socially, the most developed country in the Middle East.

Tunisia initiated the famous Arab Spring and now, after some turmoil, it is perhaps the first and only Arab democracy. Relations with the US is better than ever, with the US declaring Tunisia a major non-Nato ally in 2015.

It could be that I am being selective, so let’s pick Pakistan, the poster boy of US friendship gone wrong. US-Pakistan special relations began during the 1950s, with SEATO and other strategic, economic alliances.

In the 50s and 60s, Pakistan was one of the fastest developing countries in the post-colonial world, far outpacing India in social and economic development. We know what happened in 1971, and also Zia-ul-Haq, with his Islamisation at the end of 1970s.

It should be noted that Zia-ul-Haq began his Islamisation in 1977, two years before the first Russian tanks entered Afghanistan, and very few people knew what words like Mujahideen, Jihad, Taliban, or even ISI meant. We can also look at long-standing US allies like Turkey and Jordan in the middle of the Mid-East chaos. It will be a hard case to make that those countries are especially suffering from US friendship or they could have done better by not being an ally.

The US is not the only one to blame

My point in this litany of countries and their histories is to drive home a point that it is hard to demonstrate comparatively that relations with the US has been instrumental in a country’s dysfunction, most probably some of the causes lay within. Undoubtedly, US policy has been detrimental, and sometimes devastating, for the general well-being of some countries. In spite of that, I find it is hard to argue that the US is engaged in either a civilisational war, a la Huntington or a realpolitik hot and cold war, with the Muslim world.

It is hard to answer why would the US do that, while far more formidable strategic threats like China and Russia go on strutting around the globe. Except delusional Caliphatists, no one can argue even in flights of fancy that the Muslim world can come together as a unified power in the coming decades to pose a balancing challenge to America or other future superpowers.

Far more convincing arguments say that the US acts particularly imperialistic in the Middle East for several geo-strategic reasons, chief among them being controlling the world’s largest petroleum reserve and safe-guarding Israel. Historically, the geographically vital Middle East has always been an area of contention between great empires.

With the end of the Ottoman Empire and retreat of Britain and France after WWII, America became the pre-eminent power in the region. Empires are maintained through both coercive power and persuasive influence.

Even within the Muslim world, countries have become steadily more powerful through integration with the US-patronised global economic system

As mentioned before, the way the US maintained its informal empire over the Middle East can most charitably be termed “amoral,” and more realistically termed as “immoral.” Although a good case can be made that the US behaved no worse than any other country in the world would have done if it were in command of such power and influence.

What is important is that, within the sphere of influence, many countries have become developed socially and economically, gained real power in world affairs, and became capable of resisting both American coercive power and persuasive influence. The American hegemonic power is exceptional in history in the way it has allowed and facilitated nations within its orbit of influence to gain economic power, which is the ultimate bedrock of military power.

Turning crisis into opportunity

Even within the Muslim world, countries have become steadily more powerful through integration with the US-patronised global economic system and have become more adept at resisting US influence.

Like all large-scale events in human history, the unique zone of dysfunction now stretching from Nigeria to Pakistan is due to a multiplicity of causes. In studying such trends, it is very hard to say that which is the primary cause and which is secondary, or what is the magnitude of contribution of one cause. There are bound to be vigorous and unending debates about the causes of such complex matters.

The way that the overwhelming majority of intelligentsia and general people in the Muslim world resist critical self-examination and ascribe the US-led West as the locus of all their troubles, is really disturbing.

In psychology there is a term, “locus of control,” to describe differences in the ways human beings infer about cause of events happening all around them and in their own lives. People whose locus of control is internally oriented think that outcomes and results of events happen largely due to own actions of individuals and groups. People with external locus of control think that event outcomes happen largely due to outside forces beyond internal control. Outside forces can be God, nature, other people, or even sheer chance.

Psychologists say that an individual’s locus of control mostly develops from social upbringing, and there is remarkable cross-cultural variation. Some cultures are highly internally-oriented while other cultures have pronounced external locus of control. Not surprisingly, more religious cultures have more external locus of control.

In the last part, I will discuss how the Muslim world goes to ridiculous lengths to conform with their external locus of control, and what frank self-examination may reveal about causes of their current dysfunction.

***

In Egypt, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and former president Mohammad Morsi are absolutely convinced that America was directly responsible for the overthrow of the elected MB regime at the hands of the military and the violent suppression that followed.

On the other hand, opponents of MB are unequivocally sure that America was behind the Morsi government and is now relentlessly conspiring to undermine the military regime to facilitate the return of Islamists at national power. The Egyptian media is full of fantastic facts and bizarre theories from both sides of politics, the only thing common among them is that America is behind everything.

This is an all too familiar picture in almost every Muslim country. With some generalisation, we can ascribe similar narratives in the political divide in Bangladesh too. Supporters of the Awami League regime volubly express the belief that America has been incessantly conspiring against the government to bring its right-wing, religious stooges back into power. BNP supporters are certain that America, in conjunction with India, is propping up the AL government despite popular discontent. Islamists, of course, easily link everything bad with America.

Blaming everything on America would be just an amusing quirk, not a debilitating malaise in Muslim countries, if it was not accompanied by a binding inability to critically examine culture and society -- of which religion is a major influence. Any objective assessment should show that culture and society of Muslim countries have not exerted insignificant influence in the current dysfunction.

Let us recount some of the ways

studies have found quite strong empirical evidence that, in today’s world, some religions negatively affect gender equality in education. Status of women in society is one of the most reliable bellwether of social development. Results suggest that the proportion of Hindu and Muslim adherents in a country has a negative influence on female educational attainment.

Considering that India harbours 95% of the world’s total number of Hindus and India’s record on female issues would put many sub-Saharan countries to shame, influence of Hinduism on female education is not surprising. Islamic countries are more diverse, but controlled for other factors, their record on female issues is also worse compared to rest of the world.

Religious conservatism and the female workforce

Muslim countries also lag behind in terms of female workforce participation. Female workforce participation is not just beneficial for economic productivity, it also positively affects children education, women’s political participation, social mobility, and many other important social drivers. No better illustration of the impact of religious conservatism on women’s workforce participation can be found than the trajectory of Pakistan’s garments industry.

Pakistan, which is one of the leading cotton producers of the world and has had a thriving textile industry since 1950s, was ideally poised to become one of the leading garments exporters of the world. Because Pakistan’s very conservative society frowns upon women working in industries, the garments industry in Pakistan never came close to a fraction of its potential.

Scholars have traced many of the social and political problems of Muslim countries in the Middle East and other places to a “resource curse” -- their economic dependence on oil and gas export has not only left their economies less diverse and vulnerable, but has also entrenched autocratic regimes.

Because of ready availability of oil money, the leaders don’t have to invest in the people to develop the economy and they can invest in large-scale state apparatus for repression. But lots of developing countries have found oil and gas riches, not all of them suffer from weak economic and political institutions. Countries that lack a culture of challenging authority are more susceptible to resource-fuelled autocracy.

Democracy in Islamic countries?

Studies generally support the worldwide popular perception that the level of democracy in Islamic countries is generally lower than non-Islamic countries at a similar level of development. Paradoxically, cross-country surveys of public opinion have consistently found that people in Muslim majority countries are, in general, more supportive of democracy than others.

Considering that most Muslims do not live in democracies, this is not a just “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome; Muslims living in democracies support democracy more than those living in non-democracies. So what explains the paradox that Muslims like democracy more than others, but they still have so little of it?

Democracy is just not a process of voting for rulers, although that is the core component. Democracy is also about individual rights and freedoms. Rights of minorities and individuals to express and organise are prerequisites for democracies.

Negative attitudes to freedom undermines democracy, even though people may support democracy overall. Strikingly, Muslims living in both democracies and non-democracies put far higher value on social order than freedom. There is particularly one freedom that is very clearly deficient in popular attitude in Muslim countries: Religious freedom.

Blaming everything on America would be just an amusing quirk, not a debilitating malaise in Muslim countries, if it was not accompanied by a binding inability to critically examine culture and society

Islam and the freedom to worship

Freedom to choose or leave faith is strikingly deficient in Muslim countries, both in policies and attitudes. Religious freedom is strongly correlated with political freedom. There is a lot of debate about how these two freedoms are specifically linked, but the broad and simple explanation is that strict enforcement of compliance in religious sphere automatically spills over to suppression of free debate on the political sphere.

There are two closely related reasons that make Islam an overriding presence in the countries where Muslims are the majority. More than other religions, Islam claims to be a total way of life, fusing politics, society, and individual realms together under laws that are deemed divinely ordained.

Secondly, extension of Qur’an-like infallibility to Hadith books that contain thousands of passages compiled, centuries after the death of the Prophet. Believing that holy books as inerrant and inviolable is not exclusively Islamic phenomenon, all religions have such adherents. Even in today’s America at least one in five people believe that the Bible, including the Old Testament, is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.

But that proportion is alarmingly high in Muslim countries even for Hadith books, it is only the very brave and rare Muslim who will publicly say that Hadiths are not inerrant, infallible; and the way of life these books prescribe is not perfect for all ages and times. The surprising thing is that people get surprised why Muslim youth gets radicalised so easily.

The attack on Islam

People rise to shield religion from being a cause of terrorism by citing sources such as Robert Pape’s famous 2003 study, where he concluded that foreign occupation causes suicide terrorism.

But Pape’s study has been widely discredited since then because of glaring methodological flaws, he only chose incidents of suicide attacks to explain suicide attacks and his definition of “occupation” was too broad to be meaningful.

Many studies in the last 10 years have found strong correlation between religion and suicide terrorism -- in particular how the influence of Salafi-Jihadi ideology behind martyrdom operations has become all but impossible to ignore.

Undoubtedly, Western criminals and foolhardy interventions in the Muslim countries are very important causes of dysfunction and radicalisation, but ignoring the religious and cultural factors only help perpetrate the perpetual victimhood. Religious ideologies frame political struggles in cosmic terms; when struggles are cosmic, earthly considerations hardly matters.

Let’s end by again bringing in Trump. Ironically, hardcore Hindu nationalists in India and in the US support Trump in the hope that he will bring down the hammer on Muslims inside and outside America. Hardcore Islamists also support Trump because he will bring down the hammer on Muslims inside and outside America. Such type of level-headed thinking has made the temperament of Islamists as reputed as Mr Trump’s.

Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.