Sunday, July 22, 2007

U.S. Thinking About Islam

I have been struck by the amount of press that the U.S. focuses on Islam, as if we will understand people in the Islamic countries if we understand their religion. Certainly Americans need to understand people in these countries better, and certainly Americans need to understand Islam better. First, what little I have observed, people in the Middle East vary considerably not only in their religious beliefs and practices, but in what might be termed their religiosity -- the degree to which religion guides their lives and actions. I suspect that, like Americans, there is not only variation in religiosity among people in the Middle East, but in the impact of religiosity on various aspects of their lives. Second, I suspect that we could learn a lot about Islam, and still remain abysmally ignorant about the societies, cultures, economies, and political systems of these countries.

Certainly, history suggests that Americans have not understood foreign peoples very well in the 20th century. Our mistakes in the Caribbean, Central America, Viet Nam, Iran and Iraq, etc. can not be simply due to the lack of a long term perspective and desire for short term gains.

I think Americans, far too often, say: "Lets talk about the Middle East. Why don't they like us?" Perhaps that is part of the problem. Another approach too often taken here is: "Tell us about the effect that the West is having on the Middle East (but not stuff like the suffering we are causing people in Iraq and Palestine -- we don't want to hear that)." If we were to ask, what do they want, and how do they want to get it, it might be better for us and for the countries we can not fail to impact (because of our economic and cultural influence in the world, not to mention our political and military presence).

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