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    Front Page
     Jan 22, 2005
COMMENTARY
The battle of the tyrants

By Ehsan Ahrari

President George W Bush in his inaugural address on Thursday used the word "tyranny" repeatedly. In one passage he said, "So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Hours before Bush was sworn in for his second term, Iraq's "terrorist-in-chief", Musab al-Zarqawi, issued a video in which he urged Islamists to prepare for a lengthy holy war against "tyrant" America. So the next four years of Bush's tenure will be a contest between the US, the eradicator of tyranny, and those who depict the US as the chief tyrant of the world.

All major struggles of our time went through a gestation period when they were defined and redefined, when promoters of various agendas developed new strategies and kept on refining them in order to ensure their victory. Applying this statement on the Cold War, the struggle between the US and the Soviet Union was deftly defined by Washington as a contest between freedom and enslavement. That description was not merely rhetorical. Anyone could see what the Soviet Union had done to Central European countries when it absorbed them into its camp. People from the non-communist polities did not need much persuading to believe that what the Soviet Union was offering was a life with little or virtually no human freedom or dignity, and a low standard of living to boot.

By contrast, the current struggle under the general rubric of "global war on terrorism" does not enjoy the conceptual or perceptual clarity of the Cold War era. One frequently hears that this struggle is between Islamists or terrorists who hate freedom. That is a highly contentious proposition. Osama bin Laden hates Saudi Arabia as much as he does the US, but for different reasons. To state that terrorists hate freedom or "our way of life" makes a good speech in Pocatello, Idaho or Grand Rapids, Michigan. But how is that description received in Hamburg, Germany, or Jakarta, Indonesia, or Casablanca, Morocco? Which way of life is an American politician referring to? Is it the Western way of life or the American way of life? Strictly speaking, those ways of life are not exactly the same from the perspective of standard of living. Politically speaking, however, they both share freedom of choice.

The "war on terrorism" is described as a war between the West and the Islamists. But Islamists don't have a special quarrel with the West in general. They have clearly disaggregated the phrase "West" and have remained focused on the US, the lone superpower and, of late, the chief proselytizer for Western-style democracy, which is perceived as antithetical to Islam. When it comes to quarrelling with the US, the Islamists express a lot of anger, but in Muslim societies at large, the general perception is that the US - not the current US government - stands for liberty, freedom and a good standard of living. PEW public opinion polls have been establishing that fact for years.

After the terrorist attacks on the US, there was that frequently heard question on public forums: Why do they hate us? The question was understandable in the sense that the amount of violence perpetrated against thousands of innocent citizens was flabbergasting. Where was so much anger or hatred hidden for so long before it surfaced with such an immense blast? After the US military action against Afghanistan and then in Iraq, a general feeling in the Muslim world was that the lone superpower had declared a war against Islam. It was not just those military campaigns against two Muslim countries that were persuading Muslims to think that their religion was under attack. There were all those countless detentions and deportations of Muslims, the USA Patriot Act, and constant speculation about al-Qaeda cells inside the US that was not-so-subtly describing Muslim Americans as potential terrorists.

The Bush administration's overall position was that it had no quarrel with Islam, only with terrorists who were using Islam to perpetrate terror. However, a great number of Muslims are at least sympathetic to the proposition that the US is indeed waging a war against their religion. They don't outright believe it. Not right now, but they can be persuaded. Al-Qaeda and other likeminded organizations and groups are constantly waging the propaganda war to persuade a large number of Muslims that Islam is under attack. It is important for them to win large followers. However, the "fog of war" that professional military personnel so ardently discuss describing various military campaigns is also prevalent in this "war" on terrorism. The overall result is general confusion; hundreds and thousands of thinking and law-abiding citizens in the US and elsewhere in the West are becoming sympathetic to the proposition that "Muslims hate the West", and an almost equal number of similar people in the Muslim world are similarly sympathetic to the proposition that the US is waging a war against Islam.

Many years ago, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago wrote an excellent essay, "Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War". He wrote, "We may, however, wake up one day lamenting the loss of the order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations." It was so easy to consider "godless" communism an enemy of all religions and, most definitely, an enemy of freedom. Today, we can't even define the struggle. Everyone hates terrorists and rightly so. But what is this fight all about? Is this about Islam or against Islam? Is it about freedom? If so, how should one establish it? Does "freedom" mean Western-style democracy for everyone? An arrangement like that would make the entire world look like any US city that has malls, places of worship, parking lots, playgrounds, union halls, country clubs, etc. Then everything everywhere else, as it is now in the US, would become seasonal. You are supposed to be nice to people during Christmas, since it is the season to be jolly. You celebrate motherhood and fatherhood on Mother's and Father's days, be thankful to the almighty on Thanksgiving Day, etc. Should the result be Americanization of the entire world? Muslims, for sure, would object to that quite vociferously.

So what are we fighting about? For Muslims, their religion will last until the end of this world. However, there are many thoughtful persons - or at least that's what they want to sound like when they speak on the subject - who are publicly speaking about reforming Islam. When one hears of that proposition, one thinks along the lines of the preceding paragraph: the Americanization of Islam. In other words, is it possible that the real US agenda regarding Islam is to make it similar to Christianity? But that is not possible. Only Muslims are qualified to discuss the possibilities of modifying Islam. So you see how confusing the entire fight has become.

Now, Bush has wrapped himself in the slogans of liberty and depicts himself as a fighter against tyranny, while al-Zarqawi makes a point of describing the US as a tyrant. Millions of reasonable people of the world want some straightforward explanations of the world about them; a simpler world, even returning to the Cold War. Then, the enemy was the Soviet Union. There was no lack of clarity about that. Now, Bush is clear in stating that his fight is not against Islam, but he is not at all clear about what or whom he is fighting. Now he tells us he is fighting tyranny. But whose tyranny is he fighting against? Looking at the world from Islamabad, Cairo, Baghdad or Jakarta, there is no tyrant in their parts of the world. They see another tyrant. And you know who that is.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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