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Monday, Oct. 25, 2004

A dialogue that can persuade Muslims


LOS ANGELES -- Whoever emerges as the next president of the United States must work hard indeed to set U.S. relations with the global Muslim world aright. Leaving aside America's pressing domestic concerns, that issue might prove Job No. 1 for George W. Bush or John Kerry.

To be sure, the right way to develop a better relationship is not to turn the other cheek over Muslim extremism or terrorism or develop a "politically correct" posture that treats all Muslims as peace-loving, rational and sensible. They're not -- just as no such fuzzy generalized attitudes can be applied to all Christians. Both worlds have their share of nuts who need to be isolated.

One would not presume to characterize Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in such extremist psychiatric terms. But the unapologetically outspoken Muslim voice in Southeast Asia is at it again! He told a Malaysian newspaper he is convinced the "ignorant" American people will re-elect Bush.

According to Dr. M, "surprisingly, the electorate appears to be willing to accept a person who told a blatant lie and to elect a liar as their president," referring to Bush's now famously discredited pre-invasion claim that Saddam Hussein had been stockpiling weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Added the man who was Malaysia's prime minister for 22 years and initially supported Bush's war on terror: The American people are, by and large, very ignorant and know nothing about the rest of the world . . . . Yet they are the people who will decide who will be the most powerful man in the world."

Not many Americans will give Dr. M's presidential preferences much notice, but we all must understand that many Asians feel that their stake in the outcome of this election is almost that of U.S. citizens. That doesn't mean everyone on the continent is pro-Kerry or anti-Bush; it's simply recognition that the geopolitical nature of the world today ensures that the U.S. president becomes (in some sense) the world's as well.

Many Asians worry that our war on terror is misconceived. It may be more fundamentally a long-term struggle for ideas. Consider the eye-opening essay in a recent issue of the London-based Times Literary Supplement. "In the Western view," writes Navid Kermani, the noted German-born, Iranian-ethnic, Cologne-based writer who a few years ago garnered the coveted Ernst Bloch Prize, "the success of Muhammad's prophetic vision may be ascribed to social, ideological or even military factors.

"Yet Muslim sources paint a different picture. They emphasize the literary quality of the Quran as a decisive factor in the spread of Islam."

With fascinating detail, Kermani describes the "normative power of the language of the Quran and the intense grip of its "aesthetic fascination" on the Muslim mind: "Language here operates as a kind of time machine, effectively transporting all present back to a mythical epoch. Even television broadcasts of a speech by, say, Moammar Gadhafi, Yasser Arafat or Saddam Hussein may have this effect."

Tellingly, Kermani describes the literary, sirenlike quality of the Arabic to be found in Osama bin Laden's video broadcasts as "exquisite," "immaculate" and, oddly, "modest." He explains: "His rhetoric works precisely because of the absence of rhetorical ornament and a conscious modesty of expression. His prophetic aura was reinforced by his austere attire and location in a cave in Afghanistan, a clear reference to the cave in which the Prophet received his first revelation."

Limpid rhetoric notwithstanding, bin Laden clearly does deserve classification as a nut. Even Kermani evenhandedly notes the man's obsession with Islam's past and his primordial rejection of Muslim modernization. This allows the self-appointed Muslim terror-leader to insist on one true interpretation of the Quran (his) and thus the legitimacy of a single vision (his).

America's comprehension of the Muslim and Arabic phenomenon is so dim that it is barely illuminated by the light of understanding and scholarship. Our main counterplay is bombs, which breed new terrorists. That's why a Muslim leader summit, in Washington or elsewhere, humbly attended by the next U.S. president is an urgent necessity.

We in the U.S. need to reflect more and bomb less. In the end, intellectual muscle and penetrating cross-cultural comprehension could well prove our most potent weapons of mass persuasion. Not only should the "war on terror" be renamed, it should be reconfigured. The hunch here is that it's a losing strategy.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy and founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright 2004 Tom Plate


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