One of the reasons for the lack of effective lobbying in the West by Arab and Muslim governments is the personal interests of some authoritarian regimes in the Islamic world, an international expert on religious and international affairs and Islamic Studies told Khaleej Times yesterday.
Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University, USA, and Founding Director of the Centre for Muslim Christian Understanding: History and International Affairs at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, made the statement ahead of his lecture on Christian-Muslim relations at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) on Sunday. "Some of the authoritarian regimes have their own interests. They don't want to move in certain directions, because doing that involves improving your image, part of which is that people are going to ask: ‘What about human rights?' he said. He added that the exercise of a regime improving its image would also raise questions about broader political participation.
"What about the fact that you have no NGOs, and what about the fact that you have all these NGOs, but they are all government regulated NGOs? Which, immediately, is a problem (for such regimes)" Esposito pointed out. According to him, the lack of effective lobbying is that some don't realise how much of a priority it should get. "Even after 9/11, a fair number of people that I knew who used to deal with America from the Gulf would say: "We have always had good relationships; we are going to reassure the Americans, and yeah, there will be some tough time, but it's going to go away," he said.
"I think at the back of their minds they were thinking: ‘We share a lot of interests; we give them a lot of business; we buy a lot of their stuff', but the reality of it is you now look at how the Congress reacts (a reference to the DPA World issue). They needed to do a lot more damage control and effective public relations," Esposito noted. Muslims, he said, have never lobbied effectively in the West.
"How many Muslim countries have vibrant, aggressive exchange programmes?" he asked. Esposito noted that in contrast to this, the Jews have fared better by bringing together scholars, intellectuals, journalists etc for dialogue, not only in the US, but also in Israel.
"Arab and Muslim governments have not promoted that as aggressively as they should. If anything, they wind up looking as if they used their money to promote their brand of Islam, which is often exclusivist vis-a-vis other brands of Islam in America and Europe, and also vis-a-vis Christians and Jews," he pointed out. There are exceptions to this though, he added. He noted that Waleed Bin Talal has started two American study programmes at AUC Cairo and AUB in Lebanon, where Arabs can learn about America.
"He is giving $20 million each to Harvard and Georgetown University in order to promote relations between the Muslim world and the West. How many Arabs and Muslims have done it? Some have done it, but not in a concerted way. They never have, even though the wealth is there," he said.
Responding to a KT question on the onus of solutions to all problems being shifted to the Muslims, Esposito said that there are those who can interpret it that way. "And clearly, I say elements in the European media, and European and American society do feel that way," he said. He noted that when there are Western intellectuals like Salman Rushdie and others like him who tend to talk in a way that they shift the onus, "not to say that both sides are a part of the problem and that both should be part of the solution. I would say that the western media and western secular fundamentalists are part of the problem... the cartoon issue was an unwarranted level of provocation and it doesn't take much to know what is happening there," he said.
"First of all, it's a very small and not that consequential newspaper, but it is generally a right wing anti-immigrant newspaper, and clearly what the European Press was saying reflected a growing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attitude in sectors of Europe," he said. He surmised that this attitude is behind the reasoning that if someone wanted to live in the West or be a part of that society, they better put up with the values. "Well, a part of our society means being this: ‘You can be a Muslim, but you have to be a Norwegian first or a Dane first, and being a Dane means that you have to accept this kind of ‘cartooning', and I think that's provocative. In fact, the editor of the newspaper said that is what he wanted to do," he said.
He added that he had heard from many reputable sources in Washington that when the editor of the Danish newspaper (that published the cartoons) came to Washington last time, he met with Daniel Pipes and spent a fair amount of time. ‘Esposito' described Pipes as an agent provocateur. According to him, a lot of what was involved in the cartoon situation was basically secular fundamentalist Europeans who are anti-immigrant and as an extension of that, clearly anti-Islam.
"And yet, they are hypocrites because the German newspaper that published those cartoons would never publish cartoons that dealt with the Jews of the Holocaust; that would be unacceptable," he explained.
He added that Europe has what it calls hate speech legislation, "and what this means is that in parts of Europe, you cannot do this ridiculing of Christianity and Judaism, but you can do it with Islam," he said.
He agreed that 60 years ago, it was anti-Semitism, and now it is anti-Islam. "The Secretary-General had a conference on Islamophobia last fall, which I participated in, and I think that sent a signal. When the Secretary-General holds a meeting of the UN on Islamophobia, it signals the issue," Esposito added. When the media says Muslims have a problem with Western values, Esposito said he raises the question "Whose Western values?" he continued, "They are not my Western values, they are kind of excessively secular anti-religious Western values."