Most Americans don't know much about the Muslim world, which is why we're having such trouble dealing with it, scholar and diplomat Akbar Ahmed told the audience Tuesday at The Society of the Four Arts.
"We look at it as a stereotype and a monolith," he said. "There is no Muslim world. There are only sects and nationalities with little in common."
Ahmed has a lot of experience to back up his claims. Chairman of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, D.C., he served as Pakistan's high commissioner to the United Kingdom and Ireland. He's traveled extensively researching his many books and documentaries about the relationship between Muslims and the West. His book Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Empire was just released.
The terrorists who are killing, raping and looting throughout the West and Islamic countries are not inspired by Islam, he said. Rather, they're the product of a resurgence of tribalism in Islamic countries and a dispossessed population oppressed by central governments.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has booted millions out of Syria, he said. One million people have poured into Europe. Jordan's king estimates that about 20 percent of his country's population is made up of Syrian refugees. Most ISIS fighters are from Sunni tribes living in Western Iraq and eastern Syria.
About a third of the Islamic population is young. They're often unemployed and without hope.
"ISIS is a breakdown," Ahmed said. "It's not about Muslims who want to blow themselves up and think about the afterlife. It's a failure to understand how to live a decent life on Earth."
Globalization plays a role in the rise of tribalism, he said.
"As people become more anonymous and the state becomes more fluid, the reaction is to fall back on your community. The tribe is their community."
The United States can't afford to ignore the problem, he said. The world's 1.5 billion Muslims make up a quarter of its population.
"The United States either leads or it is out," Ahmed said. "History is cruel to those who are out and we have a lot of competition."
The West must work in concert with modernists in Islamic countries to combat terrorism, he said.
"This is a global problem. It has to be tackled globally. We can't think of it locally. This has been a problem in our strategic thinking."
He also recommended learning more about the Muslim world, getting to know Muslims personally and forging interfaith alliances.
Don't expect a quick victory, he said. "This will be a long, drawn-out battle."
Resident Michael Ainslie, who recommended Ahmed as a Four Arts speaker, felt uplifted by the talk.
"It gave me a ray of hope," he said. "His delineation of modernists in the Islamic world is what we all need to believe is there. They should be our allies in bringing about positive change."
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