A New Colonialism

The defense of Muslim identity and not the destruction of the West or a desire to change it, is the central issue that worries most spokesmen of mainstream Islam.

"Why does Islam hate the West?" That question, in one form or another, has appeared dozens of times in the Western press since the 9/11 attacks. A short time later, exactly the same question - "Why does the West hate us?" - began to appear in the headlines of the Arab press. Since then the feeling has taken root that the "power game" paradigm is the only true measure for analyzing the Arab-Muslim dialogue with the West. As if Samuel P. Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" theory were the Rosetta Stone that will decode the relations between these two cultures.

The beginnings of the error inherent in Huntington's assertion is the all-encompassing perception of Islam against the West. But a review of the writings of Arab thinkers, not all of them Muslim, makes clear that the blame can not just comfortably be laid at Islam's doorstep. We we are talking about a diverse range of perspectives, many of which do not derive from religious ideologies. Thus, for example, El Cid Yassin, a secular liberal and a researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, discusses the question of globalization, which he sees as identical to American hegemony, in terms of "the conqueror and the conquered."

"Is it possible that in view of the economic inequality between the nations of the North and the South (including the Middle East), in the era of globalization a group of nations from the South will become slaves?" Yassin asks. His use of the word slaves points to a view of coercion, if not "rape." Almost identical words are employed by the Islamic philosopher Hassan Hanfi, who believes that the real conflict in the meeting with the West is not between Islam and secularism, but between independence and subjugation.

Here lies the heart of the definition of the conflict: What is this subjugation? Is it just economic subjugation, or is it accompanied by cultural subjugation? And who exactly is to blame for importing this subjugation? Once again, one of the more interesting answers can be found in the writings of a secular thinker. In other words, one who does not belong to the target audience of the Western accuser. Jalal Amin, an economist, and a man of the left, who has written books and dozens of articles on the issue of globalization, casts the blame on the Islamic religious institutions for granting their patronage to the regime at a time when it imported that very same global culture to Egypt. Amin describes, for example, his disgust at the fact that the prize for Egypt's Koran knowledge quiz was donated by a plastics company, while a broadcaster on Radio Cairo wished listeners fasting on Ramadan "a Ramadan blessing and a tasty meal courtesy of Schweppes."

Thus, the Arab or Muslim reaction to the United States or the West is not the result of a global ideological struggle, but developed against a backdrop of an internal ideological and political dispute over the use or misuse that the Egyptian regime made of its powers in order to enforce principles that seemed to it to be essential for its survival.

It is not just Arab liberals who find themselves wary of their status. Clerics and religious thinkers also find themselves on the defensive, fearing that the state, which they see as a secular creation, albeit the only protection they have, will abandon them in the face of the flood of Western ideas that could destroy their identity as Muslim Arabs. So it is the defense of Muslim identity and not the destruction of the West or a desire to change it that is the central issue that worries most spokesmen of mainstream Islam, one of the most prominent of whom is Sheikh Yussuf al-Qaradawi.

Qaradawi, for example, suggests changing the religious discourse in a way that would adopt different expressions than those used until now to describe rivals, be they non-Muslims or internal opponents. The Sheikh recommends dropping the use of the term "infidels" and adopting in its place the expression "non-Muslims"; "civilians" instead of "dhimmi" (non-Muslims who are protected under a Muslim regime), and abandoning the use of the expressions "sons of pigs" and "monkeys" to describe Jews. The need to change the religious discourse, something that has come about in recent years, is an innovation recognized by Qaradawi.

In a way that exposes the difficulties faced by the religious thinker in the era of globalization, Qaradawi explains that the difference between the current discourse and that of the pre-globalization era is that "previously our discourse was purely of a local nature: we spoke among ourselves and did not assume that there was anybody listening to us or reading us or interested in our scientific output or our preaching." This is where cooperation is possible between the religious and liberal discourses.

But the new vocabulary proposed by Qaradawi does not blur his perception that the new West, in American clothing, is nothing more than old, familiar colonialism, with the same traits, working with a new tactic going by the name of globalization. In his colorful language, Qaradawi describes globalization as possessing cunning human and animal characteristics: "This is colonialism that changes its colors like a chameleon, changes its skin like a snake, its face like an actor, its name like a crook, but remains itself."

The main characteristic of globalization, or this new colonialism, is according to Qaradawi, coercion that succeeds thanks to the global power structure that congregates around one pole: the United States. Qaradawi's globalization is first of all political and its politics have one clear direction: against Islam. Qaradawi wants to put the spotlight on the danger.

Cultural globalization, more than economic or political globalization, is seen as the gravest threat, and its meaning is the imposition of the culture of one nation - the United States - on the culture of other nations, regardless of religion, faith or geographical location. "This globalization wants to strip us bare and take away our identities. It wants to disseminate among us its commodities and ideas, its cultural conserves containing death and destruction," he writes.

The fact that the West is "sick" is taken almost for granted by Qaradawi, but who is his dispute with? Not with the West, but with its agents, and often with the Arab states that import from the West.