September 21, 2006
Ramadan, the holiest month for the world's more than 1 billion Muslims, begins Sept. 24, amid a heightened state of turmoil.
Pope Benedict's recent broadside against Islam has troubled many Muslims. In a speech given at Regensburg University in Germany, the pope questioned Islam's compatibility with reason.
"For Muslim teaching," he said, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality."
The pope also appeared to quote approvingly from the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who said that the Prophet Muhammad "spread by the sword the faith he preached."
The controversy over the pope's words is just one of the many issues embroiling the Arab and Muslim world.
In the wake of Israel-Hezbollah war, anti-Americanism has risen to unprecedented levels. And the gulf between East and West continues to widen. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- two of America's avowed enemies -- happen be two of the most popular people in the Arab world.
The Bush administration's policies are a big part of the problem.
Its continuing support of Arab dictators, its bungling of the recent Israel-Lebanese conflict and the torture of Muslim detainees that has occurred under its watch have further worsened our country's already bloodied reputation. But the problem is not just about what is done. It is also about what is said, the power of words to shatter any hope of reconciliation there may have still been.
There exists a gap -- and we ignore it at our own peril -- between what we say and what others hear.
Last month, after British police uncovered an airline terrorist plot, President Bush declared it "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." The war on terror, it appeared, was being redefined, if nothing else because the administration needed a cudgel with which to malign its domestic opponents. In handing out pieces of red meat to a disillusioned base, Bush was playing partisan politics at the expense of our international reputation.
This November's congressional contests are judged more important than what the world's 1.4 billion Muslims -- our most vital audience in the war on terror.
It was yet one more insult, on top of many others. The scars of humiliation have not healed, while the indignities continue to mount.
It is fitting that Ramadan is not just a time for abstaining from food and drink, but also a time for reasoned reflection on the self and its broader surroundings.
As Muslims pray and fast and recommit themselves to God, they will do so knowing that their region is coming apart at the seams. The devastation of Lebanon, an ever-deteriorating Iraq and the continued threat of terrorist attacks, committed by those who claim the mantle of Islam, all cloud Ramadan this year.
And so we start this Ramadan, tired, exhausted, disillusioned and hoping -- praying -- that reasoned reflection may begin to replace the rhetoric and policies that are tearing us further apart.
Shadi Hamid is founding member and associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy (www.pomed.org). He is also contributor to Democracy Arsenal, the Security and Peace Initiative's foreign affairs blog (www.democracyarsenal.org). He can be reached at email@example.com.