This week, an American beauty pageant took center stage in the global war of ideas. The Lebanese-born Rima Fakih’s coronation as Miss America left some commentators wondering if political correctness had helped the first Muslim win the crown. Others gallantly came her to rescue to argue that the crowning of a Michigan girl whose family hails from an area of Lebanon dominated by Hizbullah is a victory for freedom: in the face of dour Islamic fundamentalists, these pundits claim, the celebration of female beauty will serve as an “instrument of liberation”. But of course, a Muslim woman’s willingness to show off her flesh is no more a triumph for modernity and moderation than the veil is an index of extremism. For instance, even one of Lebanon’s most popular divas, Haifa Wehbe—a woman whose music videos would make most Michigan strippers blush—has professed her admiration for Hizbullah.
If beauty contests are meant to teach us anything, it’s that a bikini alone, or even a ball gown, doesn’t necessarily say anything meaningful about the person wearing it. That goes, too, for places of birth, jobs, and a raft of other lifestyle issues: they don’t necessarily say anything about people. Rather, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. It is peculiar, then, that Americans so often forget this lesson when it comes to how they think about Muslim communities and regularly confuse external form for internal content.
Consider, for instance, the recent statements of the White House’s counterterrorism czar, John Brennan, who sees in Hizbullah a terrorist organization that, because its members are doctors and lawyers and parliamentarians, really wants to become a partner for Middle East peace. Hizbullah’s hardliners, Brennan said this week at a Washington conference, “are truly a concern to us, what they’re doing. What we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements.”
Soon after Brennan’s talk, the State Department rushed to clarify that there is no change in official U.S. policy. “Hizbullah is a terrorist organization,” said a department spokesman, “and we do not distinguish between the political and the military wings of the group.” This is a repeat of last year when the State Department had to intervene after Brennan laid out his strange reasoning at another Washington meeting. “Hizbullah started out as purely a terrorist organization back in the early ’80s and has evolved significantly over time,” said Brennan. “Now it has members of Parliament, in the cabinet; there are lawyers, doctors, others who are part of the Hizbullah organization.”
That is to say, people with mainstream jobs are moderate—an extremely facile analysis. Being moderate means advocating moderate ideas, but these doctors and lawyers and parliamentarians don’t seek peace with Israel. They don’t regret killing 241 U.S. servicemen in the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. They won’t stop threatening their countrymen, nor will they surrender their weapons and become a regular Lebanese political party. In fact, no member of Hizbullah has ever publicly advanced a position any different from those of the so-called hardliners. It appears that they are moderate simply because of their careers.
Brennan’s view about the ostensible “moderation” of Hizbullah is the culmination of a three-decade-long academic trend that has interpreted this Lebanese terrorist outfit not by looking at it for what it is, but by looking in the mirror, one that reflects our Western images back to us. We Americans may not know sheiks and mullahs and ayatollahs, but we know doctors and lawyers. Given the professional code of ethics required of those who pursue these Western-style careers, they must, by definition, be moderate, like our doctors and lawyers, congressmen and cabinet secretaries.
Yet a professional oath is not what makes a moderate, and some Muslim professionals have harbored fundamentalist ideas even while serving in conventional jobs. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant, is one such doctor who comes immediately to mind. Hamas seems to attract murderous physicians, like its former political leader, the late Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, and Mahmoud Zahar, the organization’s foreign minister . Then there’s Dr. Bilal Abdullah, responsible for the 2007 Glasgow Airport bombing, where one of his accomplices was an engineering student; Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber, was a financial analyst; and, of course, Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army major who shot and killed 13 and wounded 30 in Fort Hood, Texas, last November, was a psychiatrist.
These engineers schooled to build things instead devised ways to destroy them, and doctors who sworn to protect life chose, rather, to end it. From a certain perspective, this might look like taqqiya, the Shiite doctrine that allows the faithful to mask their true beliefs in certain cases, especially when they fear persecution. In fact, it’s more like moral incoherence—or cognitive dissonance—of a very high order, and it goes to the heart of the war of ideas in the Muslim world. In effect, for the last century Muslims have been arguing whether it is best to accept or to reject the cultural values that accompany modernity, values most Muslims associated with the West. Liberals contended that it was impossible to have modernity without the values that had created it, while conservatives argued that Muslims must maintain their own values even as they embraced the science and technological goods that the West had on offer.
This debate is old. Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt both awakened and terrified the Muslim world. Where Muslim liberals saw an opportunity for renovation, the conservatives saw a powerful threat embodied, in particular, by Western military technology. They admired the West’s technological progress but believed that it had come at the expense of Christendom’s religious belief. Scholars, like the mufti of Egypt Muhammad Abduh, counseled Muslims to make use of the West’s scientific advances but to shun Western values so that they did not lose their faith. And so throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Muslims availed themselves of the fruits of Western technology—from military hardware to home electronics—while disdaining the values they associated with the West. (Because it was precisely those cultural values that had led to the West’s ability to create such goods, the Muslim world became merely consumers. What Abduh and the conservatives had wanted to separate—science from the cultural values that produced science—cannot be split.)
But that is why some Muslim doctors and lawyers can enjoy the outward trappings of modernity—and, in some cases, even live in the West—but still harbor fundamentalist ideas. The notion of a doctor directing terrorist operations seems to us, rightly, incongruous. But this ghastly combination is the end result of a 100-year-old ideological trend that told Muslims to distinguish the products, comforts, and pursuits of Western progress and technology from the values that made them possible. Both John Brennan and Rima Fakih’s defenders should keep in mind that it is not the outward forms of modernity that make people modern; rather, it is the values they embrace and espouse.
Smith is a columnist for Tablet Magazine and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.