One of the three leading monotheistic religions in the world, Islam is a civilization practiced by 1.2 billion people. Easily the world's fastest growing religion, Islam is now a truly universal force. Muslims in America outnumber Presbyterians and Episcopalians combined. There are approximately 1,500 mosques in the United States, and over 1,000 in Britain where the Muslim community has its own national parliament.
The four largest Muslim communities are located in Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, all Asian countries. Indonesia has more Muslims than Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia combined. Malaysia is home to more Muslims than Jordan, Lebanon, and Kuwait combined. Muslims are found in sizable numbers in Albania and Bulgaria; even China has 25 million Muslim believers.
Wherever one looks, Islam is on the move. As people increasingly find themselves rootless, disconnected, and alienated, they seek help in a comforting Islamic ideological refuge. In a world of incoherent violence, widening inequities, political oppression, personal corruption, and shattered families, many world citizens are massing behind the green flag of Islam. This movement is populist in nature, a bubbling up from below, a march of the distressed, oppressed, dispossessed.
Although most Muslims seek to improve their conditions through quiet, moderate, and peaceful means, some fringe groups have adopted violent methods, as have their Christian and Jewish counterparts.
Oblivious to their own ignorance and often harboring hidden agendas, many Western opinion and political leaders label all Muslims as militants, fanatics, and terrorists. According to these Western voices, Islam is the religion of the sword, Muslim activists are terrorists, and Muslim countries that challenge Western global hegemony are labelled "rouge" or "renegade" states.
Muslims have a quite different worldview. They see themselves as the afflicted, not the afflictors; on the defensive, not on the offensive; the objects of violence, not its initiators. In sum, Muslims consider themselves the victims.
To make their case, Muslims will take their Christian and Jewish neighbors on a quick world tour. They begin with Bosnia, where Serbian Christians killed nearly 200,000 Muslims and raped 22,000 Muslim women in the early 1990s.(1)
In Chechnya, the Russian army attacked a Muslim people who fought back furiously but found themselves slaughtered in large numbers by Russian troops. The Western world, including the United States, scarcely protested.(2)
In Kashmir, occupying Indian troops have oppressed, jailed, and executed large numbers of Muslim Kashmiris over the past decade.(3) During December 1992 and January 1993, Hindu mobs went on a rampage in Bombay, killing over 800 Muslims, destroying 5,000 Muslim homes, and forcing 200,000 Muslims to flee the city. In China's western province of Xinjiang, the ethnically Turkish and religiously Muslim indigenous populations are dealt with harshly by Chinese occupying troops.(4)
In many Middle Eastern countries, Muslim believers are also under attack. In Iraq, for example, Saddam Hussein has carried out a war of genocide against the Shi'is of the south. In Israel, heavily armed Israeli troops do battle against Palestinian Muslim children armed largely with stones and slingshots.
Even in countries with an Islamic leadership, Muslims are oppressed and harassed. In Egypt, for example, Hosni Mubarak's regime imprisons and executes members of Egypt's Muslim opposition. Muslims are discriminated against and oppressed in many other parts of the world as well, examples include Malaysia, Turkey, Algeria, Uzbekistan, and Bahrain. This litany of anti-Islamic activity is recognized and discussed by Muslims everywhere. Why, they ask themselves, are they criticized and condemned when they are in fact the victims?
Meanwhile, the United States has often encouraged its allies to confront Muslim populist movements with force. As a result, the moderate Muslim masses are becoming radicalized and live in an environment of desperation. A vicious cycle of misunderstanding, misguided policy, and increasing violence has been set in motion. Before this cycle spins pout of control, non-Muslims must try to slow it down.
A necessary first step is to discard the simplistic stereotypes. Also, military force is not always an effective way to counter systems of ideas. Resurgent Islam's steady flame will not be extinguished by the breeze of bullets or the blast of missiles.
It is time for everyone to take a crash course on Islam. It there is any truth in the Muslim belief that they suffer as victims, then it is time to admit this fact and to implement policies that will begin to remedy this situation. Our future relations with 1.2 billion of our brothers and sisters will depend on how we in the West choose to meet this challenge.