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Emerging Symbol...

Battle of Symbols

Emerging Symbol of The West

“The true face of the West has to be exposed to all mankind, including people in the West itself. And, simultaneously, an alternative civilization of Islam has to be shaped from the Seerah of the Prophet, upon whom be peace.”

Dr. Kalim Siddiqui
“Political Dimensions of the Seerah”

“Not only is the cold war over, but the post-cold-war is also over.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell
October 2001

During the first few months after the September attacks there was continuous debate over the unity of the Islamic symbol. Its size (measured by Muslims in the world) seemed pretty well fixed at around 1.2 billion. The question came down to relationships between major sects and nations within the Muslim world. There were numerous bitter civil wars in progress at all times. Could they be motivated to march under one banner against the West?

No one in the West particularly wanted to stir up this (not exactly sleeping) giant. President Bush was careful to point out in all of his statements that the war was against terrorists and not the Islamic civilization. There were a number of skeptics like Samuel Huntington, Daniel Pipes and Andrew Sullivan of the terrorist enemy scenario. Yet most agreed is was a politically correct positioning in the new world of images and symbols, a time when defining the enemy as big symbol just might serve to make it big.

A similar symbol-making process was at work inside the ranks of Islamic fundamentalism where a vigorous propaganda campaign worked to paint the West as a great monolithic empire attacking all Moslem culture rather than scattered terrorist cells within it. Kalim Siddiqui, one of the foremost radical thinkers of the contemporary global Islamic movement and Director of the Muslim Institute in London, expressed this view in his paper “Political Dimensions of the Seerah” which he was working on at the time of his death in 1996. In 1998 “Political Dimensions” was published by the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) and put up on their website.

As noted on the ICIT website, Siddiqui’s commitment “was to helping generate an ‘intellectual revolution’ in Islamic social and political thought, which could lay the foundations for a future Islamic civilization and world order.” Towards the end of his paper Siddiqui suggests some dimensions of the enemy and the revolution:

Today all mankind is in the grip of a single civilization, its power, values, culture and economy. This dominant civilization is the Western civilization, while the civilization of Islam now exists only as a dismembered sub-culture in various forms in different parts of the world. Islam no longer has a civilization that can claim to have global power or a working economic system, though it still has strong values that are global, and also retains a global cultural and political identity. It is this global political presence that the West is now trying to brand as ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘terrorist.’

One of the goals of Osama bin Laden and his network was to bring together “various forms in different parts of the world” of this “dismembered sub-culture.” Ultimately, the unification of major sects, factions and nation states within Islamic culture. While some early news reports showed street people in cities like Karachi and Kabul whipped into a type of frenzied support for the bin Laden group, there was little evidence that Muslim leaders had crated any formal alliances between parts of the Muslim world.

If anything, the early results of the terrorist actions served to unify domestic parties and nations of the West. In effect, making the West into more of that “dominant civilization” Siddiqui wrote about. After September 11th, America’s vicious cultural wars arrived at a period of cease fire as polls indicated unprecedented support for the Bush administration from the American people. While the symbol of this new American unity was still liquid and forming, it seemed Americans would patriotically stand behind whatever it would eventually become.

In the international arena the terrorist attacks had the effect of welding together new Western alliances. Certainly Britain never seemed as close and supportive of America through the emotional pronouncements of Prime Minister Tony Blair. There were also statements of support for the new alliance from various Kings and nations of the Middle East. America took much of these statements coming out of the Middle East with a well-placed skepticism.

But the most interesting news was the possibility for a new alliance between the “big three” superpower nations: America, China and the Soviet Union. There was the October 2001 economic summit in Shanghai where Bush and Putin met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and the prospects seemed good for a new coalition between them. The last time the three superpowers were in a coalition to defeat a common enemy was in the spring of 1945 when Stalin belatedly joined Harry Truman and Chiang Kai-shek in the battle against Japan.

As David Sanger pointed out in the October 28th edition of The New York Times, the 1945 alliance was “a fragile alliance of convenience, ridden with mutual suspicion,” one that all three leaders knew couldn’t last. Of course it didn’t last and within a year was torn apart by the emerging cold war. Yet, as Sanger notes, even the fall of Communism and the “economic glue” of globalization was not enough to bring the three together again. “So it was striking,” says Sanger when “all signed up for the war on terrorism.”

The new found unity of the “big three” created by the terrorist threat was also striking to leading experts. Sanger quotes Ernest May of Harvard, the dean of American diplomatic historians, as saying “Many of us predicted that sometime, somewhere, there could be a major act of terrorism in the United States. But it never occurred to any of us that it might trigger a wholly different relationship among the superpowers and other governments – and put America, Russia and China back to roughly where they were at the end of World War II.”

But while terrorism may have been the instigating crisis forging the possibility of a new coalition between the three, it was really economic interests that provided the real “glue” holding the superpowers together. President Bush’s national security advisor Condolezza Rice is quoted in the Sanger article as saying the new coalition “has a good chance of lasting this time.” As she observed:

…the Russians in particular are trying to move toward integration into the West. And I think the Chinese, while not politically moving in that direction, recognize that the forces of globalization, and particularly the economic forces, leave them few choices but good relations with the West.

President Bush made the economic point even more forcefully by declaring at the summit that world markets were really the terrorist target. “Terrorists want to turn the openness of the global economy against itself,” Bush told a group of chief executives. “We must not let them.”

Bush’s placing an economic “card” on the table seemed appropriate for an economic summit especially in the context of declining global markets precipitated by the September attacks. Yet it also represented a subtle shift in the subtextual strata of the landscape underlying the emerging battlefield of symbols.

On this new battlefield, the well-being of a global economy might serve as a grander symbol for the West more than that tattered old concept of freedom. After all, “freedom” was a tricky, suspect idea for much of the world, especially the historic Communist regimes of Russia and China. And too, it had a close association with that label “Made in America” worn by so many products invading the global economy. Better invoke the current economic symbol of an global system rather than the suggestion of the politics behind the system.

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim