I have been watching the news here a lot lately, everything from Al Jazeera to the Colbert Report, and its made me reflect on the American agenda in the Middle East. Even before I came to Jordan, I could tell that our government's strategies were not working because we, as a country, haven't taken the time to understand Muslim society. Now that I've lived here, I've become more enlightened about the fundamental bias I carried as an American and how it impacted my thoughts on many global issues.
Something I learned about my personal prejudice as an American is that we perceive faith-based societies as primitive. From our point of view, all human civilizations naturally evolve by following the steps that our society did. In the beginning, religion was predominant but over time it was replaced by diversity, education, freedom, and democracy. This western paradigm of societal evolution sees that in order for progressive freedoms to take place, the old ways of superstitious religions must first be banished. In our world, church is separate from state because we believe modernity cannot be accomplished behind the barrier of religion. This is why Americans see countries like Jordan as simply being behind the West in its phase of the evolutionary process (which we believe must ultimately culminate in democracy). To us, once Middle Easterners learn to throw off the confines of religion and finally separate church and state, they will uncover the orderly path to pluralism and egalitarianism like we did.
However, this is bias in thought- one which I was unaware that I had before I came to live in Amman. As Americans, we typically believe that the presence of religion in Arab society is regressive, holding back things like elections, women’s rights and freedom of speech, and it is our wish to dispel these traditions in order to put them on the same track to development that worked for our country.We must realize that we are imposing our Western model of authority by trying to eradicate the presence of Islam in that society. We don’t understand that for Muslims, Islam is meant to play a role in governance and law and therefore, Americans efforts appear to be trying to undermine Islam itself. Polls taken in the Middle East have shown that the majority of people want full democratic and religious freedom and yet still want the enforcement of Islamic law in their society. Muslims want progressive politics like democracy, however, they want to integrate them on their own terms, with religion rather than instead of it.
In order for American endeavors to succeed in the Middle East, we must stop trying to impose our ideas of secular governance on a people who do not want it. We have to be able to realize that the world is divided into more than just the West and a bunch of poor religious cultures who haven't caught up yet. A good ruling body can be more than just elections and freedom, even though that is an idea which is nearly incomprehensible for westerners (what else could you want?). Muslims desire a different path for themselves, and we must learn to accept that if our relations with these nations are ever going to improve. The American style of government is simply not the pinnacle of civilized achievement we believe it to be. Perhaps one day all Muslim-majority nations will end up with a government similar to our own, or maybe they won't. But Americans need to stop pushing to tear down the parts of Muslim society that they don't like, and start accepting it as a whole unit. I know most of us don't think that trying to blend liberalism and religion can be successful, but Muslim values are different than our own and we need to have the patience to see that.