February 25, 2004

Dissecting Islam

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“Nationalism is the best hope in moving towards democracy. [America] sees it as a threat, but it forces [Islamic states] to evolve,” said Thomas W. Simons Jr. in a lecture presented last night in Statler Auditorium.

Simons is the former U.S. ambassador to Poland and Pakistan, and is currently the director of the Program on Eurasia in Transition at the Davis Center at Harvard University. He has also taught history at Stanford University and was deeply involved in foreign affairs from 1963 to 1998. His ranks include career minister and deputy secretary of state. From 2000-2001, Simons worked with the United Nations on the situation in Afghanistan. He is also the author of several books, including Islam in a Globalizing World. He is the first Provost’s Visiting Professor at Cornell.

Simons believes that the current terrorism crisis originated in the 1970s. The ’70s offered Arab countries their first chance for freedom in a post-colonization era, he said. Their hopes were dashed after the Egyptian military was defeated by Israel in the Six Day War, igniting feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. With the colonizers physically gone, he said, it became harder to blame Israel and its U.S. protector. Later, agriculture was sacrificed for industry and more people crowded into cities. Arab universities, on the other hand, were turning out large numbers of college graduates, mostly from small towns. However, growth was slow, as Arab states pulled out of the economy and into private sectors, he explained.

“What was left was a large number of small-town men with college degrees in decaying cities. With no realistic hope, they were red meat for political radicals,” Simons explained.

“Muslims were sympathized with the U.S. and were not worried by so many military forces fighting the war against the Taliban. 9/11 was a wake-up call,” Simons stated.

The U.S.’s war against Iraq raised more questions, he said. Iraq had a secular regime and the United States had a relatively quick victory over an established Arab government.

“It reinforced feelings of humiliation and helplessness. It may have boosted recruitment for extremists. Nowadays, the recruits are younger and less educated,” he added.

Simons hopes that America will take a minimal role in further shaping the identity of Muslims but still take on responsibility for keeping repressive regimes at bay.

He also believes that Islam is morphing into a “badge of nationality,” not just a religion, which he thinks will be a positive step.

“It’s a compliment to their national identity. I am hopeful for the capacity of Muslims to take their destiny into their own hands,” he said.

Simons will be at Cornell until March 3, participating in various roundtable discussion groups with students and faculty. This event was co-hosted by the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs and coincides with Cornell’s first annual Islam Awareness Week, presented by the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association.

Archived article by Mary Chu