Reviving the domino theory

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Reviving the domino theoryIslam has re-emerged as a potent force in international politics. The so-called war on terrorism, in particular, has refocused the West’s attention on the many 'faces' of Islam. Indeed, for some, the demise of the red menace of communism is seen to have been replaced by the green threat of Islam. A number of recent studies have revealed a disturbing pattern of growing Islamaphobia.

A poll conducted by University of New South Wales academic Dr Kevin Dunn, for example, indicated that only one in six Australians had a high-quality understanding of Islam. The most common negative stereotypes were that Islam is a fundamentalist (27 per cent) and intolerant (24 per cent) religion. Unsurprisingly, individuals with no contact with Islam were twice as likely (45 per cent) to be ignorant of it, in contrast to those who had some contact with Islam (21 per cent).

Personal cultural experiences and expectations will influence individuals in their understanding of other races and cultures. A stereotype is a static image in which the attributes of a group are exaggerated or simplified, and the group is described or evaluated in terms of these attributes. Although ethnic and racial stereotypes may have some indistinct, vague basis in reality, they are flagrant oversimplifications and ignore the reality that any group is composed of individuals who are themselves infinitely complex and different from each other. Misguided and limited perceptions enable stereotyping to contribute to prejudice and discrimination in many parts of the world. Selective attention in choosing religious extremes will also allow broad and often erroneous generalisations to be made.

Islam is neither unified nor a threat to the West. Authors such as Leon Hadar have correctly referred to dangerous analyses that posit an all-consuming threat out of unrelated, isolated events all over the world. Numerous examples are given of the changes and instability of a post-Cold War environment being part of a perceived grand scheme of Islam and Islamic solidarity. These include the World Trade Centre bombing in New York City, the civil war in the Sudan, terrorist attacks in Egypt, the popularity of Islamic parties in Algeria and Tunisia, the Lebanese Shiites’ struggle for political power, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Persian Gulf war.

The Islamic resurgence is not a powerful global ideology competing with democracy. It is important to note that some of the fanaticism displayed is typically nationalist in origin. The notion of preventing Islamic influence contains, however, strong echoes of the 'domino theory' from the Cold War. This theory argued that the expansionist aims of communism could not be appeased and that the communist threat had a propensity to expand across state frontiers devouring all before it as countries collapsed like falling dominos. This powerful metaphor, popular in the 1950s and 1960s and used to justify US military intervention in Southeast Asia, was later widely criticised for its undeveloped and unstructured generalisations about political systems that are quite different from each other.

Reviving the domino theoryMuslim faith and practice is expressed in a variety of attitudes and values. The term fundamentalism needs to be applied carefully. Nonetheless, a willingness to give credence to bland generalisations and crude stereotypes occurs in part because of the misunderstanding of Islamic concepts such as jihad (holy war) and its notion of dar al-harb (the house of war). The concept of jihad has been used by some leaders to justify war or the preparation for war.

Yet jihad is not one of the five pillars of Islam, and is not a strict individual obligation. Further, different interpretations are possible due to the Quran’s ambiguous references to jihad, and the complex nature of jihad itself. Certain authors and jurists have interpreted jihad as a defensive endeavour, while others maintain that it should be understood in a spiritual rather than military sense.

One must be careful to avoid making oversimplified connections between Muslims, fundamentalism and Islamic culture. The cultural influence of Islam has had significance in shaping and sustaining distinctive beliefs and rules in Islamic communities and societies, encompassing a diversity of interpretations. Monotheism is a not clear guide to faith or religion; it is complex in both practice and explanation. The mystery of this one God creates different assumptions and expectations within Islam. Crucially, these interpretations will often be shaped by the specific cultural, social, and political history and the present circumstances of a particular people or nation.



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I think what your article dances around are the ideas of greater jihad and lesser jihad. It is an important distinction, and one that many scholars make.

Lesser jihad is the idea of fighting ones enemies - not unbelivers (kufir), but those who would attack you. In the Dar-al-islam, there is, according to the koran, a place for other monotheistic religions - indeed, they have a protected status. People need to know things like that.
peter evans | 17 May 2007


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