December 3, 2003 | Op-ed

Imperialism instead

Authored by 2003 FDD Student Fellow, Ariel Beery

Columbia's conference on U.S. imperialism in the 21st century this Friday, so soon after the deadly suicide bombings in Turkey, shows how willful ignorance is rotting the core of this University's intellectual life.

The now almost-daily terrorist attacks around the world raise a number of questions. Were there cultural reasons for the terrorist bombings that spilled the blood of innocent Turks in Istanbul? Are there other cultural processes at work when the Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq declares that only direct democracy is acceptable in setting up a new Iraqi government? One would hope that the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department, whose purpose is to study the cultures of the Middle East, offers answers to these questions. But, insulated in their ivory tower, the professors of that department choose not to deal with such a complex and touchy subject in the way with which it should be dealt.

Instead, in the past year they have tended to focus on safer subjects, those which find resonance in the rest of the academic community–namely, “American imperialism,” featured in this Friday's conference, and the question of Palestine, featured in almost every other one of their lectures or events. Not one conference or festival sponsored by MEALAC has focused on comprehending or extinguishing this mutation of radical Islam that fuels the murderous fire burning across the globe, even though understanding Islamic and Middle Eastern culture–and not American foreign policy–is the supposed mandate of MEALAC.

To be clear, MEALAC should not be focusing solely on Middle East politics. It should be focusing on the cultures and languages of the Middle East and South Asia. But seeing as how the department has chosen to become a vocal advocate for anti-American and anti-Israeli causes–from last year's Palestinian film festival to the seminar on imperialism this week–one would hope that it would also find the time to enlighten the community about why terrorism claims the lives of more and more people around the world–especially in a place like Turkey, a mature and Islamic democracy led by an observant Muslim leader.

Luckily, several student groups at Columbia decided to take their intellectual needs into their own hands. They invited Soner Cagaptay, the head of the Washington Institute's Turkish Research Program, to give a talk. “After the bombings I received phone calls from reporters asking me if I was surprised,” he said, speaking to a packed room in Hamilton Hall. “I was shocked and appalled,” continued Cagaptay, “but I was not surprised. Why? Because Turkey represents everything Al Qaeda is not. If you look at Al Qaeda's message–that Muslims can't be friends with Westerners because it would corrupt them–Turkey is the refutation.”

Turkey is the refutation for MEALAC's seeming obsession with Western imperialism as well: It is a Muslim country that savors its relationship with the United States. Its democratically elected and overwhelmingly Islamic parliament voted to send troops into Iraq after the war even before a U.N. resolution. It is a country that yearns to be recognized as a part of the West equal to its neighbors in Europe–both as a full member of NATO and as a European Union member state. It is a country that does not excuse its failings by blaming America or the Jews for everything. And the bombings in Turkey refuted another claim made by many in Middle Eastern studies circles–that democracy and civil society would provide outlets for the frustration felt by the “Arab street,” thereby ending the violence, which is a reaction to the colonialist, imperialist West. Turkey is a democracy with a full range of civil society organizations, and still Turkish citizens chose to express their hatred by killing themselves and murdering innocents instead of engaging in public debate.

As Cagaptay said in his talk, “Let's be blunt: There are two strains of Islam. One [has] used peace, yes, but another has historically used violence–and these two are at war with one another.” And the whole world is their battleground. As more and more Muslims realize that, in the words of Ozdem Sanberk, a former Turkish ambassador to London writing in The Financial Times, “While Islam is a worldwide community, some networks and connections within it are much more dangerous than we have understood so far.”

But nothing from this battle between the culture of peace and the culture of violence has been adequately explained by the MEALAC-sponsored events of the last year. A proper explanation would mean facing the fact that the radical faction of Islam is quickly becoming the defining culture of the Middle East. And while American culture and influence might be spreading at a rate that offends these scholars, the violence and segregation that radical Islam engenders have much more deadly effects. Until these issues are tackled, students will have to answer their own questions, because so far, the department's forums have not provided adequate solutions.

Ariel Beery is an Undergraduate Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.