The cult of the victim currently enjoys a worldwide following. It casts its shadow across all borders, cultures, and religions, and has contributed much to the vicious cycle of terrorism and warfare into which the world descended.
For example, a sense of collective victimization provides a rationale for some Muslims who support acts of terrorism against western targets. Then a reciprocal sense of victimization provides a rationale for intervention by western states in Muslim territories.
Increasingly, however, some Muslim voices are denying the cult of the victim. They are calling upon fellow Muslims to accept responsibility for problems in their own societies, and to recognize that the phrase “Muslim terrorism” is both meaningful and shameful.
As Muslim opinion makers turn away from the cult of Muslim victimization and embrace a code of Muslim responsibility for problems in Muslim societies, we are approaching a watershed in international affairs.
Yet while this trend may offer hope, it will not afford a solution to the current cycle of victimization and aggression until western societies also accept their share of responsibility.
In an interview published on Sept. 11, 2004, Dr. Ahmad l-Ruba’i linked the cult of victimization to terrorism, and argued that the roots of both lay in the internal failure of Arab societies: “I’ll say that the Arab mind is great when it builds a Boeing airplane, not when it blows it up, or when it builds a skyscraper. The truth is that the Arab mind is blinded by conspiracy theories.”
In 2003, an article in Al-Hayat, a London-based Arab newspaper argued that “empty slogans revolving around the themes of resistance and struggle” are excuses for failure: “Let us stop for a minute and ask ourselves, Arabs and most Muslims, what did we offer for ourselves and the rest of the world, since the beginning of the industrial revolution to this day, from human sciences and inventions or any other added value to civilization? Unfortunately, the answer is: almost nothing!!”
In the last year, some Muslim opinion makers have also adopted a new perspective upon terrorism. More than anything else, the change has been triggered by the bloody atrocity last September in Beslan, Russia, when Islamist terrorists commandeered a school.
Among many Arab writers who condemned the terrorists, an Iraqi author made his point in the title of his article: “The Arabs and the Muslims Today Contribute Nothing to Civilization and Progress Except for Blood, Severed Heads, Scorched Bodies, and the Abduction and Murder of Children.”
Probably the most frequently quoted remark on the subject came from Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of the Al-Arabiya news channel, writing in the pan-Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.”
Suleiman Al-Hatlan, a columnist in the Saudi paper Al-Watan, blamed it on the cult of victimization, on “generations of Muslims having been misled and force-fed speeches [filled with] hostility and hatred for others over the course of decades, which deepened the backwardness and the ignorance in the Islamic world.”
At the last meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the chairman, Datuk Seri Abdullah, said that “Muslims are as much to blame for this distortion of the meaning of jihad” and urged scholars to challenge the “extremists” so as to “disabuse others of their mistaken impressions.”
Yet while this is hopeful, it is only half the story. The vicious cycle will not be broken until we in the West also examine our own sense of victimization. However, painfully, we must also begin to accept our share of responsibility.
Leaving aside the legacy of European colonialism, and America’s lop-sided approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, consider the dialectic of American involvement in the Persian Gulf over the last 50 years.
In 1953, the CIA overthrew the democratically elected, pro-western, government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. It installed the Shah and trained a secret police force that imprisoned, tortured and murdered Iranians on a massive scale for the next 25 years.
When the Iranians rebelled in 1979, the U.S. shifted its support to the pro-Soviet regime in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein used American arms, including chemical weapons, to slaughter our new-found enemies in Iran from 1980 to 1988.
That war left Saddam with enormous debts, which he attempted to relieve through his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In the process of expelling him from Kuwait, we built American bases in Saudi Arabia. Those bases became irritants that Bin Laden used to bring down the WTC, and now we are in Iraq.
Each step of the way, the U.S. looked after its short-term interests, but one of the results has been long-term suffering in this region.
It is time that Muslims looked beyond their victimization to take responsibility for their societies and their young people. It is time that Americans looked beyond their victimization to take responsibility for their policies.
Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University.