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Exploring the State of the Muslim World

CAS Prof Haqqani researches the roots of instability, sectarian violence

Husain Haqqani recalls a Newsweek cover photo from October 2001: a Pakistani child brandishing an automatic weapon and the troubling words, “Why They Hate Us.”

The photo is emblematic of a question that has haunted Haqqani, director of BU’s Center for International Relations and a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of international relations, throughout his career. “I have always wondered why the Muslim world is in the eye of virtually every storm, in my lifetime at least,” he says. “The Middle East is a cauldron. The India-Pakistan conflict has a Muslim dimension. In Russia, there’s Chechnya, another Muslim dimension.” Why is the Muslim world plagued by instability, undemocratic governments, and sectarian violence?

Haqqani has set out to seek answers. He calls his project a State of the Muslim World, and his research draws broadly from such fields as anthropology, sociology, history, economics, and demography. Despite the diversity of the Islam-influenced world, he says, Muslims everywhere share membership in the Ummah, or community of believers.

“There are many differences among Muslims, but there are also common streaks running from Egypt to Indonesia, and there is a sense of belonging together,” he says. “And yet, in the last few centuries, it has been a belonging-together in decline. The Kuwaitis may be rich, but they know it is coming from oil in the ground, not from something they’ve accomplished. There is a lack of a general sense of accomplishment in modern times.”

He reels off a series of surprising statistics in support of this argument: the GDP of the world’s 57 Muslim-majority countries combined is less than that of France. Those 57 countries are home to about 500 universities, compared to more than 5,000 in the United States and 8,000 in India. Fewer new book titles are published each year in Arabic, the language of 300 million people, than in Greek, spoken by only 15 million. More books are translated into Spanish each year than have been translated into Arabic in the last century.

From these hard facts, Haqqani draws a startling conclusion. He argues that a lack of economic, intellectual, cultural, and technological productivity in the Muslim world has left a vacuum that has been filled by paranoia and inflammatory rhetoric, fueling “a culture of political anger, rather than political solutions.” This rhetoric, he maintains, keeps Muslims in a constant state of fear that Islam and Islamic culture are in danger of being snuffed out by the West. As a result, a cycle of violence persists as Muslims respond to the perceived threat posed by both external and sectarian enemies.

At the same time, this culture of outward-directed anger prevents Muslims from examining the internal problems that plague the Islamic world, such as repressive governments, sectarian conflict, and a lack of democratic representation. “Muslims must rise and peacefully mobilize against sectarianism and the violence and destruction in, say, Iraq,” he wrote in an opinion article for the Gulf Times, a popular English-language newspaper in Qatar. “But before that can happen, Muslim discourse would have to shift away from the focus on Muslim victimhood and towards taking responsibility, as a community, for our own situation.”

Haqqani came to the United States after a career as a Pakistani journalist and statesman. He is a former ambassador and was an advisor to Pakistani prime ministers Benazir Bhutto, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, and Nawaz Sharif. He is also a practicing Muslim who studied in a madrassa, or traditional Islamic school, in Pakistan.

Although he hopes his message will reach Muslim listeners, Haqqani believes that his research has something to teach Western policy makers as well. “Basically, I am saying that this is an entire section of the world that is reeling from the trauma of its decline,” he says. “How can the United States and other Western powers build relationships with the Muslim world without understanding what happens in the Muslim mind?”

This article is one of four collectively titled “Engaging with Islam,” which originally appeared in Boston University’s Research 2007 magazine. Click here to read all of the articles.