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"I wish I could advise Mr. Colin Powell"
by Fatema Mernissi

This page is a small part from the new introduction to the book Islam and Democracy. (January 2002)


"Ustada (professor), I am sorry my boss was so abrupt. He is nervous about the bombs in Afghanistan. He is convinced that only non-violence can defeat terrorists," Karim mumbled as insecure kids do when they are about to say something important. Then, he added, when I invited him to join me for a tea: "I wish I could advise Mr. Colin Powell." In the past, I would have laughed at his surrealist fancy, but things were not normal. The mere idea that a 25 years-old Arab feel like giving advice to Mr. Powell, one of the most powerful Western military leaders of the planet, hit me as a totally new cultural attitude.

Since September 11 I have discovered that Arab youth and my generation do not live on the same planet. I would never have thought of giving advice to General de Gaulle, the superboss in colonial North Africa when I was an adolescent. Arabs like me, born in the 1940s, when the colonizers' industrial technology was so awe inspiring that it seemed magic, could hardly imagine General de Gaulle as real.

As I poured more tea in our two glasses and looked at Karim across the table, I realized for the first time that the key force shaping Arab world today is not religion as many American experts claim, but information technology (IT). Karim who is a regular twenty-five-year-old diplômé-chômeur (an unemployed university graduate), left the Economics Department of Muhammad V university with a Licence en Sciences Economiques, a diploma no one even bothered to look at when he started seeking a job. After responding to dozens of advertisements for jobs in state agencies and private business and an aborted attempt to migrate to Spain, Karim ended up hanging out in my university neighborhood and earning roughly 200 dollars a month for helping Brahim sell the English-language newspapers in the mornings and in the evenings working the cash register at the cyber-café around the corner.

Like most diplômé-chomeurs, Karim taught himself English by simultaneously doing three things Arabs of my generation would have regarded as unattainable science-fiction dreams. The first was channel-surfing for hours through Arab satellite TV channels such as Al-Jazeera, available since the Gulf War even to modest households via a hundred-dollar satellite dish. These dishes are often proudly displayed on the tiny balconies of houses in the shanty towns. The second was to learn by heart the multiple versions of "English Without Teachers" booklets (Al-Injaliziya min 'ghayr Mu'allim), originally published in Lebanon and immediately pirated by Moroccans who offer them for 6 dh (50 cents) on the sidewalks by the mosque's entrances. The third was to find a justification for entering a cyber-café without having to pay the 1 dollar hourly fee for using a computer. In Karim's case, working night shifts in the cyber-café gave him unlimited free access to the internet, a magic window Sindbad could never have dreamt of. Karim was wearing his generation new "traditional" outfit: blue Jeans, a white tea-shirt and a fake medina-made Nike.

"Why Mr. Powell and what would you tell him if you had a chance?" I asked him, intrigued.

"I'd suggest he adopt Saladin's 1191 strategy," Karim said. "I'd prefer to talk to Mr. Powell, because, like Saladin 800 years earlier at Jerusalem, he won the 1991 Gulf War. And it was a similar situation - the eternal conflict between East and West. Mr. Powell could have prevented the September 11 terrorist attack by making violence economically unrewarding." He went back to sipping his tea.

Dying to know what he meant by Saladin's strategy, yet remembering Brahim's remark about my slowing down the business, I asked him first to go back to the store and bring me a "foreign Arab press bouquet". Since there would be an expensive selection from the twenty-two states in the Arab League, from Palestine to Oman and from Sudan to Morocco, I thought Brahim will see no harm in Karim's returning to sit with me for a while.

Karim's Solution for Defeating Terrorism: Saladin's Strategy

When Karim returned with the impressive load of newspapers, I begged him to explain what he meant by Saladin's strategy. "When Saladin reconquered Jerusalem in 1192 and defeated the Christian Crusaders' army," Karim replied, "he had the genius to realize that only a peace treaty that guaranteed security and similar opportunities to both the conquerors (the Muslems) and the conquered (the Christians) was good for business. A good military leader is one who can imagine turning a conflict into equal opportunities for both adversaries. In a situation where people can make a living trading peacefully, violence becomes an absurdly costly choice."

I kept looking politely at Karim while trying to recollect the fragments of my childhood history classes about Saladin, to see how Mr. Powell might fit in. Karim was right about Saladin's unusually civilized treaty, which surprised many of his contemporaries, starting with the Western Crusaders. After he reconquered Jerusalem and took the city from Richard, king of England, and other leaders of the Crusaders' coalition, Saladin concluded and ratified a peace treaty that focused everyone's mind on the essential: trade. The proclamation announced that both the Muslim and the Christian territories should enjoy equal repose and security so that persons of either nation might go into the territory of the other and return without fear. That day, crowds were assembled and the joy felt on both sides was such as God alone could conceive.

Yet I did not see what exactly the American Mr. Powell could have done after his triumph over Baghdad in 1991, even if he had studied enough Arab history to know about Saladin's peace deal 800 years ago. "Karim," I said, "if you don't get to the point more quickly, Mr. Powell would be right to have never listened to you."


© Fatema Merissi
If you are interested in publishing the article, partly or completely, please, contact the literary agent Edite Kroll.

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