Islam Mis-understood throughout the world By: James A. Bill (Professor of Government and Director of the Reeves Centre for International Studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia). By the turn of the century, for the first time in history, the number of Muslims (those who practice Islam) will have surpassed the number of Christians in the world. Islam is a monotheistic religion, civilization and way of life now practiced by 1.1. billion people. Easily the world's fastest growing religion, Islam is not confined to the Middle East. It is a truly universal force. More Muslims live in America today than all the Presbyterians and Episcopalians put together. There are more than 1,200 Mosques in the United States and 1,000 Mosques in England, where the Muslim community has established its own national parliament. There are more Muslims in Indonesia than in Egypt, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia put together. More live in Malaysia than in Jordan, Lebanon and Kuwait combined. Nearly 20 million live in China. Wherever one looks, Islam is on the move. As the people of many societies find themselves rootless, disconnected and alienated, they increasingly seek help in a comforting Islamic ideological refuge. In a world of incoherent violence, widening inequities, political corruption and shattered families, many are massing behind the green flag of Islam. This is essentially a populist movement, a bubbling up from below, a march of the distressed, the dispossessed and the oppressed. Although the great bulk of Muslims seek to improve their status through quiet, moderate and pacific means, violent methods have been adopted by fringe groups - elements also present in Christianity and Judaism. Oblivious to their own profound ignorance and often harbouring crude political motivations, many Western opinion leaders consistently label all Muslims with words such as "aggressive", "militant", and "uncivilized". Islam is the "religion of the sword", Muslim activists are "terrorists", and Muslim countries that challenge Western policies are "outlaw states". Muslims themselves maintain quite a different worldview. It is in the deepest interest of the United States to attempt to understand this perspective. In brief, Muslims see themselves as the afflicted, not the afflictors; they feel themselves desperately on the defensive, not on the offensive; they consider themselves the objects of violence, not the initiators of violence. In sum, Muslims across the world consider themselves victims. In support of their position, Muslims will take their Christian and Jewish neighbours on a quick tour of the world. They inevitably begin with Bosnia where nearly 200,000 Muslims have been slaughtered by Serbian Christians. Muslims are horrified and sickened by the fact that 22,000 Muslim women, aged 9 to 82, have been raped by Christian troopers. Muslims wonder privately about the weak Western response. In Kashmir, Indian occupying forces violently oppress Muslims, killing thousands of Kashmiris. Elsewhere in India in December 1992 and January 1993, Hindu mobs went on rampage in Bombay, killing over 800 Muslims, destroying 5,000 Muslim homes and forcing 200,000 Muslims to flee the city. Mosques were fire-bombed and mothers watched as their sons were pulled from their arms and slain or burned alive. In Tajikistan and other places in Central Asia, the Communists have made a comeback and, with the help of Russian troops, have attacked and killed more than 20,000 Muslims. Another 350,000 have been forced to flee. Even in China, Muslims find themselves under heavy military pressure. Chinese troops oppress Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang. Even in many of the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East, Muslims find themselves under attack where the leadership is essentially secular. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak's regime, facing widespread disaffection of its people, pursues a policy of torture and execution of members of the Muslim opposition. In March 1993, his troops fired upon 500 unarmed Muslims at prayer in the Rahman Mosque in Aswan, killing nine and injuring 50. In Algeria, where the Islamists scored a surprise victory in the December 1991 elections, the regime declared the election null and void. Since then, Algeria has been the scene of a bloody civil war. In the West Bank, another more widely publicized Mosque massacre occured a year later in Hebron when a Jewish settler killed 30 in a group of praying Muslims before the survivors could beat him to death. This litany of anti-Islamic violence is recognized and recited by Muslims everywhere. The situation is exacerbated when Muslims incredulously find themselves labelled as terrorists and when Western governments encourage their secular Middle Eastern allies to confront Muslim populist movements. One result of these Western perceptions and policies, of course, is that they begin to radicalize the huge mass of moderate Muslim believers. Meanwhile, the extremists on the fringes become more active and militant. A vicious cycle of misunderstanding, misguided policy and increasing violence has been set in motion. Before this vicious cycle begins to spin widely out of control, it is essential that non-Muslims make a major effort to slow it down. Such an effort will, as the very first step, require that stereotypes be discarded. Second, recent history shows that the application of force is not always an effective way of countering a system of deeply held ideas and beliefs. The steady flame of resurgent Islam will net be extinguished by the breeze of bullets or the blast of missiles. It is time for everyone to take a crash course on Islam.