How the World Sees Muslims

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

Looks like the debate on growing India-Israel ties is far from over. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response to the questions I raised in my emotional piece last week (How can India be Israel’s friend?).
So many bouquets and brickbats have come my way in response to that article that I am finding it difficult to reply to the mail individually, as I often try to do. Trust me, there are few things I look forward to with greater eagerness than the readers’ response to my weekly ramblings.  It’s invariably interesting and infinitely instructive.

It offers you a peek into the minds of people you’ve never met yet share a bond with them that is stronger than the ties with your close friends.
Returning to the issue of India-Israel relationship, it’s not surprising that many of those brickbats have come from our Israeli and Jewish friends.
But what really came as a shock to me was the vehement response from some of my fellow Indians who have gone to great lengths to defend our discreet affair with Israel.    More shocking was the fact that many of these apologists of Israel are not from India but are based in the Gulf. These are people like you and me who have spent years and decades working in the Middle East. And more than their views, it is the intensity of their antipathy towards all things Muslim that gets to you.

For instance, an Indian expatriate, based in Muscat (Oman), defended India’s growing proximity to Israel by asserting: “What has India got for supporting the Arabs and Palestinians for the past 60 years? Only Islamic terrorism that is financed and supported by Pakistan and Arab and Muslim countries.”
Another fellow Indian wrote: “Although I broadly agree with your argument against India-Israel ties, if India is reaching out to Israel, it is because Indian Muslims have failed to protect and safeguard the interests of their country against terrorists like Dawood Ibrahim and Abu Salem (Indian underworld dons).”
Yet another reader blamed the ties with Israel on the “Islamic terrorism of Pakistan” against India that he claims is supported by the Arab and Muslim countries. Our enemy’s enemy is our friend, was the gist of his argument.
I know there’s little new in this litany of woes against the Arab and Muslim world.  But what is most distressing about these perceptions is the fact that they are widely shared by people who have lived and worked in the Middle East and Muslim world for a long, long time.
This is why these perceptions are so disturbing — even if they do not necessarily reflect the majority opinion of the billion plus population back in India.
But flawed as these views are, I respect them.  Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. You can’t force anyone to like or dislike someone or something. Obviously, these strong views of the Indian Diaspora in the Middle East are informed by their day-to-day experiences. 
You’ve got to take these opinions seriously, even if they are far from reality and are largely fed by ignorance, lies, half-truths and propaganda purveyed by the global media manipulated by special interest groups.
Even as I beg to differ from some of my countrymen, I can’t help point out that this is a telling comment on the Muslim world. Why are the people who have lived and worked most of their lives in the Muslim world so incredibly biased and ignorant about it?
Who is to blame for this state of affairs? If the Arabs and Muslims haven’t been able to reach out to these guest workers and touch their lives, how do they expect the rest of the world to see their viewpoint and reality?
I am sorry if I sound excessively cynical. But I really don’t see how the Muslims can persuade the world community to address their concerns and historical injustices, if they can’t break this overwhelming barrier of prejudice and ignorance that separates them from their guest populations?

If the people living among the believers do not empathise with them, don’t you think there’s something wrong with the host societies?
This is all the more unfortunate considering there’s no dearth of resources in the Middle East. Home to the world’s most precious commodity, oil, the Middle Eastern countries have never had it so good — especially with the crude trading at nearly $100 a barrel. They could have put some of this rich windfall to good use by investing it in initiatives that bridge this gulf between the Muslims and the rest of the world.  Some Arab countries led by the UAE and Dubai have invested heavily in infrastructure projects and long-term economic initiatives that will cut their dependence on their oil based economies.
Dubai has not only been attracting unprecedented foreign investments in its phenomenal real estate projects, but it has also been investing around the world, especially in the West. Dubai’s takeover of the ports around the world including those in the US and Abu Dhabi’s huge stake in Citibank have made the UAE a big player on the world stage.
This is the result of a bold vision and courage of conviction for which the UAE leaders have always been known. They have repeatedly demonstrated that it’s possible to dream big and turn those big dreams into reality.
While the quest for economic development a la Dubai is necessary to end the centuries of backwardness of the Muslim world, it is equally imperative for the Muslim countries to take bold and urgent steps to address their dangerous disconnect with the rest of the world.
The experiment of Al Jazeera English has proved that it’s possible to make professionally successful attempts on this front.  If a tiny emirate like Qatar can do it, why can’t big Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey come up with their own Al Jazeeras?
There’s no dearth of resources or talent in the Muslim world now. What it needs is vision and willingness of its leaders. Even if 5 per cent of what many Arab and Muslim countries spend on the expensive junk like the weapons made in the West and other delusions of grandeur is devoted to developing world class media, universities and research institutions in the Muslim world, it’s not difficult to win this struggle of ideas. But in the end the best brand ambassador of Islam and Muslim world are the Muslims themselves. Eventually if the world views Islam negatively, Muslims have to blame no one but themselves.

-Aijaz Zaka Syed is a senior editor and columnist of Khaleej Times. He can be reached at He contributed this article to

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