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Sanjeev Bery Headshot
Sahar Shafqat Headshot

Why Deepak Chopra Is Wrong

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It is always easy to tell someone else what they need to do. Just point your finger, clear your throat, and boldly offer your advice. Don't worry about the realities of history -- just speak your mind.

In his recent essay, "The Dilemma of the 'good' Muslim," Deepak Chopra is guilty of exactly this. He ignores the complexities of history and blithely proclaims that Muslims should take responsibility for a whole host of enemies: oligarchs, military regimes, anti-Semites, jihadis. Chopra declares: "We -- and here I mean the entire world -- need the vast majority of Muslims to wake up and then to stand up."

The essay starts with the obligatory concession, acknowledging that "extremists and jihadis form a tiny minority among the billion Muslims across the globe." But it quickly goes downhill from there. By the fifth paragraph, Mr. Chopra is already comparing the vast majority of Muslims to the passive citizens of Nazi Germany.

It is a comparison that ignores the true challenges that many Muslims face. While we in Western nations tend to forget the history of our foreign policy, Muslims living in Muslim nations don't have that luxury. Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, and even Afghanistan are all examples of Muslim nations where the U.S. has supported dictators or funded military conflict. Sometimes the dictators are called "kings" and sometimes they are called "presidents". But for average Muslims, the reality is the same: the trap of autocratic rulers on one side and fundamentalists on the other.

Islamic terrorism is certainly real, and Islamic fundamentalism does contain strong currents of misogyny and anti-Semitism. But how much freedom do Muslim reformers have to present an alternative political path?

Consider a country like Egypt, where the U.S. has given billions of dollars to a semi-authoritarian leader who has clamped down on political opposition. Egyptian activists keep fighting for reform, but the U.S.-backed Mubarak keeps shutting them down. Human Rights Watch states that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has even established a "Political Parties Law" that gives his cronies "broad authority to choose who may compete against them and under what terms."

Under these circumstances, what should Egyptian Muslims do? Should they play along with the U.S.-funded dictator's broken rules? Should they join extremist groups? Should they challenge the state? Mubarak's regime offers no good options.

What about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his denials of the Holocaust? We have long since forgotten that there didn't have to be an Ahmadinejad. In the 1950s, Iran was on its way to becoming a modern Muslim democracy. The nation had elected its first Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and a national democratic movement had crested into power.

Unfortunately, Mossadegh angered Britain and the U.S. by nationalizing British Petroleum's oilfields and including communists in his governing coalition. In 1953, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower ended Iran's democracy and removed Mossadegh from power via Operation Ajax. The Shah of Iran was put in his place, and the new dictator used his Savak secret police to kill off the democratic opposition, especially the Iranian left. A quarter century later, it was the Shah's turn to be overthrown by a coalition that included the politically shrewd Ayatollah Khomeini. The rest is history.

Such realities reveal a world far more complicated than what Deepak Chopra describes. Pakistan, currently in the news, has a similar story to tell. American political leaders are quick to point out Pakistan's weak civilian institutions, but not so quick to recall that past Pakistani military dictators like Pervez Musharraf received significant U.S. support. These U.S.-supported dictators were the very leaders whose rule severely weakened Pakistan's civilian institutions to begin with.

As a result, democracy activists in Pakistan are getting squeezed day by day. On one side are Islamist Taliban fundamentalists whose fathers once fought the Soviets with U.S. funds. On the other side is an unaccountable military, as well as civilian leaders who are more interested in lining their own pockets than in responding to the needs of the people.

This isn't to say that U.S. policymakers bear sole or even primary responsibility for Pakistan's
instability. However, our repeated support for the Pakistani military is a big part of the problem. Even poverty reduction through land reform is blocked by the stunning reality that the Pakistani military is the largest agricultural landowner in the nation today.

But don't mention any of this to Deepak Chopra. As he continues his transition from spiritual guru to political commentator, there is no need to be troubled by such complexities. Better to remain in a simpler place, where "good" Muslims bear sole responsibility for the challenges that many Muslim societies face today.

Sanjeev Bery is a writer and human rights advocate who recently returned from six months in South Asia. He blogs at DigDeeper.us. Sahar Shafqat is an associate professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland and a member of Action for a Progressive Pakistan.

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