Presented at the Islam in America Conference, July 4-6, 1997

University of Indianapolis

Asad M. Ba-Yunus

The American University Washington College of Law

Washington, D.C.



As the population of Muslims in the United States increases, their political activism has also been increasing. A significantly large number of Muslims are now not only registered voters, but they also have been taking part in local and national elections. The Muslim lobby in Washington had become dramatically more active, often influencing Congressmen and Senators to vote on particular issues in a particular manner. Phone-in, mail-in, and petition campaigns have become a regular occurrence within numerous communities and even nationwide. More Muslims are turning out for local and national rallies and traveling great distances at often great expenses to do so. Numerous social science thinkers have discussed the increase in political activity among populations in Third World nations as being linked to resentment caused by dependency of these nations on the world's great superpowers. Often these superpower nations (i.e., the United States), take advantage of these dependent countries, using them as "puppets" to further their own interests. This may often mean the continuation of tyrannical, oppressive rule, with economies extremely dependent on foreign capital. Muslims in America, realizing their growing political potential, and the opportunity to affect change in their former homelands by using this dependent relationship. Their ultimate goal may be to end this dependency to allow Islamic movements in their countries of religious and ethnic affiliation to freely and successfully affect change. Also, this dependent relationship may be used to bring about structural, economic, and social reform in the Third World nations. The opportunity to use this relationship may not yet be quite effective, however. With the still small number of politically active Muslims and the lack of unity and consistency among them, successfully using this dependency may prove difficult at this point. Muslims in the United States do have the potential, however, to eventually use this strategy, and help to establish the independence of the Third World from their crushing dependency on the world's superpowers.


As the estimated population of Muslims in the United States surpasses the six million mark, the political activity of this multinational, multiethnic group has increased dramatically within the past ten years. The effects of this increased activism have been quite visible in the Clinton administration. Of course, it was in the 1992 presidential campaign and immediately afterwards that Muslims became significantly and dramatically more active. No other American president had ever taken the time to recognize Islamic holidays, invited Muslim community leaders to the White House to discuss issues, or even included mosques when naming various religious institutions (during the church burnings in the South) in his speeches. US foreign policy towards Bosnia, especially compared to European policy in the crisis, as well as Clinton's hard line stance against Benjamin Netanyahu and his efforts at the Middle East peace process, among various foreign policy examples may reflect the influence of Muslims in the United States as a political force in domestic and international politics.

As Muslims in the United States become increasingly active in American politics and government, one must wonder why this sudden rise in activism is taking place. Although there may be numerous reasons that could explain this phenomenon, there are some that we may be able to link to theories from seemingly unrelated areas of study that may have affected the lives of new activists. Most Muslims, an ethnic and culturally diverse group, hail from areas that were once under some form of colonial control. Since much of this colonialism continued until the mid-twentieth century, there are those immigrant Muslims who remember the days of British and French imperial exploitation of their homelands quite well. Numerous theories have emerged regarding the social and economic development of these homelands, which attempt to explain the continuing evolution of most of the Third World into the Earth's slums. Certain theories are employed by various powerful nations to try and re-direct this evolution in order to increase their own advantages, while claiming to help develop the third world. Others suggest that such action is at the expense of the underdeveloped nation, and will only further stunt their development and impoverish their economy.

Among these theories, our focus will be on the dependency theory, which describes the situation of the third world from a number of angles. The early Marxist view held that the rise of modern capitalism was due in large part to the exploitation of the once colonial third world. The industrial revolution could never have been so successful without the resources available in the third world. This leads to the next phase of the dependency theory. With the colonial powers becoming increasing economic giants, multinational corporations find the colonies as being captive markets. These companies use their capital and buying power to help refresh their impoverished economies, making them dependent on the developed nations. The third phase of the dependency theory focuses with the development of the "core" versus the "periphery" nations. The "core" states are the producers of finished goods and technology, comprising mainly of highly developed nations, the once imperialist colonial countries. The "periphery" is made up of those countries that have been unable to develop their own markets, economy, and industry. The core develops a strong interest in the economy of the periphery, giving them great control and influence not only on the economies, but also the politics of the periphery.

It is at this juncture that the most recently developed phase of the dependency theory takes shape. The countries at the core, in their pursuit of preserving and maintaining their economic advantages and markets, prevent the underdeveloped nations from becoming developed to a level where they would become competitors. In this attempt, they also influence the political and social agendas of the periphery, making those in power dependent on the core's support. This influence often goes to the extreme by indirectly controlling leaders of sovereign states, making them mere puppets of the world's powers. These superpower governments bestow favors on the obedient and chastise the rebellious with sanctions, embargoes, isolation and even military action (often within their own government in the form of coups, assassinations, etc.)

Immigrants from the third world, in this instance Muslims, may be realizing the "remote control" aspect of their homelands' politics. Regardless of the particular issue that Muslim activists may be rallying for, it may be theorized that it is the desire to be free of this neo-colonialism that drives the zest of those becoming more and more politically active. The drive to use the existing political system to affect change in foreign policy may be directed at ending this dependency through this same puppet-like political system, in effect attempting to end the control and support of despotic rulers, archaic monarchs, military dictators, and pseudo-democratic presidents. The dependency situation itself may not only be the cause of the desire to improve conditions in the Third World, but also the mechanism for changing this situation from outside the Third World.

Stages of Dependency

As the introduction above suggests, the dependency theory and its development into its new role describing new-colonialism, are crucial to this essay. A considerable amount of time will be spent on simply attempting to describe the progression of the theory, and to eventually take it to the next level. In order to do this, however, one must examine the theory's transition over time.

Early Stages: Marxist Roots

The dependency theory derives its origin from Latin American social scientists, attempting to describe the underdevelopment of Latin America. The key element of their theory rested on the dependency of these nations primarily on former colonial and later on American capitalism. It relates the dependency as a result of the capitalist exploitation of these counties, in a manner similar to Marx's theory of the exploitation of the proletariat. Although according to Berberoglu (1992), Marxist theories relating to dependency vary with the Latin American version, they start out in a similar fashion. Wallerstein, in describing the basis of this stage of the dependency theory discusses the world system as operating "on the primacy of endless accumulation..."(1984, pg. 15). He further describes those nations at the receiving end of dependency (i.e., the periphery - to be discussed later) as becoming the proletarian societies, while developed and imperial nations (i.e., the core) as being the bourgeois societies.

The key in this phase, however, is what Gabriel Palma (Seers, 1981) describes as the second phase in the development of Marxist thought relating to capitalism in third world nations. She claims that although Marx felt that capitalism would spread from the capitalist powers of the world to their colonies (in the first phase), he noticed that the "advanced nations were... succeeding in restricting modern industrialisation in the colonies."(Seers 1981, pg. 22) She also notes that these advanced nations also hindered post-colonial industrialization in their former colonies. Palma further mentions that Marxist thought sees this hindrance as the attempt of preventing the decrease of profit, to "expand the scale of production, to lower the costs of raw materials and... to keep wages low... to increase the surplus by helping to preserve the low organic composition of capital." (pg. 23). What pervades this line of thought is the suggestion that the development and advanced industrialization of these advanced nations was dependent on the continued underdevelopment of what Palma terms as the "backward" nations. This intentional stunting of industrialization and development was crucial to the growth of modern capitalism and the current world-economic system.

Second Stage: Transnational Exploitation

The next stage of dependency comes with the growth of multinational and transnational companies and manufacturers. These firms and begin a carefully planned limited industrialization of the underdeveloped, economically impoverished nations for the manufacture of goods to be exported to the developed nations. This industrialization succeeds in creating a "minimum of employment at very low wages, maintaining control over the technology that is transferred into the host country, and draining profits made from the sale of exported goods." (Berberoglu, 1992, pg. 50) Such control dictates the nature of the development of production and industrialization in the country. Other problems created by such investment by transnational companies include

...[T]he driving into bankruptcy of small and medium-sized businesses and monopolization of the local economy by foreign capital... a decline in the standard of living... and social and political repression through the installation of authoritarian states that violate the most basic human rights of the masses. (Berberoglu, 1992, ppg 50-51)

The end result is the economic dependency of the underdeveloped nation on capital and investment from the developed nations, which are already limiting the amount of industrialization they allow in these states.

Various examples of such enterprises exist throughout colonial and even post-colonial history. Latin America was the focus of numerous American corporations, mainly in the produce business; the oil boom in the Middle East brought American and European companies to the region in force; Dutch and British companies established the roots of colonialism in the Far East and India; French companies took advantage of Algeria and other African nation-states (later to become colonies). Each instance listed here exploited the availability of cheap labor and subordinate government officials eager to promote new investment into their economy. Latin America saw the growth of the produce industry into a militaristic and often authoritarian occupation. Saudi Arabia and the Middle East witnessed the influx of thousands of migrant workers, causing a significant dependence of their home economies on remittances from the region. The dawn of such practices for profit may even include the transatlantic slave trade in the early days of colonialism. Africa and the Far East witnessed the stripping of their resources, as well as the exploitation of the worker. Each area underwent the forced industrialization of its economy, only to be halted and maintained at a level to prevent the underdeveloped economies from becoming a competitive threat on the worldwide market. Even areas in the Middle East, which appear to have developed in manner that would allow local governments to run operational and successful petroleum drilling and refining facilities, these companies have established themselves so that they are vital to the success of the oil business.

Third Stage: Core versus Periphery

Introduced first by Immanuel Wallerstein, the concept of the "core" and the "periphery" seems to be a progression from the second stage of dependency above, which has been termed "World-System Theory." The level of development of a state places it into one of three categories: the "core" is made of primarily developed and industrialized nations, usually economically powerful in the world system; the "semi-periphery," includes states that are developing on their own independently or with assistance from core countries; and "periphery" states are underdeveloped and dependent on capital, goods, and technology from the core.

This phenomenon of core versus periphery has also been referred to as the North-South divide (Mazrui, 1990). The technologically, economically, and politically superior North, or the core, provides the capital and technology for development, to a certain extent, to the South, or the periphery. The South may be an active producer of raw materials or unfinished goods, yet is dependent on the North for technological goods, consumer goods, a military hardware. Ali A. Mazrui describes this relation ship as a surplus need dependency, where the peripheral states need the core states more than the reverse (1990). As Luc Soete points out, this North-South/Core-Periphery relationship does not analyze the exploitation of the periphery, rather it describes how "a set of dominance/dependence relationships could be developed and maintained..." (Seers 1981, pg. 184)

The Fourth Stage: Remote Control

The core/periphery relationship maintains and exhibits the goal of the transnational corporations to make the most profit. The impact on the local economy can be used as a significant tool to influence the host state economically and politically. With the threat of certain economic ruin, certain countries, especially in Africa and Latin America were and may still be under the virtual remote control of these companies. A new factor, however, enters the equation: "national interests." If a corporation has a sizable investment in a country, which it may or may not control, its home country, in the core, may exert its own political or even military influence to ensure its "national interests" are protected.

In the 1950's, the United States became increasingly dependent on raw materials, and expanded its investment into Latin America. Industrialization that may have been initiated by the local bourgeoisie was gradually transformed into tools for American transnational corporation profit. As economic changes took place, moving the societies toward an export-oriented system, certain political changes were also necessary. As Berberoglu points out,

Repressive military rule was imposed to stabilize the new social order, and the 'democratic' capitalist state of an earlier period... gave way to the authoritarian and repressive neocolonial state followed by a transition to civilian rule orchestrated by the military. (1992, pg. 147)

He later gives examples of Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Similarly, the Bush administration replaced the Panamanian government with its own stooges, indicting Manuel Noriega on drug charges, without regard to the numerous violations of International Law committed in simply apprehending him. In the Middle East, the 1956 Suez War is thought to have been France, England and Israel's attempt to rally the Egyptian people to overthrow Nasser. As Ilyas Ba-Yunus pointed out, "[w]hen King Faisal nationalized Aramco in 1973, he was assassinated in less than a year."(1997) In 1991, as Saddam Hussain threatened Saudi oil fields, having already captured Kuwait, the United States was the first to draw the 'line in the sand.' The core countries tend to bolster their support of nations that welcome them and allow them free access into their economy, or of those where they already have a stronghold in it. By contrast, they tend to blacklist and in fact repel those who resist or endanger their "national interests." Those who are in good standing with the core, are often seen as puppets and stooges of the core.

Muslim Activism - A Struggle for Independence?

Wallerstien makes a very keen observation by realizing that many of the minorities in the United States are no longer few in number (1984). He discusses impending tensions among minority and majority groups, if certain issues are not handled properly. Applying this to Muslims in the US, having been exposed to not only the dependence of their homelands, but also to the political freedom and opportunity available to them in this country, have realized their potential. With over six million Muslims in the United States according to some estimates (Ba-Yunus, 1987), Muslims are expected to outnumber Jews in North America by the new millennia. Some hold that this has already occurred. Regardless, Muslims are emerging as one of the nation's largest religious group.

Muslim Political Activism

Muslim activism in the past few years has risen dramatically. The last two presidential elections in the US witnessed a sharp rise in Muslim voter turnout. New organizations have emerged, from those protecting Muslims' civil rights, to congressional lobbies. Numerous rallies have been held in various cities, including New York, Washington D.C., Boston, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Austin, and many more.

Never before has any US president recognized the existence of the Muslim community. President Clinton actually sent Eid greetings to Muslims in the United States two years in a row. He has also sent letters to major Muslim leaders congratulating them on the month of Ramadhan. He has invited numerous Muslim community leaders to the White House to discuss issues facing the Muslim community domestically and in terms of foreign policy.

On May 15, 1993, nearly sixty thousand Muslims marched demanding the lifting of the Bosnian Arms Embargo at the White House. The event was put together by the Bosnia Task Force, a group comprising of every major Muslim organization in the United States (other than Nation of Islam, if one chooses to call it a "Muslim" organization) - a first for Muslims in this country. The rally drew protestors from all over the US, some chartering DC-10 airplanes to come, while others came in chartered busses and vans. A similar rally was held at the United Nations in New York on September 16, 1995, drawing over seventy thousand Muslims. Simultaneously, those who were unable to come to these rallies held their own marches in their own cities. Boston, New Orleans, Albany, and other capital cities were flooded with Muslim protestors.

Along with these rallies, Muslims have been actively lobbying the President and members of Congress with phone-in and write-in campaigns. Election debates are often used to coax candidates to express their voices on certain issues. The effects of these campaigns may be seen in the passage of two separate bills in Congress, calling for the unilateral lifting of the Bosnian Arms Embargo (which Clinton promptly vetoed).

Wallerstein's point may go a long way in trying to explain this recent trend. He states that ethnic and racial minorities "...are moving towards being perhaps one-half of the US working class." He adds that this increasingly large group will "...intensify the expression of their class interests..."(1984, pg. 78). Although Wallerstien refers more specifically to the issue of race as affecting social order, his point can be stretched to include those interests of Muslims who have witnessed the conditions of their homelands, and have a desire to improve those conditions. Indeed, Esposito mentions that "[m]any Muslims blamed the ills of their societies on their excessive dependence - political, economic, military, and sociocultural - upon the West, in particular the superpowers..." (1997, pg. 9) The goal of ending the dependency on the core may not be the active thought in the minds of most Muslim activists, but it may be theorized that the knowledge not only of the conditions in the Muslim world but also of the puppet-like dependency of the Middle East has an impact on their motivation to affect change. The opportunity to use this puppet-like dependency first to improve conditions, and then to allow political change (within the dependent states) has not become a realizable one thus far.

The paradox that accompanies this concept is that once political change has taken place, the desired outcome for the activist should be to see the dependent relationship dissolve. Muslims have realized that affecting change from within their home countries may be difficult if not impossible, primarily because of the dominant core/periphery relationship. The alternative then may become to attempt to use the relationship to achieve one's goals. Another dilemma then emerges: how to establish a political system by "remote control" which will sever the dependency? The empowerment of one group, or even of the displacement of the original ruler, would invariably have to be somewhat dependent on this core/periphery relationship itself, for without it, the change will not take place. What may be done, however, is a concerted dual effort, one in the core countries, and a coordinated movement in the periphery states. Unfortunately, this may also backfire, as it may support the establishment of a particular regime. The key, regardless of what tactic is used, is the influence of Muslims over the foreign policy of the core (the U.S.). Thus, in the quest to end the dependent relationship between these third world nations and the world's superpowers, it may be possible to use the dependency itself to affect the desired change in the third world. The use of the dependent relationship therefore becomes a self-terminating strategy.


This fruit of Middle Eastern dependency on the United States is not yet ripe not because of the conditions in the Muslim World, but rather due to the lack of strength of Muslims in the US itself. Currently, Muslims are in the experimental phase. They realize that this still small group can exert only a small but significant amount of influence. Muslims are still overshadowed by Jewish influence in politics and media. Thus Muslim pressure exerted over the Arab-Israeli issue rarely has any major effect. Although the number of Muslims may be an impressive figure, the unity and organization required to affect significant change has not yet so taken shape. As an increasing number of second generation Muslims, born and raised in the US emerge from their colleges and universities as lawyers, doctors, engineers, and other professionals, they have one weapon their professional parents did not: the knowledge of the American political and legal system.

It is here that the connection to the dependency theory becomes difficult to see, since one may expect a new generation of American Muslims to be more concerned (consciously or subconsciously) with domestic issues. What is unique to this new breed of Muslim however, is a strong tie to religious and ethnic roots. There are two levels of concern in this instance. First is that of Muslims around the world as Muslim brothers and sisters - the concept of the Ummah. This concept is one that has successfully been passed on to the new generation, with less ethnic biases that their parents may have had. When Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya, Mindenao, Palestine, Kashmir, or other places are killed or tortured, this new generation speaks out and refuses to sit still. Secondly, having been raised by parents who lived most of their lives in the periphery states, the cultural ties to their parents' homelands may still exist in a non-religious nature. They may prefer food from their parents' countries, speak the languages, and even identify with people from the same ethnic background, just as a normal behavioral pattern. Thus, it may be possible that when an event occurs involving their parents' homelands, their attention is immediately drawn to it. Wallerstien's prediction may be coming true: Muslim immigrants and descendents of immigrants are expressing their interests in solidarity with their countrymen and brothers and sisters in faith.

The dependency theory has evolved over time to account for various changes in the relationship between the developed and undeveloped world. The implications of it are vast, and may be applied to global economics, global politics, and global sociology. At the same time, it has implications within the economics, politics, and society of both the dependent states, and the provider states. The world's core nations have used these dependencies to manipulate the economies and politics of these countries to maintain their dominance over the world system. The United States has emerged as the current world hegemon, with immense influence and power to affect political, military, and economic change within dependent nations around the globe. If Muslims in the US are truly concerned about conditions within their homelands, they will not be able to affect any significant change from within those nations, but rather use the existing dependency relationship to achieve their goals. There may be only two major means to affect change in the politics of a government: by force (revolution) or by using the system. With the increasing number of Muslims, and the increasing significance of their numbers, Muslims are becoming more politically active in the United States. Although the dependency of the countries of their ethnic origins may not be foremost on their minds, it certainly must be a contributing factor, if not altogether a subconscious motivation to affect change through the American political system.



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Updated 11/30/97

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