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Moderate Muslim States Are Essential to Countering Terrorism

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
September 24, 2001
Financial Times


In the wake of the abominable terrorist attack, the U.S. Administration and Congress have set a course that will not be denied -- America shall employ all necessary and appropriate means to retaliate against terrorist groups. Regimes that abet or harbor terrorists will be held accountable and face dire consequences. But terrorism is an elusive scourge. The United States must rely on strategic coalitions, including its allies and moderate Muslim states.

More than interdiction is needed to safeguard national and world security. Military action can reduce the capacity of terrorist organizations, but it cannot eliminate the risk of attack. For every suicide bomber, many more are waiting to take his place. So a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy must go beyond punitive actions. In addition to military measures, incentives and rewards should be provided to those who reject violence in order to advance political objectives.

For such a strategy to succeed, it is necessary to consider the attitudes and conditions that give rise to extremism, and as a result, to terrorism. We need to ask ourselves some essential questions: Why does much of the Islamic world feel estranged from the West? What can be done to alleviate the inequity, poverty and despair felt by many Muslims? And how can public diplomacy promote mutual understanding, and thereby help reduce radicalism, militancy, and violence?

Muslims have a hugely ambivalent relationship with the West, with cultural differences playing an important role. The West embodies qualities that are anathema to the mullah's teachings, but a magnet to the individual's desires. Many Muslims aspire to Western lifestyles, despite being repelled by its opulence and perceived hedonism. And America is a symbol of something alluring, but unattainable. Extremists tend to disdain or destroy what they cannot possess, and find righteous indignation in suffering and martyrdom.

Political issues are, however, at the crux of the estrangement between the United States and the Muslim world. U.S. policies in the Middle East have had the unintended consequence of fanning the flames of Arab rage. For example, American support for corrupt and autocratic Middle Eastern regimes is deeply resented. The Islamic Conference (OIC) sees sanctions on Iraq as an instrument of oppression, and strongly object to the continual bombing of the country. Further, many in the Arab world question the need for a U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites.

Cultural and political issues converge in Israel, a bastion of Western civilization in a sea of Islamic states. Many Arabs see Israel as an oppressor state, an agent of imperialism, and a proxy of the United States. They believe that Israel's well being is achieved at the expense of displaced Palestinians,and they are angry about America's unconditional support for Israel. Much of the Arab world's fury directed at the United States is an extension of deeply rooted rage regarding Israel's "occupation."

Further, as Israel thrives and America prospers, Arabs feel increasingly disenfranchised and impoverished. And as the world's sole superpower and major economic engine, the United States is blamed for the inequity, injustice and insecurity that many Arabs feel and attribute to globalization.

Today relations between Islam and the West are at all-time low. It is critical that the campaign against terrorism not be allowed to cascade, as many fear, into a cultural war. Last week's terrorist attackers are not representative of the overwhelming majority of Muslims. In fact, the Koran prohibits the taking of human life. It emphasizes that Allah is compassionate, good and forgiving.

The United States can rise above its national tragedy by demonstrating compassion and understanding. Doing so does not imply weakness. America's resolve in rooting out terrorism is unshakable, as its imminent actions will demonstrate most forcefully. At the same time, the United States should more effectively communicate a message of sympathy, support and solidarity to Muslims around the world. To this end, the United States should expand its public diplomacy efforts via satellite, the Internet and through people-to-people programs. Muslims worldwide need reassurance that the United States is not hostile to their hopes and dreams.

Above all, public diplomacy must start at home -- by ensuring tolerance towards Arab-Americans and other American Muslims. U.S. citizens of Muslim persuasion absolutely cannot be held responsible for last week's tragedy. Authorities must make every effort to counteract prejudice and ensure the civil liberties of Arab-Americans. Moreover, unwarranted recrimination could undermine cooperation with the international community in counter-terrorism efforts. A blue ribbon commission on U.S.-Islamic relations should be established to identify ways of enhancing mutual understanding and promoting

confidence-building measures.

On other fronts, the United States should create a meaningful forum in which Western and Middle Eastern leaders can gather to discuss ways of ensuring that globalization enriches everyone, not just a few. By engaging Arab leaders in this dialogue, and involving civil society representatives from across the Arab World, Arabs will become stakeholders in the process of globalization rather than antagonists to it.

Most important, the United States should take steps to reactivate the Arab-Israeli peace process and work towards a regional peace settlement. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centers, the United States can validate its constructive role by finding strength in adversely and, with support from around the world, renewing its resolve to mediate an agreement. Such steps would send a signal of revitalized U.S. leadership, and demonstrate the sincerity of U.S. intentions to achieve a just and lasting peace.

Public diplomacy can serve -- indeed, must serve -- as a bridge between the United States and the Muslim world. However, it is no substitute for responding to last week's horrendous attack, nor does it obviate the urgent need to protect U.S. citizens from future strikes. Incorporating foresight and patience, a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy can help end the cycle of violence. Statesmanship combined with military measures will prove the most powerful deterrent to future terror.

David L. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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