The war now being fought by U.S. military forces in Iraq means that Saddam Hussein’s murderous reign is finished. And the recent capture of several senior Al Qaeda operatives gives hope that the terrorist network’s lifespan has been considerably shortened. But these developments do not mean that the U.S. war on terrorism will soon be over.
Tactical initiatives, like routing the Taliban in Afghanistan and hunting down Al Qaeda, are insufficient to win that war and ensure our long-term safety in what is a very small world these days. What is still missingand expected of a superpoweris a sophisticated long-term strategy, supported by patience and perseverance, for combating the roots of the religious terrorism that struck our country with such fury on Sept. 11, 2001.
For this, we need to understand the reasons for the combustible environment in today’s Middle East. This is not excusing terrorism, nor is it a sign of weakness. On the contrary, such understanding fortifies us. Knowledge is power.
During five years as a correspondent in the Middle East, I learned that most Arab Muslims do not hate us, though they do hate some of our foreign policies. They certainly do not hate us for our freedoms. This statement tells us very little that is useful in forming U.S. policy or U.S. behavior abroad. Evildoers do indeed exist. But there are social, cultural, political and religious influences that created the conditions that gave rise to groups like Al Qaeda.
The situation in the Middle East today is the result of the convergence of three major historical forces that have been unfolding for decades: first, Islam’s reawakening as it comes to terms with modernity; second, the failure of the international community, in particular the United States, to resolve the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now more than a half-century old; and third, the lack of political liberties and the authoritarianism of Arab governments that has reduced Arab political life and discourse to an infantile level.
Most perplexing perhaps for Americans is the revival of Islam, which is unfolding on four distinct but complementary levels. In the daily lives of ordinary Muslims, these levels intersect and overlap. But when examined separately, they illuminate why Islam, a faith grounded in the same monotheistic tradition as Judaism and Christianity, is passing through a historic crucible.
The first level is pious Islam, by which Imean the increased personal religious devotion seen in millions of Muslims in recent decades. Whether it be stricter observance of fasting during Ramadan, wearing the veil, attending weekly study groups on the Koran or being more conscientious about saying prayers five times a day, this growing personal piety is evident in every Arab country.
The second level, political Islam, is the one that draws the headlines. But political Islam spans a wide spectrum. At one end are Islamists with a messianic mission to convert the world to their militant version of Islam. They use violence to that end. The prime example is Al Qaeda. At the other end of the spectrum are peaceful political activists, with a more tolerant brand of Islam, who reject violence. We can expect that these opposition activists will continue to use Islam as a vehicle for their activities for some years to come. And we cannot write off all of them as religious fanatics.
The third level of Islam’s reawakening is cultural Islam. Many Muslims feel threatened by the powerful penetration of their societies and cultures by Western, and in particular American, culturesomething that has been accelerated by globalization. In response they are returning to their roots, in other words, to Islam. This faith permeates Arab cultural life in a way that no religion, not even Christianity, penetrates Western culture.
This return to roots, or cultural Islam, is expressed in a variety of ways, some more evident than others. Some young Muslims, for example, reject Western music and films. Others are making an effort to articulate in an Islamic way, or by means of an Islamic vocabulary, values that they have come to identifyrightly or wronglyas Western values: ideas like democracy, individualism, human rights and feminism. They are seeking to blend these values with their own Islamic cultural background and to express them in a way that makes sense within their Islamic world-view.
Cultural Islam is constantly in conflict with the allure of American culture. So while thousands of young Arabs love Jennifer Lopez, watch Dallas and rent Tom Cruise movies, others shun them. And even within the same person, there are often two colliding impulses. One says, I want to be just like those Americans. The other says, it is humiliating to imitate Americans, whose secular culture is corroding my Islamic culture.
The last manifestation of Islam’s reawakening, which I call new thinking in Islam, is playing out on the theological level. Often overlooked, it is likely in the long run to be the most revolutionary aspect of this revival. Right now, more Muslims around the world are re-examining their theological heritage than at any other time in Islam’s 1,300-year history. For centuries, religious scholars with years of training in Islam’s sacred texts were looked to for authoritative interpretations of those texts. Now, to an unprecedented degree, ordinary Muslims are claiming the right to examine and reinterpret those texts themselves.
Essentially, Muslims are wrestling with what one young American Muslim scholar called the interpretive imperative to make their religion more relevant to modern times. In the process, they are grappling with big questions: What is the relationship between religious knowledge and secular knowledge? How does religious knowledge differ from religion itself? How should Islamic law, or shariah, be applied to contemporary moral and political questions? Who is to judge apostasy in a world where freedom of religious conscience is widely regarded as a basic human right? What is the relationship between political authority and God’s sovereignty? And, perhaps most importantly, the key question: What is Islam’s role in the public life of a modern Muslim society?
We Americans settled a similar question more than 200 years ago. Despite the lawsuits that arise every holiday season as some object to crêches or menorahs in front of city hall, we enjoy a very solid national consensus about the role of religion in our country’s public life. This is not so in many Muslim countries, where there has always been a close relationship between religion and politics. The Egyptian Constitution, for example, states that Islam is the official religion of the state. As a result, predominantly Muslim countries do not see the American solution as appropriate for them.
Islam, which has no Vatican, has always been a pluralistic faith of many interpretations. The current theological introspection is invigorating that pluralism, and all over the world thousands of competing voices are each saying, I have the true Islam, or This is the way Islam should be lived.
Unfortunately, at this particular moment in the Middle East, the more orthodox, more conservative and sometimes more radical voicesoften espousing a literalist reading of Scripturehave the upper hand. When societies feel defensive, humiliated and beleagueredas those in that region of the world do nowthey are not at their most creative. At such times, hard-liners usually prevail. The exact opposite situation is evident in Muslim communities in the United States and Europe, where the moderate voices are the dominant ones.
It is frightening that some in the United States are taking a simplistic view of this internal struggle within Islam, equating the faith itself with its most radical, violent and anti-Western adherents. These political commentators and Christian leaders are promoting the view that Islam is at war with America, when the reality is that only a faction of radical Islamists is at war with us. In today’s world of instant- messaging, insensitive remarks about Islam by people like Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are transmitted around the world in hours, where they fuel the growing belief that the predominantly Judeo-Christian nation of America is on a crusade against Islam. In such an inflamed atmosphere, remarks like these dissipate the goodwill sown by the efforts of Pope John Paul II to promote peace and Catholic-Muslim dialogue.
To win the war on terrorism, the United States must turn around the Middle Eastern environment and help moderate Muslims find their voices. But this will not be done on a dime. It is a long-range project that requires changes in U.S. policiesfirst of all regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has bred such resentment and anger toward our country. President George W. Bush’s recent presentation of a road map to resolve this conflict is a long overdue step in the right direction. But is it genuine? Will it lead to a vigorous, engaged and sustained U.S.-led international campaign to follow the road map to its destination? Or was it just a public relations exercise to pre-empt antiwar sentiment on the eve of the U.S. war against Iraq? Everyone knows what is needed to resolve this conflict in a fair and just way to both sides. The ingredients have been around for a long time. What is missing is the will and determination to implement them.
Second, the United States must confront the political frustration and economic disappointments caused by authoritarian Arab governments. It should consistently and publicly criticize human rights abuses by Middle Eastern governments, including Israel, help improve Arab education systems and encourage political liberalization.
If the United States is sincere about promoting democracy in the Arab world, it has to be patient. People accustomed to authoritarianism do not learn new ways of thinking about politics in a year. It also must realize that this process may sometimes be messy, and that elections may bring to power leaders or parties with Islamist agendas. We should be ready to distinguish between such partiesIslamists are not all the sameand judge them by their actions. With their sizeable constituencies, Islamists will likely be part of the solution of moving toward more democratic societies.
The United States also must set a good example by preserving the legal and civil rights that have made our country a beacon of freedom around the world. Lamentably, those liberties are being eroded in the name of the war on terrorism, damaging our moral authority to censure abuses in other countries.
Transforming the Middle East environment should involve not just our government, but all Americans, who have shown that when asked to contribute to their national security, they can muster a multitude of resources. Businessmen, tourism officials, university professors, scientists, political consultants and not least theologians all need to be recruited to initiate dialogue with their counterparts. The pity is that right now such contacts are diminishing.
The U.S. war in Iraq will certainly mark a historic crossroads in Arab-U.S. relations. Whether those relations improve depends not only on how the United States manages post-Hussein Iraq but also on how it addresses the roots of terrorism. Terrorists are a minority, but they win public sympathy because the United States acts arrogantly and is inconsistent in its support for democracy and short-sighted in letting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fester.
If the United States moves strategically to transform the Middle East environment, its efforts will be well received. I know this from the many young Muslims I met there who want to be a successful part of the global community. They are moderate in religion and tolerant of other faiths. They are eager for new thinking in Islam that is compatible with democracy and modernity and that gives them a sense of restored dignity. They know deep down that a closed, cramped version of their faith will not allow Islam to maintain its vibrancy as a spiritual force. These Muslims have one eye on their computer icons and another on their minarets as they search for a moderate and modern middle way in the Middle East. All we have to do is help them find it.