All the major Republican presidential candidates have bought into George W. Bush’s rhetoric of a central struggle against Muslim extremism and have thus committed themselves to a generational, often self-generating war. By foregrounding this issue, they have ensured that it will be pivotal to the 2008 presidential race. The Democratic candidates have mostly been timid in critiquing Bush’s “war on terror” or pointing out its dangers to the Republic, a failing that they must redress if they are to blunt their rivals’ fearmongering.
Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani in his recent Foreign Affairs article complains that the United States has been on the “defensive” in the war on “radical Islamic fascism” and says with maddening vagueness that it must find ways of going “on the offensive.” He promises that “this war will be long.” Giuliani is being advised on such matters by Representative Peter King, who has complained that “unfortunately we have too many mosques in this country”; by Daniel Pipes, who has questioned the wisdom of allowing American Muslims to vote; and by Norman Podhoretz, author of World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. Combining the word “Islam” with a European term like “fascism” is profoundly offensive; a subtext of anti-Muslim bigotry pervades Giuliani’s campaign, a sop to the Christian and Zionist right.
John McCain depicts withdrawal from Iraq as “defeat,” saying in Michigan on September 21 that it would “would strengthen Al Qaeda, empower Iran and other hostile powers in the Middle East, unleash a full-scale civil war in Iraq that could quite possibly provoke genocide there and destabilize the entire region.” But continued occupation of Iraq, a major Muslim country, is just as likely to lead to the consequences McCain fears. Some front-runners, like Mitt Romney, argue for a big expansion in US military forces, without explaining how that would help with counterterrorism.
The Republican candidates have taken their cues from Bush and his Administration. They have continued to vastly exaggerate the threat from terror attacks (far more Americans have died for lack of healthcare or from hard drugs) and have demonized Muslims. India’s Hindu-extremist RSS, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda and Colombia’s FARC (a hard-drug smuggler) are seldom referred to by Republican politicians worried about terrorists, even though all these movements have been extremely violent and have threatened US interests.
Advocates of the “war on terror” fantasize about the Muslim world as a Soviet Union-type challenge to the United States. In fact, the dozens of countries with majority Muslim populations are mostly strong allies of the United States. One, Turkey, is a NATO ally, and six (Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Pakistan) are non-NATO allies. Only fourteen countries have this status, so Muslim states make up nearly half. The United States counts many other friends in the region, having significant frictions only with Sudan, Syria and Iran, and those are mixed pictures (Syria and Sudan helped against Al Qaeda, and Iran sought a strategic alliance with the United States against Saddam Hussein in early 2003).
The Republicans are playing Russian roulette with America’s future with their bigoted anti-Muslim rhetoric. Muslims may constitute as much as a third of humankind by 2050, forming a vast market and a crucial labor pool. They will be sitting on the lion’s share of the world’s energy resources. The United States will increasingly have to compete with emerging rivals such as China and India for access to those Muslim resources and markets, and if its elites go on denigrating Muslims, America will be at a profound disadvantage during the next century.
Some Muslim extremist groups are indeed a threat, but they have not been dealt with appropriately. Bush has argued that terrorist groups have state backing, a principle that authorizes conventional war against their sponsor. In fact, asymmetrical terrorist groups can thrive in the interstices of states, and September 11 was solely an Al Qaeda operation. In his speech about the conquest of Iraq on the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, George W. Bush announced, “We have removed an ally of Al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding.” It was a bald-faced lie.
Imperial occupations under the pretext of fighting terrorism suck up scarce resources and multiply terrorism, and so are self-defeating. They benefit only the military-industrial complex and political elites pursuing American hegemony. The backlash is growing. Sympathy bombings deriving from Muslim distress at brutal US military actions against Iraqis have been undertaken in Madrid, London and Glasgow, and a handful of formerly secular Iraqi Sunnis have suddenly expressed interest in Al Qaeda.
Worse, the hypocritical Bush Administration has ties to Muslim terror groups. The US military, beholden to Iraqi Kurds for support, permits several thousand fighters of the PKK terrorist organization, which bombs people in Turkey, to make safe harbor in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Bush Administration has used against Tehran the expatriate Iranian Mujahedeen-e-Khalq terror network, on which Saddam Hussein bestowed a base in Iraq. Democrats have mysteriously declined to denounce these unsavory alliances.
The Administration clearly is not very interested in doing the hard work of dealing effectively with small fringe terrorist networks. That is why Osama bin Laden is at large and the CIA unit tracking him disbanded. Successful counterterrorism involves good diplomacy and good police work. A case in point is the plot last summer by young Muslim men in London to bomb several airliners simultaneously using liquid explosives in innocent-looking bottles and detonators hidden in disposable cameras. Contrary to the allegations of skeptics, the techniques they envisaged were perfectly workable. The plotters were determined enough to make chilling martyrdom videos.
The plot was broken up in part because some of the conspirators were turned in to Scotland Yard by British Muslim acquaintances disturbed by their behavior. They had been alerted to the seriousness of radical views by the bombing of London’s public transport system in July 2005. British police infiltrated an undercover operative into the group. The Pakistani security forces helped monitor a radical in that country, Rashid Rauf, who was in contact with the London group. That is, the foiling of this operation depended very largely on the good will of other Muslims. Such police and community awareness work has had proven results. In contrast, invading and occupying Muslim states risks reducing the fund of good will on which successful terror prevention depends.
Since resources are scarce, it is important that the magnitude of the threat not be exaggerated. Al Qaeda has at most a few thousand members. It holds no territory and its constituent organizations have been roundly defeated in Egypt, Algeria and other Muslim nations. Its command and control networks have been effectively disrupted. Most threats now come from amateur copycats. Al Qaeda has no prospect whatsoever of taking over any state in the Muslim world. It probably would be dead altogether if Bush had not poured gasoline on the flames with his large-scale invasions and occupations. For John McCain to proclaim that Al Qaeda is a bigger threat to US security than was the Soviet Union, which had thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at this country, is to enter Alice’s Wonderland.
Very few Muslims are either violent or fundamentalist; most are traditionalist, mystic, modernist or secularist. Murder rates in the Muslim world are remarkably low. About 10 to 15 percent of Muslims throughout the world, or 130 million to 215 million, generally support a fundamentalist point of view, including the implementation of Islamic law as the law of the state. But they are not typically violent, and the United States has managed to ally with some of them, as with the Shiite fundamentalist Dawa Party of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The fundamentalists are atypical. In a 2006 Pew poll, majorities in Egypt, Jordan and Indonesia were optimistic that democracy would work in their countries.
Because of its support for or acquiescence to Israel’s creeping erasure of the Palestinian nation and for Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, and because of Washington’s own brutal war in Iraq, the United States is poorly positioned to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. In the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, some 75 percent of the population of Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim country) had a favorable view of the United States. By the time Bush had invaded two Muslim countries, in 2003, America’s favorability rating there had fallen to 15 percent. It recovered a bit after US magnanimity during the tsunami but then fell back to less than half the pre-Bush level. In Turkey, the favorability rating has fallen from 52 to 12 percent in the same period (all polling figures from the Global Attitudes Project of the Pew Charitable Trust).
America does itself no favors by neglecting to promote knowledge of the United States, of its political philosophies and social and political system, in the Muslim world. The United States Information Service was gutted and folded into the State Department in the late 1990s. There are very few American Studies programs at Arabophone universities, and very little US political philosophy or history has been translated. Likewise, Congress funds the study of the Middle East at American Universities at shockingly low levels, given the need for Americans who understand the region and its languages.
Extremist Muslim networks have a specific history, almost entirely rooted in reaction to many decades of European colonial domination or in the Reagan jihad against the Soviet Union, during which the United States gave extremists $5 billion, pressured Saudi Arabia to do the same and trained the extremists at CIA facilities in Afghanistan. Much of their subsequent violence can properly be seen as a form of blowback–black operations that go bad and boomerang on the initiating country.
Marc Sageman, a CIA case officer in Afghanistan in the late 1980s who is now at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, has estimated the number of extremists who could and would do violence to the United States at less than a thousand. There is a larger group that supports the creation of Taliban-style rigid theocracies in their countries and who are willing to deploy violence to achieve that goal. While their ideology may be unpleasant, they do not necessarily pose a security threat to the United States.
American politicians should cease implying that Muslim nations and individuals are different from, or somehow more dangerous than, any other group of human beings, a racist idea promoted by the Christian and Zionist right. They should acknowledge that most Muslim nations are US friends and allies. A wise American policy toward the small networks of Muslim extremists would reduce their recruitment pool by the quick establishment of a Palestinian state and by a large-scale military drawdown from Iraq, thus removing widespread and major grievances. An increase in visible humanitarian and development aid to Muslim countries has a demonstrable effect on improving the US image.
The reconstitution of the United States Information Service as an independent body would allow better public diplomacy. Promoting American studies in the Muslim world, in its major languages rather than just in English, would help remove widespread misconceptions about the United States among educated Muslim observers. Increasing federal funding for Middle East studies at home would better equip this country to deal with this key region. More adept diplomacy with the Muslim states, most of which are as afraid of terrorism as we are, could lead to further cooperation in the security field. Better police work and cooperation with the police of Middle Eastern states would be much more effective than launching invasions. It would also help if we stopped insulting Muslims by calling their religion “fascist.”