Is America’s “war on terror” in reality a war on Islam itself?
Most Muslim radicals insist that it is – as do many patriotic conservatives in this country who believe that any attempts to woo Islamic moderates, or to whitewash the violent and menacing essence of the Koran, distort the true nature of the current conflict.
Some of those who see Islam in all of its manifestations as our ultimate, implacable foe took me to task (in e-mail and phone calls to my radio show) for my recent support for U.S. recognition of the newly independent Muslim-majority state of Kosovo.
To these zealots, it hardly matters that the leading European powers (Britain, France, Germany) strongly support Kosovo’s separation from Serbia, or that the most outspoken opposition to Kosovar independence comes from the increasingly anti-American Putin regime in Russia. To some observers, it’s also irrelevant that ethnic Albanians (mostly non-religious, secularized Muslims) comprise more than 90% of Kosovo’s population and this overwhelming majority ardently desires its own democratic nation state. Though Orthodox Christian Serbs make up only 5% of the populace in Kosovo, critics of Bush administration Balkan policy insist that this embattled minority deserves U.S. protection and support. They discount fervent Kosovar promises that the new nation will guarantee the rights and security of its Christian residents; skeptics believe that such assurances mean nothing when provided by Muslim leaders, no matter how secular or pro-American.
“You of all people should recognize that there is no such thing as a ‘moderate Muslim,’” one correspondent scolded me. “Moderation and Islam contradict one another. Anyone who denies that contradiction is either a fool or a dupe. The tragedy in Kosovo represents just the latest example of state department mistakes based on the consistent denial that Islam, wherever it exists, is the eternal enemy of democratic values and Western Civilization.”
This increasingly popular absolutist position – whatever its historical, theological or anthropological basis – represents a threat to our short-term security and our long-term success in the very real battle against Islamism. If we accept, let alone embrace, the proposition that Islam itself is our enemy, then all of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims become enemies of the United States, and doom us to unending and un-winnable conflict.
It’s true that some serious scholars both inside and outside the Muslim world (or “Umma”) have pointed to Koranic passages and interpretations that seem to command perpetual jihad against non-believers, but other authorities (again, including Muslims and outsiders alike) emphasize more tolerant, less bloodthirsty strains in the teachings of Mohammed. The defenders of Islam point to a few peaceful and surprisingly diverse Muslim societies (Medieval Spain, or al-Andaluz, represents perhaps the most celebrated example) that contrast with the aggressive, convert-or-die approach that appears repeatedly in Islamic history. Islamic apologists point to similar contradictions in Christian history, with literally millions of heathens forcibly converted, enslaved or put to death, not to mention the appalling blood-letting between Catholics and Protestants who slaughtered one another for centuries despite their similar proclamations of loyalty to Jesus.
For Christianity, however, the worst excesses of violent fanaticism in the name of faith occurred four hundred years ago while for Islam they took place yesterday – with suicide bombings, riots, mutilations and tyrannical theocracies in every corner of the globe. No fair-minded person can look at the role played by Muslim faith in contemporary politics, economics, culture, or human rights without questioning the frequently dysfunctional nature of Islamic ideas.
Nevertheless, any public proclamation of overall enmity toward Islam would harm America’s cause in the world at large and undermine our security at home. This approach damages our interest in five ways--
1) It confirms the anti-American propaganda of terrorist leaders. Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and their associates have argued for years that the United States, “the Great Satan,” is the leader of a global conspiracy to destroy Islam and oppress Muslims. Any statement of hostility to Muslim faith would confirm the claims of our most dangerous enemies, enhancing their prestige and credibility. We also harm ourselves greatly if we declare that the idea of a “moderate Muslim” is a contradiction in terms: this echoes the al-Qaeda line almost precisely, as we agree with our deadliest enemies that anyone who chooses to help us or to oppose terrorism is somehow inauthentic in his Koranic commitment.
2) It alienates our allies. Most Islamic societies fall far short of democratic norms or even civilized standards, but several of them provide crucial assistance in the war against radicalism. Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations may be far from perfect as allies, but they would each be profoundly dangerous as adversaries. Our economic and military interests around the world depend to a great extent on some cooperation with Muslim nations and official condemnation of the faith they cherish would make such cooperation vastly more difficult if not altogether impossible. No one’s entirely comfortable with the idea of more than sixty nuclear warheads in the hands of President Musharraf of Pakistan, but imagine those nukes controlled by Islamist leaders of the future with reason to believe that the U.S. wanted to wipe out Muslim belief.
3) It puts the societies of Western Europe at profound risk. With growing and powerful Muslim populations in France, the United Kingdom, Germany and most other European powers, an American declaration of hostility to Islam would force those societies into an impossible choice: either disassociate yourself completely from your necessary American ally, or prepare to suppress the well-established Islamic communities in your midst. Of course, it would be better for our European friends if their Muslim millions simply packed up and went home, but since there’s no chance they will do so any attempt to officially disparage Islam, or even to force instantaneous assimilation and secularization, becomes dangerous and destabilizing.
4) It destroys our tradition of religious pluralism. If we proclaim Islam (or any other religion) as an “enemy of the state,” then we’ve clearly abandoned our cherished First Amendment tradition of neutrality among religious faiths. Constitutional scholars may argue as to whether government may encourage a generalized sense of religiosity or reverence, but no student of the First Amendment suggests that government may select one specific faith for either promotion or persecution. Studies suggest that American Muslims represent a mostly prosperous and assimilated segment of the population, but public hostility to Islam would encourage a disturbing tend toward radicalization already apparent among some young Muslims. If Islam is our enemy, should Homeland Security start closing down mosques? The very idea represents an obvious violation of the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause.
5) It pushes us toward a never-ending war with no exit strategy. Even those of us who have always supported the Iraq and Afghanistan wars wish that the government had learned one of the key lessons of Vietnam which once comprised a key element of the “Powell Doctrine”: never go to war without a clear, practical plan for victory and a reliable exit strategy. If we define Islam as our enemy, then what, exactly, is our feasible strategy for wiping out a resilient religious faith that’s proven disturbingly durable for more than 1,400 years? Even if we succeed in reducing the numbers and influence of the world’s Muslims we’ll still face at the very least, say, ten-percent of the current population: or more than 130 million believers. If that formidable Islamic remnant sees America as responsible for the elimination (either physically or spiritually) of most of their brothers and sisters in faith, the terrorist threat we face may actually intensify, rather than recede.
In all areas of human conflict or competition, the divide-and-conquer strategy works. In warfare, politics, international relations, business or all other contests, you win by uniting those on your side of the battle lines and dividing your adversaries.
Pushing the idea that Islam is our enemy does exactly the opposite: dividing the United States from allied states, and dividing those states at home, while instantly uniting our enemies.
Recognizing that we simply can’t succeed in “a war against Islam” isn’t to say that the followers of Mohammed have built “a religion of peace,” or even that Islam deserves identical respect to other great religions. In truth, even fair-minded Muslims must recognize that Islam today inspires unique concern with its well-documented propensity toward violence, radicalism and authoritarianism. We should encourage any and all Muslim voices against such extremism, rather than insisting that they don’t exist or can’t exist.
The statement that “Islam itself is the enemy” may deliver thrills and satisfaction with its tough, uncompromising, provocative ring, but the advance of that that idea among American conservatives and others constitutes a far more dire threat to U.S. interests than to the power or influence of the terrorists.