by John L. Esposito

John L. Esposito is professor of religion and international affairs, and director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. His publications include The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, Islam and Politics, and (with John Obert Voll) Makers of Contemporary Islam.

The terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will be remembered as a watershed. They not only constitute a national tragedy that saw the most devastating assault against America on U.S. soil but also signal a new clash in the 21st century. This clash is not that of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, of civilizations between Islam and the West or America and Islam, but between the civilized world and a global terrorism that transcends a “civilizational” paradigm. The war on terrorism will no doubt warrant a military response. However, its long-term success will require a better understanding of Islam and Muslims as well as a more critical review of our   foreign policy and media coverage.

A noteworthy and surprising outcome in recent weeks has been the extent to which political and religious leaders emphasized that extremists should not be equated with mainstream Islam, and that Arab and Muslim Americans should be respected and afforded the same freedoms and tolerance enjoyed by all other citizens. However, these special admonitions on behalf of Arabs and Muslims also reflect awareness that Islam is not judged by the same standards as Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, in seeking to understand Islam, many still struggle within a vacuum, relying on stereotypes born of negative and violent headlines and commentators whose own political agenda is less about America’s national interest and more about discrediting Arabs and Muslims from Palestine to South Asia. Our understanding of this Abrahamic faith (Islam belongs within a broader Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition) as well as the everyday, normal lives of the mainstream Muslim majority is obscured by a radical minority, leading headlong into reporters, members of Congress, students, and colleagues with questions along the lines of: “Why do the majority of Muslims hate us?” and “What is it in the Qur’an that justifies terrorism and hijackings?” If the terrorists were members of Christian or Jewish groups that had legitimated their militancy and violence with a twisted interpretation of the Bible or Christianity, media coverage and government responses would reflexively treat these acts, as they have done in the past, as those of extremists or fanatics. The situation is compounded by the simplistic equation of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism with all Islamic movements, political and social, non-violent and violent.

Although great care was taken by American officials to distinguish between Islam and terrorism, the extent of our lack of awareness regarding Muslim perceptions of history was unfortunately illustrated by the president’s use of “crusade” to characterize  America’s war against global terrorism and the Pentagon’s use of “Infinite Justice” to herald our exclusive God-given mandate to achieve justice. Is it not ironic that we decry the mixing of religion and politics as dangerous and antithetical to a modern (secular) state but, when useful,  we ourselves rush to appeal to religion to justify our actions? More importantly, both the administration and the media have often proved incapable or unwilling to balance attention on stopping terrorists, in particular Osama Bin Laden, with an equally important focus on the core political issues that help to explain a growing anti-Americanism in the Middle East and broader Muslim world. There have been notable exceptions, Nightline’s “Why Do They Hate Us?” the Wall Street Journal’s “America in the Eyes of the Arab World: A Complex Mix of Emotions Fuels Hate,” Reuters News Service’s Analysis: “U.S. War on ‘Terror’ Faces Weight of History,” and the Boston Globe’s “A Call for US to be Fair to Palestinians.”

As we puzzle about anti-Americanism in the Middle East and Muslim world, it is time to realize that they see more than we see. Unlike the past, today an international Arab and Muslim media, no longer solely dependent on Western reporters and channels, provides daily coverage of the violence, the disproportionate firepower and number of Palestinian deaths and casualties, as well as the use of American weapons including F16s and Apache helicopters provided to Israel for use against Palestinians. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Israel must all be held accountable for unacceptable acts of violence. However, the administration’s soft-glove treatment of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s heavy-handed policies in the West Bank and Gaza and relatively uncritical U.S. support of Israel—witnessed in its levels of aid to Israel, the U.S. voting record in the United Nations, and official statements by the administration and State Department—have proved a lightning rod.

Anti-Americanism is a broad-based phenomenon that cuts across Arab and Muslim societies. It is driven not by a blind hatred of America or religious zealotry, but by frustration and anger with U.S. policy in the Muslim world. America’s espousal of self-determination, democratization, and human rights are often seen in the Muslim world as a hypocritical double standard when compared to political and economic issues such as the impact of sanctions on more than a half million Iraqi children and sanctions against Pakistan but a failure to press Israel and India on their nuclear developments.Similarly, the moral will so evident in Kosovo is seen as totally absent in our policy of permissive neglect in the Chechnyan and Kashmiri conflicts. Critics believe that the significant continued presence of U.S. military and arms in the Gulf risks a new-colonialist military influence leading to uncritical support for authoritarian regimes as well as pressures on Arab governments to comply with U.S. foreign policy objectives, especially with respect to Israel and Palestine. Such a litany sparks the anger of many mainstream Arabs and Muslims, both overseas and in America and Europe.

Ultimately, the fight against global terrorism will not be won by the military. It will require the goodwill and support not only of governments in the Muslim world, but also of the majority of their citizens. Many (in government, business, academia, and the media) admire America, have visited, lived, or studied here, and do business with us regularly. However, the above issues, if not addressed more effectively, will continue to provide a breeding ground for hatred and radicalism, the rise of extremist movements, and recruits for the Bin Ladens of the world. Therefore, it is critical that the Bush administration adopt a long- as well as a short-term strategy. It will have to be based upon a reexamination of U.S. foreign policy and an openness to press our allies as well as to challenge ourselves to reconsider policies, strategies, and tactics. Lacking a fresh more self-critical approach, current policies will simply contribute to conditions that will foster rather than limit and contain the growth of anti-Americanism and extremism. The temptation then, as now, will be to seek easy justifications to explain away anti-Americanism such as irrationality, ingratitude, a clash of civilizations, and hatred for “our American way of life.” Yet, the extremists aside, the bulk of criticism and contempt for U.S. policy comes from those who judge us by our admirable principles and values. We sometimes seem to overlook the fact that regardless of cultural differences, most people in the world share a common civilization, one that values life, family, education, technology, peace, social justice, freedom, and political participation.

As the U.S. government responds to the threat of global terrorism, it will be difficult but necessary for our leaders and politicians to lead—and not be led by a thirst for revenge. The war against global terrorism should not justify a gradual erosion of important American principles and values at home or become a green light to authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world to further limit the rule of law and civil society, or repress non-violent opposition. Nor should it affect the need to adopt a more balanced policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. American responses must be proportionate, from military strikes, security measures, and anti-terrorism legislation, to foreign policy. The need to bring the terrorists who attacked our country on Sept. 11 to swift justice and to pursue a war to destroy their cells and bases of operation must be guided by remembrance of past mistakes. It must be balanced by evidence that establishes a direct connection of guilt and by strikes that are focused rather than wide-ranging and indiscriminate. A disproportionate response runs the risk of a backlash in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world—as well as among fellow Muslim-American citizens—that will erode the good will and support of many and reinforce an image of a superpower again placing itself above international law. Our actions can easily contribute to, rather than reduce, the growth of extremism, and run the risk of provoking conflict and clashes confronting our future generations.
(This article was originally published in Middle East Insight Nov-Dec 2001)

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