The official United States policy towards Islam is quite admirable. "Our policies are guided by our profound respect for Islam," states a January report by the White House on national security strategy for the new century. "US policy in the region is directed at the actions of governments and terrorist groups, not peoples or faiths."
However, the reality is different. American policy toward Islam in practice is reflected in CIA director George Tenet's testimony before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in February. Tenet named the global Islamic movement as a principle national security threat.
"There is an intricate web of alliances among Sunni extremists worldwide, including North Africans, radical Palestinians, Pakistanis, and Central Asians...there's an infrastructure out there that is perhaps bigger than we anticipated," said Tenet. "We essentially have undertaken to systematically develop a strategic plan to attack this infrastructure."
Some might object that the two statements are not contradictory; that the first refers to Islam as a world faith, and the second relates to "extremists" and "terrorists." The premise of this objection is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding and shortsightedness in American foreign policy that, if not corrected by the incoming administration, could lead the United States into a quagmire.
In villages and cities from the Balkans to Africa to China, young people are discovering the richness of the faith of their ancestors, the faith that led them to build just societies, to reach new heights in art, science, and culture. At the grassroots, Muslims are convinced their civilization is on the brink of recovering from the Islamic world's equivalent of Europe's Dark Ages. The world can count on Muslims continuing to search for ways to bring this renaissance about.
The primary fallacy underpinning American foreign policy in the region is the idea that the global Islamic awakening is an inherent danger to the United States. This impression was burned into policymakers' minds when the Shah, America's client in Iran, was tossed out in 1979 with a great deal of understandable animosity toward the tyrant's sponsors in Washington. The perception of an "Islamic threat" is reinforced by manifestations of Muslim anger over America's sponsorship of the Zionist regime in Palestine and a host of two-bit dictators in the region.
Some observers conclude that Muslim anger toward the US exists because Islamic society is, at heart, totalitarian, and that it is America's "freedom and democracy" that rubs Muslim sensibilities raw. It is certainly the case that America's steady cultural moral decline saddens and repulses religious Muslims (as it does religious Christians), but to suggest that opposition to "democracy" is the source of Muslim anger with the US is uninformed and ethnocentric.
Anger flows only when Muslims are on the receiving end of perceived or real American-supported or American-tolerated oppression. Political prisoners in Egypt (the second largest recipient of US aid), Palestinian refugees under American-made Israeli guns, and religious Turkish women blocked from an education by their government while the US remains silent can all be excused for their bitterness. Policymakers, however, see this anger and conclude that the solution is to encourage yet more repression of the thriving Islamic movement.
Case in point: speaking this month at Johns Hopkins University, Lt. Col. William Lahue of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that US Army special forces are stationed in Uzbekistan and provide training, trucks, radios, and other so-called "non-lethal" military equipment to that country for its war on Islamic insurgents. NATO holds regular exercises to train Central Asian dictatorships "to be able to handle these internal regional problems," US General Thomas Franks was recently quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, human rights groups, Congressional committees, and even the US State Department say Uzbekistan's treatment of Islamic believers is appalling. Human Rights Watch reports that police routinely torture and murder detainees in Uzbekistan in the course of its neo-communist government's "crackdown against those whose practice of Islam falls outside of state-sanctioned religion, often charging them with ill-defined crimes of 'religious extremism'."
Tenet's warning of an "intricate web of alliances" is ironic. Islamic activists would not have to operate underground to achieve reforms in their countries if the region's governments were not, in general, ruthless dictatorships hell-bent against any sort of opposition. Instability in the region is not caused by Islamic groups but by autocracies that drive those believers underground and deny them peaceful means of participation in society.
A December report by the National Foreign Intelligence Board predicts that by the year 2015, "political Islam in various forms will be an attractive alternative for millions of Muslims throughout the region...Islamists could come to power in states that are beginning to become pluralist and in which entrenched secular elites have lost their appeal."
A policy based upon the notion that the Islamic revival is inherently anti-American and thus must be suppressed is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A non-hostile relationship with the grassroots of the Islamic world is vastly more beneficial to America's national security interests than friendly relationships with regimes that are useful in the short term for their complacence but that are doomed by their autocratic domestic behavior.
Rather than earning the rancor of millions of Muslims by, in the CIA director's words, "systematically developing a strategic plan to attack" the Islamic movement, the incoming administration should enter into a dialogue with its leaders, who are generally more representative of the Muslim world than its political rulers. Such a dialogue would help the United States understand why Muslims are sometimes angry at its actions, and thus build a foreign policy toward the Islamic world that will reduce the aggregate level of tension in a world that does not need a new cold war.
Abu Umar is Foreign Affairs Director for Lahore-based Lashkar-e-Taiba(http://www.markazdawa.org). LET is engaged in a military campaign that targets the occupying Indian army to force their withdrawal from Kashmir. To subscribe to Lashkar-e- Taiba's e-newsletter, send a message to [email protected].