Policy Brief to the President: Islam, Terrorism, and the Middle East

Terrorism is by no means a new concept, occurring in one form or another throughout the world for many hundreds of years. However, in modern history we have seen an alarming trend towards religious terrorism, particularly since September 11, and an increasing association of terrorism with Islam. This modern conflict has been framed by some academics as a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ between the Islamic and Western Worlds. Such reasoning has been disputed and other theories have been put forward, such as a clash of ‘identities.’ What is clear is that the United States faces many future challenges in its relations with the Islamic World, largely centered in the Middle East. Tensions run high and our priorities should be on recovering our international image by focusing on diplomacy over military initiatives, maintaining an impartial and transparent foreign policy, and fostering friendly relations with Islamic nations through economic and multilateral cooperation.

Unfortunately, due to an increase in conflict between the U.S. and countries in the Middle East, a close connection between Islam and terrorism has developed in the minds of Americans. Such thinking has led to an acceptance of Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis in which he claimed that “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of civilizations.” While the outlying theory poses interesting questions, there are many problems with Huntington’s thesis, the primary one being an over simplification and generalization of the Muslim world. As one critic points out, he uses the terms ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ interchangeably when only one in five Muslims are of Arab origin. In reaction to this thesis also, Cemil Aydin argued quite successfully that even despite battles between Christian and Muslim forces in the past, a ‘clash of civilizations’ never materialized, despite the two living in close proximity to one another for over a thousand years. The question remaining then is whether this new global conflict is really a battle between civilizations or there is something else at play.

Amin Maalouf offers an interesting alternative, emphasizing instead a challenge to individual identities in an increasingly globalized and modernizing world. He illustrates how many are alarmed by the quickening pace of modernization and the changes it brings to their society, challenging accepted ethical and moral standards. Ethnic, nationalist or religious commonalities form a basis from which some form extremist groups such as al Qaeda, the Taliban or even the Christian Identity movement in the U.S. which is linked to various domestic terrorist attacks. In places as varied as Chechnya, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Rwanda and Sudan we see numerous examples of conflict that may include, but certainly are not limited to, religious extremism. Islam and terrorism are clearly not synonymous and this must be emphasized to the American people. While there is increasing conflict in the Middle East and among Muslim nations, global conflict is far more complex than a simple clash between the West and Islam, and what may work in one situation will not necessarily be appropriate for another.

Perhaps the most pressing issue in the Middle East is the situation in Israel and the status of Palestinian refugees. During the Cold War, Israel was a vital ally and as a result U.S. policy has tended to favor Israeli concerns at the expense of Palestinians. Our strong alliance is reflected in our diplomatic ties and also the fact that Israel is the “largest cumulative recipient” of American foreign assistance since World War II. This has put us at odds with many Islamic and Arab nations surrounding Israel and remains one of the major impediments to peace in the Middle East. Your recent statements Mr. President, calling for a complete halt to settlements, including allowance for ‘natural growth’, are certainly a step in the right direction. However, given Israel’s previous approach and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s traditional stubborn behavior, it is reasonable to assume your requests will not be respected. While it is optimal for America to remain allies with Israel, if we genuinely want to achieve impartiality it is time we take further steps to place pressure on Israel to abide by agreements, including limits on military aid and the possible implementation of economic embargos. At the same time it appears a two state partition is the ideal solution in this conflict and it is now imperative that the U.S. work with Israel and the Palestinian authority, alongside neighbors such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, in order to reach a favorable and lasting agreement.

It also appears Israel has been using Iranian tension in the area to stall peace talks, and although Iran is perhaps less of an issue for the U.S., it is becoming an increasing threat to Middle Eastern stability. Iran is a perfect example of a unique and separate identity in the Middle East, with its mainly Persian and Shia Muslim population, and a theocratic government. The latest development in Iran is the recent elections which have seen opposition supporters form the largest protests since the 1979 revolution. Given America’s meddling in Iranian affairs in the 1953 coup and the Iranian hostage crisis, your decision to remain neutral in regards to the election is a wise one. Scaling down Iran’s nuclear program is a high priority and it is vital we do not jeopardize our position in moving towards diplomatic talks with Iran and its neighbors by appearing to take sides.

It is certainly not in America’s interest to see nuclear proliferation continue in the Middle East. However, if we expect nation’s like Iran to cooperate with the U.S. in discontinuing their nuclear programs, the strong American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan must be scaled down so as to remove any perceived threat in the region. We have already made commitments to removing troops from Iraq, but it is important that the U.S. continue to provide diplomatic, financial and security assistance when needed in order to maintain a resilient Iraqi nation. The Afghanistan situation is clearly a more problematic issue for the U.S. Increased troop presence may help with security issues but it alone will not eliminate the Taliban. Civilian casualties are an obvious impediment to encouraging Afghani support for the U.S. and eliminating anti-American sentiment, so it is important to see immediate progress in this respect. However, in order to create a lasting peace and a self-sufficient Afghanistan, a greater emphasis must be placed on diplomacy and economic development over a military response. This may come in the form of agricultural and urban development which gives Afghani citizens a suitable alternative to joining terrorist organizations.

Alongside the challenges faced in Afghanistan, Taliban violence and influence is spilling into Pakistan, another unique Islamic nation. Pakistan has already taken the initiative and is tackling the Taliban incursion militarily. It is in our interests to see the Pakistani Government deal with this conflict independently; America cannot afford to become embroiled in another insurgent war against Taliban extremists with our already significant presence in the region. It is important though that we maintain communication with Pakistan in order to deal with border conflict, maintain intelligence sharing and work towards a regional solution in dealing with extremist instability. Your administration has recently illustrated your commitment by mediating between Pakistan and India so that greater intelligence sharing is achieved. Such a step will contribute positively to our image in the region and demonstrates our ability to work diplomatically and without bias.

Regional dialogue and agreements such as this should be the preference of this administration rather than military engagement which has done much damage to our international image and contributed to regional instability. On the nuclear front, the nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates which was signed under former President Bush earlier this year, provides an excellent stepping stone and framework for encouraging nonproliferation. By emphasizing our willingness to share nuclear technology for peaceful purposes rather than criticizing other nations for pursuing weapons we already possess, we can achieve a new level of transparency and eliminate hypocrisy in foreign policy. The other avenue for improving Muslim-American relations lies in lifting the dire economic situation of many Muslims who feel left behind in an increasingly wealthy world; therefore, regional economic agreements should also be high on the agenda. The already existing Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Organization of which the U.S. is a member, is one such example. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei are all members of APEC possessing a large Muslim population and have established economic ties with America. Through this example, further economic cooperation should be pursued with other Islamic nations to promote prosperity and foster friendly relations.

There are other symbolic actions the U.S. can take both domestically and abroad to enhance our image and relations with the Islamic World. Internationally, it would be beneficial to encourage the European Union to accept Turkey’s bid for Union membership. Admitting the first majority Muslim state to the Union would likely improve relations between European and Islamic nations, and U.S. involvement would show we are committed to regional cooperation beyond religious and cultural differences. Domestically, the situation with Guantanamo Bay must be resolved as soon as possible. As long as we continue to hold Muslim suspects without charge, it will infuriate Muslim nations and their citizens. In the long term, Americans need to be better informed about Islam so that stereotypical images of Muslims as religious extremists are dispelled. This could include the introduction of studies in global religions to schools and colleges and perhaps increased funding for student exchanges to Muslim nations. Cultural exchanges and education will create a greater understanding of the Islamic World, beyond preconceived ideas that have persisted in the minds of Americans for many years.

In the future, it is apparent that global conflict will primarily be focused on the Middle East, centering on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is not useful and indeed is counterproductive to view or approach these various conflicts as a clash against one homogenous Islamic civilization. Past policies and actions by the U.S. government have clearly damaged our image internationally and have made us a target for disaffected and disenchanted extremists. If America hopes to regain international prestige and eliminate terrorist threats and animosity in the Islamic World, it necessarily follows that each group and issue is approached individually, as each community possesses their own unique sense of identity. In dealing with these issues our priorities should be on impartiality and respect for cultural and religious differences, in order to foster fair and lasting solutions to long running conflicts. As a nation, we must also endeavor to learn and respect differences between our own way of life and that of Muslims so that indeed a ‘clash of civilizations’ does not become inevitable in the future.