Ziad Asali
The Daily Star (Opinion)
August 9, 2007 - 12:00am

Those who define the war on terrorism as a religious conflict between Islam on the one hand and Christianity and Judaism on the other play right into the hands of Al-Qaeda and the present leadership of Iran. The ultimate success of the planners of the September 11, 2001, attacks was to initiate such a religious conflict and to define themselves as the true Muslims fighting the "infidels," in other words Christians and Jews. A Holy War is what Al-Qaeda wanted in order to achieve power and a Holy War is what it should be denied. Its adherents should be isolated, discredited and defeated. Above all they should be denied the claim of representing Arabs and Muslims. They need to be confronted politically, economically, religiously, ideologically and militarily.

Their main argument is that the Christian West, primarily the United States with the help of Israel, hates Muslims and is out to dominate and humiliate them and occupy their land. They contend that this is a modern-day crusade based on the religious beliefs of the American leadership. They cite Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and other lesser conflicts to prove their point. Palestine has been the ultimate symbol of religious, racial, economic, cultural and physical confrontation, stirring passions, and the extremists are doing all they can to own it. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has provided the ingredients for exploitation and no single event would harm extremists more than its resolution.

In the West, engagement on these issues has mainly been visible at two levels. At the official level there have been expressions of respect for Islam as a religion. Publicly however, many in the media have depicted Islam as a religion of intolerance, fanaticism and violence that is incompatible with democracy - notwithstanding the periodic acceptance by pundits that there are Muslim voices to counter such bigotry.

Both approaches overemphasize the religious dimension of the Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflicts. The main issues underlining the multiple conflicts in question are political and also have cultural, economic, educational and governance dimensions. It would be a tragic oversimplification to lump all these issues together so that they are regarded merely as different facets of a global religious conflict.

It is, however, exceptionally important to debunk the "Christian and Jewish crusade" argument forthrightly. In modern times, the United States has engaged in armed conflict to rescue the Muslims in Bosnia against a Christian power, and forced the return of Muslim refugees against major opposition. It is still engaged in keeping the peace in Bosnia. Presently, the US is fighting for the independence of the mainly Muslim nation of Kosovo against the opposition of Christian powers. The Asian tsunami of 2004 mobilized a generous and effective US campaign to relieve the suffering of Muslim Indonesians. All these episodes refute the belief in an anti-Muslim crusade, and it is the challenge of US policy-makers to come up with more such examples in the future.

No image can substitute for policy. However, an effective public diplomacy campaign toward Arabs and Muslims must contain several measures.

The first one is an energetic challenge to charges of American Christian racism against Muslims and Arabs, coupled with an articulate highlighting of the positive contributions the US has made to Muslim and Arab lives. This must be part of a larger message that calls for mutual understanding, respect and cooperation. Strident American voices who peddle Islamophobia and racism undercut this strategy and must be refuted at the highest levels. They must also not be made to seem as reflecting official US policy or the attitudes of the American people.

Second, a serious public discussion of the genuine grievances of Arabs should deepen an American understanding of their problems, their quest for ending occupation of their lands and for dignity, economic opportunity, and good governance.

Third, an honest explanation of the American system should be offered in Arabic to Arabs, reflecting the values upon which the US stands. Concepts like the rule of law, the separation of powers, freedom of speech, economic opportunities, civic participation and philanthropy should be presented as living examples that viewers and readers can relate to and understand. Tough issues like racism, poverty and corruption need to be discussed as much as the efforts to deal with them. In short, the real America should be presented rather than that of movies and TV shows. Explaining and demystifying the American system undercuts conspiracy theories and opens up avenues for understanding and empowerment.

Fourth, a credible effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must be undertaken, along with tangible relief for Palestinians. As a political partnership between Palestinians and Israelis develops, a package of substantial financial aid should be quickly delivered. One billion dollars, as part of the budget for the war on terrorism, should be considered for reconstruction projects in the West Bank and humanitarian aid to Gaza, with full accountability and global media exposure.

Like-minded people of integrity and vision should work together to defuse conflicts and foster understanding. Let this be the only conspiracy that comes out being proven true.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017