Events

The War on Terrorism: Why It Really Will Be A Long One

December 02, 2002 // 11:00am12:00pm

The following is a transcript of the meeting with Caryle Murphy, of the Washington Post and author of
Passion for Islam: Shaping the Modern Middle East: The Egyptian Experience

Thank you all very much for coming.

I think I'm going to disappoint some of you right off the bat by saying that I do not understand the mind of Osama Bin Laden. Whether this man is dead or alive, his mind lives on in his international network of affiliates and sympathizers.

It is a mind marked by a breathtaking megalomania, a callous disregard for the lives of innocent people-both Muslim and non-Muslim-and a fanatical, extremist ideology that distorts Islam and is totally out of synch with the modern world.

As such, it is a mind I find hard to fathom.

What I do understand much better is why some Muslims listen to him and some join his terrorist networks. They do so because of the combustible environment now reigning in the Middle East. It is not an environment that turns every Muslim living there into a terrorist. Not at all. But it is one that leads some people into religious extremism, and into groups like Al Qaeda.

I contend that this environment is the result of three major historical forces, which have been unfolding for decades.

These three forces include first, Islam's modern reawakening, and the subsequent internal turmoil within that faith as it comes to terms with modernity.

The second force shaping today's Middle East environment is the failure to resolve the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now more than half a century old.

The third force is the lack of political liberties and authoritarianism of Arab governments that has over decades reduced Arab political life and discourse to an infantile level.

The convergence of these factors, I maintain, is why we have a region in disarray where foot-soldiers for terrorist networks are easily recruited.

It is my contention that Americans must tackle this environment and turn it around in order to end religiously motivated terrorism emanating from the Middle East.

But you can’t do that on a dime. This is a long-term project. And that is why I see the war on terrorism being a long one.

It's going to require patience and perseverance. It will require some changes in current US policies. And it should involve not just our government, but all Americans who, when and if they are asked to contribute to their national security, have shown they can muster a multitude of resources.

I am thinking of businessmen, the tourist industry, scholars, academics, political consultants, and educational organizations, and not least, theologians. All these need to be recruited in the long war against terrorism.

I do not believe that the United States has been wrong to attack the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Those military actions, I think, were an absolutely necessary response to the attack on us on 9/11. Nor is the United States wrong to hunt down Al Qaeda, and seek to disrupt its networks around the globe. This also is necessary.

But I don't believe that these tactical initiatives are sufficient to ensure our long-term safety in what is a very small world these days. For that, we also need a sophisticated, long-term strategy.

My position is that we Americans, difficult as it may be, have to make an effort to understand the root causes of the terrorism directed at us from Al Qaeda and like-minded networks. To do so is not to excuse terrorism, especially what happened on Sept. 11th last year. Nor is it a sign of weakness. On the contrary, understanding the roots of terrorism fortifies us. Knowledge is power. It will enable us to really protect ourselves so that we can live and travel around the world in peace among friends, not among enemies.

With that introduction, I'm going to talk first about how my book, Passion for Islam, came about. Then I'll tell you what I think is distinctive about the book.

I spent five years in the Middle East, arriving in Cairo to become bureau chief for the Post in November 1989. For all of that time except the last five months, my home base was in Cairo. Those last five months I lived in Jerusalem, covering Israel and the Palestinians.

I spent a lot of those five years traveling in the Arab world. And on August 2, 1990 I happened to find myself in Kuwait. I know I can safely say that of ALL the people in Kuwait that day, I was the ONLY one happy to be there. What can I say? I'm a journalist. And Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was a compelling story.

But as compelling and dramatic as that episode was, both it and the quick, decisive US-led war that followed, were just that. Episodes.

Over the course of my time in the Middle East, I saw that other things of a much larger historical dimension were having a deep impact on the region as a whole. When I returned to the United States in 1994, I wanted to write about those larger forces. I wanted to explain them in a very accessible way to ordinary Americans. So I started to write this book, first as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and then later when I returned to Washington to resume my reporting here for the paper.

In New York, I got an agent who was very diligent. He showed my book proposal to many publishers, but no one bit. There was, I was told, a fatigue with foreign affairs. But I decided to continue anyway. Hoping that when I finally finished, I would find a publisher then.

I had my moments of despair. Waking up in the middle of the night thinking, "What on earth are you doing?" But then I'd go into a book store and see some pretty ridiculous books. And I'd say to myself, " if these authors can find a publisher, you can too!"

Then came 9/11. Events that day sparked a hunger for knowing more about Islam and the Middle East. By then, my book was three-quarters written. I tapped out a new proposal, which of course was much better than the one I'd originally written. Scribner liked it. And here we are today.

So, what does Passion for Islam offer?

The greater part of this book, obviously, is devoted to Islam's revival and the ferment within the faith itself created by that reawakening.

What I think is unique about my approach is that I have tried to demystify this revival by breaking it up into four distinct, but complementary levels. In the real lives of ordinary Muslims, of course, these levels intersect and overlap. But I regard it useful and helpful to treat them separately in order to understand the full dimension of Islam's revival. I sometimes think of it as examining, one by one, the four legs of an elephant.

The first level, I call Pious Islam. And by this I mean the increased personal religious devotion seen in millions of Muslims in recent decades. Whether it be more strict observance of fasting during Ramadan, or wearing of the veil, or going to weekly study groups on the Qu'ran, or saying prayers five times a day, this growing personal piety is evident in every Arab country.

The second level is Political Islam. This, of course, is the aspect of Islam's revival that gets the biggest headlines. The most important thing I've tried to get across in this section of the book is that Political Islam is a wide spectrum. It encompasses both violent Islamists and peaceful political activists who reject violence.

The other major point I've made about Political Islam is that I believe that it has not yet run its course. The violent end of the spectrum----represented in Egypt by radical organizations like Islamic Group, the rebel group of the 1990s, and elsewhere by organizations like the Taliban and Al Qaeda---may be petering out, at least for now. But peaceful political activists and opposition figures will continue to use Islam as a vehicle for their activities for some time to come. And we just cannot write them all off as religious fanatics.

The third level of Islam's revival is what I call Cultural Islam. This was very difficult to write about because it is so nuanced and complicated. But in a nutshell, many Muslims feel threatened by the powerful penetration of their societies and cultures by Western, and in particular American, culture--something that has been accelarated by globalization.

In response, they are returning to their roots. And those roots are embedded in Islam. Islam infuses Arab cultural life in a way that no religion, not even Christianity, penetrates life in the secular West.

This return or roots, or Cultural Islam, is expressed in different ways. On the popular cultural level, you see a rejection of Western music. On another level, young Muslims are trying to articulate in an Islamic way, or an Islamic vocabulary, values that they have come to identify - rightly or wrongly - as "Western" values. Democracy, individualism, human rights, feminism, etc. What they are seeking to do is to blend these values with their own Islamic cultural background or express them in a way that makes sense to their Islamic world view.

Now, you're going to tell me you know that Egyptians love Jennifer Lopez and watch Dallas and rent Tom Cruise movies. Many do. But there are also many who don't. And even within the same person, you often see two warring impulses. One says I want to be just like those Americans. The other says, it's so humiliating to imitate them in every way and their culture is corroding our own Islamic cultural values.

Finally, the fourth level of Islam's reawakening is the one that I think often gets overlooked, but that will likely be the most revolutionary in decades ahead--and here I'm talking a half century or so.

This is the theological level. In the book I call it “New Thinking in Islam.” Right now, more Muslims around the world are re-examining their theological heritage than at any other time in Islam's 1,300-year history. For centuries, religious scholars who'd had years of training in Islam's sacred texts were looked to as the ones to give authoritative interpretations of those texts. Now, to an unprecedented degree, ordinary Muslims are claiming the right to examine and reinterpret those texts themselves.

At the heart of this growing, grass-roots effort is an attempt to reinterpret their faith to make it more relevant to the challenges and realities of modern times. And a key question underlying this intellectual exploration is this: What is Islam's role in the public life of a modern Islamic society?

This is a key question. And I'm going to repeat it: What is Islam's role in the public life of a modern Islamic society?

We Americans settled that question for us more than 200 years ago. Every year, as Hanukkah and Christmas approach, you still see evergreen lawsuits disputing the national consensus on the role of religion in our public sphere, as some people object to creches or menorahs in front of city hall. Then there was the recent example of the Ten Commandments judge. But these are just fleas on what is a very solid national consensus about the role of religion in public life in our country.

Not so in many Muslim countries. Many, including Eygpt, still have not reached such a solid, national consensus on this issue. Moreover, since Islam has always seen a close relationship between religion and politics, Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries don't see the "American solution" as appropriate. The Egyptian Constitution, it should be recalled, states that Islam is the official religion of the state.

In any event, this intellectual and theological introspection is a good thing. But as you know, Islam has no Vatican. And there are thousands of voices all saying, "I have the true Islam." Or, "This is the way Islam should be lived." And these voices are all vying with each other.

Unfortunately, at the moment, the more conservative, the more orthodox and sometimes the most radical voices are the most dominant or most powerful ones in the Middle East. This is the exact opposite from what you see in Muslim communities in the United States and Europe, where moderate views dominate.

Let me make a detour here:

I'm very concerned that a simplist view of this internal battle within Islam itself is becoming the dominant view in this country. This simplistic view equates Islam with only one part of this intramural debate: the side that is most radical, violent and anti-Western.

I was shocked to see a recent essay by a very well-known commentator stating that "Islam is at war against us.” That is inaccurate. It is a faction of radical Islamists who are at war against us.

Then we had the statements of Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

It is also repeatedly stated by some American commentators that Muslim leaders and religious authorities have not condemned 9/11. That is inaccurate. Many vehemently condemned it. So why is there this continuing belief that they didn't?

I think part of the problem is that none of these Muslim religious authorities are household names. None of them have the visibility as, for example, Pope John Paul II.

End of detour and back to my book.

In Passion for Islam I argue that this historic unfolding of Islam’s revival on these four different levels--personal, political, cultural and theological--coincides with the two other big forces shaping events and attitudes in Arab countries that I mentioned earlier:

The political frustration and economic disappointments caused by authoritarian governments. And the resentment and anger that Arabs feel over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - sentiments rooted in the perception that the United States' heavy tilt toward Israel for decades has prolonged that conflict.

This is the skeleton of my book. But I've given it flesh and blood by conveying all this through the stories of ordinary people I met in Egypt, which is the boilerplate for the region. This book is full of real people experiencing these historical forces. And through their narratives, you learn how they are affected by them.

You also learn from the Egyptians you meet in this book, that most Arab Muslims don't hate us, though they do hate some of our foreign policies. They certainly don't hate us for our freedoms. Apart from not being true, this statement tells us very little that is useful in forming U.S. policy or U.S. behavior abroad.

I think we have heard too much about evil-doers and too little about the context, the background, the social, cultural and religious influences that created the conditions that gave rise to groups like Al Qaeda. I’ve tried to fill this lacuna in Passion for Islam.

The United States is a target for terrorists because we are the big kahuna, we are the superpower. But the terrorists win public sympathy because the United States acts arrogantly, is inconsistent in its support for democracy and short-sighted in letting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fester.

I agree with George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld that the war against terrorism is going to be a long haul--precisely because we must deal with the historical forces that I have just outlined and craft a foreign policy that deals with them in a productive manner. Otherwise, we will not transform the current environment in the Middle East and thus get to the roots of terrorism.

We have to realize that it is going to take decades for Muslims to complete the historic task that they have already begun: which is adapting their faith to modernity. We have to realize also that becoming democratic is a process that takes years, requiring new ways of thinking about politics and the political process.

And if the United States is sincere about promoting democracy in the Arab world, it has to realize that the process will sometimes be messy, and that elections may at times bring to power parties or leaders with Islamist agendas. We should be ready to distinguish between such parties—they are not all the same—and judge them by their actions, rather than have a knee-jerk reaction against them. We’ve got to accept that Islamists, who do represent sizeable constituencies, will likely be part of the solution of moving towards more democratic societies.

At the same time, Muslims are also at fault for the mess they’re in and have some heavy lifting to do. The moderates among them, who are by far the majority, who don't hate all Americans and who don't want to kill them, have to find their voices. They have to speak up more against the radical voices and they have to put an end to the debilitating dependence on conspiracy theories in Arab intellectual discourse.

We have to help them. First, by tackling the irritants that we can do something about, most prominently the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Secondly, by increased contacts.

And that's what I meant earlier when I spoke of the broader effort involving Americans beyond government officials. We need more tourism, not less. More cultural and educational exchanges. We need universities here to establish branches in the Middle East and increase their contacts with universities over there. We need American families willing to host young Arab students here.

The pity is that right now such contacts are diminishing.

Thank you for listening.

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