The headlines tell only part of the story: a venerated mosque decapitated in Samarra, Muslims and Christians slaughtering each other in Nigeria, raids on Christians in Egypt.
Few Westerners hear what is said in the Muslim world. In early February, a popular TV program in Abu Dhabi, a moderate Islamic location, ran a segment about a small-fry Italian politician who, reacting to the Danish cartoon controversy, called on the pope for a new crusade. The title of the segment was worded to arouse: “A New Crusade?” The show also aired on U.S. Arabic channels and presumably many other Islamic countries. The messages from growing extremist groups on the streets are much more inflammatory.
Just as many in the West believe there is threat from the Muslim world, large numbers of Muslims believe a vast threat to their beliefs and their way of life exists from the West. Fearful people on all sides easily find disturbing gestures from the other side and hold these up as indicators of the future. We are at a grave pass. What to do?
First, recognize the nature of the problem. This is not a short-term battle with a few crazy terrorists. It is a long-term struggle for the hearts and minds of a community of millions who have experienced prolonged and pervasive humiliation. The Muslim world has suffered setback after setback, politically, economically, educationally, technologically, socially, for many centuries.
Whereas most Western nations have for several hundred years been governed by leaders widely considered to be credible representatives of the people, most Muslim countries were colonized and remain in the grip of elites who have managed to retain imperial powers. The Muslim majority in most countries despise their own corrupt and oppressive leaders only slightly less than they resent the West for its arrogance, its decadence, and its willingness to support oppressive Muslim governments.
Second, recognize the strategy of extremist Islam, a growing but still minority faction. The real audience of the 911 attacks was not America, it was the struggling, weary, angry but passive Muslim masses. Remember, bin Laden was on the fringes and he knew it. So he borrowed a strategy that guided communist revolutionaries for decades: drive apathetic moderates into your own extremist arms by provoking enemy attack. There could have been no man in the world more happy than Osama bin Laden on the day George Bush launched the Iraq invasion.
Like a crafty matador goading a tiring bull, bin Laden continues to bait. After many months of silence, he issued in January 2006 a new round of threats – timed with perfection precision to be released a few days before Bush addressed Congress. Such occasional red flags keep Bush on the offensive. The result is several years now of American cooperation in recruiting new supporters for radical Islam. The Pentagon’s own numbers show that month by month the insurgents in Iraq have grown in numbers, and all signs suggest a similar shift towards radical Islam elsewhere in the world.
The only solution is to respond to the needs and perceptions of the Muslim masses. They are the real battlefield. It is for their hearts and minds we must design our strategies and spend our trillions. Not, pray God, on useless propaganda, but in meaningful investment in jobs, education, health care, and human rights.
And here is a critical reality: We cannot accomplish this through governments alone. The West assumes the priority of the nation-state as the building block of human reality. We can barely imagine a serious response to large scale human problems undertaken through means other than government. The UN follows this simplistic assumption.
The truth is that the notion of the nation-state as the primary unit for organizing large-scale human identity and activity is a recent arrival in human history, a phenomenon of the last ten generations or so. The last decade has seen a vast resurgence of other units of organization, notably religion and ethnic identity.
For millions of people in the Muslim world struggling to make sense of where to cast their loyalties, George Bush symbolizes not only an arrogant, aggressive, and heavily armed marauder. He also represents a way of organizing human society that does not fit reality as they know it. Thus even the most enlightened move on his part would be incapable of alone moving us out of the crisis the world faces. He is the president of a nation-state, and as such does not hold the credentials for credible partnership in the eyes of those we must partner with.
Needed: political and economic outreach, massively augmented by religious and civil society relationship-building. The Bush’s, the EU’s, and the UN’s of the world have to stay involved in this crisis. But they must recognize their limitations. They must make room for prominent – and independent-minded – roles from the civil sector side, in particular for religious leaders.
People of faith, on every hand, step forth please. The future of our children depends on you to meet this challenge.
——— The author is a professor in the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. He was training adviser 1993-1995 to the South African National Peace Accord, a structure created by political leaders to deal with violence during the political transition in South Africa. In recent years he has been involved in peace efforts in India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Guyana. He publishes Paxblog, a blog of alternative views on national security and peace on his website, Riverhouse ePress.
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