© 2001 The Washington Post Company
"You Won't Win With Words Alone"
By Raghida Dergham
Sunday, October 14, 2001; Page B01
The challenge America faces
in reaching out to Arabs and Muslims to convince them, in George W. Bush's words,
that this is a war against
terrorism, not Islam is to forge a bond of trust with people who have long felt betrayed.
Whether or not it is justified, this widespread sense of betrayal is essential to understa nding the apparent reluctance among some Muslims and Arabs to accept Bush's assertion. A distorted echo of the president's declaration came last week from an al Qaeda spokesman who announced that the U.S. led campaign "against Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden is a war on Islam." Try as Bush might to denounce bin Laden's propaganda, the president is speaking for a government that is regarded with enduring suspicion by many Muslims and Arabs. Bin Laden's message, on the other hand, strikes achord only with a minority, but a noisy one.
Don't imagine that a free lunch and some propaganda leaflets are going to convince the people of Afghanistan, much less those now protesting on the streets of Quetta and Jakarta, that the Western leaders are right. But engaging the vast majority of moderate Arabs and Muslims as committed partners in the war against terrorism is possible if America rethinks its attitude toward the Arab and Islamic worlds. That means adopting rhetoric that does not appear condescending; establishing a new approach to moderates, including influential Muslim scholars and clerics; reforming relationships with governments in the region; and above all redirecting U.S. foreign policy. That last point, ironically, will involve addressing issues that bin Laden himself has stated as his grievances among them, America's perceived unconditional support of Israel and of the U.N.'s punitive sanctions against Iraq.
Doing so should not be seen as capitulation to the terrorists' demands, but as depriving them of one of their primary tactics. Bin Laden has tried to link the hatred his few thousand supporters have unleashed with the bitter taste these American policies have left in the mouths of millions. They are entirely different. Endorsing the formation of a Palestinian state, for example, as a conclusion to peace negotiations as Bush did last week brings that distinction to the forefront. For I am convinced there is a second war being wage d right now within the Islamic world between the loud voices and desperate actions of the extremist few on the one hand, and the concerns of the subdued and disenchanted majority of moderates on the other. It is within the power of the American government to win over those moderates.
Rather than listening aghast to the vitriol spewed out against the United States, Americans would make more headway if they looked at the imperfections of their own foreign policy. Only then will they begin to distinguish between the hatred of thousands and the anger of several million.
Arabs and Muslims need to adjust, too: to get over the tendency to view themselves as perpetual victims; to recognize that with its silence, the moderate majority is seen as acquiescing to the intolerant views of the vocal extremists. And governments of the region need to admit that their denial of civil liberties and democratic processes help provide fertile breeding grounds for terror and instability.
Since Sept. 11, the Bush
administration has done an admirable job of reaching out to the Muslim and Arab
communities in this country, to
increase understanding and prevent a backlash against their members. But over the past month, what has astonished me, as a columnist for a leading pan-Arab newspaper and frequent commentator on Arab issues, is the administration's lack of basic strategy for communicating with the wider Arab and Islamic worlds. The verbal blunders have been widely broadcast. And while I do not believe, for example, that Bush intended his use of the word "crusade" to conjure up a replay of the brutal 12th- and 13th-century Christian military expeditions to recover the holy lands from the Muslims, I am met with incredulity by many Arab and Muslim colleagues when I suggest otherwise. "How could he have meant anything else?" they ask. Such is their mind-set and it must be taken seriously.
To the administration's credit, it rushed to correct the impression. It was likewise quick to change the name of the military campaign from "Infinite Justice" -- which many Muslims believe can only be meted out by God to "Enduring Freedom."
But just last week, the
administration made another fundamental mistake this time in an official letter
to the United Nations Security Council
signed by U.N. ambassador John Negroponte. The letter provided ample ammunition to those who want to paint America's war as one against Islam. "We may find that our self- defense requires further actions with respect to other organizations and other states," Negroponte wrote.
This one sentence may have
caused irreparable harm to the fabric of the coalition. It evoked fears in the
Arab and Muslim world that America has a "hidden agenda." It fortified
the impression that Afghanistan is the first stop, then Iraq, to be followed
maybe by Sudan and afterward Syria.
What's more, it is clear that striking Iraq if that is indeed what Negroponte was sugge sting will serve bin Laden's ambitions on several
fronts: promoting his vision of making this indeed a clash of religions and civilizations, as well as undermining governments in the region that are perceived to be partners in America's expanded war.Bin Laden would like that kind of chaos to reign. Negroponte's letter reduced the oft-repeated mantra that this war is not against Arabs and Muslims to a mere sound bite, sent out largely through American television.
The United States, mea nwhile,
has been slow to realize the power of Arab media. American officials have begun
looking with new interest at
al-Jazeera, a pioneer in breaking out of traditional censored reporting in the Arab world. It has the only foothold in Afghanistan's Taliban land and it has the ears and eyes of Arabs of all convictions.
But there must be a sustained and respectful engagement with the Arab press not yet another quick fix. Why have American officials offered so few interviews to the al-J azeera network, or to the Al Hayat newspaper, for that matter? Why are so few Arab columnists approached by American officials, offering to explain the administration's actions and attempting to influence us? Journalists whose audience and readership is in the Arab and Muslim worlds can make a difference -- but too often they have been ignored or treated with condescension. Americans lose out by not making use of the access to Arab moderates that journalists can give them not only at this poi nt of crisis, but over the long haul.
Nor will the propaganda war be won by trying to silence bin Laden on American broadcast networks. As a journalist in both worlds, I am disturbed by the TV networks' "patriotic" agreement last week to limit their prospective coverage of the terrorist's announcements in response to a request by the White House. From my perspective, it's obvious that we need less censorship in the Arab media not more of it in the American.
In order to win thi s war
against bin Laden, Americans must first understand his agenda, then blunt it
unswayed by those who argue against
adjusting American policies in the name of refusing to reward terrorism.
In order to empower the moderate majority, America must dare to be fair and do the right thing. The administration must act to persuade Arabs that they are not second- class citizens that America will not always support Israel at the expense of its Arab neighbors, that the Iraqi people are not me re pawns to be sacrificed to the greater goal of punishing their leader. Israel should therefore be told in no uncertain terms that it must end its occupation of Arab lands. Palestinians must be helped to establish a viable independent state, side by side with Israel. Washington must find an alternative approach to Iraq. Pakistan must feel secure in a lasting partnership with the United States. And Afghanistan has to be guaranteed that it will not, once again, be left in shambles after a world power leaves.
Some moderate Muslim scholars and clerics have been courageous in exposing bin Laden as an extremist who has warped Islam for his own political agenda. They must be encouraged as part of a broader strategy one that depends on the spread of democracy. For only by developing democratic institutions will the moderate majority among America's Arab and Muslim allies be able to play its natural role. Otherwise, extremism will claim the day.
That must not be permitted t o happen. The most important investment in this complex war must begin with addressing the legacy of suspicion and betrayal.
Raghida Dergham is senior
diplomatic correspondent in New York for the
London- based Arabic daily newspaper, Al Hayat.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company