Sign Up

A Global Strategy For Dealing With Islam

What does dealing with Islam in a post-9/11 world require of the United States?

July 27, 2004

What does dealing with Islam in a post-9/11 world require of the United States?

In the post-9/11 world, threats are defined more by the fault lines within societies than by the territorial boundaries between them. That is a key finding in the 9/11 Commission’s final report. The Commission also lays out what dealing with Islam really requires of the United States.

From terrorism to global disease or environmental degradation, security challenges have become transnational rather than international.

That is the defining quality of world politics in the 21st century.

National security used to be considered by studying foreign frontiers, weighing opposing groups of states and measuring industrial might.

To be dangerous, an enemy had to muster large armies. Threats emerged slowly — often visibly — as weapons were forged, armies conscripted and units trained and moved into place. Because large states were more powerful, they also had more to lose. They could be deterred.

Now threats can emerge quickly. An organization like al Qaeda — headquartered in a country on the other side of the earth, in a region so poor that electricity or telephones were scarce — could nonetheless scheme to wield weapons of unprecedented destructive power in the largest cities of the United States.

In this sense, 9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests "over there" should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against America "over here." In this same sense, the American homeland is the planet.

But the enemy is not just "terrorism," some generic evil. This vagueness blurs the strategy.

The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism — especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology.

Usama Bin Ladin and other Islamist terrorist leaders draw on a long tradition of extreme intolerance within one stream of Islam (a minority tradition) — from at least Ibn Taimiyyah, through the founders of Wahhabism, through the Muslim Brotherhood, to Sayyid Qutb.

That stream is motivated by religion and does not distinguish politics from religion, thus distorting both. It is further fed by grievances stressed by Bin Ladin and widely felt throughout the Muslim world — against the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, policies perceived as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim and support of Israel.

Bin Ladin and Islamist terrorists mean exactly what they say: To them, America is the font of all evil, the "head of the snake" — and it must be converted or destroyed.

It is not a position with which Americans can bargain or negotiate. With it there is no common ground — not even respect for life — on which to begin a dialogue. It can only be destroyed or utterly isolated.

Because the Muslim world has fallen behind the West politically, economically and militarily for the past three centuries — and because few tolerant or secular Muslim democracies provide alternative models for the future — Bin Ladin's message finds receptive ears.

It has attracted active support from thousands of disaffected young Muslims and resonates powerfully with a far larger number who do not actively support his methods. The resentment of America and the West is deep, even among leaders of relatively successful Muslim states.

Tolerance, the rule of law, political and economic openness, the extension of greater opportunities to women — these cures must come from within Muslim societies themselves.

The United States must support such developments. But this process is likely to be measured in decades, not years. It is a process that will be violently opposed by Islamist terrorist organizations, both inside Muslim countries and in attacks on the United States and other Western nations. The United States finds itself caught up in a clash within a civilization.

That clash arises from particular conditions in the Muslim world, conditions that spill over into expatriate Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries.

Our enemy is two-fold: al Qaeda, a stateless network of terrorists that struck us on 9/11 — and a radical ideological movement in the Islamic world, inspired in part by al Qaeda, which has spawned terrorist groups and violence across the globe.

The first enemy is weakened, but continues to pose a grave threat. The second enemy is gathering and will menace Americans and American interests long after Usama Bin Ladin and his cohorts are killed or captured.

Thus, our strategy must match our means to two ends: dismantling the al Qaeda network and prevailing in the longer term over the ideology that gives rise to Islamist terrorism.

Islam is not the enemy. It is not synonymous with terror. Nor does Islam teach terror. America and its friends oppose a perversion of Islam — not the great world faith itself.

Lives guided by religious faith, including literal beliefs in holy scriptures, are common to every religion and represent no threat to us. Other religions have experienced violent internal struggles.

With so many diverse adherents, every major religion will spawn violent zealots. Yet understanding and tolerance among people of different faiths can and must prevail.

Excerpted from the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Official Government Edition, published on July 22, 2004. For the full report, please click here.