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Will the U.S. Ever Understand the Muslim World?

Will U.S. policymakers ever view the Muslim world — not as an "enemy" — but an important strategic area?

September 1, 2002

Will U.S. policymakers ever view the Muslim world — not as an "enemy" — but an important strategic area?

The 9/11 attacks and the war against terrorism have spawned a mindset that challenges 20th century concepts of enemies and the nature of wars. Many Americans are seeking an "enemy" who can be defeated militarily.

And yet, that enemy is ill-defined. For some, it seems, the adversary is Muslims generally. Public attention is centered on U.S. military action directed to regime change in Iraq, but with little apparent concern about the aftermath.

As a government, the United States is only beginning to grapple with the challenge of dealing with the problems arising in the Muslim world. These are problems that will undoubtedly dominate America's foreign policy agenda for a generation.

If we are to prevail in this 21st century struggle, Americans will need a new mindset and a comprehensive vision for engaging the Muslim world — not as an "enemy," but as an important area where we have substantial interests.

As unlikely as it may seem right now, the Muslim world can — and has to — become a significant element in achieving a stable and secure global environment.

To achieve this, the United States must have a multi-faceted strategy for engagement, winning hearts and minds — and supporting those who share our aspirations for a peaceful world. Such a strategy must address the following key dimensions:

Is Islam the cause of terrorism, an instrument manipulated by political extremists — or a force leading to a clash of civilizations?

We all have homework to do to better understand Islam as a historical and contemporary force.

How does religion — as opposed to lack of economic, educational and political opportunities — influence instability in Muslim countries?

For decades, the United States has led in pressing for expanded democracy, human rights and the rule of law internationally. But in the fight against terror, many accuse the country of abandoning its democratic principles, because stability in Muslim countries is critical to achieving its objectives.

An individual leader or regime, however, does not guarantee stability. Greater democracy does. So does dealing with terrorism, human rights abuses, corruption and criminality. This requires independent, efficient and unbiased legal systems to ensure societies based on the rule of law.

Diplomacy must be the lead element in maintaining a dialogue with the Muslim world. It is important to make clear that there is more to U.S. engagement than military force.

Since the military imbalance is so great, the diplomatic contacts become part of a serious dialogue between the United States and the Muslim world on the range of our relationships, thus providing the basis for better understanding as well as opportunities for cooperation.

Progress toward peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian and Indian-Pakistani conflicts will substantially improve the overall political environment from the Middle East to South Asia. And it will defuse some of the religious animosity that has built up during the extended life of these seemingly intractable conflicts.

U.S. support of educational development and exchanges can enhance young people's opportunities in the Muslim world. This could be supplemented through centers of excellence such as American University in Beirut and American University in Cairo. Misuse of the media and the Internet by terrorists groups has gathered support for their cause.

In addition, media in the Muslim world have been the source of anti-U.S., anti-Western, anti-Semitic coverage that have had considerable influence on "the street" in Muslim countries. However, to deal with that reality requires more than just PR efforts. While those efforts offer America strategies for advancing its message — the real emphasis has to be on promoting open, independent media in the Muslim world.

Providing youth in this region with economic opportunity that offers them a stake in the globalized world economy is essential.

Something as simple as providing jobs will blunt the appeal of radical political forces in — or the desire to emigrate from — the Muslim world.

Success on this front will require reform of closed economies. Whether we like it or not, economic assistance will be a critical component of any strategy to deal with terrorism — and address the social problems that create conditions encouraging support for terrorism.

Pulling such a strategy together will be difficult. Only by undertaking such an integrative approach, however, will we marshal our capabilities to deal with the critical challenges facing the United States in the Muslim world. And we will need allies inside and outside that world. Gaining these allies requires the United States to get its priorities and strategy in order.

That is what leadership is about. And even if the challenges are staggering, it is what we should be prepared to shoulder. After all, the current rhetoric not withstanding, tackling this multi-faceted effort — which extends way beyond the military dimension — is what it will take to win the first major conflict of the 21st century.

Richard Kauzlarich, former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan and Bosnia-Herzegovina, is Director of the Special Initiative on the Muslim World at the U.S. Institute of Peace.