1. Archive

Winning Muslim minds

President Bush and other U.S. officials keep stressing that our war against terrorism is not a war against Islam. Maybe not, but Americans belatedly have discovered since Sept. 11 that much of the Islamic world is at war with us. Muslims are at least as diverse as Christians or any other religious group, but there is a powerful _ and growing _ strain of Islamic fundamentalism that is deeply hostile to the Western values the United States represents. Countering that antipathy, with the help of Islamic governments that claim to be our allies, will be a crucial element of any successful campaign against terrorism.

The White House has begun to broaden its efforts to win Muslim support for (or at least temper Muslim opposition to) the war effort. In Afghanistan, our bombing runs have been supplemented by massive food drops, along with dissemination of material explaining that our war against the Taliban and al-Qaida is intended to liberate the Afghan people, not harm them further. Washington officials also are developing a "Radio Free Afghanistan" network that would provide information over the radio to counter the propaganda of Osama bin Laden and his supporters.

Our government also is engaging Muslim populations in other nations whose support is vital to the war effort. Advertising executives were brought in to develop a campaign that will feature celebrity spokespersons believed to be popular among Muslims. Such contrivances are unlikely to be as effective as simpler efforts on the part of U.S. leaders to speak truthfully and directly to the Islamic world.

Top administration officials are making themselves available to the Arab-language news network Al Jazeera and other Islamic media. They have a powerful case to make. They can remind Muslims that U.S.-led troops came to the aid of Islamic people under siege in Kuwait, Bosnia and Somalia in just the past 10 years. They can remind them of the billions of dollars in economic and military aid Washington has bestowed on the governments and people of the Islamic world. They can remind them that the real enemies of Islam are those who attempt to distort the religion to justify their narrow, violent world view. Most of all, they can remind them of the 5,000 innocent people _ many of them Muslim, many of them non-American _ whose deaths necessitated this war against terrorism.

Those American efforts are important, but it is even more crucial that Muslims receive responsible guidance from their own political and religious leaders. The Bush administration should insist on stronger moral support from our supposed allies in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are two important governments dependent on the United States that have been all but mute since Sept. 11, while fanatical anti-American voices within their borders have grown louder.

For years, Saudi and Egyptian leaders have encouraged anti-American sentiment as a way of diverting attention from their own corrupt regimes. The Saudis also have been the primary benefactors of Islamic fundamentalist schools, known as madrassas, that have indoctrinated a generation of young Islamic students around the world with hateful, anti-Western propaganda.

Even in the United States, some of the most prominent Muslim clerics have incited anti-American emotions by spreading ugly rumors and harsh interpretations of the Koran. Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha, the imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, claimed Zionists in U.S. air traffic control towers were involved in the suicide hijackings, and he accused Jewish doctors in the United States of poisoning Muslim children. After Sheik Gemeaha was hastily recalled to Egypt, his successor, Imam Omar Saleem Abu-Namous, added to tensions by criticizing Washington for offering no proof that Osama bin Laden or any other Muslim was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.

U.S. officials cannot refute such ignorance and intolerance on their own. Political and religious leaders in the Islamic world bear most of the blame for setting in motion violently reactionary forces that have spiraled out of control. Now, they bear most of the responsibility for confronting what they helped to create. The United States does not seek a war against Islam, but much of the Islamic world still has yet to decide which side it's really on in the war between civilization and terrorism.