- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2007

It’s impossible to know for sure whether the next big thing in Iraq will be a full-scale civil war or a security buildup, but one thing is certain: The United States faces an enormous challenge in communicating effectively with the Muslim world. Westerners are constantly exposed to stories of violence in the Middle East, from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to Lebanon to Iraq. In this trap of conflicts, it would be easy for non-Muslims to assume that the teachings of Islam encourage behavior that is uncivilized and immoderate — to say the least. When violent unrest and injustice becomes the lasting credo of Muslim streets, reactionaries prevail.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II told a joint congressional meeting last week that Arabs and Muslims often ask “whether the West really means what it says about equality and respect and equal justice.” He ignored the question of whether Arab Muslim leaders are ensuring justice for their own people.

As it works through the complicated issues of how to reach out to Muslims, the United States must realize which tacks are useful and which are dead-ends. As a target audience, the radicals are already lost. Even if God comes down on earth, Osama bin Laden will not abandon his destructive ideology. So, American policy-makers must focus on the Muslim audience with whom they have a chance: the “mainstream” majority of Muslims who have no interest in violence.

Shortly after September 11, President Bush said: “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” He was right. Unfortunately, he clouded his message by insisting on using troubling words like “crusade” or “Islamofascists” when talking about the global war on terror. That once again put the focus on extremists — and offended mainstream Muslims in the process.

If the war on terror is not about Islam, then the focus must be on mainstream Muslims. It will require a long commitment, but in time it will bring about constructive debates about what Islam actually is. However, Muslims must feel secure in their interactions with non-Muslims before those debates can even begin.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is no doubt a courageous woman. In 2005, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She wrote “Submission,” a short film about female oppression in the name of Islam that led to the murder of its director, Theo van Gogh. Unfortunately, she will now have to live, as Salman Rushdie has, with radicals threatening her life. She believes Islam is the problem, and is now an outspoken atheist. No one should expect the mainstream Muslims to embrace atheism, though. While she is attaining renown among Western intellectuals, Miss Ali is unable to make a difference among Muslims. She chose the wrong audience.

As the West considers how to create a productive dialogue, there should not be room for either bin Laden’s ideology goading people into a battle between Islam and the West or Samuel Huntington’s infamous “clash of civilizations” theory. “The legitimization of radical Islam has gone too far, and we’ve let it go too far,” David Forte, a law professor from Cleveland, says. “This reaction is bringing to the fore what most Muslims believe: That’s not us. The point has to be that these people are a threat to all of mankind.”

Words and how they are chosen do matter. Ali Aslan, the Washington correspondent for Zaman, a conservative Turkish newspaper, thinks it’s time to retire the notion of “Islamofascists.” “I don’t even like the term ‘Islamist’ to describe any Muslim person or movement in the world,” Mr. Aslan told me. “They are all making a mistake, because the term turns the religion of Islam into an ideology.”

Mr. Aslan notes that the term “Islamist” generally connotes extremism and radicalism. However, he points to Graham Fuller, a senior resident consultant at the RAND Corporation who suggests it’s necessary to “have a wide definition of Islamist…. By doing so, that says that not all Islamists are radicals. There are also moderate and reasonable Islamists, which the West should not fear that much from.”

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was national security adviser, she embraced the current government in Turkey, calling its leader and members “moderate Islamists.”

Mr. Aslan’s synthesis paves the way for a more thought-provoking argument: If it is wrong to transform religion into an ideology, how can one embrace political Islam, which is nothing but about ideology? If religion as ideology has created such a profound threat in our daily lives, how can the White House help the situation by allying with representatives of political Islam?

If the administration wants to bring about a real debate about Islam, its embrace of political Islam prevents that debate from starting. Alas, the State Department presents the only success story of representatives of political Islam in the current Turkish government, pointing to the fact that they have not yet changed the secular regime. It is time for the United States not to be led by political Islamists, but to lead.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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