The west’s role in Islams’s war of ideas

By David Gardner

Financial Times

Published: July 9 2005

The cataclysmic attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 2001 created a small but influential industry, arguing through and on behalf of the Bush administration that the Islamist perpetrators of that atrocity “hate us for our freedoms”. That they loathe us for our values, for what we are and think rather than anything we do.

If only that were true. What we face, instead, is a war of ideas within the Muslim and Arab world. In that light, this is a delusionary proposition, which conveniently absolves us from having to re-examine critically our policies towards this world.

Although we do not know for sure who carried out Thursday’s vicious attacks on London, it was very likely part of the loose and protean franchise of fanatics inspired by 9/11 and its architects, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. But we cannot wait for the precise answer. We need now to engage fiercely with the substance of the problems that are proliferating jihadi terrorism. We need to find ways of isolating this minority before they make any further inroads into the Muslim mainstream.

The most important thing to recognise is how the great democratic wave that freed east and central Europe, Latin America and swaths of sub-Saharan Africa over the past two decades ran into the sands of the Middle East, leaving the Arabs marooned in tyranny. That was in no small part because the US and its main allies shored up local despots in the interests of stability and cheap oil.

These tyrants laid waste to the entire spectrum of political expression in their countries, leaving their adversaries no alternative but to fall back on the mosque. That, in turn, suited their purposes, enabling them to blackmail their western patrons: back us, or deal with the mullahs. There is probably no greater single source of rage in the Arab world than this collusion in tyranny and repression – not even the Israel-Palestine conflict, which, furthermore, is manipulated by Arab rulers as an alibi for maintaining their national security states on a spurious war footing.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims do not hate us for our freedoms. They do, however, despise these policies and some of the more frustrated among them are thereby prey to the siren songs of the jihadis.

Validation of this analysis came last September from the Defense Science Board (DSB), a federal advisory committee to the US defence secretary. The polls the DSB looked at are chilling. People in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example, Washington’s main Arab allies, gave a 98 and 94 per cent “unfavourable” rating to the US and its policies. But at the same time, the DSB study found that majorities or pluralities in the Arab countries do support values such as freedom and democracy, embrace western science and education, and like US products and movies. “In other words, they do not hate us for our values, but because of our policies,” the DSB says, before demonstrating how hatred of the policies has begun to tarnish the appeal of the values.

Compounding this disenchantment, a great many Arabs are sceptical about American intentions. For the most part, Arabs plausibly believe it was Osama bin Laden who smashed the status quo, not George W. Bush. Why? Because the 9/11 attacks made it impossible for the west and its Arab despot clients to continue to ignore a political set-up that incubated blind rage against them. The subsequent decision to invade Iraq further undermined the status quo, but in ways it is not obvious the Bush administration had thought through.

This January’s elections in Iraq saw a remarkable display of heroism by its people that struck a deep chord in Arab countries. Yet however much the triumphalists in Washington claim this as vindication for their bungled strategy, these elections took place at the insistence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who vetoed three schemes by the US-led occupation authorities to shelve or dilute them. By that time, moreover, Iraq had started on the road to a sectarian war that may end by sucking in its neighbours: with Shia Iran on one side and Sunni rulers terrified by the empowerment of Iraq’s Shia majority on the other.

The policies of the US and its allies often seem contradictory, at a time when great clarity is needed. Mr Bush rightly attacked the “cultural condescension” that suggests Arabs and Muslims are unsuited to democracy nearly two years ago in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy. More recently, and in Cairo, Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of state, announced that after 60 years of backing stability at the expense of democracy and getting neither, the US has learnt its lesson. But has it?

The answer is vital, because the jihadis need the story of the last 60 years to continue. They need the US to keep shoring up tyranny and defending the status quo. Of course, democracy alone will not resolve the problems of the Middle East. It will, moreover, often be antithetical to short-term stability, since it is Islamist movements that are emerging as the region’s centre of political gravity. But if the west continues to collude with local despots in denying their peoples freedom, we will lose that war of ideas. The jihadis will enter the Muslim mainstream, and continue their tactics of immolation. The shared values of Islam and the west will wither.