The west must address the roots of Islamic struggle

By Harlan Ullman

Financial Times

Published: September 8 2006

His approval ratings are dropping, violence in Iraq is surging and Republican control of Congress after the November elections is in the balance. Consequently, George W. Bush is taking his case for what is now called “winning the struggle between freedom and terror in the Middle East” on the road. In the coming weeks, the president will deliver a series of what he calls “non-political” speeches to persuade the public he is on the right track.

Dissenters and critics are scolded for ignoring Munich in 1938 and accused of abetting a new brand of the old appeasement that brought on the second world war. Mr Bush has adopted the neo-conservative description of the enemy as “Islamist fascists”. One wonders if the enemy views us as Judeo and Christo-fascists? Regardless, the Munich analogy is wrong. Appeasement is not our main problem. More relevant is the summer of 1789 in Paris and the French Revolution. 

Today, two powerful revolutions are sweeping the Arab and Muslim worlds. The first pits citizens demanding greater slices of political and economic pies against their autocratic governments. The second is the growing struggle between fundamentalism and modernism in determining Islam’s future. The west is oblivious to these revolutions, to the forces causing them and to consequences that could be as profound as what happened in Paris more than two centuries ago.

Beyond ignoring these revolutions, the Bush administration errs by lumping the “enemy” together into a “single worldwide network of radicals” to be defeated. Worse, we forget what brought Hitler to power in 1933 and seem incapable of embracing a comprehensive strategy that deals with the causes of these dangers.

The war on terror began against an adversary that was Sunni, Salafist and Wahabi. However, the administration has broadened the war to include Hizbollah and Iran – Shia who are of a different ideological and political stripe from Salafist and Wahabi radical Sunnis – and Hamas, the elected Sunni government in Palestine. Sunni Salafist and Shia “terrorists” have different agendas, aims and ideologies. The former would turn the clock back centuries by instituting caliphate-type governments. The Shia, beyond the sectarian violence in Iraq and the Sunni-Iranian divide, see the world largely through Israel’s former occupation of and recent retaliatory strikes in Lebanon, the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what is viewed as America’s one-sided support of Israel. Many Iraqi Shia are inflamed over Israel’s destruction of Lebanon and the influence of Iran and Syria has been strengthened by the conflict in Lebanon. Without this understanding, a one-size-fits-all strategy can never work.

The roots of these revolutions are not conceptually different from the seeds for Hitler and his fascism and for the Soviet Union that were sown after the first world war by the refusal of the allies to rehabilitate the defeated powers. Desperation, humiliation, disenfranchisement and deprivation led to violence and revolution then and now.

A comprehensive strategy must address root causes. If that strategy does not attack the grounds for desperation and humiliation, wrapped in perverse, often suicidal and conflicting interpretations of Islam, this fight can never be won. Without a resolution that leads to recognised and secure Israeli and Palestinian states, terror will not disappear. Without convincing the autocratic regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that greater political modernisation is crucial, we cannot win. And without engaging Syria and Iran, more terrorists will materialise than are killed or captured in this fight. This is neither Munich nor 1938.

But until 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue understands this, we will not win the struggle between freedom and terror no matter how many speeches are given.

The writer, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is author of America’s Promise Restored: Preventing Culture, Crusade and Partisanship from Wrecking Our Nation