How To Lose The War On Terror

PART 1: Talking with the ’terrorists’
By Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke (31.03.2006)

Seventy-two hours before the Iraqi people voted on a new parliament, on December 12, 2005, we were told by a senior US administration official that “detailed data received by the White House” pointed to a “decisive win” for Ayad Allawi’s Iraqi National List. “Allawi’s victory turns the tables on the insurgents,” this official said gleefully. “Sectarianism will be the big loser.”

Allawi’s prospective triumph was trumpeted repeatedly over the next two days by US news networks quoting administration officials. Weeks later, after the results of the election became known, it was clear that the White House had overestimated Allawi’s popularity: his party received just over 5% of the vote.

On the eve of the Palestinian parliamentary elections in late January, US-funded Palestinian polls suggested that while the mainstream Fatah movement had lost much of its popular support, Hamas was expected to win no more than “a third of the legislature’s 132 seats”. [1] On January 27, when the results of the polling were complete, it was clear not only that Fatah had been defeated, but that Hamas had swept into office in a landslide. A prominent front-page article in the Washington Post stated that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was “stunned” by the results, as the Hamas victory contradicted everything the administration of President George W Bush believed about Palestinian society. [2]

Just two weeks after the Hamas victory, on February 6, Lebanese Maronite leader Michel Aoun and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah appeared together in Beirut to sign a memorandum of understanding between the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah. The Aoun-Nasrallah agreement shook the State Department, which had worked for years to isolate Hezbollah.

The US had underscored its anti-Hezbollah strategy as recently as November 23, when Aoun met with State Department officials in Washington. The State Department blithely discounted the importance of the talks that Aoun’s movement had been having with Hezbollah and reassured the press that Aoun would remain a staunch supporter of the United StatesLebanon policy. Certainly, it was believed, the leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Christians would never tie the future of his own movement to that of a group allied with Damascus and Tehran.

In the aftermath of the Aoun-Nasrallah agreement, however, all of that changed: not only was Aoun’s support for the US-led program against Syria in question, his agreement with Hezbollah meant that he was justifying Hezbollah’s alleged kidnapping of Americans in Lebanon during the 1980s. [3] Overnight, it seemed, Aoun had gone from being a friend of the US to a man allied with terrorists.

Allawi’s failure, Hamas’ success, the Aoun-Nasrallah agreement – and the inability of the West to predict, shape or even understand these seminal events – have been variously interpreted: as a signal that the US intelligence community needs increased resources, that the West has not been doing enough to sell its “program” in the region, that the US and its allies have not been harsh enough in their condemnation of “radicalism”, that the West has underestimated the amount of support its secular allies need, and (in the case of the Palestinian elections) that Hamas didn’t really win at all – “Fatah lost.”

We have reached a much more fundamental and alarming conclusion: Western governments are frighteningly out of touch with the principal political currents in the Middle East. The US and its allies overestimated Ayad Allawi’s strength, were “stunned” by Hamas’ win, and were surprised by the Aoun-Nasrallah agreement because they don’t have a clue about what’s really going on in the region.

But why?

With the exception of Israel (where a US and European appreciation of realities is critical to the formulation of policy), there are, inter alia, five political movements and governments in the Middle East of undeniable importance: Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The governments of the West don’t talk to any of them.

They do talk to the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf region; but the net result of most of these contacts is that Western governments are dependent for information about the region on a set of clients who, as often as not, are mere reflections of what Westerners want the Middle East to be, rather than what it actually is: Ayad Allawi, who was wrong when he reassured US officials that Iraq’s voters would reject sectarianism, Fatah, which was wrong when it told us that their acceptance of US funding for their campaign would enhance their legitimacy among Palestinian voters, and Lebanese leader Saad Hariri, who was wrong when he told the US government that its program for isolating Hezbollah would work.

This clientism is not new; rather, it is a continuation of the misreading that led US and British officials to believe their soldiers would ride to Baghdad along flower-paved highways.

Once again, we’re being “Chalabied”. [4]

First encounter
In August 2004 – in an attempt to provide an opening to political Islam – a delegation including the writers of this article traveled to Beirut for discussions with the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah. We were accompanied by Bobby Muller, a well-known American veterans advocate and a political activist recognized for his leadership of the anti-landmines campaign, and Dr Beverley Milton-Edwards, a professor at Queens College, Belfast, and an expert on Hamas.

Our purpose was to begin a process that, we hoped, would eventually persuade Western governments to recognize and open up to political movements whose political legitimacy was derived from a broad base of popular support in their own communities. We knew our meetings would be controversial: both Hamas and Hezbollah were on the US and European Union lists of proscribed terrorist organizations, both had either been accused of participating in or had actually participated in the targeting of civilians, and both had vowed continued enmity to Israel – which enjoyed the strong support of the United States and its European allies.

Even so, the public statements of Hamas and Hezbollah reflected a desire to reinforce their political legitimacy by espousing elections – Hamas was then considering entering candidates in prospective Palestinian parliamentary elections, while Hezbollah was engaged in a national parliamentary campaign in which its candidates were gaining increasing support. Then too, and notwithstanding Bush administration statements linking both groups with al-Qaeda “and related groups”, both had condemned the events of September 11, 2001, both had publicly stated their willingness to open contacts with the United States and Europe, and both had maintained that their conflict with Israel was legitimate and had nothing to do with the West.

Ours was one of the first organizations to seek such an opening, although various church organizations and one US think tank had engaged in discussions with the groups. But nothing had come of these meetings. In one case, during a conference in the Gulf region with officials of the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center, the leaders of both Hezbollah and Hamas left the discussions in anger “after we were harangued about ’terrorism’.

We thought little could be gained by an exchange of accusations, so we worked to reassure our interlocutors that it was not our intention to engage in lectures, or to present ultimatums in advance of our discussions. As a further reassurance, we told the leaders of both movements that it was our intention to listen – and not just talk. We proposed that we not call our meetings a “dialogue” but “an exercise in mutual listening”.

After several more private preliminary meetings, we convened two larger engagements, bringing a group that included former senior US and British diplomats and retired officers of Western intelligence services to Beirut in March and July last year. By then, our “exercise in mutual listening” had been expanded to include the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood and Pakistan’s Jamaat e-Islami. Even so, our focus remained on Hezbollah and Hamas.

We asked each group to begin the sessions by making a presentation on “where you see the Middle East now, how you view your role in it, and where you see it going”. Our discussions were blunt, touching on nearly all the subjects sensitive to the groups and to the West: suicide bombings, attacks on Israel, the compatibility of democracy and Islamic law, philosophies of governance, the compatibility of Islamic economics and globalization, their views on al-Qaeda and radical Islam – as well as issues of particular interest to them.

We knew there would be difficult moments in our discussions, and our delegation came prepared: every delegate had served in the Middle East, often in conflict situations. All of our team, without exception, knew the history of the groups we would be speaking with and all were familiar with their personalities, leaders and political goals. Many had served in high-level positions – as ambassadors, military officers, or as senior officials in Western intelligence services.

While our meetings with the leaders of political Islam were not a secret, the meetings themselves were private. Because of the sensitivity of the topics we covered, a number of our delegates preferred that their participation not be highlighted and that statements made during the more informal sessions that occurred between sessions not be used at all. Finally, we confirmed that – unless explicitly agreed to by individual delegates – we could characterize what was said only in general terms.

This said, our delegations (the members of which varied through two meetings over a period of five months) included the original four Conflicts Forum delegates, plus three former officers of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a well-known television producer, a former member of the Mitchell Commission, [5] a former ambassador, two Middle East activists, and the head of a US foundation focused on the Middle East.

A number of delegates were anxious to confront our interlocutors – and particularly Hamas and Hezbollah – over their use of violence, a number of others were skeptical of any of the groups’ claims for engagement with the US, and nearly all of our delegates had suffered the loss of close friends in the region’s conflicts. In no sense could it be said that any member of our delegation arrived in Beirut sympathetic to the groups to whom we were speaking. Sympathy was not what was required, but a hard-headed and unsentimental appreciation that US and other Western interests require that we look at facts as they are.

Hezbollah: ’Not a threat to America
Our Hezbollah interlocutor, Nawaf Mousawi (the chief of the group’s foreign relations department), was pressed repeatedly to explain Hezbollah’s reputed attacks on Americans during the 1980s in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War. He was closely questioned on his movement’s role in the bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983, on the torture and death of marine Colonel Rich Higgins, and his organization’s ties to terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyah, who is thought to be the head of the movement’s external security apparatus. Mousawi’s response was forceful and blunt: “We have no American blood on our hands.” He repeated this statement several times to the point of insistence.

When pressed again to explain Hezbollah’s ties with Imad Mugniyah, Mousawi refused to mention his name, shook his head, and confronted his questioners: “If we open every file on the civil war, then the Americans would not be able to set foot in the office of any political party in Lebanon.

“Everyone in the US administration knows we are not a terrorist organization or a threat to America,” he said. “This is about politics and Israel’s psychological headache of Hezbollah. We are not raising our children to hate America. Israel is our enemy; but not the Jewish people – this is not a religious war against the Jews. Our war is against occupation – that is it.”

In later, private, discussions with a number of our delegates, Mousawi repeated his claim that Hezbollah was not affiliated with Mugniyah and that the organization “does not have American blood on our hands”.

The exchange with Mousawi, and his insistence and unwavering tone, spurred several of our delegates to return to the US to reinvestigate the period of the Lebanese Civil War. Former and current US officials were closely questioned on the source of their information on Hezbollah activities in the 1980s and on the organization’s ties to Mugniyah.

The exchanges in Washington cast doubt on Mugniyah’s current ties to the organization and on the movement’s role during the era of hostage-taking in the early 1980s. In short, these reports suggested that information on Hezbollah’s participation in past terrorist actions against US institutions and individuals may well have been based on informants with an ax to grind. Charges of Hezbollah’s responsibility for anti-American terrorism may well have been reported to US intelligence services to undermine Hezbollah’s growing influence in South Lebanon at the expense of other parties.

But even if these past incidents (“the baggage they bring to the table”, in the words of one delegate) were somehow to be cleared up, there is little hope for a direct US-Hezbollah engagement. “This will take a lot of time and a lot of work. It won’t happen easily and it won’t happen fast – and it might not happen at all,” a former CIA officer said in the wake of our discussions. “There is just too much distrust.”

Hezbollah leaders maintained during the course of our discussions that their actions were and are justified and can be defended as legitimate resistance. “We do not target civilians,” Mousawi said in our March 2005 meetings. “Even when Israel was occupying southern Lebanon we were absolutely diligent in making certain that our actions did not endanger Israeli civilians, and we even stopped operations where Israeli families of military personnel would have been endangered by our actions. You cannot say the same for Israel.”

Hezbollah’s claims that its use of arms was simply a matter of self-defense was met with widespread skepticism, as was its attempt to play down its support for Syria and Iran and its dependence on both for political and (in the case of Iran) financial support. Despite this, Mousawi emphasized the Lebanese character of his movement: “We are Lebanese,” he said. “We were born here. We will die here. We did not come from somewhere else.”

Mousawi was adamant in responding to US demands that the movement disarm and renounce violence. “I believe that to have a fruitful policy in the region Israel must be confronted,” he said.

“Political settlement demands equity of power. Israel holds all the cards. So why is there a demand for our surrender? As far as we are concerned it is not in anyone’s interest, including that of the US, to leave the Arabs weak. Also in the past four years there has been stability in Lebanon and even on the border to a certain extent. Hezbollah’s arms have delivered this.”

But perhaps Mousawi’s most interesting, and most detailed, presentation was on Hezbollah’s view of its political role in Lebanon, then besieged both by demonstrations marking the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and an intense campaign for seats in the Lebanese parliament. “We are prepared to work hard to maintain Muslim unity and avoid fitna [division]. We wish to avoid turning the protests and demonstrations into a sectarian division, which is why we are prepared to make such overtures.”

In fact, Hezbollah and Maronite Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement were then, in March 2005, engaged in a delicate series of private exchanges on forging a national consensus – one that both parties vowed would eventually include Saad Hariri’s Sunni following (the “Future Bloc”) and Walid Jumblaat’s Druse party. The results of these first, tentative, exchanges have now become public, with the leaders all of Lebanon’s major sectarian political groups meeting in an attempt to forge a common understanding.

After the end of the dialogue session that concluded in early March last year, the leaders of the various movements and factions agreed to the disarmament of Palestinian militias operating outside of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps and agreed that relations with Syria would be conducted on “mutual understanding and non-interference”. The February 2006 Maronite-Hezbollah understanding formed the foundation of these talks, though a full agreement on all the issues facing Lebanon has proved elusive. After a third round of talks, which concluded this March 20, two difficult political questions remain unresolved: the status of Hezbollah’s arms and the future of Lebanon’s presidency, which is currently in the hands of Emile Lahoud, who is viewed as pro-Syrian.

At our delegation’s second meeting, last July, Nawaf Mousawi’s personal political capabilities were on full display – as he presented a seat-by-seat analysis of the parliamentary election, Hezbollah’s success in winning a large portion of the contested seats, and the movement’s political maneuvers to build political alliances across sectarian lines. Mousawi’s impressively detailed disquisition, his obvious openness to any initiative by the United States to establish a serious relationship, and his repeated claims that Hezbollah is “first, a Lebanese party” were stated with such conviction that a number of our delegation’s most skeptical members were convinced that Hezbollah “is not that interested in the Syrians remaining in Lebanon. Rather, their mass demonstrations of solidarity with Syria seemed more a parting wave of thanks before they set about the tricky process of defining their own autonomy, and balancing the elements in the complex political process.”

Others were not so sure: “It is going to be difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to talk to a group that is so outwardly allied to Iran,” one of the participants reflected.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mousawi’s presentation reflected his personal and his movement’s pessimistic views on the region’s future and on the US campaign against terrorism. Most prominently, while he was “quite careful and even cagey” (in the words of one delegate) on his movement’s ties with Iran, he was less so on Hezbollah’s vulnerabilities to “the Khawarij trend”. Noting that prominent “Salafist and takfiri websites” had “actually marked Hezbollah leaders for assassination”, Mousawi said these “jihadist movements”, including al-Qaeda, “actually represent a greater threat to my people and to the Palestinian population than they do to Western interests. [6] This is the real danger, and the United States needs to recognize it.”

The reason for such targeting, Mousawi explained, is that “the jihadists think we are too moderate, too willing to participate in democratic processes – which they view as just another colonialist plot promoted by the Americans to dominate our region”.

Hamas: A warning to the West
The meetings with Hamas evinced even greater interest among our delegates than those with Hezbollah, in large part because – as the Hamas leaders with whom we met readily admitted – US and European officials had shunned any contacts with the movement after the start of the second intifada. The Hamas leaders with whom we spoke claimed not to have met an American “since the late 1990s”, while another said that his last meeting with an American had been in 1996.

Our primary contact viewed our meetings as “a chance to clear up misconceptions about who we are and what we want”. As in the case of our meeting with Hezbollah, the exchanges were blunt and focused on areas of strong disagreement over the conduct of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Hamas leadership present for our first meeting in Beirut, which included Sami Khater, Musa Abu Marzouk and Usamah Hamdan, began the exchange with a straightforward statement on Hamas’ political beliefs and goals. “We will continue the struggle to provide national unity, to stop Israeli aggression, we will participate in Palestinian elections, we will establish the framework for rebuilding the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] to represent all Palestinians, we will offer a truce with Israel, and we will continue our work to make certain that Israel abandons the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. We do not endorse murder, but we do support resistance.”

Hamas’ long period of targeting Israeli civilians in a series of bloody bombings of cafes and buses during the second intifada engendered the most detailed exchange during our first engagement in March 2005. Initially, Hamas leaders defended their actions by citing their right to lawful resistance and the religious foundation for their decision to target civilians. But as the discussion progressed, the Hamas leaders propounded an increasingly assertive defense of their tactics, noting at one point that their decision was not made lightly or without reflection and that it was only undertaken after it became clear that Israel refused to reciprocate a Hamas offer to end the targeting of civilians.

“We are against targeting civilians,” Mousa Abu Marzouk said. “And we did not do so until 1994 – after the Hebron Mosque massacre [of settler Baruch Goldstein]. And they built a shrine to him in Hebron. And at that point, since we were never attacked in that way before, we determined that Israelis kill civilians. But no one asks about Palestinian civilians. In the last five years, 347 Palestinian civilians have been killed. The numbers you see are exactly reversed for Israeli and Palestinian deaths. What about the targeting of civilians who are Palestinian? And the homes and the farms of Palestinians that are destroyed? The Israelis have rejected our offer, and we have made the offer, that both sides should stop killing civilians. But they rejected that offer.”

When pressed on their targeting of civilians, Hamas leaders seemed to contradict their earlier statements by expressing their conviction that there is no distinction between Israeli civilians and soldiers. “Every Israeli is a solder,” one of them said. “Settlers are armed.”

When asked whether, in their view, terrorism “worked”, they answered that it served to unite their people and to gain support for their political program. This claim was not a surprise: Hamas began their bombing campaign not simply as a means of fighting what they viewed as Israeli aggression, but to seize the political initiative from Fatah. (In fact, Hamas’ radicalism in the first days and months of the second intifada forced Fatah leaders to follow the Hamas example, and adopt suicide bombing as a tactic.) “Their description of terrorism,” one of the delegates noted, “convinced me that we are not dealing with genetically encoded monsters, but hard-headed – albeit brutal – political actors who carefully choose their tactics and attempt to manage the effects of their actions.”

At the time of our first exchange with Hamas, there had been no suicide bombings in Israel since August 2004. Hamas leaders signaled that this unofficial calm would be maintained, so long as the calm was reciprocated by Israel. Even so, Hamas leaders said that they retained the right to respond to “Israeli aggression” just as (as they pointed out) Israel said that it had the right to continue targeting Palestinians it viewed as ticking bombs.

“It wasn’t so easy losing our founders, our people, our leaders, and our friends,” one of their leaders said. “When all channels are closed to us, we use violence. We don’t have jets, we don’t have tanks. So we made the decision. It is one of the ways we resist, it is not the only way.”

In July, with the unofficial period of calm nearing the one-year mark, Hamas officials reiterated their commitment to “maintaining a hudna [truce] with Israel, even though Israel does not respond and continues to target out leaders”.

In both meetings, Hamas officials stridently objected to US proscriptions against any contact between American and Hamas officials, arguing that “we didn’t wage war on the US, even verbally. We have never expressed a link with Osama bin Laden and we don’t support him.”

Usamah Hamdan was outspoken in his criticism of the US decision to add Hamas to the State Department’s list of proscribed organizations: “We knew it was going to happen and in 1996 we tried to communicate with [then secretary of state] Madeleine Albright to find a way to object – to talk with her about the decision,” he remembered. “We were told that she was unavailable to talk with us and that we should call back. We were then put on the list and we made our second call, and we were told, ’We’re sorry, but secretary Albright doesn’t talk to terrorists.’”

Hamas leaders were also particularly intent on promoting their decision to participate in the Palestinian Authority’s scheduled parliamentary elections – even after they were postponed from last July until this March. At times, their leaders even seemed prescient, focusing on their organizational skills, their ability to appeal to a broad base of Palestinians, and their continuing commitment to provide constituent services, all of which they cited as evidence for their belief that they would likely win a majority in the Palestinian parliament. [7]

“The Palestinians decide their leaders and the international community must accept that,” one of them noted in March 2005. “And when we win those elections it will be a great problems for the Americans, I am sure. Is the international community going to ignore the results of the elections?”

Hamas’ leaders also denied that they would impose strict Islamic forms on Palestinian social life, using the Koran as an example of “respecting diversity” among peoples, a claim they have repeated in the wake of their recent parliamentary victory.

“Islam is comprehensive and we understand that, but the Palestinian people are diverse,” one of their leaders said last March. “The people will decide who will lead them and what kind of government they will have and we must respect those difference and will respect those differences.”

Usamah Hamdan gave a more detailed answer during our July meetings, acknowledging Western fears about what impact the election of an Islamist party would have on an otherwise secular society: “There is a fear that is based on historical baggage,” he said, “that Hamas will be the next Taliban. We are not. We have always insisted that our people should be allowed to make choices – not just on who to vote for, but on how to live. We do not recruiting forcibly, but by persuasion. For us, Islam is the answer, but that is not true for everyone. We believe that there should be the launch of a democratic process in the whole region.”

Once again (as was the case with Hezbollah), Hamas leaders were outspoken in their condemnation of America’s “inability to differentiate” between Islamist movements, of the United States’ and Europe’s willingness to list Hamas as a “terrorist” organization – alongside al-Qaeda.

One Hamas leader was explicit in setting out the differences and in explaining how the West’s lack of sophistication and political nuance could be fatal for America’s standing in the region. “We have been warned by the Salafists that what we are doing in accepting democracy is playing into our enemy’s hands,” this leader said.

“The message was a warning. One of them, I remember, said to me: ’Listen, my brother, we wish you well in your elections. But you should know that whether you win or lose, the Americans will never, ever accept you are equal partners. And you will learn this. And when you do, you will come back to us, and together we will make a beginning. And together we will finish them here. Together we will burn it. That is the only solution. Burn it. And we will begin in Mecca and Medina.”

1. “Palestinians’ risky elections”, Washington, Post, Editorial, January 22.
2. “Hamas sweeps Palestinian elections, complicating peace efforts in Mideast“, Scott Wilson, Washington Post, January 27.
3. US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs David Welch played down the Aoun-Nasrallah agreement during a press conference on February 9, saying that the State Department view was that “this is a discussion between two political currents and not a governmental discussion”. Welch was then asked: “Now, obliquely, you referred to somebody justifying taking American hostages. You’re talking about Aoun? Can you say that on the record?” To which Welch responded: “Yes.”
4. Ahmad Chalabi was an Iraqi exile who fed the US government “intelligence” about the Saddam Hussein regime ahead of the US invasion, much of which turned out to be wrong or self-serving. See Chalabi: From White House to dog house, May 22, 2004.
5. The Mitchell Commission, chaired by former US senator George Mitchell, was convened by then US president Bill Clinton to investigate the causes of the “second intifada”, the violence in Israel and Palestine that followed the visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September 2000.

6. The Khawarij – or Kharijites – were separatists from the army of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law and cousin of Mohammed. Ibn Muljam, a Kharijite, is blamed for his murder. The Kharijites believe that being a Muslim is equivalent to salvation, that there is no salvation for sin, that all non-Kharijites are sinners, that all sinners are apostates, and that all apostates should be put to death. Takfiris are Muslims who view all Westerners as kafirs (infidels).
7. Claims from American Hamas experts that the result of this month’s parliamentary vote was as much of a surprise to Hamas as it was to the US are simply wrong. In more recent meetings (held in Beirut in the immediate aftermath of the parliamentary vote), Hamas leaders confirmed, however, that they purposely played down their expectations of a clear parliamentary victory over fears that the US and Israel would press Palestinian President Abu Mazen to cancel the elections until Fatah could gain more strength.



PART 2: Handing victory to the extremists
By Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke (01.04.2006)

After the writers of this article and our colleagues visited the Middle East for talks with some of the leaders of political Islam (see Part 1: Talking with the ’terrorists’, March 31), our work was greeted warily – when even acknowledged – in both the United States and Europe.

We have been accused of “giving legitimacy to terrorist organizations”, of “suffering from the Stockholm syndrome”, of being “naive and soft”, of treading on ground where only “more realistic, experienced and trained diplomats” have a right to go, and of being “apologists for violence”. The US administration has insisted that we make it clear that our program does not have its approval or even tacit endorsement.

We repeatedly sought a meeting with US officials to brief them on our work, but were told that such a meeting “would be seen as a confirmation that you are acting on our behalf as some kind of back channel – which you are not”. The message to us was repeated several times by a number of officials: “The United States is not talking with terrorists, we will not talk to terrorists and we do not endorse or in any way support those who do.” We have agreed that we would make it clear: we do not represent anyone but ourselves. This has been plain to all our interlocutors from the outset.

But we adamantly reject the view that our willingness to engage in “an exercise in mutual listening” with Islamist organizations gives them legitimacy. They already have legitimacy. The Muslim Brotherhood (the most recognizable as well as the oldest pan-Islamic party in the region) is the most widely respected Islamist organization in the Middle East and the second-largest party in the Egyptian legislature, Jamaat e-Islami is the most powerful and respected elected opposition to the Pervez Musharraf government in Pakistan, Hezbollah forms the second-largest bloc in the Lebanese parliament, and Hamas is now the majority party in the Palestinian Authority. In southern Lebanon and in the West Bank and Gaza, the largest proportion of constituent services – in health care, child care, education and employment – is conducted under the auspices of Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively.

The question of legitimacy is important because for democracies, legitimacy is not conferred, but earned at the ballot box. Hamas and Hezbollah would welcome a dialogue with the West not because it would confer “legitimacy” – they already have that – but because such a dialogue would acknowledge the differences between Islamist movements that represent actual constituencies from those (such as al-Qaeda and its allied movements) that represent no one.

Are we captives of our own process? There is no question that our engagement with political Islamists has led us to argue strenuously that US and European diplomats follow our lead. It is true that we have been impressed by the political sophistication of our interlocutors, their willingness to discuss complex political questions, to work to shift perceptions of their movements and their movements’ goals. We suppose it possible (though we believe it unlikely), that we have been courted and misled by master terrorists who have maliciously entrapped us in their web of lies.

But it seemed to us when we began this process that the gamble of being lied to was worth taking, and a far better alternative to not talking at all. Then too, there is no monopoly on lying, and it is certainly not the sole province of Islamists. Diplomacy, at its heart, is a process of deciphering the real from the imagined. Of course, foreign governments and movements lie to the United States and to its allies: lying is often a significant part of the delicate calculus of managing a sophisticated foreign policy, and should not be viewed as an insuperable obstacle to political engagement. Given the current increasing instability in the Middle East, conducting a discourse with movements or governments that we find distasteful could prove a useful substitute for implementing policies that have no chance of working because they are based on what we believe, and not what we know.

By our calculation, the West has only three options in dealing with Islamist organizations: we can bomb them, we can ignore them, or we can talk to them. By now the evidence should be clear: the first option has not and cannot work, while the second is simply a defense of intellectual laziness – how can we possibly know whether our political assumptions are correct unless they are tested?

In the 1980s, US president Ronald Reagan engaged in an exchange with Soviet leaders – and even concluded substantive agreements with them – telling critics that a person who held fast to the rule of “trust but verify” could not be duped. The US talked to the leaders of the Soviet Union when its leader banged his shoe on the table at the United Nations and vowed to destroy the United States. The US talked to the Soviet Union through four decades of confrontation. And Americans talked to the Soviets even when they had thousands of missiles trained on the US homeland. The Islamists have none.

Are we – the delegates who conducted the meetings (detailed in Part 1) – naive?

Our most recent and more private exchange with the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah took place in the immediate aftermath of the Palestinian elections. During the week that we spent in Beirut, no fewer than five workshops and conferences were held in Washington, DC, on the implications of the Hamas electoral victory, which included discussions of the group’s political program and its leadership. A number of those experts were invited to join our delegation. All refused.

So too, one of America’s most highly regarded experts on Hamas acknowledged to us personally that he had “never met one of them”, though he has written innumerable papers and monographs describing their views and held conferences on who they are and “what they want”.

There is certainly a price to pay for talking with proscribed organizations, as any diplomat who had contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s will attest. But the price for not engaging with these organizations has recently proved more costly: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted publicly that she was “stunned” by a Hamas victory that anyone with any experience on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza could have (and in fact did) predict. How could she have gotten it wrong? One of the reasons may well be that State Department employees are barred from entering Gaza, and have been for five years. The reason? Americans have been attacked in Gaza – though by Fatah, not by Hamas.

Is diplomacy best left to diplomats? The West’s most senior diplomats are wedded to the principle that speaking to “terrorists” is out of the question. The case was best put by former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, during a visit to the White House in May 2002. [1] “But [what] I would like to say once again is that we can establish no differences among terrorists. They’re all the same. They’re all seeking to destroy our harmonious co-existence, to destroy civilization. They’re seeking to destroy our democracy and freedoms.”

Aznar’s view has gained widespread acceptance in the international community. On February 6, 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed Aznar’s views: “But the commonly accepted international principle of fighting terror is an unconditional refusal to hold any dialogue with terrorists, as any contact with bandits and terrorists [encourages] them to commit new, even bloodier crimes. Russia has not done this, and will not do this in the future.” [2] In spite of this, Putin was the first major world leader to break ranks with the West in recognizing Hamas – thereafter inviting its leaders for consultations in Moscow.

Putin’s decision was undoubtedly the result of his anger with former senior US diplomats who not only criticized him for failing to grant Chechnya even “limited sovereignty”, but who established a high-profile Washington-based non-governmental organization to push for “a peaceful resolution of the conflict”. The American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus (ACPC) – whose board members include some of Washington’s more high-profile neo-conservatives – was founded, in part, to pressure Putin to convene “private ’Track II’ talks between representatives of the Russian government and Chechen resistance …” [3]

ACPC’s public advocacy of a “private” dialogue is not only a contravention of the nearly unanimous view among diplomats that you should not talk to terrorists, but confirmation that (at least when it comes to Chechnya) not all terrorists “are the same”. Some, it seems, are thought to have legitimate grievances, a viewpoint put forward by Richard Pipes, who castigated Putin in the pages of the New York Times for failing to understand that Chechen violence is the result of Russian oppression. Diplomacy, Pipes argued, was the one way to resolve the conflict, as “there is always room for compromise”. [4]

The United States and its allies have certainly proved capable of following Putin’s lead. Soon after America’s occupation of Iraq, the US attempted to open a dialogue with the Shi’ite movement Hezb al-Da’wa al-Islamiyya. In the heady days following America’s triumphant race across southern Iraq, a US-Da’wa engagement held out hope for a useful alliance between those in the US government who wished to overthrow Saddam Hussein and a movement that had fought him for more than 25 years.

The problem, of course, was that the US had once been allied to Saddam’s Ba’athist regime and so was targeted by Da’wa’s military wing. A suicide bombing carried out by the group in 1983 in Kuwait (reputed to be the first suicide bombing in the Middle East of the modern era) against the French and US embassies in Kuwait killed three French nationals and three Americans. Oddly, Da’wa had never been listed as a proscribed terrorist organization by the US State Department (though it was tied directly to Iran, which was and is considered a state sponsor or terrorism), while Iraq was removed from the terrorism list in 1982 and added, again, in 1990. (Nelson Mendela was removed from the list in 2003.) “Today Al-Da’wa and its sympathizers distance the activist party and movement from these ’aberrations’,” Middle East analyst Mahan Abaden wrote in the Beirut Daily Star in 2003. “They contend, with some justification, that the attacks were the works of rogue elements hijacked by Iranian intelligence.” [5]

The leaders of political Islam know this history quite well, and so have concluded that Americans’ talk of values and democracy and peace is actually a cover for the promotion of US interests. In 1982 it was in US interest to support Saddam Hussein. Today, it is in US interest to speak to the leaders of the Da’wa party, particularly since its leader, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is Iraq’s prime minister.

There exist a small but substantial number of extreme Islamists who not only refuse any and all engagements with the West, but who also target those in their own communities who seek a broader set of contacts and accommodation. These takfiris take as their touchstone the view that all Westerners are kafirs – infidels – whose remorseless political and religious goals are bent on conquest and domination. “They’re all the same.” Those Muslims who talk with these kafirs are viewed as irtidad (apostates) and are outside of the protection of the community. The takfiris are exclusivists, claiming a special hold on the truth.

Moderate Islamists have long condemned this takfiri trend. Writing in 1935, Maulana Maudoodi (the founder of Pakistan’s Jamaat e-Islami, one of the groups with whom we met in Beirut), warned of the dangers of those who call others “wrongdoers”. It is, he said “not merely the violation of the rights of an individual, rather it is also a crime against society”. [6]

So too, it seems, Western takfiris would deny any and all contacts and accommodation with political Islam and condemn those who engage in them.

One of our principal purposes in engaging with the leaders of political Islam is to stimulate a new and more rigorous understanding of armed political action, its causes and its varied nature, and to distinguish between it and “terrorism”. There is no question that two of the groups with whom we spoke – Hamas and Hezbollah – have adopted violent tactics to forward their political goals. They are not alone: Fatah (whose candidates for election the US supported with US$2 million in campaign funds) continues to use violence (and kidnap Westerners), so do the Tamil Tigers, so did the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the African National Congress. So too does the United States. America’s insistence that Hamas and Hezbollah “renounce violence” and “disarm” is dismissed by these groups as not only an invitation to surrender but, in light of the continuing and increasingly indefensible use of alarmingly disproportionate US and British firepower in Iraq, the rankest hypocrisy.

The West’s seeming abhorrence of violence is derived from its deeply rooted belief that political change is possible without it. But defending this proposition requires an extraordinary exercise in historical amnesia.

While we Americans proudly point to the civil-rights movement as an example of how non-violence can successfully enable dispossessed peoples to grab the levers of change, history shows that those same levers were made available as the result of previous, often quite bloody, conflicts – in the case of the civil rights movement a brutal civil war that left 638,000 Americans dead. Nor was America’s civil-rights movement as non-violent as it may seem from this distance: the moderation of Dr Martin Luther King Jr was opposed by a portion of the black American community who vowed that they would change the nation “by any means necessary” and who claimed that “violence is as American as cherry pie”.

Whether we want to admit it or not, history shows that political change is most often the result of political pain: the owners of Montgomery, Alabama’s transit system did not agree to integrate their buses because they suddenly ceased being racists, but because they were going out of business. Nor, once the right to vote was won, was the civil-rights movement ended. The fight for equality has been long and often agonizing, and it is not yet finished.

So too, as America’s most recent actions in Iraq attest, the US policymakers would certainly not reject the proposition that violence (albeit, as President George W Bush continues to attest, “only as a last resort”) is often used to defend US interests or promote US views.

So while we Americans hold to the belief that the ballot box offers the best way to effect change, we must acknowledge that history shows that change is most often painful and usually bloody.

The leaders of major Islamist organizations view the issue of violence in the same way Americans do – as a legitimate option that is applied to establish deterrence and stability and to defend and promote their interests. For Hamas and Hezbollah, “armed resistance” is a way of balancing the asymmetry of force available to Israel. Both groups place their use of violence in a political context.

“Armed resistance is not simply a tool that we use to respond to Israeli aggression,” a Hamas leader averred. “It gives our people confidence that they are being defended, that they have an identity, that someone is trying to balance the scales.”

Hezbollah puts this idea in the same political context: “It may be that some day we will have to sit down across from our enemies and talk to them about a political settlement. That could happen,” reflected Nawaf Mousawi, the chief of the Hezbollah’s foreign relations department. “But no political agreement will be possible until they respect us. I want them to know that when they’re sitting there across from us that if they decide to get up and walk away, they’ll have to pay a price.”

The West’s insistence that opening a political dialogue be preceded by and conditioned on disarmament is simply unrealistic: it suggests that we believe that “our” violence is benevolent while “theirs” is unreasoning and random – that a 19-year-old rifle-toting American in Fallujah is somehow less dangerous than a 19-year-old Shi’ite in southern Lebanon.

In fact, political agreements have rarely been preceded by disarmament. United Nations demands for the disarmament of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) in 1978 unraveled a conflict-ending political agreement (a situation put right when the rebels were allowed to keep their weapons), and Northern Ireland’s “Good Friday Agreement” allowed the IRA to keep its weapons until a political process (leading to “decommissioning”) reflecting their concerns was put in place.

The West often views Islamic violence as random and unreasoning, but Hamas and Hezbollah believe that violence can shift practical political considerations to create a psychology in which armed groups can use the tool of de-escalation as a way of forwarding a political process. That is to say, absent a political agreement, Hamas and Hezbollah will not voluntarily abandon what they view as their only defense against the overwhelming weight of Israeli military power.

Disarmament (or “demilitarization”) is possible: it worked in Northern Ireland and South Africa. When coupled with substantive political talks, the unification of armed elements into a single security or military force – demilitarization – provides the best hope for increased stability and security in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.

As a part of our program with Hamas and Hezbollah, we invited John Lord Alderdice to Beirut to brief the groups on how demilitarization might work in their societies. Lord Alderdice helped to negotiate the “Good Friday Agreements” in Northern Ireland that “decommissioned” the IRA and allowed, among other things, for Catholic policing of Catholic neighborhoods and the recomposition of a more representative Ulster Constabulary. Hezbollah leaders have acknowledged that they would be willing to undertake a process of demilitarization that would allow Shi’ite officers to hold more senior level officer positions in the Lebanese army, while Hamas leaders have openly talked of creating a national army – thereby acknowledging the importance of the “one commander, one security service, one gun” solution promoted by the Bush administration.

Demilitarization is not a panacea, it does not work always and in every case, but it holds out greater hope for long-term stability and security than conditioning peace on requirements that cannot be met.

The Israel problem
Despite their sometimes deep and abiding organizational, historical and religious differences, all of the Islamist groups with whom we spoke claimed that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would do more than any other single event to calm and stabilize the region. But while the US, Israel and their allies insist that “recognition” of Israel be a starting point for any dialogue between the West and political Islam, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e-Islami insist that recognition must be the end point of a political process – not its beginning.

They forcefully and correctly point out that America’s insistence on Israel’s recognition has never been a condition for any previous dialogue: the US and its allies maintained relations with president Abdul Nasser, president Hafez al-Assad, King Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz, and King Hussein (and even shipped arms to Tehran), when Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan (and Iran) not only refused to speak with Israeli leaders, but vowed to destroy their state. In fact, the United States maintained diplomatic relations with these nations precisely because it thought it might end their conflict with Israel. In two cases – with Egypt and Jordan – it worked.

The argument that “things changed after September 11, 2001” seems almost perverse. Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat e-Islami (as well as Syria and Iran) denounced the attack, expressed their support for the US war against al-Qaeda and even, in the case of Tehran, offered US rescue helicopters on missions in Afghanistan emergency landing rights in Iran.

The leaders with whom we spoke are offended by claims that what they call their “resistance to Israeli aggression” has led to recurring charges of anti-Semitism. “We are not fighting against Jews,” Hamas leaders repeatedly argued. “Our argument is with Israel.”

In the case of Hezbollah, a number of the delegates to our meetings pointed out that the Hezbollah television station Al-Manar openly broadcast a “documentary” on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” – a Christian, not Muslim, invention. References to the “documentary” were met with an embarrassed acknowledgement by our Hezbollah interlocutor: “I did not know it was going to air until I saw it,” he said. “I am sorry it was aired.” A number of delegates were unimpressed by this apology: “It does not make it okay,” one said.

Claims that Al-Manar regularly broadcasts “anti-Semitic” videotapes showing Muslim “martyrs” celebrating before a backdrop of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, however, brought a swift denial: “The videos we air are not anti-Jewish, do not call for the destruction of the Jewish religion, and are not anti-Semitic. We have a right to extol those who sacrifice themselves in our defense. You do the same.”

The same claims are made of Hamas. In our first exchange in March last year, Hamas leaders were accused of supporting anti-Semitism by including “The Protocols” on their website. Our interlocutors seemed more puzzled than offended by the charge, as if unaware of the Protocols’ appearance. But they pledged to look into the claim.

In March of this year, Hamas leader Usamah Hamdan responded to the charge by noting that the Hamas website to which we referred in our initial charge was actually designed and owned by a Cairo firm that was not affiliated with the movement. The Hamas leadership, he said, was “working to resolve the problem”. As of this writing, the offending website ( has been replaced with a nondescript website that includes links to both an anti-Hamas article and “Jewish Singles”.

Nor, it seems, is Hamas’ view of its charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel, inviolable: “It is not the Koran, it can be amended,” a Hamas leader has said.

Still, the charges of Hamas’ anti-Semitism have proliferated. In a recent article in The New Yorker, David Remnick castigated Hamas for its open ties to the Muslim religious tradition that dictates that the territory of Palestine is a part of the Islamic waqf – the endowment promised to Muslims by God – and that “to relinquish any part of the land” is “forbidden”. [7]

But Hamas is not the only religious-based political movement that claims that all of Palestine was given by God. For Jews, as well as for the Zionist movement, there is a parallel theological belief that the Land of Israel was given to Jews for all time – from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, from southern Syria to the Sinai Peninsula. The creation of a Jewish state in all of Eretz Yisrael (a phrase included in “The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel” read to the public by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948) has always been a fundamental part of Jewish aspirations, to be realized, as one recent American visitor with a Hamas leader recently described it, “in God’s time”.

Hamas has little problem with such aspirations, so long as they are not translated into settlements and land confiscations, which preempt “God’s work” and negate the eschatological nature of religious beliefs.

Hamas is as unlikely to disavow its aspirations for creating a Muslim state in all of Palestine as Israel is unlikely to cease calling the West Bank “Judea and Samaria” – geographic descriptions that Palestinians consider inflammatory and, they claim, evidence that Israel is dedicated to realizing its religiously ordained aspirations.

All of this may seem to be logic-chopping. The real question remains: Is it possible for the leaders of political Islam to recognize Israel, to acknowledge and live in peace with a Jewish state that has been established in the midst of the Muslim wafq?

On this question all Islamic leaders seem united: “The end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the hands of our brothers in Palestine,” Nawaf Mousawi said. “When they say it is over, it will be over.” The leaders of the other groups with whom we met agree, saying that while their support for Palestine is constant and unquestioned, it is no use “being more Palestinian than the Palestinians”.

For the United States and its allies, on the other hand, “recognition” of Israel – and not participation in free, open and fair elections – is a requirement for the acceptance of a Hamas-led government into the community of nations. But for Hamas, the recognition of Israel is not a pro forma political abstraction, but a vitally crucial issue. They point out that “recognition” is the province of states and that, therefore, the recognition of Israel should come when there is a Palestinian state that represents the will of the Palestinian people and has the same international standing as the State of Israel. Hamas leaders also believe that simple “recognition” of Israel will not yield any tangible changes in the status of Palestinians, let alone Hamas – that the US response will be (as one Hamas leader said, mimicking a US leader): “Fine, but that’s not enough. Now, you must …”

In their most recent statements Hamas leaders have been quite insistent: recognition of Israel is dependent on the recognition of Palestinian rights. That is to say, Hamas will consider recognizing Israel when Israel acknowledges UN resolutions calling for a withdrawal of those territories occupied by Israel in 1967. Put simply: measures taken by Israel in the West Bank without Palestinian consent are illegal and any future negotiation with Israel must take the pre-1967 situation as their starting point.

In fact, this is a reflection of the position enunciated by President Bush last May 26 in an address given during a visit to the White House by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: “Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties,” Bush said, “and changes to the 1949 Armistice lines must be mutually agreed to.”

Bush’s words are vitally important. If the Palestinian do not agree with the final borders proposed by Israel, the conflict will not be resolved. In effect, the Palestinian have the right to veto Israel’s final status proposal if they don’t like it – and so maintain, by such a veto, their unwillingness to come to a final political settlement with Israel. So Bush agrees with the Islamists: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be over when the Palestinians agree that it is over. And not before.

Moderation under attack
The seeming intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been exacerbated by America’s insistence that its allies in Europe and in the region withhold funding for the new Palestinian government until Hamas recognizes Israel (and renounces terrorism, and disarms, and …).

To America’s failure to foresee Iyad Allawi’s defeat in Iraqi elections, to predict Hamas’ electoral victory, and to isolate Hezbollah we may now add yet another failure: Condoleezza Rice’s failure to gain support from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to cease their assistance to the Palestinian people. Rice’s plea to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to stand with the US in its refusal to fund a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority was resoundingly and loudly rejected by Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah.

Instead of isolating Hamas, the United States has isolated itself: not only did President Putin host a visit by Hamas leaders in Moscow, a number of European nations (as well as a growing number of senior Israeli officials) are now quietly suggesting a reassessment of being identified with the US program for the region, and are seeking ways to talk with Islamist leaders whose legitimacy is the result of a popular mandate.

The differences in approach are not simply a reflection of Europe’s continued criticism of the Bush administration’s decision to shape a “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq, it is rooted in geographic realities: Muslims constitute Europe’s single most important and powerful minority constituency. Europe’s decision to respond more positively to Islamist concerns is also, quite obviously, the result of widespread Muslim rioting in France, the burning of European embassies in the Arab world, and an admission among European leaders that they must take steps to fight Muslim intolerance in their own societies. While European leaders initially defended the right of a Danish magazine to publish cartoons lampooning Mohammed, their most recent actions betray a discomfort with their defense of the publication of the caricatures because of the Western value of “freedom of speech” – a value that was once cited as a just defense of Julius Streicher’s “right” to publish virulent anti-Semitic caricatures in Der Sturmer.

A discussion of Middle East realities also inevitably touches on George W Bush’s call for greater democracy in the region, a vision fatally undermined by Secretary of State Rice’s imprecation that the United States will never deal with a Hamas-led Palestine, whether elected or not. Rice’s lecture tour of Middle Eastern capitals is not only the most recent evidence for the Bush administration’s inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to differentiate among Islamist groups, it threatens to undermine fatally the central pillar of America’s message to Muslims from Egypt to Pakistan – that democracy provides the last best hope for the realization of people’s dreams. Inadvertently that democracy message is being undermined by US policies, which are pushing Middle Eastern moderates into the arms of the region’s takfiris – those who view any compromise with the West as apostasy.

More specifically, America’s failure to talk with, or simply listen closely to, those groups who depend for their legitimacy on the support of their constituencies will swing the pendulum of the Islamist revolution far beyond the views enunciated by Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat e-Islami. It has happened before.

In 1792, the architects of the French Revolution found themselves under attack. For three years the leaders of the Gironde – Jacques-Pierre Brissot, Marguerite-Elie Guadet and Pierre-Victurnien Vergniaud – had served as the vanguard for national change. The Gironde represented France’s professional classes: businessmen, academics, lawyers and writers. They were viewed as defenders of authority and order. The transformations they authored were breathtaking: they struck down aristocratic preferments, convened a national convention, and made the king answerable to the people. But in the summer of 1792, these three leaders of the Gironde, and 18 of their colleagues, were purged from the convention, tried by a Revolutionary Tribunal and guillotined before the jeering people of Paris. Their sin? They not only opposed the “Enrages” – the revolutionary “madmen” of the Paris Jacobean Club who would “burn France to ashes” – they expressed their admiration for England’s government, with its elections and House of Commons.

The slippage from moderation to terror that seized France in 1792 is chillingly familiar to any discerning observer of America’s relations with Islam since September 11, 2001. Stunned by the attack on its cities and institutions, the US government justifiably struck back at al-Qaeda, destroying much of its network, interdicting its funding, and identifying and jailing its supporters. The US was supported by the entire planet. While it would have not have taken much political sophistication for British prime minister William Pitt to differentiate between the Gironde and the Jacobeans, his failure to do so – evinced by his description of the Gironde as “regicides” followed by his mobilization of the British army – sent them to the block. Like the stiff and unbending Pitt, who saw little difference between the Gironde and their enemies on the left, the Bush administration has lumped Muslim revivalists, who admire democracy and reform and want it for themselves, with the Middle East’s revolutionaries – who want to burn the region to ashes.

A more recent historical example shows how the US and the West might find a way out of this morass. In 1947, US president Harry Truman directed the Central Intelligence Agency to fund European socialist movements that supported democracy. He did so not because he was “soft on communism” or a “fellow traveler” (the accusation made at the time), but because he was able to differentiate between those European movements that believed in democracy and those that didn’t. Truman calculated that marginalizing European socialists would force them into the communist camp. Truman’s strategy, carried out over a period of decades, worked – breaking off moderate European Marxists from their more revolutionary and violent co-religionists.

So too, while talking to or even dealing with Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e-Islami might seem an apostasy to some, including them on the same list of proscribed organizations as al-Qaeda confuses those groups open to adopting the values we espouse with those with whom there can be no accommodation. Being able to differentiate between political movements and currents and exploiting them to our benefit in order to spread democracy is not making a pact with the devil, it’s called diplomacy – and at its heart is a willingness to talk with groups and political parties to find a common ground to fight a common enemy.

The new Jacobins
The United States and its European allies have declared war on terrorism. Yet the policies that the West has instituted in this war are not leading to increased security for its people or societies. Rather, in failing to differentiate between “revivalists” and “revolutionaries”, between those who are willing to submit their program to a vote of their people and those who won’t – ever – the West is inexorably pushing this great middle ground into the arms of the takfiris, into the arms of Islam’s Jacobins.

The failure to differentiate between Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, between Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is the failure to differentiate between those who seek an accommodation with the West and those who work for an unremitting and uncompromising clash. The solution is not simply to begin talking to political Islam – “we don’t want you to talk”, a Hamas leader told us, “we want you to listen” – but rather to begin the necessary process of questioning our own assumptions: that “they” are “all the same”. If we fail to begin this vital work now we will soon see Mecca “burn”. And it won’t stop there.

What is perhaps most surprising about what we have learned in our “exercise of mutual listening” is not that our views are radical, but that they reinforce Western society’s best instincts, including those of George W Bush. In a speech before the International Republican Institute last May, the US president laid out his vision for democracy in the Middle East.

“Today, much of our focus is on the broader Middle East, because I understand that 60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in that region did nothing to make us safe,” he said. “If the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation and resentment and violence ready for export.

“The United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East; a strategy that recognizes the best way to defeat the ideology that uses terror as a weapon is to spread freedom and democracy.”

We agree.

1. “President Bush meets with European leaders”, The White House, May 2, 2002.
2. “Press Statements and Answers to Questions after the Completion of Russian-Azerbaijan Talks”, Moscow, February 6, 2004.
3. Included on the board of the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus are Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, Frank Gaffney, Max Kampelman, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz, and James Woolsey, among many others.
4. “Give the Chechens a land of their own”, Richard Pipes, New York Times, September 9, 2004.
5. “Deal with Al-Da’wa and its controversial legacy”, Mahan Abaden, Daily Star (Beirut), July 3, 2004.
6. “Fitna-I Takfir” (Mischief of Takfir), Maulauna Maudoodi, Tarjuman al-Quran, May 1935.
7. “The Democracy Game”, David Remnick, The New Yorker, February 27, 2006.

PART 3: An exchange of narratives
By Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke (03.06.2006)

There was a time in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, when Western intellectuals debated the meaning of the attacks that occurred on that day and the most appropriate way to counter them. There was a welter of voices, a cacophony of opinions.

Struggling to understand the event’s magnitude, German philosopher Jurgen Habermas reflected that September 11 carried with it a “foreboding atmosphere” that exposed “a long-known vulnerability of our complex civilization”. French intellectual Jacques Derrida went further, suggesting that the event’s complexity forced us to question our most “deep-seated conceptual presuppositions”. Opinion makers, intellectuals, politicians, foreign-policy analysts, and the great mass of the public wrestled with September 11’s meaning, as if suddenly caught off balance by the sheer audacity of the event. And so it was that for the merest moment – a shimmering and hopeful period so brief that it now seems that it might never have occurred at all – Americans, and others in the West, rejected “the received concepts” of “war” and “terrorism” and shook themselves from certainty’s slumber.

The hopeful moment passed. Driven by the shattering visions of the assault – the specter of living beings falling through the clear air of lower Manhattan – the United States and its allies attacked Afghanistan and drove the Taliban from power, jailed al-Qaeda members and their sympathizers, strangled Middle Eastern banks and purged financial accounts, identified an “axis of evil”, passed new and more stringent security measures, legislated new powers to domestic spying agencies, and increased funding to their intelligence services. They unseated Saddam Hussein. Yet after five years and the expenditure of thousands of lives and billions of dollars, there remains what Habermas calls a “vague feeling of angst”: an indefinable yet precise sense that somehow and in some way we in the West have gotten this thing, this “war on terrorism”, terribly wrong.

But how?

In the first two parts of this series on our dialogue with political Islam (How to Lose the ’War on Terror’, Asia Times Online, March-April), we provided a simple recounting of our exchange with the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, Jamaat e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. Our dialogue was a straightforward exploration of political principles and tactics, a defense of our central claim that, in failing to differentiate among Muslim political groups, Western policymakers are needlessly bloodying the Islamic world’s landscape and broadening the globe’s crisis.

But over the past two years, our exchange with Islam’s leaders – and now too with policymakers in the United States and Europe – has gone beyond the simple political formulas of diplomacy. In a series of smaller and more private meetings from Beirut to Istanbul and Brussels, from London to Washington and Jerusalem, we have begun to explore the intellectual foundations of our confrontation so that we might, finally, address the intangible “feeling of angst” that so permeates our conflict.

What we mean when we say …
The varying public responses to our first two articles focused primarily on two statements: the first, by a leader of Hamas who acerbically warned us against lecturing (“we don’t want you to talk, we want you to listen”) and the second to our claim that the West’s image of al-Qaeda is reflected by a narrow set of ideological misconceptions propounded by a parochial political elite – policymakers whom we described as Western takfiris. [1]

The first comment was greeted with broad approbation, the second with widespread skepticism, the responses dividing themselves evenly along ethnic and religious lines: Arabs and Muslims praised Hamas’ warning that we must listen as well as talk, while Westerners derided our takfiri description as mere “political sloganeering” and hinted that our exchange typified that of “do-gooders” who naively believe that the world can be ruled by the Sermon on the Mount.

The responses themselves point up significant and long-standing differences in how the West and Islam fail to communicate. The Western media’s use of experts to decipher meanings preceded the Oslo Accords by 20 years, when news broadcasts regularly reported on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by featuring Israeli officials appearing alongside Middle East experts: “So tell us, Professor, what do the Palestinians think?” It was only after Oslo that Palestinians were allowed to speak in their own voices – or that we were allowed to listen.

In the wake of September 11, Western news outlets reverted to these pre-Oslo traditions, featuring expert commentators filtering Islamist views for an audience whose opinions on Islam have been shaped by … expert commentators. The global communications revolution has proved singularly unable to reverse this practice, in part because broadcast corporations have proved vulnerable to political and economic pressures – Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television is barred from broadcasting in the United States and Europe because it is “a terrorist entity”, and no satellite company is willing to take on Al-Jazeera’s English-language service.

The media’s seeming inability to present unfiltered commentary is, however, neither universal nor causative, but particular and derivative, and the result of deep-seated and historically rooted mistrust of Western policymakers toward Islam’s leaders. This mistrust was more recently mirrored by an angry exchange that we engaged in with an employee of a US foreign-policy organization, who hypothesized that the reason the West does not listen to political Islam is that political Islam has nothing to say:

“You spoke to the leaders of Hezbollah?”


“And to Hamas?”


“And they said that they wanted democracy?”


“And you believed them?”

The skepticism in these words is pernicious, but by no means unusual: they are intended to empty our dialogue with Islam of its content and so translate the message of Islam into a form that reflects US policies: “Hamas says they believe in democracy, but what they really mean to say is …” Nor was the claim unintentional; the critic’s acerbity was a purposeful negation of our belief that language not only plays a central role in political experience as well as our belief that the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah might be capable of telling the truth – and of defining themselves.

Our response, we believed, was pertinent: “Do you oppose Hamas and Hezbollah because you believe they are incapable of telling the truth, or do you claim they are incapable of telling the truth because you oppose them?”

Particularly since September 11, the US and its allies have approached Islam not to understand it, or speak with it, or listen to it, but to interpret it. Such interpretation is not “liberating” but, as the Western thinker Susan Sontag would have it, “reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling”. It is meant to poison our sensibilities.

Even so, such interpretation is essential, many in the West believe, because the language of the Islamists is shadowy, unreachable and coded, while ours is transparent, accessible and honest. When we say we support democracy, we mean it; when they say it, they’re lying.

Speech acts
Thus our imprecation to “listen” is more than a political conceit (or an attempt to replace the real world of politics with the Sermon on the Mount), it is the central message of many of the most important and influential of Islam’s political leaders, for whom talking and listening are a core strategy for de-escalating the confrontation with the West.

This message was at the center of a recent exchange in Beirut with Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussain Fadlallah. Educated in Najaf, where his scholarship gained respectful attention, Fadlallah is one of a handful of grand ayatollahs in the world, a community that represents the depth of Islamic thinking inside Shi’ism. Fadlallah carefully parses out his beliefs in powerful but phlegmatic phrases. As a part of the Shi’ite elite, he has followers who subscribe to his teachings, and he takes great care in his use of language. Fadlallah and his handful of colleagues are unique: there is nothing comparable in the West – it would be as if each Catholic cardinal had a different view of Christianity, and attracted students to his views.

Aging now, Fadlallah does not sweep into a room as he once did, and his guests can see the wear on his face. But he is a man who cares about words. There is, in his most recent pronouncements, a careful worry about the dilution of language, and the violence such dilution portends. More pointedly, he argues that the West’s current political discourse is designed precisely to close off an exchange and erode understanding.

“We can talk about the differences between freedom fighters and terrorists, about legitimate resistance and illegitimate resistance, and we can participate in dialogues and in debates – but every religion condemns the killing of civilians,” he said. “The West knows this. Yet the West does not take care in what it says or in how it uses and applies its categories, or whether it follows its own principles. Its greatest mistake is in using these terms too readily. It needs to be more thoughtful, more attentive, more discerning in its use of language.

“There is a dilution of language at work here. What we need to realize is that words have meanings, they can lead to violence.”

Fadlallah is known for his courtesy and is puzzled by its absence in others. He is accused of masterminding the 1983 bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, regularly described (most recently by CNN) as the work of Hezbollah – which did not exist at the time. The US responded to the barracks bombing by attempting to assassinate Fadlallah with a car bomb in 1985, killing 73 Lebanese. Fadlallah’s later years have been spent in an attempt to engage the West in the importance of speaking clearly. It has been a frustrating experience, a conclusion implied in a story purposely told to us by one of his assistants prior to our meeting.

“There was once an interviewer who interrupted His Eminence to give his own opinion,” this assistant said. “And Sheikh Fadlallah allowed the interruption to pass into silence. But when he responded, he said: ’Young man, when you talk I will listen carefully to everything that you say. After you are finished I will respond, and you will remain silent and listen very carefully to me until I am finished. This is the discipline I employ.’”

Fadlallah’s concern with the effects of Western discourse about Islam was most apparent in the wake of the publication of caricatures of Mohammed in a Danish magazine last year. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was most outspoken in condemning the demonstrations that followed several months later, claiming that Iran and Syria “have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes. And the world ought to call them on it.” Jack Straw, who was then the British foreign secretary, parroted this imprecation, jarringly repeating Rice’s “call them on it” homey Americanism.

US President George W Bush, meanwhile, lectured Muslim governments that they needed to “be respectful” of the Western value of freedom of speech and telephoned the Danish to express his “support and solidarity”. In the pages of the Washington Post, commentators Alan Dershowitz and William Bennett supported Bush’s call by condemning US newspapers for failing to follow the Danish example of printing the cartoons, saying the failure undermined the doctrine of freedom of speech. “When we were attacked on September 11, we knew the main reason for the attack was that Islamists hated our way of life, our virtues, our freedoms. What we never imagined was that the free press – an institution at the heart of those virtues and freedoms – would be among the first to surrender,” they wrote.

The loud condemnations of Islam’s reaction reached deafening proportions when the views of American conservative commentator Fred Barnes were aired throughout the region: “It tells us a lot,” he said. “It tells us that our enemy is not just al-Qaeda. That there [are] Muslims all over Europe and all over the world who are certainly enemies of Western civilization … Now, I think we’ve learned a lot from this. We see the Muslims’ contempt for democracy, for freedom of speech, for freedom of the press, and particularly for freedom of religion.”

Muslim protests over the publication of the Danish cartoons was deeply rooted and emotional, but were fed and exacerbated by the West’s insistence that its defense of the cartoons was simply a reflection of its commitment to freedom of speech – to its “values”. That such a defense might be viewed as hypocritical did not occur to Western commentators, who failed to perceive any symmetry between the West’s condemnation of Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television (to cite one example) and Islam’s condemnation of the Danish cartoons. Why is it that freedom of speech can be extended to those who insult the Prophet but not to those who then strongly protest the insults? What kind of presuppositions are made by those who view public demonstrations as an attack on democratic values?

That the banning of Al-Manar and the cartoon controversy were somehow related in the Arab political context would have come as a surprise to Americans, who remain ignorant of the comparison. Al-Manar was first barred from broadcasting by the French, in December 2004. Then-prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin stated that the ban was being implemented because “Al-Manar’s programs are incompatible with our values”. The French ban was followed by the decision of Al-Manar’s US satellite carrier to pull the plug on the station and, one year later, the inclusion of Al-Manar on the US State Department’s Terrorist Exclusion List.

“It’s not a question of freedom of speech,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. “It’s a question of incitement to violence, and we don’t see why, here or anywhere else, a terrorist organization should be allowed to spread its hatred and incitement through the television airwaves.”

Why is it – Muslims were asking during the February cartoon demonstrations – why is it that Al-Manar’s condemnation of Israel is “incitement to violence”, while Fred Barnes could blithely condemn Muslims as “enemies of Western civilization”?

This said, Al-Manar’s programming content is not only a concern for the West. Hezbollah foreign minister Nawaf Mousawi (as we noted in Part 2 of this series, Handing victory to the extremists, April 1) acknowledged his embarrassment that the channel aired a documentary on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and its bald celebration of martyrdom, with the Dome of the Rock as a backdrop, seems not so much a dilution of speech as its escalation.

Our claim is not that Al-Manar should get a “pass” on hate speech simply because Fred Barnes is guilty of the same offense – or that Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah is some kind of sandal-clad prophet with a copy of Emmanuel Kant prominently displayed on his bed table – but that deeply rooted hate speech cannot be ended by refusing to talk or listen. Indeed, Mousawi’s embarrassment about Al-Manar’s programming was news to policymakers in the United States, when it need not have been. An exchange with Hezbollah over the West’s (and Fadlallah’s) view that hate speech leads to hate crimes (“that words have meanings”) might have resulted in a de-escalation of the war of words that is fueling the current conflict. Or perhaps not. But banning Al-Manar in the West had precisely the opposite effect to what was intended, for it gave it increased legitimacy in the region by proving that, in the words of an Al-Manar official, “The West wants to hear only one voice, and that’s its own.”

Fatefully, the cartoon controversy reached its peak just prior to Ashura, the Shi’ite holy day commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Mohammed, at the Battle of Karbala, in 680 CE. Ashura is traditionally a day of mourning, and Lebanon’s Shi’ites commemorated it this past February 9 by attending a mass rally capped by an address by Hezbollah general secretary Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah (described in an Associated Press report of that day as “a black-turbaned, bearded cleric”).

Born in Lebanon but, like Fadlallah, educated in Najaf, Nasrallah is perhaps the most magnetic, sophisticated and respected political leader in the Middle East. He is a mercurial public speaker, and the tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters who came to hear him believed he would issue a rallying cry of protest, a scorching condemnation of the West, and a defense of Muslim anger. Surprisingly, he did not. Instead, Nasrallah echoed Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah’s continuing concern about the potential violence of language. His message was angry, but his audience sensed in his words a deeper frustration – that through the previous week the Muslim world had suffered through a torrent of words, a lecture about values, without any chance to respond. Now, he would give a response.

“Defending the Prophet should continue all over the world. Let Condoleezza Rice and Bush and all the tyrants …” – and here, unaccountably, Nasrallah seemed to search for the appropriate words, and then finally found them – “… let Condoleezza Rice and Bush and all the tyrants – shut up.”

Nasrallah’s frustration galvanized his listeners, whose celebratory response to his imprecation mirrored the views of the leaders of political Islam in our initial series of exchanges with them in Beirut last year. In the lead-up to those meetings, our future interlocutors were adamant, and recounted a meeting they had had with American and European academics the previous year. The meeting had featured presentations by American and European scholars that emphasized that the West would enter a dialogue with political Islam only if three prior conditions were met – that Islamist groups renounce violence, recognize Israel, and disarm.

“We wondered, if we met those conditions, just exactly what there would be to talk about,” a Hamas official said. The meeting became a lecture, but rather than tell their American and European counterparts to “shut up” – as Nasrallah had done – the Islamist delegates walked from the room.

The sphere of violence
Our experiences, both in our dialogues last year and in our most recent exchanges with European and US officials, have focused on a reigniting of listening and talking not simply because the leaders of political Islam have emphasized this need. Rather, our dialogues were established on the belief that the kind of talking and listening in which we were engaged was different from the ubiquitous reconciliation conferences that dot the Middle East’s political landscape.

Our goal was not to end violence, but to circumscribe it within well-defined limits – an end-point we believed essential to our goal of persuading Western leaders to differentiate between those who perpetrated September 11 and those who condemned it, between those who depend for their legitimacy on the support of their people and those who don’t. Our purpose was, then, recognizably selfish: to the degree that the West held Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat e-Islami and other moderate Islamists responsible for September 11 (the Islamist “Gironde”, in our formula) was the degree to which Islamists would conclude that the West held Islam collectively responsible for September 11 – and the degree to which violence would be visited on the innocent.

The evident interest of Western officials in our exchange was a tacit, if partial, recognition of these views – that important officials had concluded that power is not solely the monopoly of the US and its allies and that, while to “turn the other cheek” in the face of September 11 involved a lack of dignity, those attacks do not absolve politicians from engaging in diplomacy. We say partial recognition, because the increasing interest in our exchanges was not kindled from altruistic motives, but from looming failure – the widening war in Iraq, the spreading violence in the region, the feckless implementation of the West’s program of promoting democracy, as well as the increasingly strident voices in Islam demanding an airing of their grievances.

It was not happenstance that these fears were repeated, sometimes word for word, by the leaders of political Islam, whose desire for dialogue was fueled by “the widening war in Iraq, the spreading violence in the region, the indifferent implementation of the West’s program of democracy, and the increasingly loud voice of our people that they be allowed to air their grievances”.

Never mind: while our dialogue has not resulted in a political breakthrough, simply confirming that an exchange of narratives might be possible holds out hope for the reversal of Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that “war is diplomacy by other means” – an attempt to remove the current conflict from the sphere of violence to the sphere of talking.

Our colleague John Alderdice – one of the first of Northern Ireland’s “Unionists” to express a willingness to talk with Sinn Fein, and a key official in the negotiations of the Good Friday Agreements – recounted his own experience of moving a conflict from the sphere of violence to the sphere of talking. One of the first conditions for doing so, he noted, is that both sides must have confidence that they will not be weakened by a dialogue. Usually, a participant who refuses to participate does so because he fears his own weakness. Alderdice was puzzled, therefore, by Western intransigence in recognizing the need for an exchange with the leaders of political Islam: “We in the West have tens of thousands of troops in the Middle East, dozens of ships on the high seas, and control of the world’s financial markets,” he said. “So what exactly are we afraid of?”

Talking and listening, then, are more than a metaphorical construct, a repetition of the Sermon on the Mount, or a faith-based reconciliation program by another name; it is, rather, an attempt to palliate fears, put the individual back at the center of history, and negate the intellectual apartheid that robs words of their content. It is also an attempt to deny the efficacy of those in the West who would refuse Islam the richness of its diversity at the same time that it rejects Islam’s rhetoric of the West’s collective guilt.

“We know that in war innocent people will die, because this is the nature of war,” Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah told us. “But this does not excuse responsibility or negate the requirement that we do everything that we can to save the innocent. This is an ideal that the United States and the West has and this is the ideal that we also have. It is a basis for the beginning of an understanding, because it is this belief that separates us from our enemies in the world and inside of our own societies.”

1. Takfiris are Muslims who view all Westerners as kafirs (infidels).



PART 4: Acts of faith
By Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke (06.06.2006)

That talking and listening would now seem so difficult is not the result of some inherent inability of differing cultures to understand one another, or of Islam’s long-standing religious or political incompatibility with the West, nor of some inevitable and irrepressible clash of civilizations.

Rather, the decision not to talk and not to listen is the result of a purposeful political choice made by political figures in the West (who believe that democracy is “ours”, while “the arc of violence” is “theirs”) and by Salafists in the Islamic world (who believe their cause is “sacred” while ours is “idolatrous”).

While the roots of this mutual intolerance are only now becoming clear, both Western takfiris and Islamic Salafists adhere to similar doctrinal principles and, at least in part, are rooted in the fear that their values are under siege not simply by “terrorists” (in the views of the West) and “hegemonists” (in the views of the Salafists) but more prominently from dissenters in each society whose lack of moral certainty is viewed as a weakness.

Neo-conservatism …
In 1996, prominent conservatives William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote that the United States had a special role in spreading democracy; the nation should not simply be “a benevolent hegemon”, but should “go abroad in search of monsters”.

And why not? they asked. “Because America has the capacity to contain or destroy many of the world’s monsters, most of which can be found without much searching, and because the responsibility for the peace and security of the international order rests so heavily on America’s shoulders, a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor.” Kristol and Kagan called themselves “neo-Reaganites”, but those who espoused their policies soon began to describe themselves as neo-conservatives.

That modern Western political thought has been unduly influenced by the writings and teachings of University of Chicago Professor Leo Strauss – said to be the original “neo-conservative” – is by now a fashionable, if exaggerated and reductive, popular convention. Paradoxically, the convention is made use of most prominently by the unconventional: followers of Lyndon LaRouche, anti-Zionists, marginalized libertarians, irritated conservatives and a range of conspiracy theorists that span the political spectrum.

Prominent neo-conservative David Horowitz rejects the category outright (“’Neo-conservatism’ is a term almost exclusively used by the enemies of America’s liberation of Iraq”), while former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz (one of Strauss’s students) says the term is used in the Middle Eastern press as “a euphemism for some kind of nefarious Zionist conspiracy”.

Then too, there is a tendency to “read back” into Strauss from the neo-conservatives, a simple enough task of finding in his works echoes of current political thinking. That said, the godfather of neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol (the founder of The Public Interest and author of Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea), embraces the term, describing neo-conservatives as “liberals mugged by reality” – that is to say, those liberals whose formerly naive view of the world was transformed by communism’s deeply rooted and obvious evil.

If conspiracy-oriented, the neo-conservative label nevertheless accurately describes a thread of beliefs that unite a core of former liberals and militant anti-communists who dominate Western foreign-policy thinking. While a handful of neo-conservatives dismiss the label, many others have willingly and proudly adopted it as a moniker of their set of beliefs or, while rejecting it, have followed neo-conservative precepts and associate themselves with its promoters.

Those neo-conservatives comprise a current “who’s who” of the Western power elite: Horowitz, Wolfowitz and Irving Kristol, as well as US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, former secretary of education William Bennett, author and historian Max Boot, American Enterprise Institute foreign-policy expert Thomas Donnelly, former US under secretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith, author Frances Fukuyama, former US assistant secretary of defense Frank Gaffney, historian and political theorist Robert Kagan, father and son authors (While American Sleeps) Donald and Frederick Kagan, former US ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Martin Kramer, editor and columnist William Kristol, American Enterprise Institute analyst Michael Ledeen, and American-Israel Public Affairs Committee editor Michael Lewis (the son of Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis).

Others are think-tank founder Clifford May, former New Republic editor Martin Peretz, former US assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, Middle East Quarterly editor Michael Rubin, Washington Institute for Near East Policy official Robert Satloff, former US Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey, Hudson Institute scholar Meyrav Wurmser, and US Vice President Richard Cheney’s Middle East adviser, David Wurmser – among many others.

The reach of these policymakers, pundits, intellectuals, authors and government officials is breathtaking; their works have appeared in closely read neo-conservative publications (Commentary, Policy Review, The National Review, The New Republic, The Public Interest, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard), and they control or substantially influence a number of respected Washington think-tanks: The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the Project for the New American Century, and the Hudson Institute.

How far is their reach? In the course of a conversation with the foreign minister of Hezbollah, Nawaf Mousawi, he let slip that he was reading Karl Popper. We were impressed with this seemingly offhand tidbit (that a Hezbollah official would be reading a Western philosopher we found of passing interest) until we realized that Popper’s influential The Open Society and Its Enemies had been a target for some of Leo Strauss’s most pointed political critiques.
There is as broad a political spectrum within the neo-conservative movement as there is in the US in general. Our identification of particular individuals as a part of the same political current is not to say that neo-conservatives agree on each and every issue. Then, too, it is as important for us to differentiate between trends inside the movement as it is important for neo-conservatives, we argue, to recognize the diversity of currents inside of political Islam.

It is difficult, for instance, to list Michael Ledeen and Paul Wolfowitz as a part of the same political line. A resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Ledeen is known in Washington for his extreme statements – he once accused US senator and Vietnam combat veteran Chuck Hagel of “appeasement”, said that the “Franco-German” opposition to the Iraq war identified those countries as America’s “strategic enemies”, and regularly advocates the overthrow of “the murderous mullahcracy” in Iran.

Wolfowitz, on the other hand, seems a wrongly maligned figure: while he bears some responsibility for the Iraq debacle, he has consistently called for a recognition of Palestinian aspirations (which drew raucous “boos” from a pro-Israel rally held after September 11, 2001) and is said to be privately angered by the Bush administration’s current policy of cutting funding to the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority.

It would be as impossible to accuse Wolfowitz of the same off-hand just-below-the-surface ugliness that characterizes Michael Ledeen as it would be to suppose that Ledeen would ever advocate the recognition of Palestinian grievances.

Even so, while there are disagreements among neo-conservatives over the minutiae of some foreign-policy issues, there is broad agreement on a core set of principles: that the United States not only “possesses the means – economic, military, diplomatic – to realize its expansive geopolitical purposes” (in Thomas Donnelly’s phrase), but that it has a moral obligation to do so.

The attacks of September 11 are seen as the result not of overweening US ambitions (“the reason their terrorists are over here is because our soldiers are over there”, in conservative Patrick Buchanan’s famous phrase), but because the United States and its allies have not been vigilant.

“The September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation,” Max Boot wrote just one month after the attacks. Unashamedly, and bluntly, Boot’s liturgical flourishes have become a part of the neo-conservative catechism: “The most realistic response to terrorism is for America to embrace its imperial role.” Boot’s apparent embrace of empire, however, is ladled by neo-conservatives’ nearly apostolic faith in the power of democracy – a faith first enunciated by Wolfowitz at the height of the Cold War: “The best antidote to communism is democracy,” he wrote in April 1985.

While Wolfowitz’s formula caused discomfort among some neo-conservatives (Wolfowitz supported the shah of Iran, but only – as he explained – because Iran did not have “well-established institutions of democracy”), it has become the principal sacrament of the neo-conservative creed.

The genius of neo-conservatism is that its adherents have unblinkingly adopted the kind of metaphysical absolutism that Paul once reserved for his savior – and so are invulnerable to the kind of Fallujah-induced moral vertigo that so relentlessly stalks the rest of us. The power of this unshakable faith not only remains the major (or only) political current in the United States, it continues to gain adherents among America’s once-wobbly allies.
A newly elected conservative government in Canada has reinforced its commitment to America’s foreign policy, and neo-conservatives are now among the most influential voices in the French cabinet. And recently, British Prime Minister Tony Blair emerged as one of neo-conservatism’s most articulate supporters: “This is not a clash between civilizations. It is a clash about civilization,” he said in March. “It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand and pessimism and fear on the other. That is what this battle is about; it is a battle of values and progress; and therefore it is one we must win.”

Blair’s message was an unmistakable confirmation of neo-conservatism’s central, and now all but canonical, tenet: in expanding the US empire it is promoting its values; if some oppose the empire, it’s only because they oppose US values – or have none.

…and its discontents
Neo-conservatism is more than simply a set of ideas – it is a kind of political theology. Its major political principles derive from a critique of modern liberal and secular society. Deeply influenced by the fall of Germany’s Weimar Republic, Leo Strauss (a German who emigrated to the US) critiqued Weimar’s leaders as being insufficiently ruthless in suppressing the Nazis; they played by the rules and were defeated.

“The Weimar Republic was weak. It had only one moment of strength if not greatness: its violent reaction to the assassination of the Jewish minister of foreign affairs, Walter Rathenau, in 1922,” Strauss wrote in 1966. “All in all, Weimar showed the spectacle of justice without force, or of justice incapable of resorting to force.”

The Weimar metaphor is much-repeated and points to our naivety – the implication being that we are talking with Nazis who, it is said, came to power as a result of an election. This position was on prominent display during a briefing that we gave at the Middle East Institute last October, when an analyst from a leading Washington, DC, think-tank pointedly claimed that our promotion of democracy for Islamist groups could lead to “another Weimar“. After all, this critic claimed, “Hitler came to power through a democratic election.”

The same claim has been made by a host of commentators and senior foreign-policy makers, most but not all of whom are neo-conservatives, including: L Paul Bremer (who claimed, in November 2004, that Weimar’s huge debt “led to Adolf Hitler’s election”), Daniel Pipes (who wrote last January that “Western capitals need to show Palestinians that – like Germans electing Hitler in 1933 – they have made a decision gravely unacceptable to civilized opinion”), and even Donald Rumsfeld (who criticized Venezuela’s people for electing Hugo Chavez “just like Adolf Hitler, who was elected legally”).

The only problem with this historical position is that it is wrong: Hitler did not come to office as the result of an election. In fact, he was soundly defeated in Germany’s presidential election of 1932, but was appointed chancellor in 1933 by Paul von Hindenburg. Hitler took dictatorial powers in 1933 as the result of a “soft coup”, when the Nazi leadership engineered the Reichstag fire, blamed the communists, and suspended all future elections. (Weimar official Franz von Papen was later tried at Nuremberg for his role in engineering Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany – and was acquitted.)

In emphasizing the flaws of the Weimar Republic, Strauss struck at what he identified as the three pillars of modern liberal thought: “moral relativism”, “multiculturalism” and “utilitarianism”. Of the three, moral relativism (Strauss wrote) constitutes the greatest threat to the strength of Western society. If all views are held to be equally legitimate and all views have equal value, Strauss believed, then no person’s view can be an expression of the “truth”. German National Socialism was not just another point of view, it was an absolute evil.

Gulled by their liberal secular beliefs, by the bankrupt notion that all ideas are equally credible, and yearning for the rewards of a sleep-inducing materialist society, the leaders of Weimar passed out of office – and into the camps.

“Moral relativism”, Strauss believed, would lead inevitably to the eclipse of idealism in the West, undermining the sense of national sacrifice that motivates any society. The atomization of social life through the adoption of “multiculturalism” and the softening of social strength by providing the greatest good for the greatest number would allow people to retreat into their own consumerist bubble.

Bereft of beliefs, adrift in a sea of multiple cultures, fed on the hedonism that followed from the accumulation of material goods, the West would implode. Inevitably “moral relativism”, “multiculturalism” and “utilitarianism” will so undermine any society, Strauss argued, that a government’s first and only priority would be economic management. The danger of “moral relativism” is that it inevitably leads to political acquiescence.

Strauss was convinced he was right, and for good reason. He looked on aghast as Weimar’s intellectual inheritors (Neville Chamberlain, Charles Lindbergh, the Bund and others) transformed their moral relativism into political appeasement – which led to the deaths of untold millions.

Strauss’s answer was that modern societies must shun moral relativism. By implication, Strauss seemed to be saying, the only way for secular and democratic societies to stimulate idealism and national sacrifice is for political leaders to cast national goals in terms of good and evil. Because tyrannies do not hold the same values as republics, the tyrants are always wrong, we are always right, and there can be no excuse, no justification, and no reason behind a tyranny’s actions.

The enemies of those with values are those who have none. Only by understanding this threat – and insisting that the response to it be uncompromising – can evil hope to be defeated. Strauss argued, further, that international politics was a perpetual struggle between states and that, in this struggle, deceit was a common currency. But deceit, in Strauss’s view, can be a weapon in the struggle of values. Secular societies need not recoil from deceit, as the triumph of their values far outweighs the damage such deceit might cause.

Nor, Strauss argued, should secular societies recoil from the necessity of “regime change”. Strauss believed that the customs, habits and institutions of a society give it its character. For secular societies to triumph, Strauss wrote, it would be necessary for them to change the customs, habits and institutions of tyrannies. In the face of political evil, regime change remains the only means open to secular societies to transform tyrannies to republics.

Then too, as political conflict is embedded in political acts, the transformation of tyrannies would actually strengthen democratic societies: “Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed,” Strauss wrote. “Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.”

We note that while Leo Strauss did not know the uses to which his students would put his scholarship, his disciples have taken his most important ideas as a starting point for their own political views. Strauss believed that the human condition is governed by a singular choice: to live a life of inquiry or to live a life in obedience to law. This choice – between “Athens” and “Jerusalem” – is the choice that has faced all humans: whether to remain in Plato’s cave (where reality appears as mere shadows on a wall) or whether to ascend into the sunlight of full knowledge.

The awful price of making a choice is that while in the cave we remain ignorant of the way things really are – but if we ascend into the sunlight we, like Socrates, might well forfeit our lives.

So far so good, but Strauss also believed that this fundamental choice was distorted by the Enlightenment, whose thinkers “were hostile to theological-political authority”. The “waves of modernity” that resulted from the Enlightenment (including the subversive ideas that the universe is intelligible, that human thought holds the key to unlocking its mysteries, that rights are inalienable and that all human lives have equal value), dampened the tensions between Athens and Jerusalem.

“Seen in this light,” commentator Mark Lilla notes, “Strauss’s seemingly scattered historical studies and their unique approach take on coherent philosophical meaning. They are all based on the large assumption that we are living under some sort of spell in the ’second cave’ of Enlightenment illusions, and on the enticing thought that escape is possible.”

Strauss’s ideas had a powerful influence on his students, many of whom openly described themselves as his disciples. One of these self-proclaimed disciples was Allan Bloom, a Plato scholar whose masterful translation of The Republic is judged by some as the closest approximation to Plato’s original.

Bloom spent much of the 1960s at Cornell University, where Wolfowitz was one of his students and where, as a result of the sometimes violent on-campus protests over the Vietnam War, he began shaping his own ideas about the “moral relativism” infecting US society. The result was the eventual publication of The Closing of the American Mind, a critique of US higher education.

Bloom argued that the decay in teaching and scholarship was directly attributable to US academia’s adoption of academic programs that devalued the brilliance of “the great books” as simply the product of “dead white men”. Devaluing the worth of the West’s great thinkers, Bloom wrote, was leading to the erosion of values among American students, creating a crisis akin to that which had infected the Weimar Republic: “The American university in the ’60s was experiencing the same dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry as had the German university in the ’30s,” Bloom wrote. “Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same.”

The erosion of values was being deepened by a misconceived multiculturalism: “The point is to force students to recognize that there are other ways of thinking and that Western ways are not better,” Bloom wrote. “But if the students were really to learn something of the minds of these non-Western cultures – which they do not – they would find that each and every one of these cultures is ethnocentric.”

Bloom’s solution to these problems caused enormous controversy, as they were couched in “Straussian” political terms: what was needed, Bloom argued, was an end to “educational appeasement” and to the intellectual distortions of “moral relativism”. Americans must emerge from their cave of illusion where all ideas have equal weight.

St Paul and St George
The idea that non-Western cultures are nativist, closed and – in Bloom’s phrase – “ethnocentric” is rooted in the same ancient Greek inheritance that gave us Plato and Aristotle. The Greeks also gave us the word “barbarian”, because the uncivilized people on their shores were viewed as “babblers” who spoke an incomprehensible language, who literally “baba’d” or “stammered” and so could not be understood.

The Greeks soon put this term to political uses, accusing their Persian enemies of rejecting the values promoted by the city-state, where free citizens could live in peace while the Persians were slaves to a king – they were “barbarians”. The inimitable Paul of Tarsus expanded the meaning of the term, likening non-believers to “barbarians” who remained in darkness: when he spoke of “Christ crucified” they refused to listen, when they spoke of “the gods” he refused to hear: “Therefore I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.” Paul refused to listen not because the pagans could not be heard, but because they had nothing to say.

That Paul’s refusal to speak or listen has been passed down to us in the West and is a part of our religious and political heritage is the subject of Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind. Freeman’s narrative is seen by many as a response to Allan Bloom’s overheated condemnation of “moral relativism” and “multiculturalism”. While Freeman never responds directly to Bloom’s thesis, the similarities in titles are hard to miss.

While Freeman’s work uncovers the role of orthodox Christianity in suppressing Greek rationalism in the wake of Paul’s testimony, he implies that just as faith gained prominence over reason in the 5th century, so too now our inability to view other cultures as anything other than “ethnocentric” has gained ascendancy in Western political circles. The battle between faith and reason is still alive today, Freeman argues, but it was Paul who “declared the war and prepared the battlefield”.

Indeed, Western officials have quite unconsciously adopted Paul’s language, describing Islamists as a class of new barbarians whose words are without content. When a US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) counter-terrorism official was asked for his views on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s April 27 video, he responded with a shrug: “It’s the same old jihadist rigmarole,” he said. “Rigmarole” is a slang expression first used in the late 1770s that is derived from “ragman roll”, the name of a children’s game filled with incomprehensible words.

More properly, the FBI statement was used to describe “a string of incoherent statements; a disjointed or rambling speech, discourse, story; a trivial or almost senseless harangue”. It did not matter what Zawahiri said – he was a barbarian unto us, he was “babbling”.

There is little subtlety in the West’s presentation of Islam as a religion of barbarians: Christian evangelical programs have regularly described Islam as a “religion of violence” that “rejects our value system”. Franklin Graham, the son of the popular American preacher Billy Graham (and a regular visitor to the Bush White House), was outspoken in condemning Islam in the wake of the September 11 attacks, conflating the faith of the attackers with Islam in general: “We did not attack Islam, but Islam attacked us. The god of Islam is not the same god. He’s not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different god, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion,” he said.

Graham is not here posing as an expert on Islam, but as a man of faith – for, as Paul made eminently clear, expertise is not necessary where faith is present. That the Bush administration was comfortable with Graham’s certainty was never in doubt, as the faith-based certainty he articulated had already arrived in the White House just after the inauguration of President George W Bush in 2001.

New York Times essayist and journalist Ron Suskind has noted that even in the earliest day of the Bush presidency, the administration showed a disturbing “disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners”.

The emergence of Bush’s faith-based certainty was applied initially to church-based community programs, which were granted the status of community-service organizations that could receive government monies – and were also free from taxation. The same approach to government was given greater life after September 11, where Bush’s certainty took on a disturbing messianism.

“He [Bush] truly believes he’s on a mission from God,” one former administration official notes. “Absolute faith like that overwhelms the need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.” Another official told Suskind that he believes that in the wake of September 11, Bush emerged as “a messianic American Calvinist”. In fact, Bush showed indelicate impatience with anyone who claimed that September 11 presented the West with a complicated test that required a nuanced, careful and patient response.

Bush dismissed that view. His was a patented neo-conservative approach – September 11 had nothing to do with America’s role in the region. “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world,” Bush said one month after September 11. When people began to ask what the US and its allies might have done to spark the attacks, Bush responded immediately. The attacks had nothing to do with US policy. “He wanted to cut that off right away,” a former speechwriter notes, “and make it clear that he saw absolutely no moral equivalence.”

Ataturk’s advocate
But for the West to engage in what Tony Blair called “the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand and pessimism and fear on the other”, it was not simply necessary that the neo-conservatives battle the monster of militant Islam, it was essential that the West also provide a model for change, for political transformation – and an expert standard-bearer whose knowledge of the Islamic world would give the Western program a patina of legitimacy.

The Bush administration found such an expert standard-bearer in Bernard Lewis, readily adopting Turkey as a model for the kinds of changes that could be wrought through the imposition of modern Western-style secularism. Lewis’s The Emergence of Modern Turkey was published in 1961. Lewis was then an increasingly respected scholar, a graduate of the University of London, and a prolific writer and linguist.

The Emergence of Modern Turkey was Lewis’s foray into an interpretive view of Islam as a religion at war with itself and at war with the West’s conception of secular civilization. Lewis was transfixed by Kemal Ataturk’s forced secularization of Turkey: the abolition of the Caliphate, the imposition of puritanical secularism, the closing of religious schools, the banning of Islamic dress, and the purging of the Turkish language of its Arabic vocabulary.

For Lewis, Ataturk’s “reforms” seemed to confirm that Judeo-Christian civilization was entering the final stages of a protracted struggle with Islam. Turkey would be a battleground in that inevitable clash, and a model of how a modern secular society could triumph over Islam’s medieval traditions. As Lewis’s arguments took hold, his stature in the academic community increased until he was acknowledged as America’s chief interpreter of Islam.

It was Lewis, and not Samuel Huntington, who coined the term “clash of civilizations” in an article titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage”. “It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them,” he wrote in the September 1990 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. “This is no less than a clash of civilizations – that perhaps irrational but surely historic reactions of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Lewis’s critics have struck back, with claims of “lazy generalizations, the reckless distortions of history, the wholesale demotion of civilizations into categories like irrational and enraged”, and by pointing out that Lewis treats “a billion people” as if they were one, and that the clash of civilization is between “us” and them” – between those who have values, and those who have none.

The late Edward Said was Lewis’s (and Huntington’s) most persistent and articulate critic, taking on the “clash of civilizations” thesis in “The Clash of Definitions”, an essay that enraged both his antagonists: “Is it wise as an intellectual and a scholarly expert to produce a simplified map of the world and then hand it to generals and civilian lawmakers as a prescription for first comprehending and then acting in the world? Doesn’t this method in effect prolong, exacerbate, and deepen conflict? Do we want a clash of civilizations?”

While Lewis’s 1990 Atlantic essay spurred his detractors, it enhanced his reputation among neo-conservatives, who saw him as a purveyor of the values that would be promoted by the United States in the Middle East – where the US, after September 11, would set out to “destroy many of the world’s monsters”.

The attacks on September 11 catapulted Lewis from the world of scholarly debates into the home of Vice President Dick Cheney, who convened a dinner of experts to help shape a policy toward Islam. Lewis dominated the discussion, telling Cheney that radical Islamists viewed the US as incapable of maintaining a strong foreign-policy course, as evidenced by the US retreat from Beirut in 1983 and from Somalia in 1993.

Cheney was entranced by Lewis’s views, though not simply because he agreed with him: here was a man with a vision of Islam and the credentials that would give US policy legitimacy. Cheney was particularly attracted by Lewis’s view that Islam’s problems are largely self-inflicted, and that the legacy of Western colonialism and economic exploitation has little to do with Muslim attacks on Western societies.

This fit well with the neo-conservative view – which was already maintaining that “when we were attacked on September 11, we knew the main reason for the attack was that Islamists hated our way of life, our virtues, our freedoms”. The attacks had nothing to do with Western policies, with the legacy of colonialism, or with the support for Middle Eastern dictators. It wasn’t that we in the West have bad policies, it was that they have no values.

It is not hard to see how the young Lewis (a scholar diligently bent over his researches in the dusty Ottoman archives in the wake of World War II) was so taken with Kemal Ataturk. Here was a Muslim, Lewis believed, who understood that modernization of his culture could only take place when Islam adopted the narrative of the West.

Lewis set about his life’s work with a fury, transmitting Ataturk’s vision of a new Middle East for a generation of US and British policymakers. His influence is undeniable: Lewis’s views on Islam embody the now prevalent Western vision of Islamists as reactionaries at war with modernism, as obscuritanists doing battle with values, as technophobes seeking a return to the 7th century. Lewis was particularly intrigued by Ataturk’s description of Islam as “a putrefied corpse which poisons our lives” and as “the enemy of civilization and science”.

When Ataturk ended the thousand-year Caliphate in 1923, his political program of modernization paralleled his project to demonize Islam. Ataturk’s followers rewrote the history of the peoples of Anatolia, creating a broad tent that could accommodate Turks, ethnic Kurds and Armenians. Islam had little place in Ataturk’s triumphant national narrative and it was ruthlessly and purposely suppressed. Islamic clothing, music and education were replaced by Western models that were duplicated slavishly. His formula “Mecca or Mechanization” became the mantra of the young officers who surrounded him.

But Lewis’s attraction to Ataturk told only half of the story. In driving Islam from the state bureaucracy, the Kemalists rooted it more firmly in the street and mosque. Kemalism thus created the conditions in which Islamism transmuted and evolved, giving space to generations of new thinkers who have challenged Islamic orthodoxy. Islam’s response to Kemalism included the articulation of a politics of discontent that opposed the liquidation of Muslim identity and rejected an Ataturk-imposed Western world order.

The new Islamism refused to accept that universal values could only be imported from the Western historical narrative. Instead, they searched for universal values derived from Islam, with an emphasis on the Koran and the seed community of Muslims at Medina – an alternative historical perspective outside the Western narrative. Thus was born a decades-long hostility that has shaped the character of modern political Islamists.

In one sense, Turkey is the talisman of this disorder, with a historical cycle of the failure of Kemalist-forced secularization, followed by military intervention, followed by a retreat until forced secularization is attempted yet again. It is this cycle of imposed secularism, military intervention and inevitable retreat that has caused so much anxiety in the West, for the rise of Islamism challenges the efficacy of the Kemalist model: the West’s sense that bloody religious wars must be resolved in favor of the state, our concept of a nation-state divorced from religion, our view that modernity can only be successful when Western models are adopted – or imposed.

More crucially, the rise of political Islam portends a reinsertion of God into politics, of faith into society’s governance and signals that the coherence of the Western project is being challenged by one-fifth of the world’s population. Western anxieties are exacerbated by the rising militarization of some Islamist movements, for the violent reaction to imposed modernization seems a sign of intellectual bankruptcy.

Put another way, the West’s Westphalian inheritance (the resolution of Europe’s religious wars that murdered one-third of the continent’s population) sees national struggles as reasonable and normal, while violence in the name of religious ideals promises a spiral into anarchy. More simply, Lewis’s vision of a secular Middle East on Ataturk’s model is specious in several respects, as its permanence has yet to be proved and because the Kemalist program, when replicated by avowedly nationalist leaders in Arab societies, exiled the voices of Islam from the halls of government, but not from the street or mosque.

So it is that we are reluctantly forced to acknowledge that the words of our most important allies, those secularized pro-Western leaders of the region – Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, President General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and the young King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia – mean less to the vast majority of politically engaged Islamists than the words of two Islamic leaders, dead now, with disparate beliefs and followers.

Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and Pakistani Maulana Maududi explicitly rejected Ataturk’s conception of a national state as a rejection of Islamic law and culture and, in the process, freed political Islam from the constraints of clerics and scholars. Qutb argued in Milestones that Muslims do not need an Islamic hierarchy to tell them how to live; all they need do is treat the Koran as both a practical personal guide as well as a political manifesto, while Maududi (Qutb’s progenitor) urged Muslims – who saw their community divided by successive generations of Western diplomats – to rediscover their common political and cultural roots in Islam.

Qutb wrote that the Koran was accessible and understandable by all, a statement that is as influential in Islam today as Martin Luther’s theses were to Christianity 500 years ago. Qutb and Maududi speak to Muslims across the ages, their words repeated in sermons and books throughout the Arab world. It is their vision for the future, and not Ataturk’s, that remains vibrantly alive in the Muslim world today.

PART 5: The politics of indignation
By Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke (08.06.2006)

The foundational belief of the “war on terrorism” is that militant Islam is hollow. We are not fighting a credible movement with a set of core beliefs, but “evildoers” – people who have nothing to say, who are without values, who hate our freedoms and who want to return their societies to the 7th century. Militant Islam is much like worldwide communism, an empty shell that, if confronted with overwhelming power, will crumple like burned paper. Not coincidentally, neo-conservatives aver, the evildoers of militant Islam, a new class of post-Soviet religious Bolsheviks, have taken root in a region that suffers from the same maladies that fueled the “evil empire”: state-engineered poverty, endemic corruption, political oppression, access to weapons of mass destruction, and a failed ideology.

For America’s neo-conservatives, the past victory over the Stalinist state and its Warsaw Pact allies points the way to the future. All that needs be done to triumph over this evil is to replicate the late US president Ronald Reagan’s strategy of confrontation with the USSR: increase defense spending, deploy Western armies to troubled regions, undermine collaborationist societies, spread democracy, and counter the evildoers’ propaganda with political toughness. Those who counsel caution (Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, George H W Bush – those who called a halt to the first Gulf War after 100 hours and so saved Saddam Hussein) do not understand that “managing” Middle Eastern extremists, particularly in an era of benevolent US military hegemony, is to signal a surrender against the forces of evil. Ronald Reagan had it right: a little nudge and Islam’s Nicolae Ceausescus will be hunted in the streets.

This “implosion of tyrannies” belief is now a central tenet of neo-conservative doctrine. Yet as a result of the Iraq debacle and the seeming incoherence at the center of US and European policies, even some of neo-conservatism’s core believers are beginning to have doubts. In a series of recent articles and a best-selling book, Francis Fukuyama – one of neo-conservatism’s charter members and a scholar most responsible for establishing its post-Reagan bona fides (particularly in The End of History and the Last Man) – exiled himself from the movement and critiqued its mistakes. Writing in the British newspaper The Guardian, Fukuyama accused the neo-conservatives of “overreaching” in Iraq “to such an extent that they risk undermining their goals”.

Saying that “neo-conservatism is something I can no longer support”, Fukuyama directly attributes its failing to its interpretation of the end of the Cold War. “The way it ended shaped the thinking of supporters of the Iraq war in two ways,” Fukuyama wrote. “First, it seems to have created an expectation that all totalitarian regimes were hollow and would crumble with a small push from outside. This helps explain the Bush administration’s failure to plan adequately for the insurgency that emerged. The war’s supporters seemed to think that democracy was a default condition to which societies reverted once coercive regime change occurred, rather than a long-term process of institution-building and reform.”

Fukuyama expands his claim by adding that neo-conservatives have not only misread the history of the end of the Cold War, they have failed to understand the true nature of democratic political institutions and how they are established. In fact, the neo-conservatives (and Fukuyama) also misread the Cold War’s beginnings.

The West’s response to the Soviet threat was shaped by the military lessons of World War II. The two American military giants of that conflict, Generals George C Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, emerged from the war convinced that the United States and its allies needed to follow a policy in which communism was contained, but never directly confronted.

Their view was adopted not simply because they believed it provided the best chance for ultimate victory, but because (contrary to the “greatest generation” historical narrators), US soldiers had not acquitted themselves particularly well in the fight against the Axis. At the height of the conflict (at the time of Germany’s counteroffensive in late 1944), the rate of desertion in US units reached an astounding 45.2 per thousand – the highest rate of any Allied army – and the beginnings of domestic impatience with the length of the war was becoming obvious. As a result of this, Marshall and Eisenhower shaped and implemented a foreign policy that contradicted General George Patton’s strutting dictum that “Americans love a good fight”. In fact, they don’t, and Marshall and Eisenhower knew it.

The resulting Cold War strategy followed Marshall’s and Eisenhower’s unofficial dicta: fight only when you have to, never fight alone, and never fight for long. These beliefs were reinforced by British military thinkers, including Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery and Winston Churchill, whose experience at “scraping the bottom of the barrel” for combat soldiers in the Second War stripped Great Britain of yet another generation of young men. So it was that over the course of a generation, the United States and its allies played a “zero-sum game”, fighting a series of “partition wars” (in Korea and Vietnam) and “proxy conflicts” (in Afghanistan) that bled the Soviets of their moral authority, economic growth and political will.

Winston Churchill predicted this. Meeting Eisenhower in Lisbon in 1947 for the founding conference of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Churchill summarized his views of how communism might be defeated: “We wait,” he said. Eisenhower responded with a question: “For how long?” Churchill did not hesitate – for about 50 years, he said. He was wrong: in 1999, the Soviet Union and communism had been dead for 10 years.

While there is little doubt that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational style and defense buildup accelerated the Western vision, it is also clear that he did not singly or solely cause the fall of the Soviet Union.

The strategy that was followed by the West was cumulative, coherent and implemented through the dependence on the creation of a painstaking alliance of democracies who believed in the efficacy of international law and an appeal to international opinion. To claim otherwise is not only to misread history, but to misread the willingness of the American and European peoples to engage in ill-defined, unilateralist and seemingly endless foreign conflicts. This misreading is the direct result of a fusion of the belief that militant Islam replicates the Reagan era with a (Bernard) Lewisian perception that Islam is a form of medieval tyranny. This is intellectual casuistry. It has resulted in the needless deaths of thousands of young soldiers and innocent civilians in a war that is so morally bankrupt that it may lead to our, not their, implosion.

Defining terrorism
Paradoxically, the Arab world’s takfiris (those militantly intolerant of “infidels”) mirror the West’s conclusions about the collapse of the Soviet Union, reading history through the optic of the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Ayman Zawahiri and their revolutionary supporters believe that international communism’s collapse is directly attributable to the mujahideen’s political and military pressure. It hardly matters whether this reading is correct (though, as we have noted, it seems unlikely that the Soviet collapse is single-sourced). The reason for the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Soviet Union’s subsequent collapse is clear: a major Western power imploded as the result of a defeat at the hands of militant Islam. For al-Qaeda, the differences between the USSR and its American and European antagonists are marginal – Marxism is a uniquely Western world view, rooted in the views of a German philosopher writing in a London library. The lessons derived from the Soviet collapse are, therefore, applicable to the United States.

Speaking three years before September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden laid out al-Qaeda’s strategy, saying that just as the Soviets were defeated as a result of their failed war in Afghanistan, so now the United States would be defeated in the same way. But bin Laden implied that his would not be a military victory; rather, he said that the United States would turn in on itself from within, just as the Soviets had: “What is true is that God granted the chance of jihad in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia, and we are assured that we can wage jihad against the enemies of Islam, in particular against the greater external enemy – the Crusader-Jewish alliance.”

Bin Laden expanded on this message in the wake of September 11 in several televised videotapes, each of them reflecting a relatively sophisticated understanding of the weaknesses of Western societies. “We have no difficulty in dealing with [US President George W] Bush and his administration because they resemble the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half by the sons of kings,” bin Laden told one interviewer. “They have a lot of pride, arrogance and thievery. [Bush] adopted despotism and the crushing of freedoms from Arab rulers – calling it the Patriot Act under the guise of combating terrorism.”

Author and scholar Faisal Devji, an assistant professor of history at New York’s New School University, has provided Western readers with a small but powerful essay that focuses on militant Islam’s message. Devji’s “Landscapes of the Jihad” may well be the most thoroughgoing and insightful treatment of al-Qaeda in the West – shorn of the language of America’s rising class of terrorologists, Devji refuses to slum with the pundits or accept that what Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants say is “rigmarole”.

Reflecting on bin Laden’s post-September 11 messages, he provides this exegesis of bin Laden’s words: “The hollowness of the World Trade Center, whose imposing towers crumbled so easily in the face of al-Qaeda’s attack, represented the void at the heart of Western civilization itself, not least because the attacks of September 11 were followed by a significant if partial breakdown of America’s much-vaunted culture of democratic rights and civil liberties, including even a suspension of certain provisions of the Geneva Convention.”

Devji then adds: “This fact was not lost upon any participant in the jihad, to whom it demonstrated that the West’s moral superiority was not only hypocritical, because its boasted freedom was based upon the un-freedom of others, but hollow as well, because it could not preserve this freedom even for its own citizens.”

Osama bin Laden’s thinking mirrors the views of America’s takfiris – if you simply poke at the West’s structure it will crumble like burned paper. In fact, according to bin Laden, the attacks of September 11 were of little account in terms of actual damage, particularly when compared with the damage the US would inflict on itself in its reaction: the United States and its allies would turn in on themselves; they would seal their borders, spy on their own people, expand domestic police powers, detain people without a warrant, hold people without evidence, torture suspects, violate international norms and subvert foreign governments – becoming, in his words, “a suicide state”.

So too, it would seem odd that Western governments would deny liberties to their own citizens but grant them to others; more likely we (we in the West, that is) would, and have, demanded that “our” (and the sense of property here is not accidental – for “our” allies are “our” friends in more than a passing sense) allied Kemalists suppress all resistance to the Western anti-terrorism program, accept Western counter-terrorism funding, agree to US military training, open their societies to “our” (Western) monitoring and, finally, suppress Islamic parties participating in free, fair and open elections – because while Islamists might adopt different tactics, there are “no major differences in goals”.

This, in fact, is the doctrine of Islamic revolutionaries: that in refusing to differentiate between al-Qaeda and more moderate groups, in refusing to empower them in their own societies, and in denying the peoples of the region the tools of democracy and self-government that the West extols, the United States and its allies would actually help to spread the jihad, just as the Soviet Union had done by its actions in Afghanistan. Our claim in our first article in this series (Talking with the ’terrorists’, March 31) – that America’s takfiris actually mirror the beliefs of Islam’s revolutionaries – now seems particularly pertinent, and eerily Straussian. Islam’s revolutionaries see the materialism and self-centeredness of secular liberal society as a destructive mechanism at the heart of Western society.

They view the purposelessness of lives based on a consumerism leading to corruption, fragmentation and, inevitably, nihilism. They see Western commercial interests as dehumanizing and exploitative and its financial structure skewed toward large corporations at the expense of the individual and community enterprise. Finally, they believe that the United States and its allies are incapable of differentiating between moderate “revivalist” Islam and militant “revolutionary” Islam – are incapable of differentiating between the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, Jamaat e-Islami (all of whom endorse democratic practices, have fielded candidates in elections and, in the case of Hamas, have actually taken their place in government) and, say, al-Qaeda in Iraq. These revolutionaries not only believe that Western leaders will fail to differentiate the “revolutionaries” from the “revivalists”, they are counting on it.

The invasion of Iraq has provided Osama bin Laden with the circumstances in which to build a genuine Salafist revolutionary movement by capitalizing on the West’s missteps and miscalculations. His aim is to create a revolutionary climate that will radicalize the Islamic world and lead to the fall of the Arab “colonial” regimes. The Salafist methodology is neither medieval nor regressive, but global, modern and without borders. Its methods are sophisticated, psychological, nuanced and carefully planned. These are not barbarians, they do not babble; while the United States has focused on September 11, Osama bin Laden’s jihadist movement has diligently worked to broaden its appeal by purposely talking to its co-religionists with words that reflect the language of the oppressed.

It has responded to our military strategy by speaking not of victory, but of respect and dignity and self-determination. “Violence, though definitive of the jihad today, is probably the least important of these responses, and likely the most short-lived compared to the other transformations that al-Qaeda has wrought,” Faisal Devji writes. “Indeed such violence might well represent the final agony of an old-fashioned politics centered on a specific geography and based on a history of common needs, interest or ideas. Rather than marking the emergence of a new kind of Muslim politics, in other words, al-Qaeda’s jihad may signal the end of such politics.”

It is this, then, that causes our “angst” – our feeling that somehow we have gotten the “war on terrorism” wrong; that we are not winning this conflict and that, in continuing our current policies, we cannot win it. We have a growing sense that the enemy we are fighting cannot be contained, limited or quarantined, that its foot soldiers are not easily identified, that its ideology is ever-changing, that its methods have less to do with violence than with the use of language. That what we face is not simply an insurgency in Iraq, or car bombs in Beirut, or bombings on our subways, but a coalescing transnational intifada that does not so much oppose our beliefs as demand that we live up to them – and that somehow gains strength with every aircraft carrier that we deploy.

Our colleague Jeff Aronson – who joined us in Beirut for our exchanges with the leaders of political Islam, puts this another way: “We have to come to terms with a disturbing and blunt truth and finally face it – that after September 11 a segment of [the] planet celebrated. We cannot simply pass it off, we cannot ignore it. We have to face it.”

After September 11, the West is evincing a growing unease that we can now begin to characterize, that identifies the “long-known vulnerability of our complex civilization” that makes us question our most “deep-seated conceptual presuppositions”. That “angst” – simply stated – grows from our having not listened to or understood the enemy we are fighting. Instead, we have drowned out the diverse voices of Islam with our own univocal ascriptions, while our enemy continues to evade our attempts to frame his existence. The “angst” comes from the slow realization that our policies have begun to reflect a hypocrisy in spreading our most cherished ideal. We say we support democracy, but our most recent initiatives seem purposely designed to undermine it.

A leading foreign-policy figure in the United States, though not a US official, recently accompanied us to Beirut for discussions with a Hamas official. His purpose was to explore Hamas’ views toward Israel and the conditions under which Hamas might be willing to accede to Israel’s recognition. The discussion was detailed and fruitful, as it identified Hamas’ views that recognition should include a reciprocal exchange in which Israel recognized the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations and rights and that recognition be discussed at the conclusion of a deeper comprehensive settlement.

The foreign-policy figure came away from our meetings impressed by Hamas’ grasp of the current political environment and its dedication to good governance. Disappointment followed the meeting, however, when the United States adopted a “soft coup” policy aimed at “punishing the Palestinian people for making the wrong electoral decision”. Our colleague’s response to this policy unveiled the “vulnerability” at the heart of “presuppositions” and the “angst” that we now feel: “Perhaps I am mistaken in this,” he reflected wryly, “but I was under the impression that punishing the innocent for political gain is the definition of terrorism.”

That the West does not live up to its beliefs – and that contradictions plague the Western program for the Islamic world – is the subject of many of bin Laden’s video commentaries. “The killing of innocent civilians, as Americans and some intellectuals claim, is really very strange talk,” he said in an October 2001 interview. “Who said that our children and civilians are not innocent and that shedding their blood is justified? That it is lesser in degree?

“When we kill their innocents, the entire world from east to west screams at us, and America rallies its allies, agents, and the sons of agents. Who said that our blood is not blood, but theirs is? Who made this pronouncement? Who has been getting killed in our countries for decades? More than 1 million children died in Iraq and others are still dying. Why do we not hear someone screaming or condemning, or even someone’s words of consolation of condolence?”

For bin Laden, says Devji, killing “has become the instrument of achieving equality with the enemy”, and he goes on to quote bin Laden’s October 2001 analysis of the September 11 attacks: “Just as they’re killing us, we have to kill them so that there will be a balance of terror.”

For bin Laden, the guilt of Western leaders for implementing policies that killed innocent Muslims is shared by all. The American people put Bush in office, returned Prime Minister Tony Blair to 10 Downing Street, and hence institutionalized the war with Islam. We – we in the West – are all guilty, bin Laden claims. “Your security is in your own hands,” he says, “and each state which does not harm our security will remain safe.”

The war of the takfiris
As we have criticized “America’s takfiris” for promoting false political categories that rob language of its meaning and cultures of their diversity, so now we are confirmed that Islam’s revolutionaries stand in the same dock as their antagonists. As we believe that the neo-conservatives have done violence to the central pillar of “our” Western “values” – tolerance – so too it seems eminently clear that in holding all guilty, bin Laden and his takfiri allies believe that their actions are not subject to Islamic legal restraints, especially those prohibiting the killing of non-combatants.

His explanation is that Islam is fighting an existential battle against an intransigent enemy and that differentiating between innocent and guilty is a useless enterprise, since “they’re all the same” (that is, the West’s culture is “ethnocentric”). He would undoubtedly argue that any exercise that fails to recognize the fact of Western oppression is guilty of moral relativism. His failure is ours: a refusal to differentiate, a desire to hold all responsible, to sharpen our intellectual incisors on a foundation of collective guilt, not only to divide the world into “us” and “them”, but then having dipped into this bit of vacuous legerdemain to suppose that when we talk about building a just world we’re lying – but he’s telling the truth.

Our response has been consistent:

We understand that one does not become a revolutionary through science, as Marxists believe, but out of indignation. We understand that there are grievances and that it is possible they are just. But all humans are caught by involuntary responsibility and guilt by circumstance, and not just those who have suffered through colonialism or exploitation. Oedipus did not want to marry his mother and murder his father, but he did it – and it’s a crime. Nor is it necessary for us to dissociate ourselves from our own history simply because it is sometimes shameful.

That we engaged in an inquisition does not make our condemnation of any future inquisition moot; our support for Saddam Hussein does not justify his gassing of the people of Halabja, September 11 does not justify Haditha. We are not naive. We know, in philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s formulation, that “there is no line between good people and the rest and that, in war, the most honorable causes prove themselves by means that are not honorable”. Still, “that the bully does not know what he is doing does not excuse the bully”. We do not love peace out of weakness, but because of the strength of our belief that peace is the only course that will assure us a future.

We have talked with those political Islamists whom we define as “revivalists” because they derive their beliefs from a set of principles that human actions must be moral and just. They believe that there is an indisputable system of values, articulated in the foundations of their religion, that provide a guide for all actions: not simply that policies must be grounded in principles, but that the ends can never justify the means. These “revivalists” are committed to the proposition that as God has given humans the right to choose their beliefs, so too God has given individuals the right to choose their leaders.

The takfiris on both sides reject these principles, holding that some lives are inherently more valued than others, that “there must be a balance of terror”, that “pity is treason”, that the innocent may be made to pay for the crimes of the guilty, that “power is virtue”, that all compromise is perfidy, that the ends justify the means.

The “revivalists” believe that there is justice in the universe, that it must be pursued and that it can be implemented, no matter how imperfectly. Not all people pay for their crimes and some are even rewarded. But our celebration of justice is not dependent on its perfection. The people who fell to their deaths through the air of lower Manhattan did not bear the guilt of a generation of leaders, any more than all Sunnis are responsible for the tragedy of Karbala, or all Jews for Israel’s occupation, or all Christians for Auschwitz, or all Shi’ites for Iraq’s death squads. People are responsible for their actions.

Saying what we mean
In preparation for this article, we returned to the Middle East region for the specific purpose of discussing the “war of values” between Islam and the West and the deepening despair that seems to grip our societies. We reviewed with our interlocutors our briefings in Washington, London and Brussels and bluntly reviewed the increasingly remote possibility that the West would recognize and differentiate among the several forms of Islamism.

Our Hamas interlocutors found our review of our meetings in Washington particularly compelling, but were angered by the West’s rejection of what they viewed as Hamas’ good-faith commitment to provide good governance for their people. “How are we to view what you are doing to our people?” a Hamas leader asked. “And we are forced to conclude – when we say we’re for democracy you say we’re lying, but when you say you’re for democracy we know you don’t mean it.”

Another Islamist leader listened closely to our report, but then issued an emotional response dripping with sarcasm: “So that’s why you killed all those people in Fallujah,” he said. “It’s because they didn’t agree with your values.”

But by far our most interesting exchange came in Amman, with a respected and dignified Iraqi leader who spent years in the West but has seen his country “ripped apart by your policies, and infiltrated by the jihadists you created”. He listened politely to our presentation and thought for a moment. “For years and years we have talked and pleaded with you,” he said. “We told you we did not want kings and princes over us, but you did not listen. We told you we wanted a future for the Palestinian people, but you did not listen. We said we wanted a fair price for our resources, but you did not listen. And we said that we wanted you out of our lives and our societies, but still you did not listen.

“And then the great tragedy of September 11 happened and we were sad, but in our hearts we all asked you the only question that matters: ’Are you listening now?’”

And here he paused again, dissatisfied with his metaphor and suddenly discomfited by the meaning behind his words. It was not what he had meant to say and so he shifted uncomfortably, feeling the need to amend what he had said. And so he spoke of his religion, emphasizing the importance of the Koran in the life of a Muslim. “Its central message is so important that it is almost never stated in our societies,” he told us, “and it is simply this: God ’speaks’ in the Koran and human beings learn by listening.”


Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry are the co-directors of Conflicts Forum, a London-based group dedicated to providing an opening to political Islam. Crooke is the former Middle East adviser to European Union High Representative Javier Solana and served as a staff member of the Mitchell Commission investigating the causes of the second intifada. Perry is a Washington, DC-based political consultant, author of six books on US history, and a former personal adviser to Yasser Arafat.