WASHINGTON, July 5 (UPI) -- Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States has found itself in a war against an enemy it had very little intelligence on -- Islamist extremists. In the aftermath of the attacks and as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, the United States struggled with the consequence of its inability to fully understand how to go about winning the hearts and minds of the majority of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims.
"The United States still lacks an integrated and sustainable strategy to confront religious extremism in the Muslim world," writes Abdeslam M. Maghraoui, director of the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The USIP scholar goes on to say: "Policymakers have failed to recognize that the challenge is not only a conflict with the West but also involves ideological shifts within the Muslim world. These shifts have precipitated a major battle for the future of Islam as a faith and a civilization."
The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan -- the first filled with challenges and the second with uncertainties -- "are raising doubts about the current thrust of the "global war on terrorism."
Maghraoui believes that the single most important initiative the United States can take to combat Islamist extremism is to support "Islamic renewal, a diffuse but growing social, political, and intellectual movement whose goal is profound reform of Muslim societies and polities."
A distinction must be made between moderates and radicals in Islam, and Maghraoui advises the United States to "engage moderate Islam because core aspects of the religion have an enormous moderating and modernizing potential that policymakers have overlooked."
Maghraoui says that there is a "visible misunderstanding of the region's political culture, particularly regarding the questions of terrorism, extremism, and political reform." Efforts in the past to address the issue "have often contradicted one another and worked at cross-purposes."
Indeed, the United States has over the years frequently cooperated with "authoritarian regimes" in order to deal with the terrorist threat. Unfortunately that only reinforces "negative attitudes about the United States and its policies."
Promoting democracy -- particularly in the developing world -- is "likely to empower fundamentalists in many Muslim states," believes the author of the report titled "American foreign policy and Islamic Renewal." While everyone is calling for free and democratic elections, Maghraoui disagrees. "Free elections may not be the best mechanisms to negotiate substantive political issues, and deep suspicion toward formal authority structures persists in Muslim societies," says Maghraoui.
Electoral victories by hard-line Islamists are dimming hope that promoting democracy will produce moderate regimes and good relations with the United States, says the author of the report. "Attempts to win 'hearts and minds' through public diplomacy have not yielded significant results. A June 2006 Pew Global Attitudes survey shows that unfavorable opinions of the United States are still widespread in five traditionally moderate Muslim countries (Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey)."
Still, the vast majority of the world's Muslims are peaceful people who want to get on with their lives, much like most people anywhere in the world. "The Islamic renewal seeks to reclaim the religion's heritage from extremist, traditionalist, and fundamentalist groups," says Maghraoui.
U.S. foreign policy could "tip the balance between extremist and modernist interpretations of Islam and seize a great opportunity for constructive engagement," says the report, which calls on the United States to support the renewal movement to reform Islam and mobilize Muslim constituencies against religious extremism.
How to go about this? Maghraoui believes the United States should "promote Muslim modernist works and ideas, engage the rising moderate Islamist parties on normative grounds, and put more emphasis on substantive social, educational, and religious reforms."
The current conflict is not purely one pitting the West against radical Islamists, rather it is a conflict also between two different ideologies within Islam -- this is a battle that finds its roots in the early pages of Islam's history books.
Maghraoui explains that in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, conservative Sunnis, not wanting to let Iran's Shiites dominate the political/religious scene "unleashed their own brand of puritanical Islam to counter the growing ideological influence and political dynamism of the Shiite revolution.
"Saudi financial largesse and Wahhabism, a doctrine that advocates a literal, legalistic, and purist interpretation of the Koran, have influenced the Sunni response to the Shiite challenge," says Maghraoui.
Poor social and economic performance and the repressive nature of Muslim political regimes acted as fertile breeding grounds for extremist, giving Sunni radicals the edge on the Shiites. "The three Arab Human Development Reports published by the United Nations between 2002 and 2004 show the Arab part of the Muslim world lagging behind other regions in social opportunity, knowledge, and good governance," his report notes.
Reforms called for by the West in the Muslim world's political and economic policies have been "often touted as the solution to the Muslim world's problems." Although much in need, those are "no longer sufficient to address a crisis of this magnitude," says Maghraoui, who calls for a "freer political environment and social and economic incentives." But, he adds, those "should have been implemented decades ago."
The single most important step the United States can take to combat Islamist extremism is to support "Islamic renewal," he says.
The United States is well positioned to support this movement and engage "moderate" Islam. Contrary to common perceptions in the West, the word "moderate" accurately describes the vast majority of Muslims, who reject violence, yearn for justice and accountable governance, and value Muslim traditions of family, knowledge, and prosperity.
The author then puts forward six recommendations in which he asks the United States to:
1. Support the establishment of a "Muslim World Foundation" to foster the development of peaceful, prosperous, and open Muslim societies and polities. The Foundation would draw on local and international experts, donors, and partners, and collaborate with government and nongovernmental associates.
2. Provide special grants to American universities to promote Muslim modernist works and ideas and translate them into concrete policies. Identify specific reform policies to be addressed to people and governments in the Muslim world, as well as to the international community -- including Western powers, the United Nations, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the International Court of Justice, and the World Bank.
3. Engage Islamist parties on normative grounds.
4. Put more emphasis on substantive social, educational, and religious reforms. The cornerstone of these reforms is the effort to expand the conceptual boundaries and foundations of Sharia beyond the Koran and Sunna.
5. Refocus and coordinate public diplomacy, democracy promotion, and aid programs to reinforce Islamic religious reforms and renewal. Public diplomacy should link American values and Islam's humanist traditions.
6. Consider supporting religious charities. Many Muslim governments' social safety nets are weak or nonexistent, religious organizations provide many services to the needy, including clinics, childcare, and disaster relief.
This report deserves serious consideration.
(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)