WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 (UPI) — One of the toughest battles facing America and Europe in the war on terrorism is the campaign to convince Muslims around that world that the West is not really engaged in a war on Islam. The cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad carried in newspapers in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe have made the battle a lot harder to win.
While newspapers that have published the cartoons have said they did not intend to attack Muslims but rather to uphold freedom of the press, many Muslims don't buy the argument. Like sexual harassment, religious harassment often lies in the eye of the beholder, regardless of intent.
The cartoons featuring Mohammad — seen as blasphemy by many Muslims and as an insult to their religion and all its adherents — can be viewed as confirming the claim by al-Qaida that Muslims are under siege around the world and must strike out at their enemies with deadly force in self-defense.
In fact, the cartoons have become recruiting posters for al-Qaida and other like-minded groups and individuals. The Danish cartoons bring credibility to al-Qaida's argument that the Christian Crusades against Islam that began more than a thousand years ago have never really stopped, lending support to Osama bin Laden's claim that the war on terror is really a war against Islam.
Even the Danish flag — a white cross on a red background — plays into the Christian vs. Muslim theme behind the cartoon furor. Millions of Muslims remain convinced — more than ever, thanks to the cartoons — that they are disrespected, distrusted, discriminated against and hated by many in other faiths.
Some Muslim leaders have called for restraint and patience in the wake of the cartoon furor, as was exercised by the Prophet of Islam in times of adversity. They point out that while fighting for self-defense is permitted in Islam, this is too often misinterpreted by many Muslims as justifying the right to react violently and at free will against anything and everything they disagree with. Instead, these leaders have called on Muslims to fully study scripture and emulate the Prophet's life example of good conduct.
American newspapers have shown far greater sensitivity than European newspapers by largely refusing to reprint the Danish cartoons of Mohammad. This responsible and culturally sensitive behavior of most American media is an encouraging sign.
President George W. Bush and other Western leaders have condemned the cartoons and expressed respect and praise for Islam as a great religion of peace. However, all too often even their well-intended comments wind up offending Muslims.
For example, the use of the terms "Islamic extremism" "Islamo-fascism" and "jihadism" — all often used interchangeably by terror experts, academics and the Western media — is seen by many Muslims as an attack against their religion, and an assumption that Islam is linked to extremist ideology. The longer these labels are used in the public domain to describe the war on terrorism, the longer it will take to win the battle against al Qaida.
Many Muslims also are offended when non-Muslims who know little about Islam and can't speak or read Arabic instruct them on the "true" meaning of the tenets of the faith. Many Christians would no doubt be similarly offended if Muslims offered them instruction on the "true" meaning of Christianity and the "correct interpretation" of the New Testament.
Choosing the right terms to define the war on terror and who we are fighting is essential to winning the support of the larger Muslim community, which the West needs to combat groups like al Qaida and regional terrorist networks worldwide. Yet the labels of communication generated to wage the war against terrorism include a myriad of terms such as "radical Islam" that have not been useful in combating terrorists and have offended Muslims in one way or the other.
For example, Imam Mohammed Magid at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center — a mosque near Washington, D.C. — says "radical" can be a positive term. He argues that Martin Luther King was "radical" for his time because he forced America to turn against racism and work for equality for all citizens. If the civil rights movement was considered "radical" and good, America should not label all "radical" Muslims as evil, he argues.
Mukit Hussain, founder of a food charity called FoodSource Foundation in northern Virginia, suggests that terrorists simply be called terrorists — without a religious label. Hussain argues that to associate terms like "Islamist" or "jihadist" with terrorism is dangerous "because these terms seek to undermine the whole religion, and try to implicate all Muslims to terrorism."
Making Muslims part of the solution to terrorism — rather than making them feel they are part of the problem and considered suspect — is vital to deplete the ranks of new terrorist recruits.
The first step in doing this is to condemn both Muslims and non-Muslims who feed the fires of religious intolerance. The next is to create better communication with the Muslim world by displaying cultural sensitivity to the customs and beliefs of Islam, which includes delinking the word "Islam" from labels such as "extremism," "terrorism," "radicalism" and "fundamentalism." And the final steep is global outreach to Muslim communities to seek their cooperation and trust.
Outside View © 2006 United Press International
Farhana Ali is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on February 22, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.