Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

America's Moslem Miscalculation

The war is creating a major realignment within the Islamic world, with even moderate Moslems calling for jihad against the US.
By Fawaz A.

In selling its case to invade Iraq and topple its government, the Bush administration asserted that the war will hammer another deadly nail in the coffin of terror by showing terrorists and their state supporters that Washington is determined to use pre-emptive force to protect its vital interests. Although American officials did not establish a direct link between the Iraqi president and either al-Qaeda or the September 11 attacks, they argued the Iraq war will make the United States less vulnerable to terrorist attacks.


In their effort to garner domestic and international support for the war, President Bush and his security team promised to bring democracy to Iraq and empower liberal voices throughout the Muslim Middle East. Their aim is to transform the whole region in America's image by transplanting Jeffersonian democracy into the heart of the Arabian desert. By doing so, they hope to strike at the root causes of militancy and extremism.


But a US invasion of Iraq that results in large numbers of civilian casualties will deepen the sense of victimisation and defeat already felt by Arab youths and incline them to join cells of the al-Qaeda variety. In this way, US policy toward Iraq will play into the hands of al-Qaeda and give it a new lease on life. Far from undermining militancy and combating terror, war will sow the seeds of further militancy. The ripples of the Iraqi crisis will reverberate throughout Arab lands, further threatening regional stability and the legitimacy crisis of pro-Western Arab states.


The US invasion of Iraq is a God-send for Osama bin Laden and other militant elements. Far from empowering liberal forces in Iraq and other Muslim states, as some of the hardliners in the Bush administration assert, the American invasion is already radicalising Arab politics and playing into the hands of reactionary groups.


Washington's war has blurred the lines between mainstream, liberal and radical politics in the world of Islam, and with it squandered most of the empathy engendered after 9/11. A new realignment against the United States that brings together a broad spectrum of political forces is crystallising in Arab and Muslim lands. Distinguished Islamic institutions and renowned - and moderate - clerics have urged Muslims to join in jihad to resist the US-led onslaught.


Al-Azhar, the highest, oldest and most-respected institution of religious learning in the Muslim world, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, advising "all Muslims in the world to make jihad against invading American forces". Although Islam possesses no organised church, the significance of al-Azhar's call is comparable to a Papal call on Catholics to fight a just war to defend the faith. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi, a reformist who was one of the first clerics to condemn 9/11 and who dismissed bin Laden's jihadi credentials as fraudulent, ruled that attempts to resist the US attack ON IRAQ are a "binding Islamic duty."


Until now Tantawi has been attacked by conservative and reactionary clerics as a pro-Western reformer. His new stance shows the extent of the realignment of political opinion in the world of Islam.


Another widely-respected Egyptian-born cleric based in Qatar, Sheikh Youssef Al-Qaradawi, accused the Bush administration of declaring war against Islam - and behaving like "a god". Qaradawi, who also denounced al-Qaeda terrorism after 9/11, said fighting US troops is "legal jihad" and "death while defending Iraq a kind of martyrdom."


Moderates and radicals now appear to be fully united in opposition to the American war. In an editorial in al-Hayat, a leading secular-liberal writer warned of the "new American tyranny . . . an empire that cannot be questioned." Similarly, a leader in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, a well-organised and mainstream Islamist organisation with millions of members in several Arab countries, called on his followers everywhere to join in jihad in defence of Iraq. The Muslim Brothers have not been considered a militant group since the 1970s when they forsook violence and agreed to play by the rules of the political game.


Bin Laden must be laughing in his grave - or cave, whichever the case may be. His apocalyptic nightmare of a clash of religions and cultures is finally resonating in both camps. What was unthinkable a year and a half ago has happened: two versions of a just war theory, one Western and the other Muslim, are clashing over Iraq.


The challenge now is how to limit the damage inflicted by the US invasion of Iraq, minimise its costs and isolate its reverberations inside Iraq and the wider region. Half-measures won't do any longer. The United States must not only enable Iraqis to govern their country, but also must assist them in the complex and costly task of socio-political reconstruction. It must redouble its efforts to resolve the festering Palestinian tragedy and to provide the means to build a viable Palestinian nation-state. The promotion of human rights and the rule of law must be high on Washington's agenda.


American policy-makers must recognise the limits of the use of force in international politics, particularly in the Muslim Middle East where accumulated grievances against US foreign policies abound. The Iraq war pours fuel on an already raging fire. In the long term, the potential risks of the American adventure in Iraq outweigh any imagined benefits not only to Iraq and the region, but also to America itself.


Fawaz A. Gerges holds the Christian Johnson Chair in Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and is author of the forthcoming "The Islamists and the West".


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