Now a Historic Chance to Welcome Muslims Into the System

Returning pilgrims (hujjaj) share their experiences in the Holy Land at the Islamic Institute of Orange County. -ANAHEIM, California, Ja. 4, 2008  (IIOC/Flickr)

by Karim Raslan

Winning the war in Afghanistan has been relatively easy. Winning the peace will prove a far greater challenge.

And any missteps by the United States in Afghanistan will have serious implications for U.S. relations with much of the rest of the Muslim world. The glare of international media - CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera among others - leaves little room for maneuver. The Taliban's unexpected collapse presents President George W. Bush with a historic opportunity. If he is wise, he will disregard dangerously divisive theories of civilizational conflict as he refashions U.S. relations with the Islamic world.

At the same time, the moral bankruptcy of militant Islam as embodied by the Taliban, as well as its abject failure in socioeconomic terms, should embolden the leaders of moderate, predominantly Muslim nations such as Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia in their struggle against religious obscurantism and backwardness.

Needless to say, Saudi Arabia, as an absolute monarchy with no concern for civil liberties, does not constitute a model Islamic polity.

The United States should do four things.

1) Americans should endeavor to curb their natural inclination toward triumphalism. This will be difficult. But moderation in victory and an honorable peace will enhance U.S. prestige in the Islamic world immeasurably.

The small-minded viciousness displayed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld toward Taliban forces in encircled Kunduz undermines America's moral stature. He said, in effect, that Pakistanis and other non-Afghans fighting with the Taliban would face the choice of all defeated soldiers in war: surrender or death.

2) The United States must remain involved in Aghanistan's future, albeit discreetly. A skeptical Muslim world is waiting to see how quickly America, having secured its own security objectives, will desert the Afghans as it did when Soviet forces were driven out in 1989. Mr. Bush should take a lesson from President Harry Truman, who saw the importance of rebuilding Europe after World War II to cement a viable international peace built on shared prosperity and stability.

A contemporary equivalent of the Marshall Plan should cover Central Asia and Pakistan. The overall scheme should also address the parlous state of education in the region.

3) America must maintain Secretary of State Colin Powell's evenhanded approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The perception of undue bias toward Israel damages both U.S. protestations of impartiality and its moral authority. Justice must be done to Palestinians whose land has been seized over the decades.

4) Americans should take the trouble to learn more about the 1.2 billion strong Muslim world and its enormous diversity. Of course, this process must be two-way. Exchanges of diplomatic niceties with Gulf Arab despots do not constitute meaningful interaction.

There is an injurious identification in America of Islam with extremism and terrorism. And the recent imposition of student visa restrictions for 25 predominantly Muslim nations, including Indonesia and Malaysia, severely curtails people-to-people ties just when their importance is heightened. But the biggest challenge in overcoming Islamic militancy is only marginally connected with the United States. Moderate Muslims must reclaim center stage. Reform must be driven from within the Islamic world. Such changes cannot be imposed from outside. Muslim elites must ensure that issues concerning good governance, corruption and human rights abuse are given priority.

The vile interpretations of the Koran that spawned Osama bin Laden and his Qaida terrorist network can be addressed and rebutted only from within the faith. Muslims must depend on and promote serious Islamic scholars and thinkers, such as Indonesia's Nurcholish Majid and Iran's Abdul Saroush. They are engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims, trying to extract the prophetic truths from the Koran to show the inherent compatibility of modern-day concerns with the sacred texts. Continuing U.S. belligerence and aggression would severely limit the credibility and legitimacy of religious and political reformers who advocate a liberal democratic future for Muslim nations. Let's not throw away this valuable opportunity to reintegrate the Islamic world into the international system.

The writer, a lawyer based in Malaysia who writes a regionally syndicated newspaper column, is a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York, where he is researching freedom of speech in Islamic societies. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

AsiaSource gratefully acknowledges Karim Raslan and the International Herald Tribune for permission to reprint.