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Toward a truce with the Muslim world
By Mark LeVine

It is time for the United States to declare a truce with the Muslim world, and radical Islam in particular.

This may sound like a naive, even defeatist statement in the context of the 9-11 Commission Report's reminder that the United States remains very much at war with "Islamist terrorism" and the ideas behind it. Yet a truce (Arabic hudna) rather than an increasingly dangerous "clash of civilizations" is the only way to avoid a long, ultimately catastrophic conflict. And it's up to Europe to be the good broker.

Indeed, there is no chance for a halt in the "war on terror", or any fundamental change in US foreign policy as long as George W Bush is president. Even if John Kerry wins the presidential election this November, the possibility that he might initiate such a transformation is slim. However, there is one major difference - at least rhetorically - between the two possible presidencies: Kerry has made a point of saying that he would "listen" to European allies and strive to build a common approach to combating terrorism.

European leaders face the threat of an increasingly bloody conflict with Muslim extremists thanks to the continent's imperial past in the region and, more important today, their perceived support for US policies in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They would be wise to suggest that president Kerry call a truce so that the United States, the European Union, and more broadly the "West" can have the time collectively and publicly to explore the root causes of the violence against them that emanates from the Muslim world - something the 9-11 Commission should have, but did not, do. At least there's a chance Kerry might listen, especially if the war in Iraq continues to spiral out of America's control.

There are many kinds of truces, most not relevant to the situation facing the United States today. Some of the earliest truces, such as the (aborted) Thirty Years' Treaty during the Peloponnesian War of the 5th century BCE, were made only out of tactical necessity and collapsed as soon as the balance of forces changed. Such a truce - during which both sides would attempt to gain an advantage before reigniting hostilities - would surely be a disaster in our world.

Other truces, such as those that ended the Korean War in 1953 or the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, became by default unsatisfactory political resolutions to otherwise insoluble conflicts. A truce like this almost certainly will end in renewed violence because the roots of the war on terror go to the core values underlying US/Western policies in the Middle East. Decades ago, the US began an affair with a sociopathic form of Wahhabi Islam, ultimately giving birth to the bastard child of "Islamist terrorism" that now, as in most lurid, made-for-TV dramas, wants to kill its parents.

Clearly, a different kind of truce is needed; one that signals the first step in a genuine reappraisal of US (and to a lesser extent European) core positions and interests as well as those of Muslims, so that genuine peace and reconciliation become conceivable. There is some historical precedent for this kind of truce in Islam. The Prophet Mohammed agreed to the first Muslim truce in 628. Known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, it was between the nascent Muslim community and the Meccan pagans, and lasted for two years before the Meccans broke it by attacking Muslim Bedouin tribes. During the truce, however, the Muslims respected its terms, even though many of them felt it to be unfair.

More important, during the past three decades an increasingly permanent Muslim presence in Europe gradually led most Muslims to consider that region not dar al-harb (the Abode of War, the traditional Muslim categorization of all non-Muslim lands), but dar al-hudna - a land of truce between Muslims and non-Muslims - or even dar al-Islam, a land of peace where Muslims can feel at home.

Indeed, however dangerous the presence of a few thousand extremists out of a European Muslim population more than 10 million strong, the reality is that Muslims increasingly think of Europe as a terre de mediation (land of mediation) between Muslims and the larger world. A European-initiated hudna might be the first step in allowing Muslims to feel the United States has the potential to play a similar role - but only if major European governments pressed for it, leading the way by reappraising and transforming their own policies toward Muslim lands.

From the US and European side, a meaningful hudna with Islam would include (but not be limited to) the following steps:

First, just as most every mainstream Muslim personality has condemned Muslim extremism, the next US president must be prodded by his European counterparts to take the important psychological step of admitting US responsibility for the harm decades of support for dictatorship, corruption and war have caused ordinary Muslims, especially in the Middle East.

Second, the US, the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should halt all offensive military actions in the Muslim world and outline a serious plan for the removal of troops from Muslim countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq. (These could be replaced, where necessary, by robust United Nations peacekeeping forces or UN-assisted transitional administrations.) The hunt for Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and related terror networks would then be transformed from a war of vengeance into what it always should have been: a vigorous international effort led by the US, the UN and, where relevant, European and other governments to apprehend, prosecute and punish people and groups involved in the September 11, 2001, assaults and similar attacks.

Third, all military and diplomatic agreements and aid to Middle Eastern countries that aren't democratic or don't respect the rights of the peoples under their control should be suspended. Yes, this means for Israel as well as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other "allies" and "partners". This is crucial to stopping the regional arms race and cycle of violence that make peace and democratic reform impossible.

Finally, the hundreds of billions of dollars that would have been devoted to the "war on terror" should be redirected toward the kind of infrastructural, educational and social projects the 9-11 Commission Report argues are key to winning the "war on terror".

A truce does not equal capitulation to terrorists or letting Muslims off the hook for crimes committed in the name of their religion. Certainly, European leaders were right to reject the "truce offer" purportedly made by Osama bin Laden last April on the condition that European countries remove their troops from Muslim lands and refuse to support the United States. Criminals can't offer truces, and bin Laden and other groups that use terroristic violence are indeed international criminals whom the world community has an obligation to bring to justice.

Beyond the criminal minority, the 9-11 report was right to demand that Muslims worldwide confront the violent and intolerant version of their religion that is poisoning their societies and threatening the world at large. Religious leaders and ordinary citizens alike must engage in soul-searching about the toxic tendencies within their own cultures similar to the one they demand of Americans and the West more broadly.

States as well as communities and cultures can make truces, even if criminals can't. And the report should have added specific policy prescriptions to enable such a process to begin: for their part, Muslim political leaders should begin a process of rapid development of participatory civil societies and hold internationally monitored elections within specified (short) time periods or their regimes will face censure and sanctions by the international community. This is the surest way to build a foundation for defeating terrorism.

While it's hard to imagine the US drafting such a policy, the EU, most of whose members don't have the deep ties with either Israel or the oil princedoms of the Persian Gulf that anchor the current system, could lead the way. The need for such leadership is illustrated by various recommendations of the 9-11 Commission that demonstrate that the US is institutionally incapable of taking bold policy steps on its own. As someone whose research was cited by the report - page 466, note 16 - in a manner that completely missed the point of my argument, I find it unsurprising that the report would go on to position the US as an innocent bystander to a "clash within a civilization" whose solution "must come from within Muslim societies themselves".

Fortunately, leading European countries such as France, Germany, and now Spain, don't have a powerful financial stake in the "heavy" or militarized globalization that, since September 11, increasingly skews US and British policymaking. In fact, through the EU, they have created a "Euro-Med" area whose viability depends on expansive economic and political development, and so on increasing interchange with the Muslim world. Let's only hope they will have the courage to explain to president Kerry (or even Bush) that, without both an acceptance of responsibility for past policy and the transformation of future policy toward the Islamic regions of our planet, there will be no solution to terrorism, only continued violence and war. No matter how "smarter and more effectively" the next US president might hope to prosecute such a war, it would be no more winnable than Vietnam or the war on drugs, with far higher losses likely in the near future.

Mark LeVine is associate professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of the upcoming book Why They Don't Hate Us (Forthcoming: Oxford: Oneworld Publications) and a contributing editor at Tikkun magazine. This article is used with permission of Tomdispatch.

(Copyright 2004 Mark LeVine.)

Aug 6, 2004

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