Bush's Marginalization of Mideast Historians Led to Iraq War Mistakes, Says Fawaz Gerges

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MORE THAN 900 Muslims traveled to the Long Beach Convention Center Dec. 15 for the 7th annual Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) convention. Keynote speaker at the banquet was Lebanese-American scholar Fawaz Gerges, whose book Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy was published in 2007 by Harcourt Press.

According to Professor Gerges, the major flaw in the Bush administration's reaction to 9/11 was to marginalize modern Middle East historians in favor of a new class of ideologists including neocons and so-called terrorism experts who know little about Islam.

"We experts were told to shut up because we failed to warn of the coming 9/11 attacks, that we were suspect and no longer could be trusted," said the professor of Arab and Muslim politics at Sarah Lawrence College.

By undermining scholarly experts and replacing them with a whole new body of neocon social engineers, he explained, the reality of transnational jihadists was misread.

Gerges, who regularly appears on national news programs, said that at its peak in the 1990s, the movement never exceeded 3,000 militants. By the late 1990s, the jihadist ship was sinking, he stressed, and the only way it could win was to expel the U.S. from the Middle East. Al-Qaeda was a small fringe group within the jihadist movement, Gerges said, and it knew it had to attack the U.S. in order to gain stature.

The second flaw in U.S. policy, he continued, was to lump all jihadists together. After 9/11, every Muslim cleric denounced al-Qaeda, he noted, but the Bush administration targeted all Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood to liberation groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Al-Qaeda was in a coma after the disaster of 9/11, Gerges continued-until the U.S. expanded its war on terrorism and invaded Iraq. It poured more than $400 billion into its Iraq adventure which has killed 100,000 to 1 million Iraqis and turned another 2.5 million into refugees. Iraq is in a sectarian crisis that, Gerges warned, is spilling over into Lebanon. "We went to Iraq to hammer a nail into the coffin of al-Qaeda," he noted, "and instead U.S. actions have revived al-Qaeda cells throughout the Middle East and parts of Europe.

"The solution is to extract U.S. forces from Iraq-the sooner the better."

Security vacuums will arise, Gerges acknowledged, but the Bush administration should have realized it is not fighting a conventional army. Arabs are better qualified to stop al-Qaeda, he argued, and the best way to do this is to encircle it, not confront it.

What a difference it would have made, Gerges mused, if Washington had instead invested $400 billion into establishing a viable Palestinian state and rejuvenated failed Arab societies, where 150 million people live in poverty. These, he said, include Lebanon, where 40 percent live in poverty; Egypt, with 48 percent; Sudan, with 61 percent; and Yemen, with 69 percent surviving beneath the poverty line.

David Hiller, publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times, spoke at the second plenary entitled "Shaping the Conversation." He became friends with MPAC executive director Salam al-Marayati, Hiller explained, when both attended a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs event. As a result, he invited a contingent of local Muslim youth leaders to meet his paper's foreign editor and reporters to discuss how the Times handles topics of interest to Muslim readers.

In Plenary III, Shaarik Zafar, senior policy adviser of the Department of Homeland Security, urged members of the audience who believe they have been unduly harassed at airports by authorities to report their complaints to . If they aren't satisfied, Zafar invited them to contact him at .

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