Peace in the Middle East: Strategies for the Containment of Extremism

By Khalilzad, Zalmay | Harvard International Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Peace in the Middle East: Strategies for the Containment of Extremism


Khalilzad, Zalmay, Harvard International Review


You have stated that the "clash of ideas" in negotiation is valuable to diplomacy. But are there boundaries to the value of negotiation? When is a clash of ideas no longer positive, but destructive, and at what point does negotiation cease to be reasonable?

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The only time when discussions and negotiations are destructive is if they are a substitute for effective action--when they become a means by which one is prevented from doing what needs to be done to achieve positive goals. In other words, if negotiations are not conducted in good faith but instead are used by one side as a means to avoid or prevent effective action and the pursuit of positive goals by the other side, then they are counterproductive. And it is very hard to judge at times whether the people you are negotiating with are conducting negotiations in good faith or not.

Negotiations could also be counterproductive if they create a false hope or expectation that something positive will happen, when in fact some of the parties involved in the negotiation have no intention of making progress. So there are circumstances in which negotiation is not productive.

Negotiation is, of course, one of the tools available in the toolbox of diplomacy. Not all tools are the right tools for every situation. So we need to be flexible and make decisions as to what tools--what combination of tools--are appropriate for dealing with particular situations.

One very serious clash of ideas relates to the current and past troubles in the Middle East--specifically, the rift within Islam between moderate and extremist groups. In terms of the toolbox of diplomacy, which tools can the United States and its allies use to ensure that extremist groups in the Middle East are contained?

This is the most important geopolitical challenge that we face--the issue of what is happening in the broader Middle East--because developments in that region impact not only the security of that region, but also the security and the future of the world.

When looking at the sources of support for extremism, there are a number of things to consider. One of these is the broader clash or crisis within Islam itself. Muslims for some time have been divided on the issue of what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to fix it. The belief is--and there is truth in it--that at one time Islamic civilization was doing quite well. It was a civilization on the march. It was doing well politically, economically, culturally. And we see the great strides, the great contributions that were made by Islamic civilization, particularly in the sciences. But there has been a decline, and the question is what has gone wrong and what to do about it. And as a result of engaging on these two questions, different schools and movements have emerged.

One of these schools that has acquired a lot of prominence in recent years has been the more extremist interpretation of Islam, which says that the reason why Muslims declined is that they moved away from the "true" Islam. They claim that only their interpretation of Islam, which is an extremist interpretation, is "true" Islam and that only by going back or embracing this version of Islam can Muslims achieve greatness once again and overcome their decline.

Others have had other alternative views, one believing that only by doing what those who are successful right now are doing, can one achieve success. That means moving toward separation of church and state, democracy, secularism, and a market-oriented economy. And then there is the middle school--that you can reconcile Islam and modernity.

But because of a variety of developments, the two more moderate schools--which had at one time been dominant--have been weakened, and the extremists have gained power. They use terror as a means, and that has given them the prominence they need. Now they are dominant in some places, but not everywhere. …

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