Magazine article The National Interest

The Theological Iron Curtain: A Foreign Policy Strategy for Engaging the Muslim World

Magazine article The National Interest

The Theological Iron Curtain: A Foreign Policy Strategy for Engaging the Muslim World

Article excerpt

TWO YEARS after the fateful attacks of September 11, the United States remains locked in an epic struggle with a new nemesis--international terrorism. Like fascism and communism before it, terrorism poses a direct threat to our interests and values, and fundamentally challenges the international order on which our security, liberty and prosperity depend. Eliminating this threat must be one of the highest priorities of U.S. foreign policy.

Winning this war requires that the United States maintain its military dominance and forcefully apply it to deter and defeat tyrants and terrorists alike. Destroying the Taliban in Afghanistan and removing Saddam Hussein's brutal regime in Iraq--both of which were incubators of hateful violence--were critical to our global counter-terrorism campaign. These wars were just, and our military victories in each have made the United States and the world safer by depriving terrorists of safe havens, funding and support.

The war against terrorism will not be won by military means alone, however. The September 11 attacks epitomized the larger, more amorphous threat we face from fanatics who find justification for evil behavior in Islam. These militants are not only targeting the United States and our allies, but are also engaged in a great civil war with the vast majority of their fellow Muslims who do not share their beliefs or behaviors. It is a war of ideas as much as it is a war of arms. And as such, we cannot rely just on the use of force to protect ourselves.

The Islamic world is beset by political, economic and cultural trends that have limited freedom and increased isolation, repression and anti-American anger over the last generation. These include vast income inequalities, economic and political isolation, cultural balkanization and little or no popular participation in government through which to constructively channel and resolve this strife. Islamic terrorism grew in this swamp--not in a vacuum.

Yet, there are extensive traditions of tolerant and moderate Islam, ones that can support and engender political and economic reform. These types of Islam, practiced by the vast majority of people in the Muslim world, are targeted by the radicals. The moderate majority--which understands that there is great promise for progress for nations that undergo internal modernization and seek to engage with the rest of the world--is under assault by the ethnocentric, extremist few who blame external powers for all their ills. And they see jihad--the virtueless cycle of violence, repression and revenge--as the only answer.

Half a century ago, ideological extremists drew a political iron curtain across Europe. Today, the fanatical forces of jihad are trying to build a "theological iron curtain" to divide the Muslim world from the rest of the globe--a Berlin Wall built with bricks made from the frustrations and anger that arise from conditions of poverty and tyranny, and cemented by the mortar of hatred and violence.

It is still not too late to stop this theological iron curtain from falling. But the more we wait, the more we risk. The United States must act now--proactively, aggressively and in cooperation with our allies--to help moderate Muslims throughout the world who are being besieged by isolation and intolerance. For if the curtain should someday fall, it would be a grave danger to our own security and could bring awful repression to the hundreds of millions of Muslims trapped behind it. In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we had a glimpse of the horrors fanatics can perpetrate against the populations under their control--as well as the destruction that could be wrought by terrorists living under their protection.

American actions since September 11 showed that we can have a powerful impact. During a bipartisan Senate delegation trip to Central Asia in the wake of our victory in Afghanistan two years ago, I saw heartening evidence of the secondary effects of America's resolve, with regional leaders taking a clearer and stronger stand for moderation and modernity than they had before September 11. …

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