The question asked about Islam and Muslims in the days after 9/11 -- what went wrong? -- is now relevant when assessing the Bush administration and the future of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The American-led war on global terrorism has not destroyed Al-Qaeda, limited the growth of extremist groups or lessened the threat of global terrorism. Studies and polls show that both extremism and anti- Americanism have in fact increased. The beliefs of much of the world, heads of state and popular opinion contrasted sharply with the views of George W Bush and Tony Blair. The war in Iraq, a war which did not enjoy the support of a broad-based coalition, did remove a bloody dictator. But Saddam was not, as maintained by the Bush administration, a regional or global threat who possessed WMDs, or a major supporter of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.
In many parts of the Muslim world the war against global terrorism has come to be viewed as a war against Islam and Muslims. The image of America has become that of a neo-imperial power that has sought to redraw the map of the Middle East and the Muslim world, influenced by an unholy alliance of neoconservatives and the militant Christian right, in an attempt to implement a New American century. US policies have alienated many friends and long time allies in Europe and the Arab world and fed anti- Americanism within and outside the Muslim world.
Results within America have been no better. Almost three years after 9/11 the Bush administration's track record and legacy have been challenged by those who charge that basic American democratic principles and values (the rule of law, civil liberties and human rights) have been sacrificed to a militant neoconservative ideology to expand America's global influence and power. The administration circumvented international law: it embraced the doctrine of preemptive strikes, side-stepped the Geneva Accords, sought to exempt the US from accountability before international tribunals and, through domestic legislation and government policies and actions, compromised civil liberties. It undertook a war condemned by the heads of many mainstream religious faiths, including President Bush's own denomination, as unjust but supported by a neoconservative and militant Christian right minority.
The most serious risk to the future is the continued failure to adequately address the root causes of global terrorism and of anti- Americanism. Although the Bush administration quite correctly talked about a three-pronged strategy (military, economic and public diplomacy), the tendency has been to reduce public diplomacy to a public relations campaign rather than a serious re-examination of American foreign policy and a more multilateral approach. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 many were content to simply look to religious or cultural causes in answering the question: "Why do they hate us?" American policies (under both Democratic and Republican administrations), the impact of Iraqi sanctions that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, a double standard in America's support for the spread of democracy and human rights which saw American administrations support authoritarian regimes, lack of balance or parity in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, from American policies and arms sales to its voting record in the UN, were all ignored.
The scope and trajectory of the war against global terrorism undermined rather than supported the Bush administration's credibility. In place of a well defined, limited, proportionate, multi-lateral strategy, the "war against global terrorism" quickly expanded beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq and others. At first it was justified in the name of targeting threats from "axis of evil" countries and then, in the search for legitimacy in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, in a new commitment to promote democracy and implement a Roadmap to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, the appeal to democracy and to the Roadmap proved to be a two-edged sword, a yardstick by which the administration would be judged. Failure to find Saddam's WMDs and to prove a substantive Al-Qaeda connection and the faltering and failed policies of the provisional authority increasingly brought the charge that the liberation of Iraq had become an occupation and that democratisation meant a "guided democracy" under American trusteeship. The images from Abu Ghraib, accompanied by attempts to deny or minimise the significance of its egregious violation of human rights, outraged not only Iraqis but many across the world. In Israel-Palestine, Bush's continued failure to match his tough stand with Arafat on terrorism with an equally tough stand against Ariel Sharon's use of violence and terror to destroy the political, economic and institutional infrastructure in Palestine discredited the American Roadmap and fed extremism, a result that professional analysts (as distinct from the administration's political appointees) in the State Department and CIA would have warned him about. The end result has been the further erosion of America's moral leadership and credibility, increased anti- Americanism among many of its allies and hatred of America among extremists.
But what of the Arab and Muslim world? 9/11 and the threat of global terrorism has become a further excuse for many governments in the Middle East, Central, South and South East Asia to become more autocratic, to tighten their grip on power and limit dissent. Organisations like the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) continue to prove ineffectual, and continue to turn a blind eye to state repression and human-rights abuses. They often appear to be in a state of paralysis, more comfortable with meetings and statements than action. Many countries remain police/security states where freedom of association and assembly are severely limited. Freedom of thought and expression in the press and media, schools and universities are still subordinated to the state. Independent-minded intellectuals, secular and Islamic, continue to be silenced by the political police and radical Islamists.
The international Arab and Muslim media (Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and others) and the Internet have provided direct access to information, an opportunity to see live coverage of events in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and beyond. They have been effective outlets for criticism of entrenched regimes and contributed to the process of political change. However, the media have often failed to transcend the legacy and influence of the cultures of authoritarianism that dominate the region. Just as many have criticised the extent to which the American media too often failed to provide independent critical analysis of events in Palestine and Iraq, so too the Arab and Muslim media fails the "fair and balanced" reporting test. The most glaring examples are the failure to condemn the recent beheadings and murders by terrorists and the desecration of bodies of Western military and foreign workers, despite their barbarism. They not only play to but also contribute to a culture of denial, blame and hate. True the media, like intellectuals in many parts of the Arab and Muslim world, have often had to walk the tightrope between authoritarian regimes and radical Islamists to survive. However, too many have readily contributed to a media culture that is content to blame the other and whose media reports are often indistinguishable from editorials.
The picture I have painted is indeed bleak. Some argue that given the realities of American politics there is little reason to hope for a dramatic difference between a Bush or Kerry administration when it comes to the Arab world, and to Israel-Palestine in particular. Equally, many would argue that the entrenched power and interests of many Arab and Muslim rulers and elites provide little hope for a significant increase in power-sharing and human rights. Wherever one stands on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is clear neither Arafat nor Sharon have proven capable political leaders. Both have contributed to the polarisation of their mainstream, putting both mainstream Palestinians and Israelis under siege. If this is the case then we have scenarios for future clashes both within Arab and Muslim societies and between the Muslim world and the West.
Recognising the magnitude of the obstacles need not be a cause for fatalism or inertia. The failed policies of many governments and ruling elites, like the preachers of theologies of hate (Muslim, Christian or Jewish), represent a powerful minority but it is important to remember they are a minority. As anyone familiar with America, Europe or the Muslim world knows, the mainstream majority, whatever their differences and grievances, share a common desire for peace, prosperity, freedom and security. Reformers do exist and continue to work and speak out, in some cases at great risk.
An important lesson of history is that rulers and nations do rise and fall. Unforeseen circumstances can bring unanticipated change. Few expected the breakup of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Eastern Europe to occur when they did; elected political officials can and sometimes do change their direction and policy. The political, economic and human costs of the war on global terrorism may well lead the next American administration to alter its policies as, indeed, the failures in Iraq and upcoming presidential elections forced George Bush to reach out to the international community for partners, deal more realistically with Iraqi religious leaders, back down from its promotion of Ahmed Chalabi and hasten the transfer of power. Now is the time for those in all walks of life (political, economic, military, media and academic) who wish to see a new order not to be silenced but to speak out, organise, vote and be willing when necessary to make sacrifices in promoting a new global order.
* The writer is professor of religion and international affairs, Georgetown University. His most recent books include: Unholy War and What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam.