President Hosni Mubarak’s first visit to Washington in several years highlights the importance of Egyptian-American relations—especially in the all important war of ideas in Afghanistan.
A historic center of the Islamic world, Egypt’s voice has been heeded for centuries in the Islamic community, or umma. Underscoring the importance President Obama places on Egypt, he chose Cairo for his first speech to the Muslim world. But while Egypt is already helping in Afghanistan—it has a military field hospital and medical team in Bagram that offers free treatment for Afghans—it can do more to help Obama there.
Egypt’s clerical establishment should call off the jihad, or more correctly say the Taliban and al Qaeda are fighting a false jihad that is not in the interest of the Afghan people.
The Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents who are terrorizing Afghanistan argue that they are fighting a legitimate and worthy jihad against a foreign infidel Crusader military presence that is occupying the country against its will. They liken this war to the war against the communist Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, a jihad endorsed by influential Sunni Muslim leaders around the Islamic world.
Just last week, Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian ideologue for al Qaeda, made the critical link when he congratulated the Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar, whose fighters in Afghanistan “have made world history twice during less than 30 years. One time, when they defeated the Soviet empire and here it is today defeating the American empire.”
In the 1980s, the clerical establishment, or ulema, from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other important Islamic countries gave ideological support to the mujahideen as a righteous cause to liberate Afghanistan from a terrible foreign invader.
But the NATO force in Afghanistan today is not a foreign occupation army. It is the partner of the legitimate Afghan government, elected in free and fair elections, whose presence in Afghanistan has been endorsed by the United Nations. Four-dozen countries—several of them Muslim—have troops fighting with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. Reliable polling shows Afghans do not want ISAF to leave, even as they are frustrated by its often-inept tactics and its failure to provide better security.
All Egyptians but especially Egypt’s ulema—particularly those at the world’s oldest university and the center of Sunni Muslim thought for centuries, Al-Azhar—can help the Afghan people now, just as they did in the 1980s. This time they should call off the jihad, or more correctly say the Taliban and al Qaeda are fighting a false jihad that is not in the interest of the Afghan people. They have already rejected terror at home, and now they can reject it in Afghanistan. Afghans tell me Egypt’s voice would resonate in Afghanistan, especially the voice of Al-Azhar.
Mubarak should not be asked to deliver such a statement from Al-Azhar. That would not be appropriate. Rather, the leadership of the ulema in Egypt and in other important Muslim centers should do it for the Afghan people. They have already condemned terrorism and attacks like September 11 on many occasions, but now is the time to be specific and brand the Taliban’s false jihad the lie that it is. Egypt’s diplomats and its media could then send this message throughout the umma and encourage others to join.
The war in Afghanistan—the longest in U.S. history—is part of a much larger war for the soul of Islam. The Taliban does not represent Islam; it seeks to hijack it to impose, once again, a medieval hell on the Afghan people. Now that the war is getting ever more deadly, Obama needs Egypt’s help.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution. He chaired President Obama’s strategic review of Afghanistan and Pakistan last winter and is author of The Search for al Qaeda.