President Obama warns against “extremism.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney declaims against “terrorists.” But they hardly ever bark the essential word, the almost always absent critical adjective: Muslim. Almost all the terrorist and extremist violence in the world today is committed by Muslims—and in most instances, the victims are Muslims themselves. What’s afoot here is Muslim extremism—despite the fact that the great majority of Muslims aren’t radicals and condemn terrorism.
President Obama got somewhat more specific in his press appearance Thursday regarding the Christmas bombing attempt. He said that the United States was “at war against al Qaeda.” Indeed, we are, and al Qaeda is surely the main Muslim terrorist organization we are fighting. But it is not the only one. Many of the Muslim terrorist groups around the world are their own bosses, particularly in Asia and also in the Middle East. Nonetheless, he still avoided the Muslim nature of the problem.
The great majority of sensible and moderate Muslims must take up operational and actual arms against the terrorists. It can’t be just rhetoric, which is the only weapon of most moderate Muslim groups right now.
The omission of the word “Muslim” usually stems from political correctness, the desire not to offend. On most occasions, this gloss does no great harm and can be overlooked. But the failure to nail the problem squarely by name causes grave difficulties: It impedes the process of finding realistic solutions. Specifically, it leads Washington to think of American solutions to terrorism more so than Muslim ones. It puts the greatest onus on American resources and actions, on our values and our philosophies—rather than on the great majority of moderate Muslims, their values, their religion, their culture, their concrete actions, and their getting involved at the ground level in the mud and muck. If the battle against Muslim terrorism is to be won, moderate Muslims will have to do the heavy lifting, and explain to us how we can best help them. If Americans and Westerners continue to take the lead, it will remain an “us vs. them” war. If Muslims take the lead, it will be “them vs. them,” co-religionists battling co-religionists, not “infidel and oppressive” outsiders battling “victimized” Muslims. Effective military force, of course, will be needed to weaken the fanatics and provide security. But the support of the great majority of Muslims is an even more essential ingredient for success, one that can be garnered only by their fellow believers both in the U.S. and abroad.
• Gallery: Ranking the Terror Hubs • Gerald Posner: Did Pakistani Spies Help the CIA Bomber? Not a week goes by, it seems, without Muslims blowing up other Muslims, and often themselves in the process. Dominating their co-religionists appears to be the top priority of fanatics. When the opportunity presents itself, they will also kill infidels in America, London, Madrid, Indonesia, and anywhere else they can. It’s astonishing to count the number and variety of insurrections, wars, civil wars, incidents, and insurgencies Muslims have ignited. The list includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Chechnya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Gaza, the West Bank, and on and on.
Of the terrorist killings and maimings that have taken place over the last three years, over 90 percent have been Muslim on Muslim, Shiite on Sunni, Sunni on Sunni, or Shiite on Shiite, with rare exceptions. Most of these slaughters have religious, cultural, and historical causes. But wherever the fanatics lodge themselves firmly in power, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, they will try to practice the totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin. Their rule is the end of hope for women, the end of freedom for all, except themselves—and the institutionalization of corruption and cruelty, which they rationalize with their interpretation of the Koran. They’ve tried to impose totalitarianism in Iran, but haven’t succeeded so far—because the Iranian people have fought back. And if you listen to the fanatics’ rhetoric, they plan to move on to the rest of the world and apply the same principles. They are Muslim fanatics. The culprits are not Hasidic Jews running amok around the world or Tea-baggers bent on replanting Christianity among the heathen.
Muslim terrorists are the main threat to international and American security. They are the ones most likely to impose totalitarianism on their fellow Muslims, and the ones most likely to use weapons of mass destruction. Muslim governments surely understand deterrence and know that if they use WMDs to attack others, the United States and other nations will destroy them. These governments, I believe, will be deterred once they are sure of devastating Western responses. The terrorists themselves are another matter.
Thus, the overriding national-security question is: What should Muslims and non-Muslims do about this mortal threat? The primary answer is that the great majority of sensible and moderate Muslims must take up operational and actual arms against the terrorists. It can’t be just rhetoric, which is the only weapon of most moderate Muslim groups right now. They give speeches and issue fatwas condemning terrorism. (Notably, after the September 11 attacks, leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, and others in a joint statement condemned “in the strongest terms, the incidents, which are against all human and Islamic norms.”)
That’s fine. But where are the funds, the programs, and the personnel to reeducate young ones brainwashed in madrassas, and where are the alternate schools for these children? Where are the programs to show up at mosques everywhere and argue with the mullahs who say that Allah wants them to kill fellow Muslims and infidels and enslave women? Why are moderate Afghans so full of excuses when it comes to standing up to the Taliban? Why do they constantly wring their hands about whether the United States will stay there forever and fight their battles for them, knowing full well that at some point, Americans will leave, must leave? Why do moderate Pakistani leaders forever argue that their fate hinges on American victory in Afghanistan, and yet give succor to the very terrorists who are killing Americans in Afghanistan? Why do friendly Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia endlessly raise the Israel-Palestine issue to the forefront of Arab politics? Is it not mainly to divert attention from their own internal problems? Does not failure to attend to these internal problems ultimately weaken the position of our friendly Arab allies against the terrorists?
Washington cannot carry this fight by arguing at once for Western-style democracy and the separation of church and state, and against wrong-headed Islamists. Westerners have no standing or credibility on that battlefield. Only Muslims can argue with other Muslims about what the Koran says and doesn’t say. If Westerners enter that arena, the sole issues become infidel versus believer, and oppressor versus victim. It was one thing for the United States to enter the ideological and philosophical lists against Hitler or the Soviet Union. These countries shared a Christian and European heritage. But there has been little sharing between Western societies and Islam.
What’s more, no one understands these truths better than Muslims here and abroad. They’re the ones always telling us that we don’t understand them. And they’re right. And that means they should be shouldering the primary burdens in the fight against the terrorists—and helping us understand how we can best help them with military muscle and money, but in a supporting role.
It is simply not an acceptable future for the United States to fight the war in Afghanistan for another 10 years, keep Pakistan afloat economically while its leaders double-deal us, and attack Iran—all the while invading Somalia and Yemen. It certainly shouldn’t be acceptable for Muslims in these and other Islamic countries to accept Muslim tyrannies. They—the Muslims—must be the first line of defense. And U.S. and other world leaders have to find ways to let Muslim leaders know that this responsibility will be theirs. Nothing else makes sense. Nothing else will work.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.