Posted on June 17, 2002 in Washington Watch

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in a war. It’s bigger than Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. And much bigger than Afghanistan and the Taliban.

When this war began, after the terrorist attack on September 11, President Bush declared that the enemy was “terrorism with a global reach.” It was not a “clash of civilizations,” nor was it a war against Islam. In all of his early pronouncements, the President was clear. This was to be a focused effort. Terrorists had struck at America and American targets in several countries and at home, and America would respond.

That was nine months ago. Today, in the minds of some, the war has become bigger, more diffuse and still growing. It appears that just as al Qaeda was accused of hijacking Islam, some have hijacked this war on “terrorism,” adding their favorite cause and, in the process, expanding the war’s scope and definition.

There are those, for example, who insist that Iraq is a target. In fact, neo-conservatives have been furiously beating this dream for months now. They have been so determined and intense in their writings and public pronouncements that, for a time, an attack on Iraq appeared to be inevitable. While regional and logistical complications have put such an attack “on hold,” it is, for some hawks, still a question of “when,” not “if.”

Next in the hijacker’s line was Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. For Sharon, the target was not the groups the U.S. had previously named as terrorist, but his old nemesis, Palestinian President Yasir Arafat and the entire Palestinian Authority. Progressively the Israelis have sought to make “their” war into “our” war. They have demonized Arafat and dismantled the structure of self-rule. And while the U.S. has not totally bought into this identity of “their” and “our” war, we have not fully repudiated it either.

Also in line were India, the Phillippines and even Russia, all of whom have sought to have their domestic or regional conflicts absorbed into and encompassed by the U.S. war.

Of even greater danger has been the ideological teaming of neo-conservative, pro-Israeli, and religious fundamentalist forces in the U.S., all of whom have sought to define the U.S.’ war in even broader terms. The enemy, they say, is “Wahhabism”–meaning Saudi Arabia–or even more broadly, “political Islam.” There is, at present, a bizarre debate taking place in the U.S. in which some journalists, academics and others have joined to call for redefining the war as one against “Islamists”. By this, they mean fundamentalist Muslims who use Islam as a political tool and who will, therefore, kill in the name of religion. While advocates of this position argue that their position “brings clarity” to “our” war, others, I believe correctly, counter that it makes the war dangerously obscure and far too all-encompassing. But the debate continues.

There are hijackers on the home front as well. Some in the name of law-enforcement have, under the umbrella of this war, sought to expand the reach government. The results have been the passage of laws, and the issuance of federal regulations that some constitutional lawyers feel erode the fundamental rights and freedoms that have long been guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. At risk are the basic rights of privacy, association, and due process, and the right to be secure in one’s home from unwarranted search and seizure.

Some extremist political and conservative religious groups are working to extend this war to include some of the recently emergent Arab American and Muslim political organizations. Through campaigns of defamation and political pressure, efforts have been made to isolate and delegitimize those community-based entities.

When all those multi-pronged efforts are taken into consideration, the dangers posed by this ever-expanding war become clearer. On the one hand there is the effort to restructure the world order.

By dismantling the structures of international diplomacy that have regulated world affairs during and after the cold war and replacing them with a broadly defined war of “us” versus “them”, the hijackers seek to create nothing less than the “clash of civilizations” that successive Administrations had always sought to avoid. And by preying on prejudices and negative stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, the same protagonists of an ever-expanding war seek to transform America into a less open and less free country where racial profiling and discrimination break down trust and erect barriers of suspicion and repression.

But, the victory of these hijackers of the war on terrorism is not a done deal. Their efforts are being resisted and can be defeated. The first step in a campaign to undo the damage that has been done must include a recognition of the gravity of the challenge. The threat is serious. And the response to the hijackers must be a least as serious as the danger they pose.

Arabs, for example, have not responded in any real way to the campaign against them in the U.S. The Saudi peace initiative, while a noble and certainly significant effort, was not responsive to the main challenge posed by those who exploited September 11th and waged war on the U.S. Saudi relationship. The gap of misunderstanding and distrust exposed during the past nine months can only be filled by direct people-to-people interaction between Saudis and Americans.

This is even more true in the case of the Palestinians. During the past year or so, Israel has stepped up its public diplomacy effort in the U.S., crisscrossing the country with weekly visits of diplomats and citizens. They have come to make their case against the Palestinians–and because there has been no response, the Israeli case has stuck. Early on, the Arab League promised to develop a counter effort. It never materialized. The result has been that not only were Palestinians vulnerable to devastation and reoccupation at the hands of an Israeli military assault, but their image has been equally vulnerable to the assault waged against them in the U.S.

Who are the Arabs? What is Islam? What is the nature and value of the U.S.-Arab relationship? These are huge questions raised by September 11 that powerful antagonists are now answering for the Arabs and Muslims. Fledgling Arab American and American Muslim organizations cannot respond alone and yet, oftentimes, they have been left alone on the huge battlefield for U.S. public opinion.

Our communities are finding that there are dangerous domestic implications in this ever-expanding war. We have made progress and are winning allies. But Arabs must do their part, as well.

The failure to act now, to engage U.S. opinion directly, and stem the negative tide that has risen up in the past nine months, will have dangerous consequences in the years to come.

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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