False Prophets

Building bridges between Muslims, Christians, and Jews seems like a worthy goal. But, by glossing over serious differences, the organizations at the forefront of interfaith dialogue confuse discussion with success -- and end up leaving everyone at risk.

Like many international institutions, the United Nations says it seeks to address Muslim extremism. Who else but the collection of states with the broadest mandate, most members, and loftiest goals could tackle this perversion of civilized society and threat to world order? So, when I was hired in January 2006 for a project to devise a U.N. response to the so-called clash of civilizations, it seemed a worthy way to consider this challenge on a global scale. At the urging of the prime ministers of Spain and Turkey, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan established the Alliance of Civilizations with the goal of identifying the roots of the divide between Western and Islamic societies and, ultimately, to find ways to curb religious violence.

Part of my job was to travel around the world, collecting the views of leaders of Islamist parties and movements. Their ideas would then be included in a document the alliance would publish at the end of that year. The United Nations hoped the document would receive international press coverage and generate funding for the solutions, or "practical steps," it would propose to bridge the divide between Western and Islamic societies. There seemed to be no better way, I thought, to clarify the Islamist vision — one ignored and rejected by Western governments — for a wide international audience. Based on my own research on Islamic revivalism during a decade in the Middle East, I knew these dozen or so leading activists could shed light on the major causes of extremism, namely, anger and resentment at U.S. foreign policy; beliefs that the September 11 attacks sparked an ideological war between Islam and the West; and the underlying conviction that Islam would cure the ills that a decadent West had imposed on the world.

Almost as soon as the project began, though, a fear of political backlash proved to outweigh any potential for mutual understanding. At a meeting in Qatar with a 20-member committee composed of former ministers, diplomats, and scholars, the question of whether the views of Islamists would be part of the alliance’s work was raised in public discussions. One of Annan’s special advisors decided that meetings with Islamists would amount to scandal for the United Nations. For me, the reversal was one of a few defining moments in my understanding of the risks the institution was willing to take. More profoundly, it exposed the philosophical divide within the alliance: Was the best way to deal with extremism through a head-on political approach or an indirect cultural one? Is it better to engage directly with Islamists and learn firsthand their grievances and convictions, or to create Hollywood films for the Muslim masses in the hopes of changing perceptions of the West and vice versa? In the end, the cultural strategists won out, much to my dismay.

Today, as the Alliance of Civilizations continues its work, it can be added to the rapidly growing list of groups, including nongovernmental organizations, interfaith projects, the U.S. State Department, polling agencies, self-appointed Muslim-American public intellectuals, religious leaders, and academics, all claiming to be addressing the "problem." However, as someone who has actively participated in this debate, I believe that the opposite is true. Rather than dealing with extremism, these institutions are deliberately dodging the discomforting work of addressing a global conflict that in hindsight makes the Cold War look like a small ethnic squabble. Although the approaches differ from one organization to the next, the general strategies bear a great resemblance: emphasize the commonalities between Islamic and Western societies and among the three Abrahamic faiths; downplay or avoid completely the very real differences as if they don’t exist; and make Westerners feel comfortable by convincing them that extremism is a temporary phenomenon that exists only on the fringes of Islamic societies.

Some in the American media encourage this angle on extremism. Exhausted and depressed by years of worry over Osama bin Laden, a war in Iraq, and high-pitched threats from the Bush administration toward Iran and Syria, people long for happier narratives about Muslims. In addition, this story helps both large institutions, ranging from the World Economic Forum to Georgetown University, and small grass-roots organizations that focus on the benign and irrelevant exercise of "interfaith dialogue" raise millions of dollars from U.S. foundations and governments in the Persian Gulf. The Saudi royal family, for example, has a great interest in downplaying the divide between Muslim and Western societies. But simply pretending these differences do not exist is a stumbling block to what should be Western governments’ efforts to engage those Muslims who matter. Merely embracing Muslims who are already converted to a Western school of thought while shunning and alienating those who have influence over the very extremists who challenge the West’s vision of the world is not only misguided; it is dangerous. By avoiding the fact that there are profound differences between Muslims in the East and non-Muslims in the West, we are hindering solutions that could prevent the next terror attack in London, Madrid, or Washington.

Among the most dominant actors in this campaign are Muslim-American activists. Their message to Muslims in the Islamic world is that America is a great land of the free and any grievances with the United States are misplaced. When addressing American audiences, on the other hand, they promote a mythical idea that Muslims from Egypt to Pakistan actually have favorable notions of the United States. Of course, that works in their favor: By deceiving the public into believing the "threat" is exaggerated, this Muslim-American lobby hopes to create more favorable views of Muslims in the eyes of Americans.

Another culprit is the interfaith dialogue campaign. A few dozen professors of Islamic studies and Muslim-American activists have signed letters to Pope Benedict XVI in an attempt to show that his derogatory statements about Islam have all been forgiven. (I doubt the proverbial Arab street agrees.) Likewise, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim youth groups are organizing gatherings at churches, synagogues, and mosques to find common ground. During their meetings, they condemn the violent acts carried out by extremists in their respective faiths and bond over how much their religions have in common.

If it all sounds like a healthy if insufficient first step, it probably is. Interfaith discussion distracts from uncomfortable but necessary questions and should be considered a hindrance to concrete and effective foreign-policy approaches to counter extremism. A far more effective effort would be to appeal to the disaffected youth in Europe and the Islamic world who loathe the United States and much of what it represents. Another necessary step — widely debated during former President Jimmy Carter’s trip to the Middle East in April — is to begin official negotiations with groups with widespread power and influence, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that these organizations are the future leaders in the Middle East cannot be ignored. So why shun them from the policy debate?

In January, the Alliance of Civilizations held an extravagant gala in Madrid, where dignitaries from around the world pledged to "bridge the divide." As usual, the world’s political elites pledged to throw money at the problem. Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned, wife of the emir of Qatar, announced a multimillion-dollar investment for a global youth employment initiative. Queen Noor of Jordan pledged $10 million toward a media fund to "support the production and distribution of films that entertain as well as enlighten." The alliance claims that the media have overemphasized extremism and a media fund can help fix it. Sure, employing Muslim youth is certainly a worthwhile mission, and the power of Hollywood to influence public opinion should never be underestimated. But such projects do little to address the immediate problem of growing radicalization among Muslim youth in Europe and the broader Islamic world.

Promoting peace and understanding might comfort the Western body politic and convince Americans that Arab governments are doing their part, but it is simply window dressing. Despite the overwhelming evidence of a decline in the West’s relationship with the Islamic world, it still has no effective foreign-policy strategy for engaging Islamist leaders and Muslim societies in any meaningful way. Until we force ourselves to deal with the most immediate crisis at hand — the devastating failure of U.S. foreign policy and an Islamic world that is growing more conservative, religious, and hostile toward the United States with each passing day — we will have done nothing to address the true conflict, one that remains threatening, enduring, and real.

Geneive Abdo is a resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, and the author of four books on the Middle East. Twitter: @AbdoGeneive

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