The rising cases of homegrown Islamist radicalism in the United States and the several terror plots that were discovered in 2009 are alarming.
Statistically speaking, the number of homegrown Islamist terror plots was the highest since 2001. The five Muslim students who went to Pakistan to wage jihad against their own country, the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre, and the Christmas airline terror attempt are just a few examples of many.
In trying to understand this trend in the first year of the Obama administration, one should question whether some actions of the president are perceived as encouraging the jihadists to intensify their attacks on the United States. Although there could be several explanations for this sharp rise after President Obama took office, the possibility of adverse reactions to some of his actions should not be discounted.
Firstly, from a cultural perspective, the Arab world resonates with appearances of strength and weakness. This could be related to the admiration of the role played by wars and the military defeat of non-Muslims in the early expansion of Islam, or it could be related to the classical Islamic notion of God that is based on fear from his power. Other factors such as ancient Arabic poems that glorified tribal warfare played a role in creating this mentality that respects power.
Irrespective of the cause of this psychological makeup, it is vital to mention that actions the United States has taken in its outreach efforts to the Muslim world must be evaluated carefully so that the jihadists don't perceive them as signs of weakness. A delicate balance is needed so the United States can win the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims without being perceived as a weak country, which could aggravate the problem of jihadism. Such notions are, indeed, foreign to a Western mentality, but it is crucial to be able to understand these cultural "translation" issues.
Some of Obama's actions that could be perceived as weakness include:
- Excessive bowing to the king of Saudi Arabia instead of giving him the normal Saudi greetings or hug. Many Muslims see bowing as a sign of extreme weakness and an act of worship that should be given only to God. President Obama could have given the king a traditional Saudi hug without doing an act of worship, as the latter would make the president perceived as weak only in the eyes of the radicals.
- Giving the closure of Guantanamo Bay a priority on the president's agenda. Many believed that the existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison was used as a recruitment tool for al-Qaida. However, statistics are showing that the number of terror attempts and attacks on the United States actually have increased after active steps were taken to close the prison when Obama took office in 2009.
- Raising the issue of possible punishment for CIA officials for using tough measures against the terrorists. This issue should have been dealt with in a very secretive manner within the government to avoid giving the Jihadists a feeling of victory that might encourage them to perpetrate more attacks on the United States, as well as revealing sensitive information regarding our intelligence gathering methods.
- Defending the rights of Muslim women to wear the hijab without showing the same level of care to defending the rights of Muslim women who want to practice their freedom to be "westernized" or to choose their faith. The president praised Nashala Hearn, a Muslim from Muskogee, Okla., for standing up for her right to wear the hijab and invited her to be a guest in Ramadan dinner at the White House in September 2009.On the other hand, the president did not show the same level of care by standing up for Muslim women who want to practice their freedom in the United States.
One of the recent Muslim victims for freedom was Noor Faleh Almaleki, a 20-year-old woman from Iraq whose father ran over her with a car to kill her because she had become "too westernized." Furthermore, Obama neither praised nor invited Muslim Rifqua Bary, who could be killed for apostasy inside the United States under Islamic Shariah rules, to show a similar stand with her rights to choose her beliefs. Showing such care to young Muslim women who want to wear the hijab and failure to show the same level of care to Muslim women who want to be "westernized" or who want to practice freedom of religion also invites jihadist aggression against the United States.
These factors may not be perceived as weakness in Western minds, but how they are perceived in the jihadists' and radicals' minds is the key point. Presidential actions can not be interpreted as weakness, because if so, this will aggravate Islamic radicalism.
A careful balance and consideration of cultural notions is needed in U.S. diplomacy to "win the hearts and minds" of Muslims without being perceived as weak. U.S. actions need to be developed and carried out through the lens of the target audience — not from a Western perspective — in order to create a positive impact on the Muslim world.
Dr. Tawfik Hamid is the author of "Inside Jihad." A former associate of Dr. al-Zawahiri (second in command of al-Qaida), he now is a reformer of Islam. For information, visit www.tawfikhamid.com. Hamid's writings in this blog represent only his thoughts and not the views of the institute where he works.
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