Radical Islam Blocks U.S. Efforts to Improve Image

Thursday, 24 Dec 2009 12:50 PM

By Tawfik Hamid

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President Obama's diplomatic approach to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world has not been successful.

That's the view Fouad Ajami advanced in an Op-Ed piece entitled "The Arabs Have Stopped Applauding Obama" in the Dec. 1 issue of WSJ Europe.

Unfavorable views of the United States are as high as 82 percent in the Palestinian territories, 69 percent in Turkey, and 70 percent in Egypt. In fact, the Op-Ed stated that unfavorable views of the United States in Pakistan have risen from 63 percent in 2008 to 68 percent in 2009, according to a recent Pew survey.

In addition, since Obama came to office in January, the number of home-grown Islamist terror plots inside the United States has risen dramatically compared with the previous years. In fact, this year tallied the highest level of domestic home-grown Islamic radicalism in the United States since 2001.

We must question why Obama's approach with the Muslim world has not succeeded yet in at least having a more positive effect in improving the U.S. image in several Muslim countries or in decreasing the rate of home-grown Islamic radicalism on the home front.

One of the main reasons is that U.S. strategic communications with the Muslim world previously were based largely on the assumption that the problem of Islamic radicalism and hatred toward America is primarily because of the U.S. foreign policy with the Muslim world.

Obama's theory is that that changing this policy would change the latter. This can work only if the main problem was in the U.S. approach; however, if the main problem was in the Muslim world, such an approach cannot succeed, as it will be like trying to change the keys to open a room then the problem is in the rusty lock!

In the latter situation, changing the lock — in other words, changing the Muslim world itself — is crucial to solving the problem.

Improving the image of the United States in the Muslim world before the proliferation of the phenomenon of radical Islamism was a very different task compared with trying to improve its image after radical Islamism has taken root. While traditional approaches of diplomatic, economic and social engagement had the possibility of working with the earlier situation, non-traditional ways to weaken Islamism are needed for today's situation.

Radical Islamism, or the broad collection of movements to impose intolerant forms of Islamic teachings and practices, has made many in the Muslim world unable to be satisfied with any political system that does not implement shariah in some form or fashion. Any un-Islamic system is seen as an enemy to Islam that must be opposed through violent or even nonviolent means. Dr. al-Zawahiri (second in command of al-Qaida) was clear is his offer for the United States to convert to Islam to stop terrorism against it.

In addition, Islamism has made many in Muslim societies dream about regaining the superiority of the historical Islamic Caliphate over the world. This sentiment is clear on many Web sites and in the comments of many Muslims in the Muslim world. In this case, it is hard for many Islamists to accept a country like the United States, which is viewed as denying this position to the Islamic world.

Furthermore, Islamism has aggravated criticism of the United States as it advocates and supports values of freedom and liberty around the world that Islamists regard as "un-Islamic" — particularly the values of freedom of religion, women's rights, gay rights, and more humane punishments for criminals (e.g., not stoning women for committing adultery).

Some may argue that Muslims still are very interested to come to the United States even if they see it as "un-Islamic." The answer is simply that many Muslims find the economical factors attractive rather than the values of freedom and liberty.

This complex situation illustrates that the United States may need to address the challenge of weakening the Islamism phenomenon first in order to improve its image in the Muslim world because this phenomenon plays an important role in creating hatred of America.

The U.S. administration needs to work on changing the Muslim world's perception of its foreign policy rather than focusing on changing its foreign policy to win the hearts and minds of Muslims. Sophisticated psychological and behavioral modification methods may be needed to achieve this.

In this context, it is also important to raise the point that the Muslim world needs to improve its image in the world as terrorism and barbarism have tainted its profile, especially in recent years.

In brief, no matter what the non-Islamic world does — short of submitting to the Islamic shariah — the Islamists will never be satisfied completely. The United States either must change itself to adopt an Islamic system to satisfy the Muslim world or alternatively assist in changing the latter.

Weakening the Islamism phenomenon is vital to improve the U.S. image.

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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