Reckoning with Radical Islam

Lee Hamilton

Posted Oct 26, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Reckoning with Radical Islam

by Lee Hamilton

We cannot defeat terrorism unless we help combat extremism in the Muslim world. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton lays out a plan for reckoning with radical Islam.

The recently declassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) suggests that al Qaeda is as strong as it was before September 11, 2001. This is deeply disturbing, and suggests that our current counter-terrorism strategy is inadequate.

It has been nearly six years since the 9/11 attacks, a period of time longer than the Civil War or World War II. It is hard to imagine President Roosevelt’s government acknowledging that the Japanese were as strong as they were on Pearl Harbor day six years after the attack – yet that is where we are today. We have done some things right: there has not been another terrorist attack on our shores, and many top al Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed. But clearly we are doing too many things wrong.

The radicalization of the Islamic world stands out as a particular failure. From Morocco to Indonesia to the cities of Europe, extremism is spreading. Yet America lacks any clear program to combat this radicalization. Instead, our strategy is weighted toward combating extremism with military force – particularly in Iraq. Meanwhile, new terrorists are rising up worldwide faster than we can possibly kill or capture them.

America needs a new program to combat this radicalization, grounded in a more precise understanding of the challenge. We have learned much about Islam since 9/11, but we still fail to understand it. We make a terrible mistake when we use terms like “Islamo-fascist,” suggesting that we think Islam is inherently violent. Islam is complex, multi-faceted, and profoundly divided. To defeat the small minority of Muslims who have turned to violence, we will need the help of the vast majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims who are peaceful, but who hold grievances against America. To do this, we must understand the root of those grievances.

Muslim hostility toward America may at times be rooted in religion, but it is largely political. Because the U.S. is the richest and most powerful nation, we inspire jealousy and resentment. Historically, we have backed repressive Muslim leaders – like the Shah in Iran, or General Zia in Pakistan. Before 9/11, our military presence in Saudi Arabia and support for Israel drew widespread opposition in the Islamic world; since 9/11, the war in Iraq has dramatically increased anti-Americanism. Whether or not they condone terrorism, many Muslims have a sense that Islam is under attack by the United States, and this has fed radicalization.

At the same time, the opportunity embodied within American society is a source of hope for many Muslims around the world, and makes the United States an attractive place to live, work or study. The values of tolerance and equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence are widely admired, and the commitment to equal justice and the rule of law embodied in the Constitution is sorely lacking in many Muslim countries. Whether or not they approve of our foreign policy, many Muslims find much to love about what America stands for, even as they want to preserve their own traditions.

To roll back radicalization, we must do more to show Muslims the side of American power that they admire. We need to support economic policies that advance trade and development in Muslim countries, and primary and secondary schooling that provides young Muslims with alternatives to radical education. We need to support the rule of law as strongly as we stand for freedom, so that our commitment to democracy is matched by our commitment to justice. Taken together, this kind of agenda of opportunity can show the world’s Muslims that America is invested in their future, and that America is on their side.

We also need a robust program of public diplomacy to build substantive ties with the world’s Muslims. We need more scholarships, exchange programs, and American libraries in Muslim countries, and more funding for the kind of outreach and international broadcasting that we used to reach across the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Our diplomats need to get out of our embassies and travel more around Muslim countries, so that we strengthen ties to moderate Muslims. And we need America’s Muslims to play a more prominent role in building bridges of understanding with their co-religionists around the world.

Ultimately, only Muslims can reject the radicalization in their midst. To help them succeed, America must make common cause with peace-loving Muslims. The good news is that we have far more to offer in this battle of ideas than the extremists’ message of hate; nearly six years after 9/11, it is time for us to get to work.

Lee H. Hamilton, former Congressman from Indiana, is president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. In collaboration with the Center on Congress at Indiana University, the Wilson Center produces a series of biweekly two-minute radio commentaries by President and Director Lee Hamilton. Longer versions of the commentaries are distributed as op-ed articles to newspapers across the country. Drawing on his 34 years in office, Mr. Hamilton offers a unique perspective on Congress, foreign affairs, and the legislative process.  Selected commentaries available at