After Saddam Hussein: America and the Muslim World

Although many commentators predicted that the capture and subsequent videotape of Saddam Hussein would only serve to "humiliate" the world's Muslims, it is readily apparent that, both in regard to Saddam's fate and their attitude toward the Bush Admi

Although many commentators predicted that the capture and subsequent videotape of Saddam Hussein would only serve to "humiliate" the world's Muslims, it is readily apparent that, both in regard to Saddam's fate and their attitude toward the Bush Administration, the world's Muslims are far from united in support of Saddam and against Washington.  Abdul Nabi Salman of Bahrain's House of Deputies called the capture of Saddam "a great day for the Iraqi people and all freedom lovers around the world."  The editorial staff of expressed their gratitude "to the coalition forces" for hunting down Saddam Hussein.  Tashbih Sayyed, editor of Pakistan Today, was event more blunt: "There is a lesson in Saddam's capture. People who pretend to be brave and heroic by muzzling the voice of dissent are those who basically lack honor."

Although the repercussions of Saddam's capture are as yet unknown, one thing is abundantly clear: the Bush Administration now has a unique opportunity to engage in a much needed dialogue with moderate and secular Muslims from around the world and to demonstrate that Washington's promotion of democracy overseas can be compatible with Islamic notions of justice.   In an oft-cited memo of October 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld questioned whether the United States should help fund a private foundation that would counteract the anti-American forces of Wahabbism in Islamic schools around the globe.  Rumsfeld, attuned to the need to respond to the extremism promulgated in many Saudi-funded mosques, did raise a serious question with regard to the war of ideas that the United States now faces in the Muslim world.  

With the capture and forthcoming trial of Saddam Hussein, however, Washington should rely less upon funding Islamic centers that adhere to traditional, rather than Wahabbi Islam, than in engaging the increasing number of emerging Muslim reformist intellectuals and thoughtful clerics who were given a much-needed emotional boost by Washington's steadfastness in Iraq.  Given that the future of Coalition success in nation-building in Iraq depends largely upon its ability to engage with the Shiites and the Kurds, Washington should use this auspicious moment to create a political understanding between the United States and Muslim Iraqis that combines the best of Jeffersonian democracy and liberal Islamic jurisprudence, a notion made even more pertinent given the fact Karbala and Najaf, the two holiest cities of Shiite Islam, were liberated from an anti-Shiite fanatic by an American-led military coalition.

The Bush Administration has an opportunity to show that the capture and forthcoming trial of Saddam Hussein demonstrates that Washington understands that many Muslims perceived Saddam to be a despot.  It must also not squander the opportunity to open a dialogue with reformist intellectuals, particularly Shiites, in pro-American regimes such as Bahrain and Kuwait.  Washington's embrace of Shiite political power in Iraq will be a cause of much political discussion in Bahrain, now the only majority Shiite Arab country ruled by a Sunni.  The capture of Saddam will also, undoubtedly, have a major impact on American relations with Iran, a country whose leadership is at once relieved to see the downfall of Saddam's regime and wary of American power and its commitment to following through with its promises. The American relationship with moderate Iraqi Shiites, while a threat to the hardliners in Teheran, could nevertheless prove to be an important occasion for a long-delayed dialogue between the Bush Administration and more reformist Muslim clerics in Iran.

Washington could also use this moment to engage with large and significant non-Arab Muslim communities throughout the world.  Rather than funding schools to counter Wahabbi agitation, the United States should fund radio broadcasts and diplomatic outreach efforts that engage with the large Muslim communities of the former Soviet Union.   Rather than perceiving America's dialogue with the Muslim world as a dialogue with only Arabs, Washington should do its best to engage with leading clerics and intellectuals from myriad Muslim groups such as the Bosnians, Sufi Chechens, Circassians of the Sunni Hanafi school, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. 

The Bush Administration would likewise be wise to appoint a Muslim-American, perhaps an Albanian-American or a Kurdish-American, as an official envoy to the Muslim communities of the Balkans and Central Asia who could work with these groups to better understand their perceptions of American policy toward Islam and to demonstrate that the "War on Terror" is not a war on Islam.  Such a move could also include leading American Christian leaders and rabbis in the hope of fostering a sincere interfaith dialogue that would help stem the tide of some misperceptions on both sides of the divide.

It is fundamentally in America's national interest that Washington begins a multi-faceted dialogue with the Muslim world.  Such a project would likely cost a significant amount of money, but its cost would be far outweighed by the possibility of recovering from another major terrorist attack brought upon by Muslim extremists.  Saddam's capture can be, paraphrasing Lebanese-American scholar Walid Phares, a Ceausescu moment - a moment when dictatorship gives way to an emerging democracy.  The success of the American mission in Iraq and the countering of Islamic militancy and dictatorships falsely using the banner of Islam for political legitimacy depends not just on the dedication and skill of the men and women of our armed forces, but also in America's ability to communicate the very best of its ideals and values to the long-suffering people of the Middle East and the Muslim world.