The Theological Iron Curtain

The Theological Iron Curtain

Mini Teaser: If the United States does not dramatically reorient its diplomacy to promote development and human rights in the Muslim world, it will forsake its own national security interests.

by Author(s): Joseph Lieberman

TWO YEARS after the fateful attacks of September 11, the United States remains locked in an epic struggle with a new nemesis--international terrorism. Like fascism and communism before it, terrorism poses a direct threat to our interests and values, and fundamentally challenges the international order on which our security, liberty and prosperity depend. Eliminating this threat must be one of the highest priorities of U.S. foreign policy.

Winning this war requires that the United States maintain its military dominance and forcefully apply it to deter and defeat tyrants and terrorists alike. Destroying the Taliban in Afghanistan and removing Saddam Hussein's brutal regime in Iraq--both of which were incubators of hateful violence--were critical to our global counter-terrorism campaign. These wars were just, and our military victories in each have made the United States and the world safer by depriving terrorists of safe havens, funding and support.

The war against terrorism will not be won by military means alone, however. The September 11 attacks epitomized the larger, more amorphous threat we face from fanatics who find justification for evil behavior in Islam. These militants are not only targeting the United States and our allies, but are also engaged in a great civil war with the vast majority of their fellow Muslims who do not share their beliefs or behaviors. It is a war of ideas as much as it is a war of arms. And as such, we cannot rely just on the use of force to protect ourselves.

The Islamic world is beset by political, economic and cultural trends that have limited freedom and increased isolation, repression and anti-American anger over the last generation. These include vast income inequalities, economic and political isolation, cultural balkanization and little or no popular participation in government through which to constructively channel and resolve this strife. Islamic terrorism grew in this swamp--not in a vacuum.

Yet, there are extensive traditions of tolerant and moderate Islam, ones that can support and engender political and economic reform. These types of Islam, practiced by the vast majority of people in the Muslim world, are targeted by the radicals. The moderate majority--which understands that there is great promise for progress for nations that undergo internal modernization and seek to engage with the rest of the world--is under assault by the ethnocentric, extremist few who blame external powers for all their ills. And they see jihad--the virtueless cycle of violence, repression and revenge--as the only answer.

Half a century ago, ideological extremists drew a political iron curtain across Europe. Today, the fanatical forces of jihad are trying to build a "theological iron curtain" to divide the Muslim world from the rest of the globe--a Berlin Wall built with bricks made from the frustrations and anger that arise from conditions of poverty and tyranny, and cemented by the mortar of hatred and violence.

It is still not too late to stop this theological iron curtain from falling. But the more we wait, the more we risk. The United States must act now--proactively, aggressively and in cooperation with our allies--to help moderate Muslims throughout the world who are being besieged by isolation and intolerance. For if the curtain should someday fall, it would be a grave danger to our own security and could bring awful repression to the hundreds of millions of Muslims trapped behind it. In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we had a glimpse of the horrors fanatics can perpetrate against the populations under their control--as well as the destruction that could be wrought by terrorists living under their protection.

American actions since September 11 showed that we can have a powerful impact. During a bipartisan Senate delegation trip to Central Asia in the wake of our victory in Afghanistan two years ago, I saw heartening evidence of the secondary effects of America's resolve, with regional leaders taking a clearer and stronger stand for moderation and modernity than they had before September 11. We have empowered them to give voice to their moderate message and to provide leadership to fight the forces of fanaticism.

The Bush Administration, however, has too often failed to capitalize on our progress. In a pattern emerging in post war Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, the United States takes forceful action to drain the swamps that breed terrorism, but fails to adequately seed the garden to enable peace, prosperity and democracy to take root and to prevent terrorism from returning. Moderates are competing with extremists for control in the vacuum our military victories leave, with precious little support from the United States and its allies. Should the forces of fanaticism prevail in these postwar struggles, the theological iron curtain will undoubtedly descend, and behind it, terrorism will fester.

Reorienting, Diplomacy Around Human Rights

OUR STRATEGY to stop the theological iron curtain from falling should begin with a fundamental reassessment of our diplomatic relations with many Muslim nations. We should start with a clear and correct understanding of the diversity and breadth of the world's population of 1.2 billion Muslims. Less than a fifth of the world's Muslims are Arabs. Many Muslims live under democratic governments in countries like India, Indonesia and Turkey, and also across Western Europe and the United States. Islam, one of the world's great religions, is a powerful and positive presence all throughout the globe.

But it is also true that too many people in Islamic countries are struggling to thrive against difficult odds. According to a recent Freedom House survey, 38 of the 47 Muslim-majority countries in the world are not democracies; 19 percent of countries in the Islamic world have democratically-elected governments, compared to 77 percent in the non-Islamic world. And over the last twenty years, the nations of the Islamic world have grown increasingly less free, experiencing a "significant increase in repressive regimes" as the world at large moved dramatically in the opposite direction.

Where has American policy been? For too long, our government has looked the other way while many regimes in Muslim nations have denied their citizens human rights and economic opportunity. Our alliances with and aid to some of these regimes naturally make us targets of citizens of those countries. The American people know the United States has a proud record, in the last decade alone, of protecting Muslim people around the world from oppression--in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and now Afghanistan and Iraq. We have an equally proud tradition of creating and nurturing freedom of religion here at home--enabling Islam to flourish within our own borders. But many in the Muslim world are blinded to these realities by our close alignment with regimes whose behavior is inconsistent with the American values we otherwise work so hard to uphold and defend. The United States should steer a new course--one closer to American values and closer to the values that grow from our common humanity.

We can and must demonstrate to ordinary people throughout the Islamic world that the United States will take risks to support their freedom, aspirations and quality of life. We must make those values a premise of our alliances and a condition of our aid. The inalienable, God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness do not end at America's borders. That means, among other things, that the United States must be a vocal proponent of women's rights throughout the Muslim world. For years, the United States has muted its support for the rights of women for fear of upsetting its relationship with existing regimes. It is time to become a more outspoken advocate for the right of women to be educated, to live freely and to rise as far as their talents and hard work will take them, as they do in many Muslim countries today such as Turkey. A nation's economic productivity and quality of life can only increase when women, who comprise at least half of the human talent and skill in any economy, are more fully integrated into society.

Stagnating economies and stifling poverty also feed the fanaticism that has begun to emerge in many Muslim countries. Some there blame globalization for their woes, and a handful of American commentators have supported that thesis. In reality, the economic problem of the Muslim world is not that there is too much globalization, but that there is too little. Since 1980, as the population of the Muslim Near East (the Arab League plus Iran) has doubled, its share of world investment has fallen by half and its share of world trade by two-thirds. That means a smaller and smaller economic pie is being shared by more and more people.

How has that happened? While in recent decades, the world has torn down old economic barriers, many Muslim countries have fortified them. Most Middle Eastern countries maintain trade practices that are among the most burdensome in the world. Egypt, for example, imposes high tariffs and other barriers on imports of clothing. Syria bans imports of processed foods, puts a 250 percent tariff on cars and requires a license for all imports.

While other parts of the world have adopted mutually beneficial regional trade programs such as NAFTA, Mercosur and the ASEAN Free Trade Area, Middle Eastern nations have increased trade restrictions and sanctions on one another and the rest of the world. Half of the Arab League's 22 members (and Iran as well) remain outside the World Trade Organization (WTO). Thus, Middle Eastern export priorities receive little consideration in global trade negotiations. The net result is growing economic misery for growing numbers of people.

It does not need to be that way. Since 1999, Jordan has sharply cut tariffs and other trade barriers, launched an economic integration project with Israel and completed a full free trade agreement with the United States. The results are impressive. In the past two years alone, Jordan's exports to the United States have risen tenfold, and more than 25,000 jobs have been created in a country with a population of 5.5 million. Moreover, American workers have also benefited from these new economic opportunities.

Other governments in the Muslim world need to follow Jordan's lead. We in the United States can help them do that by inviting them back to the global economic table. We should encourage Muslim nations to embrace more open economies so that they can join the WTO. That would both spur further reform of their trade policies and help them succeed in export industries.

Just as the Clinton Administration helped Jordan, Oman and Bahrain enter the WTO, the Bush Administration should follow through with some of the larger economies in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia, for example, applied to join the WTO in 1993, and we should actively support that effort in concert with Saudi Arabian economic reforms.

In Congress, we can help by adopting additional trade preference programs, including duty-free treatment and freedom from quotas for certain goods, for countries that prove themselves to be good global citizens. We passed a trade preference law for the countries of Africa in 2000, and it is working to help that part of the developing world control its own economic destiny.

Just as vital to the future as a freer flow of goods and services is a freer flow of information. In the Cold War, we understood that opening markets and opening minds go hand in hand. We have to understand that now as well.

Regrettably, in many Muslim-majority countries, governments allow their citizens minimal access to news and information from outside and filter what news is made available. Official state-controlled media outlets are often brimming with inflammatory anti-American rhetoric, as we have seen in Iran and elsewhere. The result, not surprisingly, is a distorted understanding of the world--especially of the United States--and too many people willing to embrace anti-American conspiracy theories.

The United States must fill this information gap by intensifying its own message and also by cultivating responsible independent media in Muslim countries so that people can have the opportunity to absorb a more balanced view of world events. We must also make clear to our many allies in the Muslim world that we will no longer close our eyes and ears to the anti-American propaganda in state-run media and state-sponsored mosques and madrassas. A new commitment to foster responsible, independent communication is needed.

Yet, since the end of the Cold War, we have sold short many critical tools of public diplomacy. The United States Information Agency was eliminated, and State Department posts around the world have reduced the general public's walk-in access and closed the lending libraries that once stood open to all visitors. The United States Foreign Service, which represents the most significant official American presence overseas, has also been underfunded. We need to think and work long and hard about how to better convey our values not only to opinion leaders and elites, but to the people at large in the public square.

Young people tend to be the first to open their minds to new ideas and perspectives. That is why foreign exchange programs that bring students from the Muslim world to the United States to work, study or live must not become another victim of September 11. Student exchanges are critical in opening the world to American strengths and values, and in opening Americans to the strengths and values of other countries and cultures. We need to strike the proper balance between ensuring U.S. security and keeping the door open for education--for there has been a marked decrease in the number of Arabs and South Asians coming to America for education since the new Immigration and Naturalization Service regulations went into force.

Money is the last part of the equation, and an important one. Helping Afghanistan rebuild itself will require substantial foreign aid and investment. We will have support from our coalition partners throughout Europe, Asia and the rest of the world--in fact, they will contribute more than 75 percent of the reconstruction costs. Ultimately, the future of Afghanistan will be up to the Afghan people themselves, but the United States must play a central role to provide security, leadership and targeted assistance to facilitate the transition process. The United States and our allies must work together to get this right, because the fate of the people of Afghanistan will be the first test of American involvement in the civil war of beliefs and behaviors that is now being waged in the Muslim world.

We already provide hundreds of millions of dollars per year to nations throughout the Muslim world, not to mention having taken on the responsibility of reconstructing post-Saddam Iraq. In each case, we now have to evaluate very carefully whether the people--the intended beneficiaries of our assistance--are benefiting from such aid. Are attitudes toward America improving? It is time to take a hard look at how we spend this money and where we might want to make new strategic investments and cut out old, failing ones. This may mean re-targeting funds away from large-scale, government-run projects toward better public education systems, stronger public health infrastructures, more independent media outlets controlled by citizens and not the state, and reinforcement of the basic civic values of tolerance, equality and opportunity throughout these societies.

THE DUTY to "commend good and reprimand evil" is one of the core obligations of Islam, one that is echoed in the other two monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity. It should also be at the core of our relations with the Islamic world. Since September 11, the United States has been working hard to reprimand evil with a fierce and focused military campaign that seeks to root out terrorist sanctuaries and end the threat posed by rogue regimes seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Over the long term, however, the fight for American security will require a parallel campaign to commend good by supporting freedom, tolerance, democracy and prosperity throughout the Muslim world. That is the best way to prevent a theological iron curtain from descending upon the Islamic world, suffocating the lives of millions of Muslims behind it and providing a base for terrorist attacks against us. The historian Edward Gibbon wrote that, "The greatest success of Mohammed's life was effected by sheer moral force without the stroke of a sword." So too will the greatest success of this long and noble struggle against terrorism by the United States, its partners and our Islamic allies be brought about by moral force--that is, the consistent application of our shared values. Together we will rise to meet that challenge and to seize that opportunity.

The Honorable Joseph Lieberman is a member of the United States Senate from Connecticut and a candidate for the nomination of the Democratic Party for President.

Essay Types: Essay