Deadly Violence & Conflict Transformation article

Another error in the “war on terror”

From the outset, the so-called “war on terror” has proceeded erroneously. The first error was an incorrect diagnosis of the root causes of 9/11. The second error was the response. The third error has been the faulty narrative that has sustained the conflict. I would like to call these three errors primary errors, under the shadow of which a number of secondary errors have sprouted, such as extra-judicial drone strikes, extraordinary rendition, Blackwater, waterboarding, the Abu Ghraib fiasco, and the Guantanamo embarrassment.

The cumulative effect of these errors has been devastating for our national soul, typified by the recent “ground zero mosque” controversy, anti-shari‘a movements in several states, never-ending attempts to paint Obama as un-American because he might be Muslim, hate-spewing banter on talk-radio, and most recently the Congressional hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims.

Our instinctive questions after 9/11 were correct: “Why did they attack us?” “Why do they hate us?” Our answers were incorrect: “They hate our freedom.” “They hate our way of life.” Although this diagnosis has been repeatedly challenged by academics with empirical studies (Robert Pape), CIA analysts (Michael Scheuer), Politicians (Ron Paul), preachers (Jeremiah Wright), and even some conservative radio hosts (Jason Lewis), it is drowned by incessant insinuations and slander in almost every conceivable forum, and fails to make a dent in the global posture of the United States. Congressman Paul put it simply: “They don’t come here to attack us because we’re rich and we’re free. They attack us because we’re over there.” Even Bin Laden himself mocked: “Let him [Bush] tell us then, why did we not attack Sweden?”

A Fictional Grand Narrative

After the attacks, the U.S. had the sympathy of the entire world. Instead of capitalizing on this overwhelming support, including from all quarters of the Muslim world, the U.S. went it alone with its rhetoric and warmongering, alienating Muslims and even antagonizing close allies. Anyone remember those “freedom fries?” An ongoing war on terror has since been sustained by a fictional “grand narrative” that has the following four elements: 1) they attacked us because we are free, 2) the 9/11 attack was unprovoked, 3) this is an existential battle to the death, and 4) it is not possible to negotiate with “evil.”

Elements of this narrative constantly reemerge to justify the ongoing wars.  President Obama’s “audacity” draws on this narrative in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, in which he speaks about security threats and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan: “make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.” Attempts to challenge the grand narrative are treated with suspicion and could be detrimental to one’s standing as a “true American.” Examples from the religious community are Jeremiah Wright and Feisal Abdul Rauf (the Imam of the so-called “ground-zero mosque”), each of whom have been maligned for suggesting that our foreign policy bears some responsibility for 9/11.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 backed America into a corner. We had two choices: 1) To admit that our support of repressive dictators in the Muslim world has been counterproductive, and that our uncritical support of Israel at the expense of Palestinian dignity and rights has been morally wrong, or 2) To dig in and stay the course.

Digging In

Essentially, we dug in. Granted, navigating Option 1 (to engage in introspection, take responsibility, and change course) would be unimaginably complex, because it might be taken as weakness or as “giving-in to terror.” Soul-searching balanced with inner strength, poise and resolve, while simultaneously prosecuting the terrorists of 9/11 and organizing for future security threats, would have been a tremendously challenging balancing act. Alas, our moment of greatness was not meant to be. As a Pakistani rock star put it, 9/11 made us like an elephant in a china shop. Since then, it has been a slippery slope.

Anyone who has a shred of integrity will acknowledge that American Muslim leaders, such as Ingrid Mattson (vice president and then president of the Islamic Society of North America from 2001-2010), have worked tirelessly with the Muslim community and Homeland Security to deal with the turmoil in the decade after 9/11. Muslim leaders and organizations have repeatedly issued statements against terrorism. Extremists have been ostracized from their communities and reported to the authorities, although FBI tactics of entrapment have at times alienated communities from cooperation.  Moreover, Muslims who have actually engaged in acts of terrorism invariably cite political grievances as causes, such as the never-ending humiliation of Palestinians and civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is consistent with the findings of a recent Gallup poll of the global Muslim population that politics, not religion, is the propellant of extremism (John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, Chatper 5, “What Makes an Extremist,” (Gallup Press, 2007).

Doubling Down, Thanks to Peter King

Instead of engaging in some real introspection and changing course where necessary, Congressman Peter King’s hearings on the radicalization of Muslims are a doubling-down on a path of errors. Research has shown that Muslim terrorists get a disproportionate amount of coverage in the media, but not when trends show that attacks are on the decline. To put things in perspective, one Muslim scholar has noted that last year, more Americans died from dog bites than from terrorism. We also know from a major Pew survey that American Muslims are well integrated, moderate and mainstream, and that the best strategy for dealing with terrorism in the Muslim community is to understand what really makes a terrorist, rather than stick to mistaken assumptions.

The irony, or one might say tragedy, is that the hearings of Congressman King not only ignore Muslim leaders who are allies in the “war on terror,” but also further alienate the Muslim community at large, which is precisely the wrong thing to do if one is interested in results that will keep us all safe.

The real danger to our nation lies in opportunist politicians like King, who, as an Irish Catholic, supported the IRA when it was declared to be a terrorist organization by the U.S. and our allies. It is too bad that King is unable to draw on his past experience to bring about an end to our prevailing conflict with Islamic extremists through a peace process that involves dialogue, a recognition of grievances, and reconciliation, as was accomplished in the case of the IRA. Instead, he has embarked upon an inquisition.

I Believe in America, but Also in the Shari’a

The correct way to fight the war on terror is to empower Muslim leaders and respect the religion of Islam. This strategy has proven successful, for example, in gaining the release of Raymond Davis from a Pakistani prison.  Davis, the CIA contractor who was being held for murder, was released by going through the shari‘a, which provides the relatives of the victims three options: 1) life for life, 2) bloodwit, or 3) outright forgiveness. Another example is the heroic work of Greg Mortenson in the remotest regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson earned the trust and protection of the local population by honoring local customs. Instead of denigrating the shari‘a, he upheld it in order to bring about positive change. Whenever a local religious leader issued a fatwa against his activities to build schools for the education of women, there was always a higher Islamic authority at hand to issue a counter-fatwa in his support!

After 9/11, Muslim scholars and institutions, from the Ayatollahs of Qom to the ulema of Azhar, condemned it. 9/11 was a crime according to the shari‘a as interpreted by the overwhelming majority of Muslims. Unfortunately, the worst of Muslims continue to be portrayed as ideal representatives of Islam, and the entire shari‘a continues to be caricatured by a handful of its most controversial elements. I believe in America, but I also believe in the shari‘a. Just like the good in America is capable of correcting what’s gone wrong with America, the good in shari‘a can be used to correct what’s gone wrong with Islam. The congressional hearings are driving a wedge between these natural allies, yet another tragic error in the conduct of the war on terror.

Mahan Mirza
Mahan Mirza was appointed teaching professor and executive director for the Keough School's Rafat and Zoreen Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion on July 1, 2019.

An Islamic studies scholar and expert on religious literacy, Mirza brings extensive pedagogical and administrative experience to his roles at Notre Dame, including serving as dean of faculty at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, America’s first accredited Muslim liberal arts college. Prior to his appointment as Executive Director of the Ansari Institute, Mirza served as the lead faculty member for Notre Dame's  Madrasa Discourses project, which equips Islamic religious leaders in India and Pakistan with the tools to confidently engage with pluralism, modern science, and new philosophies. 

Mirza holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, an M.A. from Hartford Seminary, and a Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale University. He has taught courses and lectured on Arabic-Islamic studies, western religions, and the history of science, along with foundational subjects in the liberal arts, including logic, rhetoric, astronomy, ethics, and politics. He has edited two special issues of 
The Muslim World
and served as assistant editor for the Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (2018).

He is a fellow with the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the Keough School and continues to serve as an advisor for Madrasa Discourses.

2 thoughts on “Another error in the “war on terror”

  1. This a very reasoned and balanced article. I subscribe to Mahan’s views. He makes a good point in that good and evil live in all societies. We must dwell on what makes the Muslim world uneasy about the West’s (read USA) policies. They see them as being contradictory and applied solely on what benefits the USA. One glaring example is the support of dictators when it suits them and oust them when they no longer toe the USA ‘s strategic goals. It will also be interesting to see how the USA reacts if the present violence spreads to Saudi Arabia and that is also suppressed as it has been done in Libya and Bahrain.

  2. Do we have the character to accept and grow from view points that are in conflict with our own?
    Recent reports from the USA show that Mr Trump is beefing about American power and superiority, and how Americans are not doing enough to show the world how powerful they are!! Is that or isn’t that ‘extremism’?
    Ego seems to be more important than problem resolution.

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