Of Korans and Kingdoms: U.S. Relations with the Muslim World

Nine years after 9/11, America still struggles with knowing who are our friends are, who our enemies, and the nature of the challenges we confront.

As we mark the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States continues to be mired in a deadly war in Afghanistan against a resurgent Taliban. In Iraq, we have declared an end to combat operations, but we still have 50,000 troops on the ground and the country remains highly unstable. Our invasion of Iraq has tilted the balance of power in the region toward Iran, which continues to advance its nuclear ambitions despite tightening international sanctions. The Palestinians and Israelis have finally resumed direct talks but the political environment in which those negotiations are taking place are less than propitious for reaching a final settlement.

Nine years on, al Qaeda no longer enjoys sanctuary in Afghanistan for training and U.S. military strikes have significantly degraded its operational capabilities, but the pool of recruits for the organization and its burgeoning affiliates has only grown. At home, a national debate has erupted over the propriety of building a Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero, and an eccentric Florida pastor has captured global news attention with his threats to burn copies of the Koran.

How did we get here? Our faltering progress in marginalizing al Qaeda and putting relations with the Muslim world on sounder footing are not for a lack of resolve or an unwillingness to sacrifice blood and treasure by two U.S. administrations. Rather, it stems from our inability as a nation to understand who our enemies are, who our friends, and the nature of the challenges we confront.

Our enemy, as Presidents Bush and Obama both pointed out, is not Islam, but al Qaeda and other like-minded organizations—a loose network of terrorist groups that have sought to hijack a peace-loving religion for their own nihilistic political purposes. After nine years of counter-terrorism efforts, al Qaeda endures not because of its great military strength or organizational prowess but because of our own perceived power and our own policy failures. Al Qaeda feeds upon a popular narrative in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds that the all-powerful United States, rather than using its power to uplift the condition of Muslims around the globe, is at war with Islam—intent on occupying Muslim lands and on killing innocent Muslims. When our drone attacks miss their intended targets, when we employ misguided rhetoric about crusades and imperialism, and when we desecrate Islam’s most sacred religious symbols, we only play into this narrative.

Our friends, at the end of the day, will be the 1.4 billion Muslims who are not affiliated with al Qaeda. While many may resent U.S. policy, they find al Qaeda’s nihilism—of which they have been the primary victims—wholly unappealing. They want the same things that people all around the world want: to be able to feed their families, send their children to good schools, compete successfully in the global economy, and have the freedom to realize their full potential as humans. When they are successful in building their own, more positive futures, al Qaeda will quickly slide into irrelevancy.

The challenges we face going forward—beyond trying to bring to a close the many violent conflicts roiling the “Muslim world”—are twofold. First, to help address the most pressing issue afflicting many predominantly Muslim societies: poor governance. The corruption of many local political leaders and their inability to provide their citizens even the most basic social services are undermining the legitimacy and coherence of states, creating the chaos and instability upon which al Qaeda thrives. We must find a way to give ordinary citizens the knowledge, the perspectives, and the skills so that their voices can be heard and they can play a constructive role in creating for themselves better schools, better roads, better health care systems, better economies, and ultimately better governments.

Second, we must educate Americans about Islam. Nine years after 9/11, our relations with the “Muslim world” continue to be driven largely by ignorance and fear. We will never get the atmospherics of this relationship right until our political leaders and the American public can better differentiate the faithful from the fanatical. When we burn a Koran, we not only desecrate another faith and our own founding principles as a nation, but we also send up in smoke any prospect of building a more secure and stable future for our children.