Prague, 10 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- How to assess the state of relations between the West and the Islamic world?
That depends on whom you ask. And to be sure, there were no shortage of voices -- ranging from alarming to reassuring -- at today's Forum 200 conference in Prague.
To hear James Woolsey describe it, the West is engaged in what the former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) calls "the long war of the 21st century."
Woolsey told RFE/RL he sees the West in a battle with three forms of totalitarianism: the remnants of Ba'athism in Iraq and Syria, the Shi'ite clerical regime of Iran, and the Sunni jihadists of Al-Qaeda.
The latter, he says, are largely underpinned by the Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia and are the main threat to the West.
"I would say that the Wahhabis and the Islamist jihadis, Salafis like Al-Qaeda, are not all true representatives of Islam," Woolsey said. "We do not need to take their word for that any more than the world needed to take the word of [Tomas de] Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century that they were true representatives of Christianity. They were not; they were totalitarian bastards. And the Wahhabis and Al-Qaeda are the modern equivalents."
"The anti-Western hysteria, the anti-American hysteria, is exploited by authoritarian leaders in order to deflect attention from serious corruption and repression in their own countries." -- former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim
For Woolsey, who was CIA director in the mid-1990s, none of these groups can be appeased with concessions, such as a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"You could have an Israeli-Palestinian settlement tomorrow and the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia would still be fanatically anti-Shi'ite, anti-Sufi, anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, anti-female, anti-democracy, anti-music, and so would Al-Qaeda be," Woolsey said. "Indeed, the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and the Islamist jihadis such as Al-Qaeda pretty much agree on everything, except on one thing: who should be in charge."
But former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim believes the West -- and the United States in particular -- can do a lot more to improve relations with the Muslim world and be a positive force for change there.
Anwar, who was freed in 2004 after being imprisoned on politically motivated charges, knows about repression. He said that while the Muslim world has legitimate grievances with the West -- such as the war in Iraq -- leaders in the Islamic world use those issues to further repress their people.
"The anti-Western hysteria, the anti-American hysteria, is exploited by authoritarian leaders in order to deflect attention from serious corruption and repression in their own countries," Anwar said.
Anwar, who now teaches at Oxford University in Britain, said that Muslims are receptive to the current U.S. drive for democracy in the Middle East. But he said there remains a fundamental lack of trust due to the perceived failure to address Muslim grievances.
"I'm not denying the fact that the rhetoric of freedom and democracy by the administration in Washington is generally well received. But people are suspicious," Anwar said. "They see the war in Iraq. They see the failure to address the issues of the dispossessed Palestinians. So I think what is required is an effective [U.S.] engagement [with the Muslim world]."
Engagement is also a word used by Ghassan Salame. The former Lebanese culture minister now teaches international relations in Paris and advises UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In an interview with RFE/RL
, Salame categorically rejected the notion of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West.
"The Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and the Islamist jihadis such as Al-Qaeda pretty much agree on everything, except on one thing: who should be in charge." -- former CIA director James Woolsey
"Civilizations are not political actors in the international arena so that they can clash or they can enter into a dialogue," Salame said. "Civilizations are just a reservoir for our values, for our ideas, for our dreams, for our languages, from which we borrow from time to time and very often we forget. So, that's what civilizations are, they are not actors. Individuals are actors, groups are actors, states are actors."
In that light, Salame sees the current insurgency in Iraq fueled not by a clash with the West, but by a combination of American mistakes and actions by Iraq's neighbors.
"They [Iraq's neighbors] used the very porous borders between them and Iraq in order to do a lot of unnecessary and very hostile and very destabilizing things in Iraq -- in order precisely to keep America busy in Iraq so that it doesn't turn against them," Salame said.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, some governments in the region feared they might become the next targets of the war on terror. The U.S. considers Iran and Syria to be state sponsors of terrorism.For all of RFE/RL's coverage on the global fight against terrorism, visit our War On Terror website.
Click here for RFE/RL interviews with Forum 2000 participants