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Five Years After 9/11: Ideological Struggle Grips Islam

Cordesman says the struggle goes far beyong Osama bin Laden (left) and Al-Qaeda (epa) WASHINGTON, September 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In the five years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has spent an estimated $430 billion on what President George W. Bush calls the global war on terrorism.

By all accounts, this battle is far from over, and could be one of the toughest wars that Washington has ever had to wage. That is because it is not between the militaries of powerful states -- as in World War II -- or between rival economic systems -- as in the Cold War.

To assess where the war on terrorism is headed, RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully spoke with Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst with the U.S. departments of State and Defense who now studies international affairs at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

RFE/RL: What is the true nature of the war on terror, and is it possible to estimate how long it may last?

Anthony Cordesman: None of us can estimate how long this struggle will be. It's really, primarily, an ideological struggle within Islam, particularly within the Middle East. [The United States is] really on the periphery of it. We are often described as a key target, but the fact is, these movements aren't struggling to control the United States, they're struggling to control Islam and Islamic countries, and particularly countries in the Arab world. So for anyone to try to predict when this is going to be resolved is simply totally unrealistic.

RFE/RL: So far, many countries, including the United States, have been fighting a concerted and, at times, coordinated war against terrorist groups, many of them believed to be loosely connected with Al-Qaeda. How much has this fight achieved in five years?

Cordesman: For all of the fighting, dealing with terrorism -- what we have accomplished in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in supporting the counterterrorism efforts of many of the countries in the region -- while it's been useful, [it] has not weakened the ideological struggle or the various movements, which are Islamist extremist movements. And we are watching broader problems in terms of insurgency, of tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite, potentially Iranian-led efforts [to support terrorism], and groups which go far beyond Al-Qaeda.

RFE/RL: Therefore, do you expect a particularly long war?

Cordesman: A great deal depends on whether these movements are self-discredited. One problem that they face is that they can play on the tensions and problems -- the alienation within Islam and within Islamic countries. But what they advocate has no practical ability to govern, to be put into reality, to create effective economies. Their very extremism has often cost them support in the countries that they want to influence most, like Saudi Arabia.

And a great deal depends not so much on how well [the West] respond[s], but how well Islamic [political] leaders and clerics respond, how well the political leaders inside the Arab and Islamic world respond. If they create an effective effort to counter these movements, if they offered their people better forms of governance and economic and social hope, these movements could disappear or at least be contained relatively quickly. If they don't react, then these movements could grow and become more serious, or simply linger on indefinitely.

RFE/RL: The fall of the Berlin Wall is seen -- symbolically, at least -- as the moment when the Cold War was over for good. Will there be such a moment in the war against terrorists?

Cordesman: When we're really talking about the war on terrorism today, we're talking not about terrorists in general but [about] a struggle against what are primarily neo-Salafi Sunni extremists [Muslim extremists who have waged a centuries-old effort to return Islam to what they believe are its roots].

We face the risk that this can broaden. But we're not going to see this [war on terrorism] end quickly or easily. It's going to be fought out one movement and one country at a time. And I think we also need to understand that in a world with so many tensions and gaps between rich and poor, so many different cultures being integrated into a global economy, some form of terrorism, some form of ideological threat, and some form of insurgency is likely to exist almost indefinitely in the future.

The world doesn't somehow reach a point where history ends and everyone is happily living together. The world simply changes. Threats change. And in a world where asymmetric threats and ideological problems are going to continue, I think we need to understand the world isn't going to be a perfect place. A better one, perhaps, but [improvement] will be slow, and it is going to be evolutionary. And whatever happens, one threat will be replaced by another.

RFE/RL: Do you believe that Western leaders understand all of what you're saying? That the West is merely peripheral to the struggle within Islam? That the people who are called terrorists are really, in their minds, religious reformers? And that terrorism -- or some sort of asymmetrical threat -- will always be with us?

Cordesman: I think some do, but I think one of the great problems that we have is we assume our values are universal and somehow will transcend all of the values of the people in the Middle East, in the Islamic world, [and] in the Far East -- and this is not going to happen.

There is going to be an evolution toward shared values. There probably will be more pluralism, more concern with economic equity. There'll be more concern, over time, with human rights.

But I think many people today assume that this is something where the West can somehow win a war that's really being fought in a different culture with a different religion in a different place. And the people who make those assumptions are simply wrong.

RFE/RL: You just referred to some who mistakenly believe that certain values are universal. Would you care to name names?

Cordesman: I think one of the oddities is you have a very diverse group of people [who believe their values are shared worldwide]. It isn't just a matter of neoconservatives or the Bush administration. You have many people in the [U.S.] Democratic Party who believe exactly the same thing. You have many people who call themselves realists who basically have that view. You have many people in the human rights movement who may oppose the war on terrorism, and yet also believe their values are universal and will be adopted quickly -- or should be.

The problem of ethnocentricity -- particularly when its colored or tinged with xenophobia -- isn't something that's part of one particular group or person in the West. It's the fact that cultures really have trouble understanding other cultures and almost always feel that their values are more universal and easier to impose than they really are.

Islam In A Pluralistic World

Islam In A Pluralistic World

A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)


CONFERENCE ON ISLAM: A major international conference on Islam concluded in Vienna in November 2005 with strong appeals from prominent Muslim leaders to recognize international terrorism as simply "terrorism." Political figures from Islamic countries, including the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan, argued that it should never be labeled "Islamic" or "Muslim" terrorism because Islam is based on peace, dialogue, and tolerance. "Salaam" -- meaning "peace" -- was the key word of the three-day conference, titled "ISLAM IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD."
Iraqi President Jalal Talibani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai used the word in their remarks to emphasize the peaceful nature of Islam. Other speakers quoted passages from the Koran to the effect that all men and women, regardless of faith, are creatures of God and should live in peace with each other without discrimination...(more)


Listen to Afghan President HAMID KARZAI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
Real Audio Windows Media


Listen to UN special envoy LAKHDAR BRAHIMI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
Real Audio Windows Media

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view a thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.