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U.S.: Comments Raise Specter Of Religious Clash Within Terror War

Since 11 September 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush has insisted the war against terrorism is not a struggle between Judeo-Christian society and the Islamic world. Yet, one of his top defense officials has cast the war in just those terms. Meanwhile, the prime minister of Malaysia is making equally troubling remarks about Israel and its Western allies, telling an Islamic summit that Jews rule the world by proxy. RFE/RL examines whether these remarks are indicative of widespread underlying beliefs on either side.

Washington, 20 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For the past several months, U.S. Army General William Boykin has been giving speeches to Christian church groups around the United States in which he has asserted that the U.S.-led war against terrorism is nothing less than a confrontation with Satan.

Boykin is not merely a high-ranking U.S. military officer. He also is the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence. He is a member not only of the armed services but also of the U.S. administration. And he is in charge of the search for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

In one address, Boykin spoke of a Muslim militia leader in Somalia who had boasted in 1993 that he would never be defeated because Allah was protecting him. According to private videotapes made available last week, Boykin told his audience: "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real god and his was an idol."

Boykin's statements appear to run afoul of President George W. Bush's oft-repeated insistence that the U.S. war against Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups is not a clash of Eastern and Western cultures.

Bush, who is traveling in Asia, has yet to speak publicly about Boykin's statements. His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said Bush's views on this subject are "absolutely clear." She said: "This is not a war between religions. No one should describe it as such."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asked about Boykin's comments during a Pentagon press briefing on 16 October, replied: "There are a lot of things that are said by people in the military, or civilian life, or in the Congress, or in the executive branch, that are their views. And that's the way we live. We're a free people. And that's the wonderful thing about our country. And I think that for anyone to run around and think that that can be managed and controlled is probably wrong."

In a brief written statement, Boykin said he does not regard the war on terrorism as a struggle between Islam and Christianity. "I am neither a zealot nor an extremist, only a soldier who has an abiding faith," Boykin said. He also apologized to those who were offended by his remarks.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told the leaders of the 57 member states that make up the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) during a summit in Malaysia on 16 October that Muslims have been outmaneuvered by Jews, who cleverly devise ways to manipulate powerful countries.

Mahathir said the way to defeat Jews is not through "physical power," as he put it, but through "brains."

"[Muslims] are actually very strong," he said. "1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million [during the Holocaust]. But today, the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them."

Rice today said Bush considers Mahathir's comments to be "reprehensible and hateful." Bush is currently in Thailand, along with Mahathir, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Mahathir's comments were also condemned by Jewish organizations and the government of Israel.

It is difficult to determine whether the comments of Mahathir and Boykin reflect sensibilities that are pervasive in both the Malaysian and U.S. governments, said Leon Fuerth, U.S. national security adviser to Al Gore when he was vice president under Bill Clinton.

But Fuerth told RFE/RL that he is concerned about Mahathir's views because, as an influential Muslim, he may be reflecting a common prejudice in his country, or at least may be in a position to teach this prejudice to others.

More broadly, Fuerth said, Arab and other Muslim groups who oppose the United States express deep religious motivations that U.S. policymakers must always be aware of. "I do think that there is a very strong religious component that we need to recognize because at its origins, the people who built this international terrorist movement were motivated by a deep religious sentiment that said that everything we [the West] represent is evil," he said. "And so to simply try to have a dialogue with the Islamic world about our policy may miss a more profound point."

Similarly, Fuerth said, Bush has frequently called bin Laden, Hussein, and Afghanistan's ousted Taliban leaders "evil-doers," and linked Iran, Iraq, and North Korea in what he called the "axis of evil."

Fuerth said the use of such an absolutist word can be counterproductive because it tends to make those who use it contemptuous of those to whom they apply it -- to the point that they may not be prepared to expedite the resolution of a crisis. This, he said, is best exemplified in the current multilateral negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program.

"[The use of the word 'evil'] creates a chasm, a moral chasm, and then it becomes very difficult to explain what you're doing when you're sitting down at a table with them to try to find ways to bridge differences that could lead to war," Fuerth said. "It is an absolute term, and when you've used it, you've essentially cast aside the people that you use it to describe as being unworthy of attention. And, of course, that can be a big mistake because if you refuse to pay attention, you may regret it."

As for Boykin, Fuerth said the general's comments probably should not be seen as representing the sentiments of the Bush administration. At least one advocacy group for Muslims, the Washington-based Council for American-Islamic Relations, is calling for Boykin to be reassigned to a less sensitive position.

Fuerth was reminded that it was Bush who precipitated the demise of Senator Trent Lott, a fellow Republican, as leader of the party's majority in the Senate because of racially insensitive remarks Lott made.

Fuerth was asked if Bush should do the same with Boykin. He replied, "That's a really good question -- for the president." He added: "I think that President Bush has a good record in terms of trying to counsel Americans to avoid divisiveness over religion and ethnicity. And I think that he ought to keep on using the bully pulpit that he's got to do that. Now, whether or not he should take the occasion of this officer's remark to do so is up to him. But I think we're really in need of having him repeat the message from time to time."