OF ALL THE FORBIDDING CHALLENGES that now confront the United States in its war against Islamic terrorism, easily the most dangerous is navigating the Muslim emotions surrounding Osama bin Laden and his call to holy war. If we read those passions wrong—if we see others as we see ourselves—we will surely watch the Middle East become even more violently anti-American. In this regard, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s plan to build a "Muslim coalition" of powers behind Washington’s campaign against terrorism will likely do far more harm to us and our Muslim allies than to bin Laden and his Taliban "hosts." The Bush administration understandably wants to avoid being seen as waging a war against Islam, so that Muslims who are publicly on our side, at least in theory, can deflect the "Crusader" charge. The Gulf War coalition, which defines the Middle Eastern experience of so many of the Bush administration’s senior officials, must, they think, be reborn to enhance the legitimacy of America’s war in Arab and Muslim eyes.
Such reasoning is, of course, blind and deaf to both Islamic history and the arguments that bin Laden and other militants are hurling at us. It is one thing to treat the governments of Middle Eastern countries as legitimate in normal, daily diplomacy; it is quite another to view them, or to believe that their citizens view them, as morally legitimate in the much larger sense to which Secretary Powell aspires.
Let us step back in history. The Crusaders survived two centuries (1099-1291) in the Middle East precisely because they often had Muslim allies, in commerce and in war. Saladin, the conqueror of Jerusalem whom the West likes to pair off against Richard the Lionhearted, has become a legend in the region precisely because he overcame the Muslim-state tendency to ally with or ignore the Christian enemy. The Taliban chieftan Mollah Omar, bin Laden, and Secretary Powell are now forcing the Middle East’s dictators and kings, none of whom enjoys the ironclad legitimacy and peace of mind that come only from the ballot box, into an extremely unpleasant historical paradigm.
Bin Laden and his fans will relentlessly put pressure on the fault lines in the Muslim mind. On the offensive, they will continue to underscore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they construe as a matter of "Jewish Crusaders" occupying Muslim land—Muslim land being, for bin Laden and in the hearts of most Muslims, all of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. They will challenge Muslim leaders to compete for the passions of their citizenry, who for the most part live in unjust, disillusioned societies. They will contrast today’s weak, Westernized Arab rulers, who solicit money, weapons, and political support from the West, with the Saladins of the past, who made Christendom tremble. Islamic militants will throw down the gauntlet to Islam’s religious scholars and neighborhood clerics, daring them to denounce anti-Western violence during Friday prayers, where Muslims have always powerfully expressed their collective identity.
It is very unlikely that those Muslims who hate bin Laden and support the United States will become any more pro-American because Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah, Egypt and Jordan’s rulers, are siding with us. It is, however, quite likely that those Muslims who admire bin Laden’s anti-Western resolve, if not necessarily his tactics, will despise the Saudis even more when Washington and its Muslim allies march in lockstep. The "high" Islam of Cairo’s ancient Al-Azhar University and the state-salaried ulama throughout the Middle East will also play right into the militants’ hands if they now fire off, as if on cue from their political overlords, denunciations of bin Laden.
Which is why they probably won’t do so, at least not in a clear-cut fashion. At best, they will treat America as Pakistan’s ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, recently did in a national address, as the "lesser of two evils." At worst—and General Musharraf’s poignant, religiously allusive speech shows how little distance separates "best" and "worst"—the ulama will bury us in provocative anti-infidel allusions from the Koran, the Muslim holy book, and from 1,400 years of Muslim-Christian confrontation.
"TERRORISM" IN ARABIC—as in other great Muslim languages that have absorbed so much of the ideological baggage of Islam’s mother tongue—has a politically and morally ambiguous resonance. In recent history, the term overwhelmingly connotes justified resistance to Israel and other Western powers. When Arab leaders publicly condemn bin Laden’s terrorism, it isn’t a particularly damning reproach. Secretary Powell’s determination to build a coalition of Muslim states to fight terrorism is for bin Laden and his supporters neither unexpected nor unwelcome. For them, and many others in the Muslim world, it confirms the corruptness of dictators and kings who for years have been waging brutal struggles against their own faithful Muslims.
Our war against Saddam Hussein was unfortunately a likely forerunner to our campaign against radical Islamic terrorism. The United States and its European allies achieved a military victory on the battlefield, followed fairly quickly by a propaganda defeat throughout the Arab world. Very few Arab intellectuals, religious scholars, and politicians were willing to state forcefully the simple truth that Saddam was the most savage totalitarian in Middle Eastern history. Especially after it became apparent that American and British bombing runs over Iraq were going to continue for years, Arab pride, always reinforced by the Muslim identity, turned the United States from noble victor to villain even though Saddam’s depravity was visible to all.
Muslim Middle Eastern rulers are either going to help us or they’re not based on a realpolitik assessment of whether America’s war on terrorism strengthens, or weakens, their power. Neither they nor we need a coalition to advance the nuts-and-bolts counterterrorism intelligence and police work that has long been a staple of the private relations between us. And beyond intelligence, the "Muslim coalition" has very little of practical value to offer the United States in its campaign against bin Laden and radical Islamic terrorism. We didn’t need a coalition to obtain overflight rights from Pakistan. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban neighbors to the north, which have already signaled their willingness to help, couldn’t care less about a Muslim coalition.
All that the key states of Secretary Powell’s envisioned alliance—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—really do offer us is the certainty that they will rescind the legitimacy that Secretary Powell so desires. If the participation of these countries helps us deflect Arab-Muslim criticism of America’s war, it stands to reason that these same countries, when they tire of the campaign against terrorism, will hoist the Bush administration by its own petard. And their support will certainly fray as CNN broadcasts inevitably ugly images of America’s war, no doubt juxtaposed with ugly images from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (The shooting hasn’t even begun, and it’s clear the Saudis have no stomach for a war against the Taliban, whom they have so faithfully supported.) One would think that General Powell, who has watched his triumph in Iraq become in just ten years a public-relations disaster, would be loath to give again moral stature to the very countries whose official presses, TV stations, intellectuals, diplomats, and leaders have done so much to maul us in the court of Muslim opinion.
We need always to remember that power first and foremost is the basis of a ruler’s legitimacy in the Muslim world. We need to understand that our Muslim allies are primarily concerned with only one thing in the exercise of American power: Will we be victorious? Forty-five years ago, a few months after the British, French, and Israelis fell into political disarray following their Suez invasion, a senior officer of the Pakistani Army remarked to a visiting English scholar that he was, of course, outraged by the attack on a Muslim nation. "We are strongly against military aggression," he averred, "especially when left unfinished." With typical Pakistani mirth, the general revealed the key to political survival from Casablanca to Kabul.
In the power politics of the Middle East, there is no such thing as "soft power," multiculturalism, or liberal guilt. Muslims, who have fought each other far more than they have fought Westerners, do not spend much time worrying about hurt feelings. They are very much grown-ups about the exercise of power. When dealing with bin Laden and others in the region, like Iraq or the Lebanese Hezbollah, who intend us grievous harm, we should similarly school ourselves. If we can demonstrate militarily that we understand siyasa, the Darwinian game of Middle Eastern politics, our friends will stay our friends, regardless of how CNN portrays the clash of civilizations.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, director of the Middle East Initiative of the Project for the New American Century, is a former case officer in the CIA's clandestine service.