Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Battle for the Disenchanted Majority

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the United States finds itself embroiled in two different battles. The first, waged on the plains and in the mountains of Afghanistan, pits the world's richest nation (and most powerful military) against one of the world's poorest. It's not hard to predict that the United States will probably win this war, although its task in finding a legitimate replacement for the Taliban may be much harder.The second battle, however, is of an altogether different order of magnitude. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, the United States has been engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of global public opinion -- especially the approval of the Islamic world.

U.S. President George W. Bush, learning from the United States' unfortunate response to its Japanese population in the 1940s, has stressed at every juncture that this new "war against terrorism" is not a clash of religions or civilizations. In Bush's parlance, it's a fight between decent and law-abiding people everywhere and a tiny minority of terrorists who are committed to destroying freedom in the world.

It's unlikely that even Bush believes this line about the causes of the attacks.

Although he has regularly reassured the American people that it's their way of life that the terrorists seek to destroy -- as if Mohammed Atta and his colleagues had arrived in Florida with open minds, been disgusted by the crass commercialism and sprawling theme parks of the sunshine state and then plotted their terrible deeds -- his advisers will surely have reminded him that radical Islam is neither innately anti-U.S. nor expansionist.

Islamic militants have been committed to political change in the Middle East for almost three decades.

Since the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul-Nasser in 1970, organized Islamic opposition parties have risen to challenge secular regimes across the Islamic world. The United States, with extraordinary consistency, has stood against these militant groups wherever they posed a threat to U.S. interests in the region.

Virtually the only place in which the United States gave its blessing to militant Islam was Afghanistan, where an even more terrible incubus, the Soviet Union, forced a compromise with the Islamists in the name of anti-communism.

The war between militant Islam and the United States, then, has a much longer history than the past six weeks.

Islamists have bridled at U.S. support for corrupt regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a pan-Islamic movement against U.S. involvement in the Middle East has been brewing for many years. The levels of anger among militant Islamists are certainly a cause for U.S. concern; but perhaps an even greater challenge to U.S. security comes from the broad popular sympathy for the militants' objectives (if not their methods) among ordinary Arabs and Muslims.

Although there's still confusion over the identity of the Sept. 11 assailants, many of them seem to have come from ordinary backgrounds or even from rather secular, professional families.

While the United States needs to do everything in its power to identify existing militant cells that could carry out further attacks, the truly daunting challenge is to cut off the supply of these militants before they reach groups like al-Qaida. If it is to be successful in this, the U.S. government simply has to address the root causes of discontent throughout the Islamic world.

Policymakers in Washington privately admitted that Osama bin Laden's videotaped statement of Oct. 7 was quite effective in conveying a rationale for attacks on the United States.

Moreover, the Bush administration paid bin Laden the compliment of censoring his subsequent statements, as the major U.S. television networks and newspapers agreed not to broadcast bin Laden's words or even to print transcripts of any statements.

Bush probably wishes he could block the statement from appearing outside the United States as well, not least because bin Laden appears to have targeted more moderate Muslims with his rhetoric.

Unlike Bush, whose Manichean worldview and eccentric phraseology ("evildoers") baffled even many Americans, bin Laden appears to have a very good sense of how to maximize sympathy for his cause.

His statement emphasized three concrete examples of injustice in the Middle East, each one inextricably linked to U.S. involvement: the continuing presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia; the destructive effects of United Nations sanctions (at the insistence of the United States) on Iraq; and the continuing carnage occasioned by the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It's worth emphasizing that one needs no Islamic militancy or even belief in Islam to concur with bin Laden that these are deeply troubling and unjust situations.

Bin Laden has carefully avoided reference to, say, the corruption of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the need for an Islamic state in Egypt, and has instead outlined a general agenda for protest which will undoubtedly appeal to many Muslims.

Even if we admit the legitimacy of these complaints, we can observe that they hardly justify the slaughter of more than 5,000 people -- the vast majority civilians -- in New York and Washington.

We might expect people in the Middle East to remember the terrible images of Sept. 11 for many years and to identify bin Laden's rhetoric as opportunistic or twisted, even if the problems he's outlined are real and legitimate.

What many people in the United States fail to understand, however, is that the ordinary inhabitants of the Middle East genuinely believe that the United States is impervious to any kind of criticism or even dialogue, and that bin Laden's methods, however terrible, represent the only means of conveying protest to the United States.

In addition, the broadcasts of al-Jazeera, the Qatari television network that has faithfully covered the second intifada, the effect of sanctions on Iraq and other b?tes noires of U.S. foreign policy offer a constant reminder that for every dead civilian in lower Manhattan, there is a dead Palestinian or Iraqi.

The calculus of human suffering is far less clear from the perspective of the Middle East, and the awful images of Sept. 11 fade quickly when supplanted by Israeli attacks on Bethlehem or even the"collateral damage" of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan.

The ongoing effects of U.S. policies in the Middle East suggest that bin Laden will have no trouble finding new recruits for his struggle unless the United States decides to strip him of his legitimacy and direct its own resources towards winning moderate support throughout the region.

Will the United States acknowledge the importance of this second battle and begin in earnest to reach out to the disenchanted majority in the Muslim world?

There are at least some hopeful signs in this regard. Bush has recognized the need for a Palestinian state and has put some pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to curb Israel's reoccupation of Palestinian urban areas.

However, the ongoing bombing campaign in Afghanistan and the efforts of some Bush administration officials to drag Iraq into the military conflict will no doubt have given heart to bin Laden, who surely realizes that an intemperate and self-interested U.S. policy toward the Middle East will have a miraculous effect on his standing.

Against all the odds, it may make his struggle seem legitimate and reasonable.

Nicholas Guyatt is a fellow in the Department of History, Princeton University. His most recent book is "Another American Century? The United States and The World After 2000." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.