PARIS — As Europeans wait to see how the United States is planning to retaliate for last week's attacks on Washington and New York, there is growing anxiety here about the tone of American war rhetoric.
President Bush's reference to a "crusade" against terrorism, which passed almost unnoticed by Americans, rang alarm bells in Europe. It raised fears that the terrorist attacks could spark a 'clash of civilizations' between Christians and Muslims, sowing fresh winds of hatred and mistrust.
"We have to avoid a clash of civilizations at all costs," French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine said on Sunday. "One has to avoid falling into this huge trap, this monstrous trap" which he said had been "conceived by the instigators of the assault."
On Sunday, Bush warned Americans that "this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile." He and other US officials have said that renegade Islamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden is the most likely suspect in the attacks.
His use of the word "crusade," said Soheib Bensheikh, Grand Mufti of the mosque in Marseille, France, "was most unfortunate", "It recalled the barbarous and unjust military operations against the Muslim world," by Christian knights, who launched repeated attempts to capture Jerusalem over the course of several hundred years.
Bush sought to calm American Muslims' fears of a backlash against them on Monday by appearing at an Islamic center in Washington. There he assured Americans that "the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about."
But his earlier comments, declaring a war between good and evil, shocked Europeans. "If this 'war' takes a form that affronts moderate Arab opinion, if it has the air of a clash of civilizations, there is a strong risk that it will contribute to Osama bin Laden's goal: a conflict between the Arab-Muslim world and the West," warned the Paris daily Le Monde on Tuesday in an editorial.
"Bush is walking a fine line," suggested Dominique Moisi, a political analyst with the French Institute for International Relations, the country's top foreign policy think tank. "The same black and white language he uses to rally Americans behind him is just the sort of language that risks splitting the international coalition he is trying to build.
"This confusion between politics and religion...risks encouraging a clash of civilizations in a religious sense, which is very dangerous," he added.
On Monday, Taliban deputy leader Mohammed Hasan Akhund warned his fellow Afghans to prepare for 'Jihad' - holy war - against America, if US forces attack Afghanistan.
While almost every world leader agrees with Washington that the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center were evil, not all of those leaders - especially in the Middle East - identify the United States with good.
British prime minister Tony Blair has gone out of his way this week to make it clear that the battle against terrorists is a battle not between Christians and Muslims, but between civilized values and fanaticism. In that battle, he said Monday "the vast majority of decent law-abiding Muslims" opposed fanaticism.
It is their support for Washington's war that could be undermined by the sort of language on the president's lips, warns Hussein Amin, a former Egyptian ambassador who now lectures on international affairs. "The whole tone is that of one civilization against another," he finds. "It is a superior way of speaking and I fear the consequences - the world being divided into two between those who think themselves superior" and the rest.
Moderate Muslim opinion could also easily be swayed against America, predicted Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, head of the Muslim Parliament in Britain, an umbrella group for Muslim organizations. "If they end up killing innocent civilians it will be very unfair," Dr. Siddiqui said. "The problems will arise if people see that justice has not been done."
French President Jacques Chirac, who arrived in Washington Tuesday, and Mr. Blair, who will see Bush Thursday, are expected to offer Europe's solidarity, but to stop short of offering Washington a blank check. If European help is needed, Europeans want to be in on the planning, officials here say.