WILTON, CONN. — The war against terrorism has many forms. In Afghanistan, American forces comb the boondocks for Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda's money and its collaborators are being ferreted out worldwide. What is missing, however, in this scattershot campaign, is a systematic effort to dissolve Mr. bin Laden's criminal organization.
It is a truism that guerrillas are fish swimming in a sea of popular approval and that drying up the sea puts an end to the fish. Bin Laden and his henchmen gain support by perverting and politicizing a noble religion embraced by perhaps a billion people on all continents. The remedy? Delegitimize the proposition that violence and conspiracy are to be used against any "enemy" of Islam.
Islam is both a theology and a way of life. Like other faiths, it has ambiguities that call for definition. It is understandable that in a time of uncertainty confused individuals seek stability and comfort in basic beliefs held since childhood. It is not surprising that many, in their anxiety, should listen to leaders who give them certainty, preaching a lowest common denominator of defensive hate against unfamiliar, nowadays Western and especially American, ways as the cause of all they suffer.
More than a few scholars deplore what they see as the reversion, in the past century, to Stone Age dogma more easily grasped by the poorly educated masses. Turning this backward slide around cannot be done by shooting or shouting but by engaging religious authority to condemn terror and suicide as reprehensible and violations of Islam. Nor can it be done quickly or by American power alone. It will take time and broad cooperation to purge the Muslim world of madrassahs - schools that are the breeding grounds of xenophobic bigotry.
Saudi Arabia is a real problem. The royal family rules in partnership with the ultraorthodox Wahhabi sect. The Saudis' fabulous oil wealth has funded schools, mosques, and charities around the world, money that has served or directly seeped into Al Qaeda.
Others, too, have played with political Islam. During the Afghan war against the Soviet invaders, the United States joined Saudi Arabia and the fundamentalist ruler of Pakistan, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, to channel billions of dollars and modern weapons to the most reactionary Afghan militias. Israel in the 1970s sought to undermine Yasser Arafat by encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood, which later became Hamas. Egypt's Anwar Sadat subsidized Islamist groups to counteract Marxism in universities and factories. They assassinated him in 1981. His successor, President Hosni Mubarak, and other Arab leaders have been appeasing Islamists to get short-term relief from domestic problems. However, that may, in the longer run, backfire.
Most if not all Arab countries have clergy and scholars who want to modernize, not Westernize, Islamic life. They must be given a loud collective voice against extremism.
European states have sizable Muslim minorities. In France and Germany they number millions. All governments have an interest in domestic peace. They also have ties and influence with Arab states that could strengthen willingness to face down the extremists.
The American role in this regard has been compromised. There is no point to further hawkish trips by Vice President Dick Cheney or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Two-minute radio and television commercials from the State Department showing Americans as really nice people and US Muslims leading normal happy lives are at least funny.
In a war against formless terrorism, best fought with tactical intelligence and persuasion, the US needs friends - official and unofficial - who are not pushed or bought but who would help do what needs to be done for reasons of their own.
• Richard C. Hottelet is a former correspondent for CBS.