A Five-Step Plan for Working With Islam

The US must build a broad strategy toward the 'arc of crisis' extending from Bosnia to the Middle East to South Asia

A COHERENT approach toward Islam has become an imperative of United States foreign policy. The cry of ''Allahu akbar'' (''God is great'') by Muslim fighters can be heard throughout the arc of crisis reaching from the Balkans through the Middle East to Central and South Asia. Islam is playing a critical role in conflicts as varied as Bosnia, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Algeria, Gaza and the West Bank, and Kashmir. Throughout this region, Muslims are asserting their identity against non-Muslim regimes or factions or opposing established secular regimes in the Islamic world itself (Algeria and Egypt).

Are these conflicts an inevitable clash of civilizations between the West and Islam? Or are they particular manifestations of a variety of problems intensified by the end of the cold war? I believe they are the latter. Nevertheless, these conflicts make it critical that US policymakers directly address religious issues. In this context, how can the United States develop a consistent and comprehensive policy toward Islam?

High stakes for the US

First, US policymakers must recognize our stake in these conflicts. The arc is home to over two-thirds of the world's oil. The war in Bosnia could ignite a broader war in the Balkans. The conflict in Chechnya could divert Moscow from reform. Extremist groups could scuttle the Middle East peace process by acts of terror. Kashmir is a powder keg that could drive India and Pakistan into another military conflict.

Second, US decisionmakers must also differentiate between mainstream Islam and those who advocate terrorism abroad and repressive rule at home. If there is any ''ism'' the US must confront after communism, it is extremism, in either its secular or religious cloak. The US should support and work closely with governments that reflect the Islamic mainstream and are trying to improve the lives of their people. Several can serve as positive forces beyond their borders. Turkey, with its secularist model of an Islamic society, is seeking to build bridges to the newly independent Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia. Egypt, home to Islam's greatest university, Al-Ahzar, and Saudi Arabia, with its resources and as custodian of Islam's holiest places (Mecca and Medina), exert important influence within the Islamic world.

Third, in the Islamic world, as elsewhere, social injustice leads to extremism. The US should work with governments to move them toward political and economic reform. Jordan's parliamentary opening to the Muslim Brotherhood is an important case study. We must, however, refrain from trying to impose Jeffersonian models on traditional societies with their own forms of political consultation (shura) that can and should be expanded in more representative ways.

We must avoid supporting radicals parading as ''democrats'' who believe in ''one man, one vote, one time'' and who will then destroy the process upon which they came to power. We must maintain strong pressure on regimes that export extremism (Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan) with appeals to Islamic solidarity.

Arab-Israeli peace vital

Fourth, resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict will help undercut the influence and spoiler potential of Islamic extremist groups. Options for peace will narrow in 1996, when the US and Israel hold national elections. Direct, sustained involvement by President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher is necessary to finalize key aspects of the negotiations this year. Palestinian elections and expanded self-government, at minimum, should be realized. The critical Israeli-Syrian negotiations, where much work has been accomplished since the 1993 meeting in Madrid, need to be pushed toward closure on the key issues of land, peace, and security. Such movement would elicit progress in Lebanon and lead to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

Fifth, the US must not underestimate the role of religion and must include this factor in its decisionmaking process. Religious differences have been and remain a cause or pretext for conflict and wars, but the actions of religious groups and individuals can also foster peaceful resolution of conflicts (e.g., the potential role of the ultraorthodox Shas Party in Israel in fostering an Israeli-Syrian agreement, the mediating role of the Islamic Conference in inter-Arab disputes).

By acting creatively and assertively, the US can demonstrate real leadership in this vitally important region of the world.

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