FRAMING THE War on Terror

MORE AND MORE U.S. policymakers and intellectuals are drawing an analogy between the Cold War and the war on terror, and are recommending analogous strategies, since both conflicts were fought on the battlefield and over people’s minds and hearts. However, recent research by The Gallup Organization on Muslim public opinion around the world points to serious flaws in the “Cold War II” paradigm and the real danger in confusing these two very different conflicts. America’s trials and triumphs in its own internal “clash of cultures” – the civil rights struggle – is a more appropriate analogy.

At the heart of Cold War II is a belief that religious fanaticism fuels extremism and therefore replacing Muslims’ worldview with Western liberalism is the path to victory against terrorism. To understand the danger of this diagnosis, we must first look at the factors that do and do not drive sympathy for violence.

As a starting point, Muslims hold no monopoly on extremist views. Although 6 percent of the American public thinks attacks where civilians are targets are “completely justified,” in Lebanon and Iran, this figure is 2 percent, and in Saudi Arabia, 4 percent. In Europe, Muslims in Berlin, Paris and London are no more likely than their general public counterparts to believe that such attacks are justified and are at least as likely to reject violence, even for a “noble cause.”

After analyzing survey data representing more than 90 percent of the global Muslim population, Gallup found that despite widespread anti-American sentiment, only a small minority sympathized with the attacks of 9/11.

Even more significant, there was no correlation between level of religiosity and extremism among Muslims.

Gallup went even further and asked both those who condoned and condemned extremist acts, “Why do you say that?” The responses fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, in Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority country, many of those who condemned terrorism cited humanitarian or religious justifications to support their response. One woman said, “Killing one life is as sinful as killing the whole world,” paraphrasing verse 5:32 in the Qur’an.

On the other hand, not a single respondent in Indonesia who condoned the attacks of 9/11 cited the Qur’an for justification. Instead, this group’s responses were markedly secular and worldly. One respondent said, “The U.S. government is too controlling toward other countries, seems like colonizing.”

The real difference between those who condone terrorist acts and all others is politics, not piety. For example, those who sympathize with terrorism cite “occupation and U.S. domination” as their greatest fear for their country and only a small minority agree the U.S. would allow people in the region to fashion their own political future or that it would support democracy in the region. Also, among this group’s top responses was the view that to better relations with the Muslim world, the West should stop imposing its beliefs and policies.

Although this group is as likely to say that better relations with the West is of personal concern to them, they are much less likely to believe that the West reciprocates this concern and therefore much less likely to believe that improved relations will ever come. In short, those who sympathize with extremism are characterized by perceptions of being under siege and by lack of faith in nonviolent means of change.

The Cold War II characterization also assumes that Muslim grievances are rooted in a rejection of modernity and Western values, not specific policies. Empirical evidence indicates otherwise.

For instance, while the U.S. and Britain are generally viewed unfavorably, Muslim opinions of France and Germany are relatively positive, even when compared with respondents’ opinion of other Muslim nations. This suggests that negative sentiment is drawn along policy, not cultural or religious lines.

Moreover, despite intense political anger at some Western powers, Muslims do not reject Western values wholesale. Citizens of countries from Saudi Arabia to Morocco, from Indonesia to Pakistan, express admiration for Western technology and democratic values such as freedom of the press and government accountability. In fact, terrorism sympathizers are more likely than the majority to say that greater democracy will help Muslims progress.

Defining the current conflict as a battle between Western values and “radical Islam” misses the root cause of terrorism while energizing the very perceptions that fuel sympathy for it – that Islam itself is under attack. These findings begin to expose the danger of acting on the Cold War II analogy. The current war is about not appearing to denigrate Islam or promote Western imperialism, because it is these very perceptions that fuel extremist sentiment.

Most importantly, many have claimed that “blue jeans and Playboy” brought down the Soviet Union as much as strong military deterrence. In sharp contrast, it is precisely America’s military power and popular culture, and their perceived threat to Muslims, that extremists exploit to gain support. In short, much of what worked in the Cold War will have the exact opposite effect now.

From many Muslims’ point of view, the conflict with the United States is about policy, not principles. Through Muslim eyes, it looks like a global civil rights struggle much more than another clash between superpowers. When viewed through this new perspective, seemingly inexplicable crises, such as the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons, come into sharper focus as does a more effective strategy forward.

Thoughtful observers have drawn a comparison between the Danish cartoon controversy and an incident from America’s own cultural relations struggle: the 1965 Watts riots. Looking at the cartoon controversy through the analogous lens of race relations uncovers some revealing insights. In both cases, violent riots broke out in reaction to what seemed to outsiders as a “petty offense.” In the case of the Watts riot, white police officers in a predominantly black neighborhood pulled over two black males whom they believed were driving while intoxicated. In the case of the cartoons, a Danish newspaper, followed by other European newspapers, printed a cartoon depicting Islam’s most venerated figure, the Prophet Muhammad, as a terrorist.

As a result of the Watts riots, 34 people were officially reported killed and more than 1,000 people injured. The Kerner Commission was set up by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to study the riots that hit many U.S. cities each summer since 1964 and to provide recommendations. The resulting report pointed to the distinction between the “trigger” (a petty act) and the “cause” – a long list of problems identified by the commission. These included poverty, job and housing discrimination, and unequal education, as well as a deep sense of racism and disrespect on the part of a powerful and affluent white America toward a powerless and poor black America, as personified by the white police officers’ treatment of the black men.

Like those who rioted in Watts and in other American cities during the civil rights struggle, Muslim rioters were not angry because they did not understand the value of free speech in principle – many cite this liberty as among the most admired aspects of the West. Instead, the Danish cartoons were simply the “trigger” igniting the combustible fuel of widespread perceptions of Western injustice and disrespect.

Several developments followed the commission’s report and the violence that initiated it: Greater attention was paid to the grievances identified by the commission, which were not rendered void simply because people chose a violent way to protest them. Significantly, change occurred in two major areas. The first was policy: Laws were passed and some changed to address these issues, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibiting discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing. The second was a greater cultural sensitivity: It was already slowly becoming less socially acceptable to use racist images of blacks in media. For example, CBS had withdrawn reruns of the Amos ‘n’ Andy show in 1966, which the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been protesting since the 1950s.

Lessons learned from America’s civil rights struggle can help clarify how to begin to bridge the divide between the United States and the Muslim world. Thus, a two-pronged approach – outreach to the moderate majority through job creation and support for those who wish to address widely held grievances peacefully – can help diminish the appeal of those who advocate violence.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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