Need for high morals to win over Muslims

Now that the UK government has disowned the idea of a war on terror, there is a chance that western policy can be rescued from the quicksands of Iraq and provided with a strategy capable of defeating jihadism. The attempt to meet this diffuse and stateless threat primarily with weapons and concepts devised for interstate warfare has been a costly error. It has led to a massive diversion of resources from the task of dealing with those responsible for 9/11; it has provided our enemies with additional recruits, new grievances to exploit and an ideal theatre of operations; and it has caused the unnecessary loss of innocent life on a truly staggering scale.

Against this background, PM Gordon Brown’s plan to tackle Islamist extremism by winning the battle for Muslim hearts and minds is hugely ambitious. But it is also essential. We cannot hope to defeat terrorism without the willing cooperation of the communities in which it flourishes. Ambivalence works asymmetrically to our disadvantage. It is enough for people to look the other way for terrorists to find a safe haven. Those aiming to defeat them need the support and goodwill of people willing to isolate the extremists and challenge their ideas at a grassroots level. The challenge is how to build that support after five years in which repeated policy blunders have widened the divide between mainstream Muslims and the west.

Two years ago the Pew Research Centre analysed the sources of popular support for terrorism across a sample of six Muslim countries. It found little connection with poverty and a surprisingly small one with Islamic fundamentalism. By far the strongest correlation was with those who felt that America opposed democracy in their country. Al Qaeda thrives not because Muslims hate our values, but because we are seen to have been false to them.

The conclusion that flows from this is that a campaign for hearts and minds cannot be won simply by asserting the superiority of democratic values. Without real policy change our efforts will be dismissed as so much humbug and spin. Disengaging from Iraq is undoubtedly the most important step, but it is far from being the only one. We need to face up to the fact that our relationship with Saudi Arabia and other despotic regimes has become a strategic liability. There must be a timetable for an independent Palestinian state and a willingness to twist Israeli arms to get it. Washington needs to be pressed to close Guantanamo Bay and bring terrorists to justice using legitimate methods. The government should also think twice before extending periods of detention without trial in conditions other than those of grave national emergency.

Gordon Brown is right to view the fight against terrorism primarily as a battle of ideas. Critics point out that Bin Laden and his followers are unlikely to be impressed by measures of this kind. But a campaign for hearts and minds isn’t aimed at them. It is designed to reach mainstream Muslims. Brown must also understand that we cannot win it unless we start by living up to our own high moral claims. All too often we have fallen woefully short of them. In thinking through what needs to be done, the lesson of the cold war is therefore mostly one of mistakes to be avoided. This time we not only need to talk the language of freedom, we need to show that we mean it. — The Guardian