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Failing to see the legitimate Islamic roots of jihadist terror has distorted our foreign policy by shackling us to a “hearts and mind” campaign we think will win over all those outraged moderates who just want to live as we do––a belief that has driven our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, where after ten years of occupation and nation-building the jury is still out on what sort of regime will be left after we depart. Yet despite these efforts at liberating Muslims from tyrants and providing them with democratic freedom, majorities of Muslims all over the world still don’t like the United States and still oppose most of our efforts to destroy the jihadists. Worse yet, this flawed assumption has compromised out response to the so-called “Arab spring.” Lieberman’s essay is typical of this belief: “Now, throughout the Middle East, we see the narrative of violent Islamist extremism being rejected by tens of millions of Muslims who are rising up and peacefully demanding lives of democracy, dignity, economic opportunity, and involvement in the modern world. Indeed, the Arab Spring and its successes thus far are the ultimate repudiations of al Qaeda and everything Islamist extremism stands for.”
Yet if we look to the evidence of events, this rosy estimate is hard to believe. In Egypt, a newly assertive Muslim Brotherhood and even more extreme Salafists have moved aside the minority of liberals and moderates. Relations with Israel have deteriorated rapidly, with a terrorist attack launched from the Sinai, and the Israeli embassy in Cairo evacuated because of violent mob attacks. A rejection of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, along with a resurgent Hamas in Gaza with access to weapons supplied over the now porous border with Egypt, could lead to a new war endangering our most loyal and valuable ally in the region. Given that majorities of Muslims believe that their countries’ laws should “strictly” follow the teachings of the Koran or follow the “values of principles of Islam,” Lieberman’s assertion that the “Arab Spring” represents a repudiation of “everything Islamist extremism stands for” is misleading. What many Muslims oppose is not the Islamist goal of repudiating Western secularist government, but at best the tactic of terrorist attacks, particularly against Muslims.
Despite the mind-concentrating attacks of 9/11, we still have not learned the lessons we should have after the Iranian revolution. We have prevented further attacks on the homeland, but the longer-term goal of definitively repudiating the Islamist drive for global preeminence has been compromised by our failure to understand the Islamic bona fides of much of the Islamist ideology, and its resonance among millions of Muslims. This failure may in the long run lead to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt joining Iran as an Islamic republic hostile to our interests.
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