Today is the second Friday of American air strikes against Afghanistan. Provided there will be no halt, the military campaign against al Qaeda and against the Taliban will enter its third week Sunday.
Every Friday at lunchtime, Muslims gather in their communal mosques, perform the ritual prayer, and listen to a sermon given by a religious dignitary. Last Friday, in Cairo, worshippers in the al-Azhar, the most renowned Muslim academy, were addressed by Sayf al-Islam, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who described America as the enemy of Arabs and Muslims. He said that America is terrorism and he closed his speech with the call to give one’s life in the war against America.
Let’s hope that today, not all sermons will condemn America. Sayf al-Islam is a radical voice that does not represent the majority of those who gathered in the al-Azhar last Friday. In fact, Sayf al-Islam’s address was preceded by the main sermon of the Imam of al-Azhar, Shaikh Muhammad al-Tantawi. He did not call for jihad — a holy war — but prayed for the Muslims in Afghanistan. When it came to American politics he said, “Only terrorists should be targeted, not the people of Afghanistan.”
But when Shaikh Tantawi left his pulpit, he did so for Sayf al-Islam. This is significant, not because Shaikh Tantawi has himself become a radical. The radicals are given more and more space within what is often called the religious discourse of Islam. During the last 10 years or so we have seen that the voices of the moderates have become more silent, while the radicals have become louder. The reasons for this development are manifold. Yes, there is an increasing grievance among Muslims in the Middle East over concrete decisions made in Washington, D.C. But there is also an inner dynamic that picks up these grievances and turns them into the kind of radical statements Sayf al-Islam brought forward.
Given a situation like the one last Friday in Cairo, we tend to believe that we are helpless and cannot keep the likes of Sayf al-Islam away from the microphone except through persecution. If Muslims become more and more radical, we are inclined to believe, there is nothing America can do — except for abandoning its vital interests in the region, which is most importantly Israel.
This view, however, is narrow-minded and actually bows to the hawkish rhetoric of the radicals. In fact, even without neglecting its vital interest in the Middle East, there is much the United States can do in order to keep the radicals away from the pulpit. The United States should not spare any effort to drive a wedge between Sayf al-Islam and Shaikh Tantawi that would enable the latter to distance himself from the former.
It seems that America is solely concerned with the radical Muslims. We should be much more concerned with Shaikh Tantawi and other moderates. Did the United States, for instance, attempt to present its case against Osama bin Laden to a world public so that moderate Muslims could be convinced of his involvement in the attacks of Sept. 11? Did the United States publish an address explaining the short and long-term aim of the military action? Why is it that journalists of the al-Jazeera network complain they find nobody in Washington to comment on the air strikes?
Even moderate Muslims find it difficult to understand the current air strikes as part of a long-term strategy to fight terrorism. As long as nobody explains it to them, they cannot see how the bombardment of Afghanistan will bring an end to Osama bin Laden and his network. As much as Muslims condemn the terror attacks on the World Trade Center, they get the impression that it is innocent people in Afghanistan that will pay the price. Innocent, because they could not choose their government, and innocent, because after almost 20 years of civil war and devastation they do not have the power to overthrow it.
First of all, America needs to explain its policy in the clearest terms. It needs to explain why it has bombed Afghanistan, and why it is continuing to do so. Secondly, it should also be concerned with the casualties of this war that are neither in Afghanistan nor in the United States. The credibility of moderate Muslim leaders may become such a casualty. It will suffer severely if the United States continues its air strikes without a clearly defined goal.
If the bombardment does not lead to Osama bin Laden’s unconditional extradition, nor to the fall of the Taliban, what has been achieved? Whatever the outcome will be in this week or the next, moderate Muslims hope that the air strikes will have come to an end by Nov. 17. This is the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, a time when all warfare among Muslims should cease.
Frank Griffel is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Department.