Summit Calls For Moderation in U.S.-Muslim World Relations
A New York City Police Department trumpeter plays taps at the end of the commemoration as families gathered at the World Trade Center site in New York to mark the the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. (Photo: Stan Honda / AFP-Getty Images)
Over 400 students from around the United States and a number of Muslim countries gathered in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 8 for a three-day summit to discuss the possibility of a new, positive direction for a relationship between the United States and the Islamic world that has steadily deteriorated since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The "9-11 Plus Five: A Hope Not Hate" Summit, held on the campus of George Washington University, featured four separate panel discussions with prominent American policymakers, Arab and Islamic world scholars, 9-11 activists, and international journalists.
American students came from as far away as Brigham Young University in Utah, and Abilene Christian University in Texas. Approximately 100 international students attended the summit, coming primarily from Muslim countries such as Palestine, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Panelists stressed the negative consequences of the war on terrorism and told the audience that as a young generation, it would be their responsibility to reverse the growing tide of animosity, ignorance and suspicion that dominate public opinion both in America and in the Muslim world.
Peter W. Singer, senior fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said that confronting this "schism of hurt, fear, and anger" between the United States and the Muslim world will be the 9-11 generation's defining challenge.
"Just as the generation that came of age in the '40s had to figure out how to tear down the Berlin Wall, this is the wall that we have to tear down," said Singer, one of the summit's key organizers.
Hadia Mubarak, a Muslim-American graduate student at Georgetown University whose parents are Syrian, said it is a matter of combating ignorance and misperception. As a researcher in the 'Islam in the Age of Globalization' initiative — a project launched last year with the purpose of studying what role Islam plays in the modern world — Mubarak traveled with a group of student researchers to numerous Muslim countries in order to discover what young people considered to be the main causes of poor relations with the West. Countries they visited included Qatar, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, and Malaysia.
Most people they interviewed said they believed the West's ignorance of Islam and the connection of terrorism with Islam are what prevent diplomacy from having any positive effect in the region.
"This … actually offers great hope because ignorance can be overcome much more easily than hatred or aggression," Mubarak said.
Most panelists agreed that the antagonistic rhetoric of the war on terrorism unduly vilifies the entire Muslim world in the eyes of the West. Words like "extremist," "terrorist," "Islamist," and "Islamo-fascist" are often used in ambiguous ways by members of the U.S. government and the media.
"One of the problems we have is the entire focus on terrorism and what terrorism is," said Edward W. Gnehm Jr., who served as the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait during the first Gulf War, and was sworn in as ambassador to Jordan on Sept. 6, 2001. "I find it difficult that we make it so synonymous with Islam. We fail to understand the root causes, that it is a manifestation of other issues."
Citing an essay written in Sept. 2002 by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski called "Confronting Anti-American Grievances," George Washington University professor Karl F. Inderfurth said that as we use public debate to demonize terrorists, we tend to forget that political conflict, not ideology, is the real impetus behind their violent acts.
Citing Brzezinski's examples of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, Basque separatists in Spain, various Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza, and Muslims in Kashmir, Inderfurth said the political climate motivating these militant groups does not justify their acts of terror. However, he also indicated that these groups would continue to survive as long as a political grievance existed to sustain them.
According to Inderfurth, in the five years since 9-11 the United States has done a good job of dismantling the Al Qaeda network that was directly responsible for the attacks. What the United States has failed to do is make a significant political and diplomatic effort to reform the conditions that sustain militant groups in the Muslim world, he said.
The popularity of militant extremist groups like Al Qaeda is one of the West's most severe misconceptions about that part of the world, posited Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Telhami is considered one of the country's preeminent scholars of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Based on polling he has done throughout the region, Telhami stated that only about 6 percent of people who sympathize with Al Qaeda do so because of the organization's advocacy of a puritanical Islamic state. The vast majority of respondents sympathize with Al Qaeda's resistance to what they see as American imperialism and aggression, such as the unpopular invasion of Iraq and one-sided support for Israel, he said.
"There's a difference between people not liking American foreign policy and people endorsing the fanatical agenda of Al Qaeda," said Telhami. "Al Qaeda wins by default. … People want somebody to give American foreign policy a black eye, but they don't want bin Laden to rule over their kids."
Various panelists addressed the specific problems surrounding Iraq, Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, and the Arab-Israeli conflict at different times during the summit.
Aaron Brown, former host of CNN's NewsNight and the keynote speaker at the summit, said that after 9-11, "whatever goodwill we had around the world, whatever sense of national unity and purpose we had at home, was squandered in the way we went to war with Iraq."
The Bush administration decided to launch its invasion of Iraq in 2003 in spite of strong protests from the international community. Domestically, support for the occupation has dwindled as it becomes increasingly apparent the justifications for the invasion — the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Saddam Hussein's supposed links to Al Qaeda — were untrue.
According to Gnehm, media coverage in the Middle East of the American invasion of Iraq looked identical to typical coverage of Israeli military actions in Palestine and Lebanon.
"What is perceived and sensed in the Arab world does not discriminate between one and the other. It looked identical," he said.
After learning about the details of the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2003, Gnehm, who was still serving as U.S. ambassador to Jordan at the time, said, "I lost a weapon, or a tool, that I and all of my colleagues were able to use through the decades — our moral views."
Just as the image of Osama bin Laden epitomizes Americans' distorted view of the Muslim world, the horrific image of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib has come to symbolize American brutality in the eyes of Muslims, said Seth Green, president of Americans for Informed Democracy.
However, in neither instance does the image tell the true story about Americans or Muslims, he posited. Green, who also played a key role in organizing the summit, said he hoped audience members would be inspired to return to their own communities, whether in the United States or the Muslim world, and engage moderates in discussions that promoted education, understanding and mutual respect.
Hailey Woldt, a Georgetown University student who participated in the 'Islam in the Age of Globalization' project with Mubarak, emphasized the gains that can be made when American students travel to Muslim countries.
"The [American] youth need to speak out and realize that the most important weapon we have against hatred is compassion," she said.
Students who attended the summit had the opportunity to participate in a workshop designed to teach them how to organize town hall meetings in their local communities. They also discussed strategies for writing op-ed pieces that could encourage better understanding among ordinary Americans who have distorted perceptions of Muslims in the Arab world and at home.
The summit was co-hosted by the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University; Americans for Informed Democracy, a non-partisan organization that brings global issues to college campuses; and the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a non-profit think tank based in Washington.
Andy Zieminski is a first-year master's student at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"9-11 Plus 5 Summit" Impressions
It was 1:30 pm on Sept. 8, fifteen minutes before the registration period ended for the 9-11 Americans for Informed Democracy summit meeting at the Elliott School, George Washington University. I wedged my bike between two others attached to a double-headed parking meter, set the lock, and ran upstairs.
The registration area exhibited the usual college scene, some students mingling and chatting, while others curled against a wall using any opportunity to start the weekend's readings. Although they wore more professional clothing than they would to a 9 am lecture, the atmosphere, filled with discussion and liveliness, was typical for a group of university students in D.C.
Those were my first impressions of an event titled, "9-11 Plus 5," a three-day summit to discuss the world five years after the Sept. 11 attacks. The event's stated mission was to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the 9-11 tragedy, and to discuss, "how to improve U.S.-Islamic world relations over the next five years."
"Reflections on the Five Years Since 9/11," "The 9/11 Commission Putting Reforms Into Action," and "9-11 Organizations Five Years later," were three of the five major lecture titles. However, I, and others in the audience were to discover that the question of how to improve the relations between America and the Muslim world had moved far beyond the events of a single day.
Over the weekend, testaments were given as to the impact that 9-11 had on individual citizens, and the changes in government policy that it effected. Aaron Brown, the former news anchor who was the face of CNN on Sept. 11, gave a very moving speech that included a call to action for future generations. His attempt, which seemed to be effective, was to instill in the 'twenty-somethings' in the audience that the cause of our lives now had to be to repair the damage caused by the erroneous actions taken after 9-11. He did not, at that point, condemn any specific action, but like many others at the summit cited the staggering statistic that over 50 percent of Americans believe that the Islamic faith is inherently violent.
Conversely, the Muslim world overwhelmingly holds the opinion that their greatest security threat comes from America. This stance sharply contrasts with the personal experience of Edward Gnehm, former U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, who described the tremendous outpouring from approximately 3,800 people who came to the U.S. Embassy in the days following the attack, giving their condolences and offering their prayers. Seth Green, head of Americans for Informed Democracy (AID) told of receiving the same sympathies expressed to him in his own travels abroad in the period directly after 9-11. Putting aside the arguments and varying opinions pertaining to the exact actions taken by the United States after Sept. 11 and in the five years following, panelists were more concerned about the fate of the people. How would the American and people living in Muslim countries be received by each other, and by the rest of the world, in the years to come?
The summit supported education as the next step, and encouraged exposure to other individuals' perspectives on life, urging attendees to interact with as many people as possible, and to promote tolerance to whomever they could. The necessity for exposure was exemplified in Gnehm's description of some Arab individuals who had never been to the U.S., and had never previously met a U.S. citizen, and how rapidly their vehement hatred for America was transformed into confusion when they realized that they must somehow reconcile their anger toward the country with their newfound respect for recently-met American people.
The panelists also addressed an issue much discussed in the media of whether a girl should be allowed to wear a hijab in middle school as a minor, reminding the audience to focus on similarities, not on differences, and to not bother with a custom that doesn't harm another person. Other panelists took great care to explain the difference between extremists and doctrine. It was made very clear that the Muslim faith and those who practice it should be considered as entirely separate from a person who invokes religion as a means to create terror. Hitler, it was noted, was never condemned as a 'Christian Terrorist.'
On Sunday, the final day of the summit, as the crowd departed and students diverted from their professional personas by stuffing complimentary muffins and granola bars into their purses and messenger bags, I reflected on the impact of this summit, and what actions might come out of it. I am no pollster so my conjectures are purely my own, but it seemed that the summit had achieved its purpose. Three days, dozens of speakers, and hours of preparation and planning had allowed a few hundred people to become slightly more educated than they were seventy-two hours before. Perhaps that was enough to begin a ripple effect, reaching through families and acquaintances. What the enduring effects would be I could not know. The "9-11 Plus 5" mission stated that it wanted to know what would happen five years from now. My guess is that the majority of those who attended this summit would be in a similar position as they were today, listening, talking, and learning. Whether writing a first draft of a dissertation or embarking upon a new job opportunity, we would still be in the gathering phase — building momentum for education and tolerance to take to the world. I am not certain what forms this 'spread of tolerance' will take, whether it will be an increase in NGOs or reaching the goal of 'equality' as the mainstay of foreign policy.
I can provide one assurance, however, which is that the collective face of those who impact change in the future will have a far more feminine character. With covered head or not, women were by far the majority of the attendees at this summit. My own rough head count put them at two-thirds of the audience. Perhaps this is only a coincidence, and that many more men who had intended to attend were unable to do so. If this is not the case, then the world will see a rise in gender equality among the people who fight for peace and tolerance, and a summit which promotes such a cause will have more than five women out of 21 dedicated panelists, who brought their passions and aspirations to George Washington to work for a better future.
Katherine Townsend is a junior at Georgetown University.