Why the West Should Call a Truce with the Muslim World

News Abroad

Mr. LeVine is associate professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of the upcoming book, WHY THEY DON'T HATE US (Oxford: Oneworld Publications) and a contributing editor at Tikkun magazine.

It is time for the United States to declare a truce with the Muslim world, and radical Islam in particular.

This may sound like a naïve, even defeatist statement in the context of The 9/11 Commission Report's reminder that America remains very much at war with"Islamist terrorism" and the ideas behind it. Yet a truce -- in Arabic, hudna -- rather than an increasingly dangerous" clash of civilizations," is the only way to avoid a long, ultimately catastrophic conflict. And it's up to Europe to be the good broker.

Indeed, there is no chance for a halt in the war on terror, or any fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy as long as George Bush is President. Even if John Kerry wins this November, the possibility that he might initiate such a transformation is slim. However, there is one major difference -- at least rhetorically -- between the two possible presidencies: Kerry has made a point of saying that he would"listen" to European allies and strive to build a common approach to combating terrorism.

European leaders face the threat of an increasingly bloody conflict with Muslim extremists thanks to the continent's imperial past in the region and, more important today, their perceived support for U.S. policies in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They would be wise to suggest that President Kerry call a truce so that the U.S., the European Union (E.U.), and more broadly the"West," can have the time collectively and publicly to explore the root causes of the violence against them that emanates from the Muslim world -- something the 9/11 Commission should have, but did not, do. At least there's a chance Kerry might listen, especially if the war in Iraq continues to spiral out of America's control.

There are many kinds of truces, most not relevant to the situation facing America today. Some of the earliest truces, such as the (aborted) Thirty Years Treaty during the Peloponnesian War of the fifth century B.C.E., were made only out of tactical necessity and collapsed as soon as the balance of forces changed. Such a truce -- during which both sides would attempt to gain an advantage before reigniting hostilities -- would surely be a disaster in our world.

Other truces, like those that ended the Korean War in 1953, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, became by default unsatisfactory political resolutions to otherwise insoluble conflicts. A truce like this almost certainly will end in renewed violence because the roots of the war on terror go to the core values underlying U.S./Western policies in the Middle East. Decades ago, the U.S. began an affair with a sociopathic form of wahhabi Islam, ultimately giving birth to the bastard child of"Islamist terrorism" that now, as in most lurid, made-for-TV dramas, wants to kill its parents.

Clearly, a different kind of truce is needed; one that signals the first step in a genuine reappraisal of American (and to a lesser extent European) core positions and interests as well as those of Muslims, so that genuine peace and reconciliation become conceivable. There is some historical precedent for this kind of truce in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad agreed to the first Muslim truce in 628. Known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, it was between the nascent Muslim community and the Meccan pagans, and lasted for two years before the Meccans broke it by attacking Muslim Bedouin tribes. During the truce, however, the Muslims respected its terms, even though many of them felt it to be unfair.

More important, during the last three decades an increasingly permanent Muslim presence in Europe gradually led most Muslims to consider that region not"dar al-harb" (or the Abode of War, the traditional Muslim categorization of all non-Muslim lands), but"dar al-hudna" -- a land of truce between Muslims and non-Muslims -- or even"dar al-Islam," a land of peace where Muslims can feel at home.

Indeed, however dangerous the presence of a few thousand extremists out of a European Muslim population more than ten million strong, the reality is that Muslims increasingly think of Europe as a"terre de mediation" (a land of mediation) between Muslims and the larger world. A European-initiated hudna might be the first step in allowing Muslims to feel the U.S. has the potential to play a similar role -- but only if major European governments pressed for it, leading the way by reappraising and transforming their own policies toward Muslim lands.

From the U.S. and European side, a meaningful hudna with Islam would include (but not be limited to) the following steps:

First, just as most every mainstream Muslim personality has condemned Muslim extremism, the next president must be prodded by his European counterparts to take the important psychological step of admitting U.S. responsibility for the harm decades of support for dictatorship, corruption, and war have caused ordinary Muslims, especially in the Middle East.

Second, the United States, the E.U., and NATO should halt all offensive military actions in the Muslim world and outline a serious plan for the removal of troops from Muslim countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq. (These could be replaced, where necessary, by robust UN peacekeeping forces or UN-assisted transitional administrations.) The hunt for Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and related terror networks would then be transformed from a war of vengeance into what it always should have been: a vigorous international effort led by the U.S,, UN, and where relevant European and other governments, to apprehend, prosecute, and punish people and groups involved in the September 11 assaults and similar attacks.

Third, all military and diplomatic agreements and aid to Middle Eastern countries that aren't democratic or don't respect the rights of the peoples under their control should be suspended. Yes, this means for Israel as well as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other"allies" and"partners." This is crucial to stopping the regional arms race and cycle of violence that makes peace and democratic reform impossible.

Finally, the hundreds of billions of dollars that would have been devoted to the war on terror should be redirected toward the kind of infrastructural, educational, and social projects The 9/11 Commission Report argues are key to winning the war on terror.

A truce does not equal capitulation to terrorists or letting Muslims off the hook for crimes committed in the name of their religion. Certainly, European leaders were right to reject the"truce offer" purportedly made by Osama bin Laden last April on the condition that European countries remove their troops from Muslim lands and refuse to support the United States. Criminals can't offer truces, and bin Laden and other groups which use terroristic violence are indeed international criminals whom the world community has an obligation to bring to justice.

Beyond the criminal minority, The 9/11 Report was right to demand that Muslims worldwide confront the violent and intolerant version of their religion that is poisoning their societies and threatening the world at large. Religious leaders and ordinary citizens alike must engage in soul-searching about the toxic tendencies within their own cultures similar to the one they demand of Americans and the West more broadly.

States as well as communities and cultures can make truces, even if criminals can't. And the Report should have added specific policy prescriptions to enable such a process to begin: For their part, Muslim political leaders should begin a process of rapid development of participatory civil societies and hold internationally monitored elections within specified (short) time periods or their regimes will face censure and sanctions by the international community. This is the surest way to build a foundation for defeating terrorism.

While it's hard to imagine the U.S. drafting such a policy, the E.U., most of whose members don't have the deep ties with either Israel or the oil princedoms of the Gulf that anchor the current system, could lead the way. The need for such leadership is illustrated by various recommendations of the 9/11 Commission which demonstrate that the U.S. is institutionally incapable of taking bold policy steps on its own. As someone whose research was cited by the Report -- p. 466, note 16 -- in a manner that completely missed the point of my argument, I find it unsurprising that the Report would go on to position the U.S. as an innocent bystander to a" clash within a civilization" whose solution"must come from within Muslim societies themselves."

Fortunately, leading European countries like France, Germany, and now Spain don't have a powerful financial stake in the"heavy" or militarized globalization that, since 9/11, increasingly skews American and British policy-making. In fact, through the E.U., they have created a"Euro-Med" area whose viability depends on expansive economic and political development, and so on increasing interchange with the Muslim world. Let's only hope they will have the courage to explain to President Kerry (or even Bush) that, without both an acceptance of responsibility for past policy and the transformation of future policy toward the Islamic regions of our planet, there will be no solution to terrorism, only continued violence and war. No matter how"smarter and more effectively" the next American president might hope to prosecute such a war, it would be no more winnable than Vietnam or the war on drugs, with far higher losses likely in the near future.

This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

On the core point here, that the Bush administration's inept and hypocritical approach to the Mideast has been a spectacular failure, and that major changes are needed, let me say "amen",or whatever the closest Arabic or Islamic equivalent thereto may be.

Mr. LeVine's list of prescriptions, however, is incomplete at best. He starts off on a wrong foot by focusing on a "truce". Such an approach could, in theory, lead to a substantive improvement over the Bush administration's counterproductive bumblings, but to call for a "truce" with "Muslim World" implies that we are "at war with the Muslim world", a misleading and misguided notion at best, and at worst a great propaganda victory we ought not to hand to Al Qaeda. I am not a scholar of Islam or its history, but to even remotely or indirectly allow for a possible parallel between bin Laden and Muhammad himself is exactly what should not be done, in my humble opinion.

Suggestions about taking a more "European" approach diplomatically, and replacing American troops with a UN force would make sense, if there were any real workable plans in place for a viable long term European policy towards the Mideast, and for a viable UN military. More discomforting though, is the omission, at least in this excerpt, of any direct reference to (a) the self-sustaining hate-mongering brainwashing of the Islamic schools, (b) the demographic time-bomb in Arabia - closely related to the slave-like status of women there, and (c) the utter folly of America's non-policy on energy, a folly that lines the pockets of Al Qaeda almost as unavoidably as Bush's stupidities produce human suicide fodder for it. No plan for reordering U.S. priorities towards radical Islam has a ghost of chance if these fundamental challenges continue to be swept under the rug.


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Or to put the point the other way around: why DID the pagans of Mecca sign on to the truce of Hudaibiya? Because they knew they were losing to the Muslims and needed to stave off their ultimate defeat. Prof LeVine conveniently omits to mention that immediately after the supposed violation of the truce by the Meccans, the Muslims conquered Mecca. A hundred years after it, they had conquered half of the Mediterranean basin. So the Hudaibiyan truce was pretty obviously an instrument of conquest. Is this what Prof LeVine has in mind?

Incidentally, if the rationale that led the Prophet Muhammad to attack Mecca was legitimate (as Prof LeVine intimates), so too was the justification of the war on Iraq. The Muslims marched on Mecca because the Meccans violated the Hudaibiya truce; the US invaded Iraq because it violated UN Resolution 1441. If an admittedly minor treaty violation can justify an invasion in one case, so too can a decade of non-compliance with a country's post-war disarmament obligations.

Mr Lederer is half right. Prof LeVine hasn't just failed to grasp a given principle. He's failed to grasp the concept of a principle as such.

Sean Brodrick - 8/16/2004

Well put, Mr. Safranski. The basic question of "who the heck would we sign a truce with?" should have been considered before that article was written. And for anyone who wants a basic understanding of the problem we're facing with Muslim terrorists and the Islamic world in general, I recommend the book "Imperial Hubris." It's a real eye-opener. The author may not have the whole answer, but boy, he has the handle on the problem. Here's the link at Amazon.com...


mark safranski - 8/10/2004

"A hundred years after it, they had conquered half of the Mediterranean basin. So the Hudaibiyan truce was pretty obviously an instrument of conquest. Is this what Prof LeVine has in mind?"

Yes, I believe he does though I infer he means through the West acceding to radical Islamist demands over time rather than all at once via conquest.

"Mr Lederer is half right. Prof LeVine hasn't just failed to grasp a given principle. He's failed to grasp the concept of a principle as such"

Well said Mr. Khawaja.

Ken Melvin - 8/10/2004

Where is it writ that each fight the US picks is a war? Where that war is the best or even a possible solution this particular problem with Al Qiada? Where is it writ that we are at war with the Muslim World? We can discuss anything we wish, but, if it's answers we seek, far better we first get a few particulars straight.

E. Simon - 8/9/2004

Yes, John. The author fails to grasp the principle.

Conceptually speaking, "hudna" is only a temporary measure to allow for re-arming until a renewal of conflict is possible which may result in more favorable terms. The ultimate goal to which a series of hudnas aspire is, quite evidently, not acceptable. Mr. LeVine fails to point that out. I probably would, too, if I were in his shoes.

Besides, who is this caliph with whom the hudna is supposed to be concluded? How was he appointed, over national leaders, to speak on behalf of all Muslims? How is this a "religious" war, when only one side views it as such? The other side is fighting against religiously inspired violence which targets civilians in order to coercively overthrow the political dynamic that maintains freedom of religion and everything that goes with it. The author seeks to employ terminology that he believes may allow for an equivocation between two differing actions and aims, and fails miserably.

John H. Lederer - 8/9/2004

Why didn't the Knights of St. John ask Suleiman for a truce?

Why didn't the Chinese ask Genghis Khan for a truce?

Why didn't the Armenians ask the Turks for a truce?

Why didn't the Ukrainians ask Stalin for a truce?

John H. Lederer - 8/9/2004

Why didn't the Knights of St. John ask Suleiman for a truce?

Why didn't the Chinese ask Genghis Khan for a truce?

Why didn't the Armenians ask the Turks for a truce?

Why didn't the Ukrainians ask Stalin for a truce?

mark safranski - 8/9/2004

There are so many contradictions within this article I scarcely know where to begin. A few that leap out:

* Even assuming a truce to be a good idea, a truce, like negotiations, require a responsible partner, not a vague abstraction like " the Muslim World". Having eliminated Osama bin Laden as a criminal and regional governments as corrupt and dictatorial, with whom are we going to establish such a truce ? Who will enforce it on the Muslim side ? Muhammed had incondign mastery over the Muslim community. Athens and Sparta were states with functioning governments. No such counterpart exists for " the Muslim World ".

* If the " roots of the war on terror go to the core values underlying U.S./Western policies in the Middle East" how does promoting democratic, individualistic, civic society in the Muslim world - all core Western values - solve the problem ?

* The UN is not capable of " robust" action anywhere without significant American direction and participation.

* While most Muslims are not Islamist extremists the political will to cooperate in helping catch bin Laden and al Qaida is approximately zero. Muslim nations are cooperating in the war on terror due only to a mixture of self-interest, fear of America and lavish bribes - all of which Professor LeVine would have us eschew.

* Detaching the U.S. from Israel would not, as Professor DeVine most likely supposes, allow the Palestinians to triumph or encourage a Middle-East peace agreement. The PA and Hamas would immediately launch a new terrorist offensive and the Israelis, lacking the current restraint potentially losing American subsidies, would most likely respond radically by ethnically cleansing the West Bank.

Much of what ails the Muslim world - violence, poverty, illiteracy, authoritarianism,misogny, intolerance, anti-semitism, corruption - is kept in place by the intellectual sterility of Islam being interpreted as a closed system of thought. The more rigid the interpretation the more cut-off the society is from the rest of the world.

American policy should not be constructed to try to preserve such a state of affairs or shrug off attacks for fear of aggravating the cultural sensibilities of our attacker's co-religionists. We do not need a pathway to " mediation" or dhimmitude as we adjust our Western core values to suit their authoritarian religious demands. We do neither ourselves nor Muslims any favors by such a course of appeasing those who want Sharia rule.