Hearts, Minds, and Dollars
In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending Millions...To Change the Very Face of Islam
But the breakthrough finally came last summer, sources say, when the NSC began reworking the White House's National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. In 2003, officials had released an earlier, public version of the document, but there is a larger, classified edition that includes annexes dealing with key objectives, among them terrorism finance and winning the war of ideas. Staffers rewrote the ideas section with bold, new language and fashioned it into a strategy called Muslim World Outreach. Aimed at strengthening the hand of moderates, the plan acknowledges that America has done poorly in reaching out to them. But it goes one big step further, stating that the United States and its allies have a national security interest not only in what happens in the Islamic world but within Islam itself, according to three sources who have seen the document. It further states that because America is limited to what it can do in a religious struggle, the nation must rely on partners who share values like democracy, women's rights, and tolerance. Among those partners: allied Muslim states, private foundations, and nonprofit groups.
Approved by President Bush, the Muslim World Outreach strategy is now being implemented across the government. But it has stirred controversy. "The Cold War was easy," says a knowledgeable official. "It was a struggle against a godless political ideology. But this has theological elements. It goes to the core of American belief that we don't mess with freedom of religion. Do we have any authority to influence this debate?" The answer, for now, appears to be yes. "You do it quietly," says Zeyno Baran, a terrorism analyst at the Nixon Center who advised on the strategy. "You provide money and help create the political space for moderate Muslims to organize, publish, broadcast, and translate their work." Baran, an expert on Islam in central Asia, says the dilemma for Americans is that the ideological challenge of our day comes in the form of a religion--militant Islam, replete with its political manifestos, edicts, and armies. "Religion is just not an issue American policymakers are comfortable discussing," she says. "But we're talking about a fascist ideology."
In crafting their strategy, U.S. officials are taking pages from the Cold War playbook of divide and conquer. One of the era's great successes was how Washington helped break off moderate socialists from hard-core Communists overseas. "That's how we're thinking. . . . It's something we talk about all the time," says Peter Rodman, a longtime aide to Henry Kissinger and now the Pentagon's assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. "In those days, it was covert. Now, it's more open." Officials credit publicly funded programs like the National Endowment for Democracy, which have poured millions into Ukraine and other democratizing nations.
The role of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly come up in discussions of the new strategy, sources say. Fueled by its vast oil wealth, the Saudis are estimated to have spent up to $75 billion since 1975 to expand their fundamentalist sect, Wahhabism, worldwide. The kingdom has funded hundreds of mosques, schools, and Islamic centers abroad, spreading a once obscure sect of Islam widely blamed for preaching distrust of nonbelievers, anti-Semitism, and near-medieval attitudes toward women. Saudi-funded charities have been implicated in backing jihadist movements in some 20 countries. Saudi officials say they've cracked down on extremists, but U.S. strategists would like to see opportunities for less fundamentalist brands of Islam. Reform may be more likely to come from outside the Arab world. "Look to the periphery," predicts a knowledgeable official. "That's where change will come." One solution being pushed: offering backdoor U.S. support to reformers tied to Sufism, a tolerant branch of Islam (box, Page 32).