The U.S.-led assault against Iraq on Jan. 16 will profoundly alter the Muslim world. This historically unprecedented confrontation with a country largely populated by Muslims could likely result in tens of thousands of innocents dead, wounded or left homeless.
Ironically, it was the United States and other Western governments that helped Saddam Hussein build his arsenal of conventional, chemical, biological and potential nuclear weapons, while it was the Kuwaiti and Saudi monarchies that financed his aggression against Iran for eight years. Today, lamentably, the people of Iraq are paying the price of that policy.
Moreover, America ignored the cries of the Iraqi people when Hussein executed dissidents, gassed Kurds in Halabja and eradicated the Iraqi Islamic leadership, the most formidable opposition to his dictatorship at the time.
Now, in order to neutralize the power some of its members gave Hussein, the U.S.-led multinational force has begun to enforce sanctions that further punish the people of Iraq, even though they had no part in the decision to invade Iran or Kuwait.
The U.S. government, meantime, has established an intimate relationship with an autocratic regime in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarchy has lost any respect it had from the Muslim world for its participation in and indulgence of the destruction of Iraq.
Islamic activists in Saudi Arabia are in prison for opposing the military presence in the Arabian Peninsula, a deeply problematic development. It should be noted that suppressing free expression violates the principles that America and Islam have in common.
Throughout the Muslim world there is resentment toward the anti-democratic and un-Islamic Saudi and Kuwaiti regimes because they have hoarded and squandered their vast oil revenues to sustain lavish lifestyles when money is so desperately needed for social and economic development in the region.
Freedom movements in the gulf will place U.S. policy-makers in a predicament, possibly threatening the balance of power created to protect U.S. alliances. If the United States resists, it will be associated with autocracy and oppression. To support its policy, it will have to maintain a permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf, which will likely lead to increased tensions.
Much as the Catholic Church's "liberation theology" opposed U.S. support for military dictatorships in Latin America, Islam will side with these freedom movements for human rights and democracy in the Middle East. The United States ignored the true aspirations and sentiments of Muslim peoples when it engineered the ouster, in 1953, of the democratically elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran.
More recently, the United States commited a fatal error by refusing to regard the Palestinian intifada as anything more than the result of outside political manipulators. By so doing, it abdicated its superpower responsibilities, thus allowing Hussein the opportunity to exploit the Palestinian cause of self-determination for his selfish ends.
When the immediate gulf crisis is settled, the Palestinians will remain without a homeland and their conflict with Israel will escalate. Until the United States adopts a balanced policy toward the region, animosity--rather than peace and security--will prevail.
The catastrophic events in the gulf may reinforce the fear that Islam and America are incompatible. Quite the contrary. The lessons of the past underscore the need for reconciliation between Islam and America.
America remains largely uninformed about the predominant religion of the region--Islam. A superficial understanding of Islam breeds a superficial policy toward the Muslim world. Accordingly, America's long-term international interests are damaged.
The source of anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world is not Islam, but the West's association with dictators and their oppressive rule. Islam upholds the right of free expression and the right to self-government based on the Koranic principle of mutual consultation or government by representation.
If a lasting reconciliation between Islam and America is to be achieved, the current shortsighted U.S. policy of supporting dictators must give way to a genuine attempt at understanding and supporting the aspirations of the Muslim peoples. Toward that end, U.S. Muslims must take their place in American pluralism so they can lead the effort to establish a more constructive U.S. policy in the Muslim world.