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The U.S. Response to Terrorism: An Unequal Approach

June 16, 2000

As a result of a "biased" approach to counter-terrorism that "skews our whole orientation toward the Middle East," the U.S. administration is less effective, said Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, at a Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine lecture on June 12. Al-Marayati argued that the U.S. media and administration have hindered efforts to deal with perceived threats by oversimplifying and slanting the facts surrounding terrorist activities, focusing on merely punishing alleged perpetrators, and underutilizing available human resources.

Al-Marayati referred to a "double standard" in U.S. media and policy. His organization, he said, "did a comparative analysis of major U.S. newspapers": When "religion [was] an apparent motivating factor for violent incidents, religious labels were used 50 percent of the time for stories involving Muslims, ten percent of the time for stories involving Jews, and negligible amounts for stories involving Christians."

When Jewish extremist Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, it was viewed as the act of an isolated "nut," separate from Judaism. When Christians blow up abortion clinics, using God and the Bible as their justification, the media do not refer to these attacks as "Christian extremism." However, in acts of terror by Muslims, the link is made to Islam.

This trend is present "even though in America we had . . . orthodox rabbis collecting funds for [Amir's] legal defense." Al-Marayati cited the bias evidenced by the lack of ire that support for Amir raised although "one of the pillars of our counter-terrorism policy is to stop the funding of terrorist groups in America."

In addition, the policy focus on merely punishing offenders is not productive. Al-Marayati's organization has "proposed that in the policy of counter-terrorism . . . we should look to the root causes of terrorism." Although this viewpoint "has been misinterpreted as being sympathetic to terrorism," the first person to suggest it was former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Djerejian, who served under President George Bush. Djerejian preferred a "double-track approach towards . . . terrorism. The first track should [deal] with the social inequities of those societies . . . and then the second track would [involve] punishing terrorists."

Yet the recent recommendations of the U.S. State Department's National Commission on Terrorism look only at punitive ways of addressing the problem, at the risk of violating human rights. The main suggestions of the Commission were: (1) that the "military should be the major vehicle of responding to acts of terrorism on American soil;" (2) that there be a "loosening of surveillance regulations," which would include monitoring foreign students; and (3) to increase the counter-terrorism budget, although neither the way that these funds are spent nor whether such efforts are effective is clear.

Al-Marayati cited the Commission's classification of Pakistan as a country "not cooperating fully" with counter-terrorism efforts. The key conflict faced by Pakistan relates to Kashmiri separatists. "If we would invest some resources in peacemaking in that region in dealing directly" with the problems, "that would also help our counter-terrorism efforts." The U.S. has "potential friends" in Pakistan, and they will only be "further radicalized" if the West continues to marginalize them.

Even worse, contended Al-Marayati, was the Commission's response to Iran. It argued that "by stating our support for the reformists in Iran, that might be misinterpreted [as] supporting terrorism." What the U.S. is essentially telling the reformists in Iran is "don't even bother trying to reform your country because the hard-liners in your country will look at you as agents of the West and the hard-liners in the United States will . . . basically think that you are meaningless."

In addition, a valuable intellectual resource in this country - Arab Americans and Arab Muslims - has been neglected in relation to developing counter-terrorism policy. Although the State Department has held numerous briefings on terrorism, said Al-Marayati, "unfortunately, there has not been a national summit on terrorism that includes Arab Americans and American Muslims." This exclusion allows the bias that "infiltrates our counter-terrorism policy" to remain virtually unchallenged.

Al-Marayati further challenged the U.S. to make use of the human resources available not only in America but in the Middle East as well. There are two key issues in this regard, he said. First, "democracy is the easiest and most effective way of connecting with the people of the Middle East." Although on the governmental level, democracy is all too absent in the Arab world, on the grassroots level, "democracy is interwoven into the fabric of the societies there."

Secondly, U.S. officials must make an honest examination of religion as a resource. "The perception is that religion is the source of this fundamentalism, extremism, and therefore terrorism," he said. Referring to the just war theory in the traditions of Christianity and Judaism, he added that "in Islam especially, it is stipulated within the traditions of the prophet Mohammed . . . that non-combatants are off limits in any war."

Religion, like democracy, is a key element of society.

"Understanding . . . the people of the Middle East and the people of the Muslim world [will] help us in connecting with them as partners against terrorism." Instead, the U.S. maintains this condescending approach: "[W]e will not talk to anyone until they completely support every political position that we want to dictate upon them." This approach only allows extremists to have more power.

The above text is based on remarks delivered on 12 June 2000 by Salam Al-Marayati, Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine or The Jerusalem Fund. This "For the Record" was written by Wendy Lehman; it may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine.

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For The Record, Number 42, 16 June 2000

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