War on Terrorism Looks Too Much Like a War on Islam, Arab Scholar Warns

War on Terrorism Looks Too Much Like a War on Islam, Arab Scholar Warns

Dick Cheney addresses U.S. airmen in Qatar, March 2002

Washington should limit war on terrorism to campaign against al-Qaeda, Abdulkader Sinno tells UCLA audience.

Abdulkader Sinno, a fellow at the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, in a January 27 forum at UCLA contended that the Bush administration has cast its net too wide in responding to September 11 and has begun to appear as an enemy of Islam rather than only of terrorists. The lecture was sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies. Sinno holds a doctorate in political science from UCLA.

"The Bush administration," he said, "is following a strategic course that will damage American interests for the foreseeable future." George Bush and his advisors, Sinno said, are playing into the hands of al Qaeda. "Why did al-Qaeda operatives smash 4 planes into buildings and the ground? The reason was to provoke Washington into retaliating indiscriminately, harming the innocent as well as the guilty. Al-Qaeda expected this reaction and counted on it to build support for itself. To provoke the powers that be into indiscriminate retaliation is a tried and true strategy of insurgents the world over. Al-Qaeda had experience with this strategy in the fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan."

Looking at the events of 9/11 from this angle, he said, "clears up several related questions. Al-Qaeda did not claim responsibility immediately, hoping that the U.S. would respond with a very broad counterattack."

Problems in the American Response

Washington's aim, Sinno said, should be limited to capturing and disabling the al-Qaeda leadership and that of similar hard-core terrorist organizations. "It has done fairly well in this part. It has done less well in developing a winning hearts and minds strategy. Bush right after 9/11 said this was to be a war against terror and not against Islam. It has been downhill from there. There have been indiscriminate deportations of Muslims in the U.S. Hundreds have been quietly deported. Many spent months in windowless solitary confinement cells without even the opportunity to undergo questioning in which they could confront the supposed charges against them. Thousands of Muslims were interrogated by the FBI, mosques were put under surveillance. Bush described the war on terror as a crusade, a most unfortunate choice of words." Hundreds of Middle Eastern immigrants in Los Angels were incarcerated when they reported in response to a request from the INS.

"These actions confirm fears of Muslims around the world, Sinno said. "The way America treats its own Muslims is a test of whether this is a war against Islam or not. Students from Muslim countries are now widely being rejected by the U.S."

The preparations for war against Iraq, Sinno said, were discussed by administration representatives from the very first days after September 11, 2001, although there was nothing to link Iraq to the al-Qaeda attack on America. "One senior European official was quoted by the New York Times as saying that terrorists are far more likely to get a weapon of mass destruction from Pakistan than from Iraq, but that there was no way to tell the Bush administration this. Almost no one in the Middle East believes that Washington is concerned with the welfare of the Iraqi people. The unconditional support to Ariel Sharon's government in Israel also confirms the sense of an anti-Arab tilt by the U.S. government. How can the U.S. convince others that it is not an anti-Muslim war when the U.S. is always on the anti-Muslim side, from Chechnya to Iran?"

The speaker added that the United States has become too facile in declaring the inviolability of UN resolutions and other treaties to justify hostile actions it wants to take abroad, while ignoring or reneging on equally important treaties when it doesn't want to carry them out. "Muslims see U.S. actions as hypocritical because of the ease with which it is ready to break international agreements when it is in its interest, from the Kyoto treaty to the World Court."

Sinno suggested that the Bush administration should not be seduced by the great power that it holds. "Look at the Soviet history in Afghanistan. Even a great power can be worn down when it overreaches. Another strategic course that would better serve American interests would be a war on al-Qaeda and limiting military operations to actions against this agency. This would help to defuse the strong impression that this is a war against Islam. Washington should distinguish among conflicts involving Muslims worldwide. The fact that al-Qaeda supports a particular Muslim cause does not mean that such causes do not have legitimate claims that should be supported by Americans."

Published: Monday, January 27, 2003