[Nihad Awad is executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (www.cair-net.org), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, based in Washington. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
I travel frequently in the Muslim world and therefore hear the views of people from all walks of life, from diplomats and government officials to taxi drivers, university students and salesclerks.
From what they tell me, the State Department has its work cut out for it.
Before the Iraq war, winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world was not easy. Now, with U.S. troops still in Iraq and Iraqi civilians suffering so greatly, it seems nearly impossible.
Although the attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan may have been difficult to sell in the marketplace of worldwide Muslim opinion, one could at least argue that it was an act of post-9/11 self-defense. In contrast, without locating the much-hyped weapons of mass destruction, the attack on Iraq was viewed as indefensible.
It was seen as a unilateral invasion of a sovereign nation that had never attacked the United States. The major premise advanced to justify the war was false, and the Muslim world knew it.
If America had not attacked Iraq, we would have had the support of many more people than we do today. Until the attack on Iraq, many Muslim intellectuals, columnists, and other opinion leaders were defending America on a number of issues. Few of these same people would now speak out on our behalf.
America’s best ambassadors to the Muslim world are Muslim Americans. But we find our promotion of American values of religious diversity, social justice and human rights greeted with increasing skepticism.
Convincing our fellow Muslims abroad of America’s basic goodwill would be much easier had we not gone into Iraq. Anti-Americanist views would have been marginalized, not taken to the mainstream. Cooperation in the war on terror would be greater without the perception in many parts of the Muslim world that America is out to get Islam and Muslims.
A harsh reality is that without a U.S. military intervention, Saddam Hussein would probably still be in power and oppressing his people. But an equally harsh reality is that our actions in Iraq have led directly or indirectly to the death or injury of uncounted thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians. That long-suffering nation has also become a training ground for terrorists.
Before the war, Muslim opinion was summed up by the assessment of one cabdriver: “America – good people, bad government.” After our Iraq adventure, the verdict is a bitter one: “Don’t talk to me about America.”
We must all do whatever we can to reverse the trend toward anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world. American Muslims pledge to do their part in this vital effort.