Terms of engagement
U.S. foreign policy should reflect America's ideals
By Hume Horan
January 15, 2003
Hume Horan is a distinguished career diplomat, who has served his entire stint
at the U.S. State Department, in the Arab region of the Middle East. He is a noted
Arabist and an authority on Islam. Ambassador Horan has untiringly tried to depict
to the world the different sides of Islam and the Arab relationships with the western
Above and beyond the contributions of Ambassador Horan to the world understanding,
he is also important to us Iranians because of his not so exposed Iranian background.
Ambassador Horan's father and uncle were prominent Iranian noblemen and
politicians. In fact his father was one of the very few respected politicians of
Iran's twentieth century, both pre and post revolution.
As the Ambassador has repeatedly mentioned to me, in this great nation nothing is
impossible. He made it to his diplomatic positions through his sheer determination
and wealth of knowledge, his father's good name, although well known in the American
diplomatic circle, had no bearing on his upward mobility. Something that we Iranians
in America are fully aware of and can appreciate.
You may ask who was his father; I will suffice it to say that Ambassador Horan's
birth name is Seyed Mohammad Entezam. You guess the rest. -- Mahmoud
Those Young Arab Muslims and Us
The months that have passed since September 11, 2001, have prompted much reflection
among Arabists, as among all Americans. We professional Arabists, in particular,
have asked ourselves this question: Why have young, male, Arab Muslims figured so
prominently in the terrorist annals of the past quarter-century?
To name but a few incidents, there were the 1970 assassination of defense attaché
Bob Perry in Amman, and of Ambassador Cleo Noel and his deputy, Curt Moore, in Sudan
in 1972; the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983; the two separate
bombings of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983 and 1985; the 1985 murder of Leon
Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro; the 1988 murder of Lt. Col. William Higgins
in south Lebanon; the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center; the 1998 destruction
of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam; the 2000 attack on the USS Cole;
and then the awfulness of September 11. Long as this list may seem, this is by no
There are various reasons for the anger that some young Muslims, raised in the
sterile hatcheries of the refugee camps, or the religious schools of Saudi Arabia,
feel toward us. Most often mentioned is our support of Israel. But this issue deserves
a closer look.
Not About Palestine
It is sad but true that America has never gotten much credit for what it actually
does for the Palestinians. For half a century, we have provided a plurality of the
funding to the United Nation's Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinians.
For nearly as long, we have led international efforts to advance the Middle East
President Clinton personally oversaw the intensive negotiations that led to the
1993 Oslo agreement and the creation of the Palestinian Authority. He devoted two
weeks, moreover, of his waning presidency to sketching out and attempting to cajole
the parties to endorse the outline of an imaginative agreement - only to have Yasir
Arafat refuse even to accept it as a basis for discussion. And we rarely hear of
U. S. efforts to succor Muslims in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
Yet once, when I appealed to Saudi foreign minister Prince Sa'ud to give more
assistance to UNRWA, he replied: "You Americans created the refugee problem.
You solve it." In response, I asked if he could imagine, had a catastrophe driven
half a million Canadians into North Dakota, Idaho, and Minnesota, that three generations
later, those populations would still be held in refugee camps? How differently the
half-million Jews driven from Arab lands in 1948 were received by Israel, compared
to how the half-million Arabs driven from Palestine that same year were received
by their Arab neighbors.
The truth is that for Arab governments, the Palestinian issue is - among other
things - a convenient tactic. By "waving the bloody flag," Arab governments
can distract their subjects from misrule, oppression, and misery at home. In particular,
Palestinians' grievances against Israel have their match in the half-century of neglect
and oppression they have endured from supposedly "brother" Arab regimes.
In fact, as things stand now, even if the Palestinian -Israeli dispute were quickly
solved by exterior diktat, we would still be the target of alienated young Arab Muslims.
Why? Because the Arabs' dispute with Israel is only a symptom of a deeper problem,
one that cannot be solved by shuttle diplomacy, special envoys or conferences at
This deeper problem exists at two levels. Superficially, it has to do with the
failure of Arab political and intellectual institutions to address the needs of their
young populations. How can being a citizen of Syria, or Lebanon, or Egypt, or Algeria,
or Sudan give young Arabs the sense of patriotic identity that we get from being
citizens of the United States? Arab states have little emotional hold on the loyalty
of their populations; most Arab regimes are corrupt and morally discredited.
This particularly applies to Saudi Arabia, which has shored itself up externally
through its ties to the United States, while at home, it both has placated and suppressed
opposition by giving "power of attorney" for social affairs to reactionary,
xenophobic Muslim clerics (ulema). What personal attachment can Saudi Arabians -
60 percent of whom are under eighteen - feel for their rulers? he king and many of
the leading princes are all in their seventies, and must seem more remote from most
Saudis than, say, George Washington is from us.
Arab intellectuals have also failed the young Arabs. Where are the Arab Reinhold
Neibuhrs, Christopher Dawsons, Karl Barths, Martin Bubers? Where are the politically
engaged intellectuals who can help a young Arab make coherent, responsible sense
of a troubling modern world? They scarcely exist in the Arab world. The few that
even try are threatened, jailed, forced into exile - or worse.
In January 1985, I contacted the Sudanese presidency to plead for the life of
a freethinking Islamic reformer, Mahmud Muhammad Taha. During his trial for heresy
under Muslim canon law (shari'a), Taha had refused to recant his liberal views and
was condemned to death. I was told that the president would not speak to me and that
no appeal was possible from the ruling of the religious tribunal. Taha was publicly
Accordingly, many young and sensitive Arabs - especially members of the educated
elite - are deprived of moral and intellectual leadership from their own religious
institutions. Bereft of meaningful guidance, they use violence to fill the void,
to provide some sort of an answer - even a negative one - to "Who am I?"
Jellyfishes, many of them are drawn to the rocks of Usama bin Ladin's Luddite worldview.
More fundamentally, though, all Arab Muslims - and not just young, educated males
- are challenged cosmologically by the modern world. From the start, Muslims saw
Islamic society as a "City of God" upon earth. Islamic society was built
upon the perfect teachings of God's own revealed word, dictated and unalterable:
the Qur'an. In a spirit reminiscent of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, instructions for
even the minutiae of everyday life were divinely vouchsafed therein. Conveniently,
Islam's immediate rapid expansion, its political and cultural triumphs, represented
incontrovertible evidence to Muslims that God had provided mankind with his perfect
and final instruction, for the present and evermore. And Arabs saw God's revelation
of the Qur'an to the Arabs and in Arabic as a mark of special divine preference.
From a Muslim's standpoint, the challenges before Muhammad were of a magnitude
that, indeed, could only have been overcome by divine guidance and inspiration. He
was the prophet, the bearer of God's final revelation. But given Arabia's political
anarchy, its social and intellectual disorder, and the proximity of the Sassanid
(Persian) and Byzantine empires, he also had to found the Islamic state. He needed
to establish the political and legal institutions that could protect and give lasting
expression to his teachings.
As a religious figure, Muhammad was more a Moses than a Christ. Yet in Sunni Islam,
both the secular and religious sides of Muhammad's mission came to be equally sanctified
and immutable - and in theory have remained so to the present. Muslims were supreme
in worldly affairs because they were right, and they were right because they were
supreme. Only in the eighteenth century did this comforting, complacent alliance
between revelation and power begin to break up. That breakup has continued - and
accelerated - ever since.
Under Christianity, in contrast, the relationship of politics to revelation was
very different. The Christian revelation came to pass under the Roman imperium and
Rome's established legal and political institutions. Early Christianity tended to
accept them as givens. It expected an early return of the messiah and sought its
center in the spiritual, otherworldly aspects of Christ's revelation. Christianity's
development, accordingly, was not much constrained by divine prescriptions for the
practical organization of man's life upon earth.
So how should a young Arab Muslim today answer the great question, "How,
then, should I live?" and its corollaries: "How do we reconcile the Qur'an's
assurance of divine favor and worldly power with daily proofs that we Muslims are
falling behind? That we are falling behind not just the United States and Europe,
but even their despised 'step-child' Israel? Where today are the happy, successful,
and above all, powerful states of Islam? How can God allow his people to be so confounded?
Are our tribulations a punishment for our flawed practice of his teachings?"
An increasingly common answer to all these doubts is this: "I should resolve
to become ever-more-and-more intensely and rigorously observant."
Alas! This prescription will never bring relief to the sense of political or moral
abandonment of many young Arabs. They are trapped, so to speak, at the bottom of
a well, and try to escape by excavating downward - to China. The solution only makes
the problem worse. Their anger and frustration at the West grows, and particularly
toward its standard-bearer, the United States. Our worldly success, our mere existence,
threatens to refute those beliefs and traditions that give meaning to the lives of
What is to be done? The longer-term solution to the tribulations of Arab Muslim
civilization must be found in the inner resources and recuperative powers of Islam
itself. But here we encounter another problem: the passive, rigid, uncreative way
in which Islamic culture has been transmitted since the Islamic Middle Ages. Modern
Arab societies lack a tradition of self-criticism, of rational analysis.
Without the ability to analyze successfully the doings of the world around them,
or even of their own societies, the Arab public ego has experienced many reverses.
It has become defensive and insecure. Public discourse is dominated by a zeitgeist
that attributes any bad news to the workings of various exterior, malevolent powers:
British intelligence, the Zionist conspiracy, the U.S. Central Intelligence - but
never to one's own shortcomings. Such an alibi absolves Arab egos from any blame
or responsibility for every setback.
Consider one fairly recent example: the Egyptian government's refusal even to
consider the possibility that on October 31, 1999, the pilot of Egypt Air Flight
990 deliberately flew his plane into the ocean, killing himself, the other crew members,
and the 271 passengers aboard. To investigators at the National Transportation Safety
Board, the cause of the crash was obvious: the pilot had intentionally pushed the
aircraft to its doom. But, to this day, the Egyptian government uncritically pursues
ever-more ingenious and far-fetched strategies of denial. Multiplied across any number
of similar instances, however, such denial leaves Arabs feeling themselves to be
impotent, the playthings of unseen but always hostile forces.
It is hard for us Westerners, even "speaking as a friend," to help heal
the uncomprehending, wounded pride of a great civilization. We will not be listened
to. There is no ecumenical tradition in Islam. There are mosques all over America
- there is even one in Rome - but Christians may not bring so much as a Bible into
Saudi Arabia. It is inconceivable that anywhere in the Islamic world, the head of
a divinity school would establish professorships in Buddhism, women's studies, and
the role of religion in international conflict, as Father Bryan Hehir did at Harvard.
In Islamic cultures, the foreigner's extended hand receives no response; indeed,
the gesture is likely to be rebuffed or misconstrued.
Similarly, a Muslim might try to proselytize a Christian or a Jew. But for him
to engage in a genuine dialogue with them would suggest that their faiths contained
some fraction of truth not found in the Qur'an and from which Muslims might benefit
for the more perfect worship and understanding of God. And such a possibility is
literally inconceivable to a true Islamic believer.
I'll not forget King Faysal's polite but frosty dismissal of my naive suggestion
- as a young chargé d'affaires in Jeddah in 1973 - that much benefit might
accrue to both the West and to the Arab world, were Saudi Arabia to send some young
Islamic scholars to divinity schools in the United States. A royal adviser afterwards
reproached me for raising the question: "You were asking his majesty to mingle
truth with falsehood!"
Terms of Engagement
What could Muslims themselves do to rejoin the modern world on terms consistent
with our times and with Islamic revelation? Some thoughts follow.
First and foremost, Muslims must try to escape from the flies-in-amber position
in which history has placed them. What was revealed ever so long ago as canonical
for Islam's secular and spiritual life has become its prison. Islam, like other religions,
dazzled and overwhelmed by the deity's transcendent force, has elaborately wrought
to tame and to confine that force so that it may be safely observed, or even put
to useful work, by mortals. Or to put it another way: not unlike the clerical class
of other faiths, the Islamic ulema have made of religion a sort of divine containment
vessel - a rule book, a mechanical code that promises power and salvation to true
The various Muslim clerics and their supporters throughout the Arab world will
naturally fight any challenge to the lucrative monopoly of interpreting the Qur'an
they have enjoyed for well over a millennium. But meanwhile, the world is changing
ever faster about them; it is leaving them, and the societies they purport to guide,
further and further behind. The latest catastrophic failure of militant, political
Islam may represent the death throes of a crusade that went badly astray. After September
11, and after the Taliban's destruction in Afghanistan, will many young Muslims still
want to emulate Usama bin Ladin? Who now remembers the mahdi, defeated at Omdurman
by Kitchener in 1898, or the much-feared Assassins of Alamut, destroyed by Hulagu
Khan in 1256?
One may hope that the Taliban's destruction, in
particular, will clear the way for Muslims to look again at where they are headed.
At the macro level, young Muslims may begin to see the heretical nature of aggressive,
political Islam, which diverts its followers from the worship of God and the pursuit
of social justice, to a distracting crusade for power in this world. There is an
idolatrous quality to political Islam that makes earthly power the principal object
of Muslim aspiration. One thinks of the Roman historian Livy's denunciation of any
religion "in which the will of the gods is offered as a pretext for crimes."
And at the micro level, one sees young Muslims not refuting, but simply ignoring,
the dysfunctional aspects of their tradition. Many sincere, pious Muslim men and
women are making their own "right reason" accommodations to modernity.
They are acting as many Catholics do, following their own consciences on birth control
and other social issues - despite papal claims to infallibility in faith and morals.
With the Qur'an widely accessible to more-or-less educated Muslims, Sunni Islam
may be ready for its own Protestant Reformation. God in Islam has always had a personal,
direct relationship with his believers: "I am closer to you even than the artery
of your neck," says the Qur'an. Might Muslims - from the ground up - be ready
to break from the orthodoxy fastened upon them so long ago? The present moment may
be right for the appearance of a chastened, realistic, more flexible Muslim approach
to the twenty - first century. If individual Muslims can strike out for themselves,
and if necessary, re-open the "gates of ijtihad" - that is, to legitimize
new interpretations by contemporary scholars - there may be hope for their community's
reconciliation with our time.
In Islam's Arab heartland - Egypt, Syria, and Jordan - such an initiative might
creatively be led by educated, assertive, Arab professional women. Elsewhere, such
an effort might occur in the Muslim diaspora - in Indonesia, or India, or even the
United States. And what about the Shi'ite branch of Islam? It would be ironic if
Shi'ites, who accord great interpretive authority to their jurisconsults, the great
ayatollahs, should lead the Islamic world to a more relevant and better adapted form
There may be hope. But, as our distinguished late ambassador
to Saudi Arabia, William Porter, used to say, "Hope is a good companion, but
a poor guide." As fellow monotheists, as admirers of Islam's contributions to
civilization, we may hope that Islam will not let itself be trapped in an obscurantist
cul-de-sac. History, however, is unsparingly Darwinian toward societies disfavored
by natural selection.
History serves up winners and losers. Where now is classical civilization? In
our cultural genes, in our museums. Byzantium? It survives as a truncated, disputatious
fraction of "that which once was great." The tempo of the modern world
is accelerating. It is harder and harder for non-performing societies to keep up,
much less catch up. And, imagine the violence, the pain, the awful grinding, if Islamic
civilization, half-brother to the West, were to be drawn into history's rock crusher!
As friends of Islam, we can stand watch by the bedside - and hope and pray.
How America Can Help
But, there are a few other things we could do. I would propose first, that when
speaking or writing in English, we all stop using "Allah" when we mean
"God." A reader or listener might conclude that the God of Muslims is horrific,
a Moloch, or something drawn from Aztec mythology. If we can't agree that we worship
the same God and that he listens equally to all our prayers - the prayers of Jews,
Christians, and Muslims - we will never agree on the smaller issues, such as the
Second, the United States, with its never-equaled political, economic,
and military might, should peremptorily put a stop to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It has already wasted too many lives, taken up too much of our attention, and consumed
resources that could have helped move the area forward. It has been too much of a
The expression "confidence-building measures" has a fantastical, even
cynical air of unreality to it, at least as applied in the Middle East. The so-called
"peace process" has proven to be little more than a diplomatic perpetual-motion
machine. It provides excuses for all to keep things on hold. Between Arab anti-Semitism
and Jewish fear of Arab revanchism, no agreement is likely to be reached or to hold
unless we take a strong hand.
To us and to many other friends of the region, the outlines of a settlement are
pretty clear: they would resemble the Camp David proto-accords. There would be a
Palestinian state committed to living in peace with Israel; Israel's West Bank settlements
- a bone in the throat to any peace effort - would be dismantled. There would be
security guarantees for both Israel and the Palestinians. As a corollary to any agreement,
there should be measures in place to monitor the sort of Palestinian state that would
emerge; one Taliban-dominated state has been enough.
We should work hard to enlist the association and support of our Western allies
in this effort. But we should not get bogged down in details. We should ignore and
bypass those who would slow our peace efforts by reviving objections drawn from over
fifty years of failed peacemaking. It has been my experience that when the United
States makes it clear to all the world that we are utterly determined that something
must be done, reality tends to rearrange itself in a complaisant pattern. Once we
do, Arab and Israeli leaders could turn to their populations and say with a shrug,
"What could I do against the might and desire of the United States?"
Third, our foreign policy should more forcefully and consistently reflect America's
ideals. When Secretary Powell eloquently denounced the Taliban's oppression of women,
was I the only listener to think he would have made just as much sense if he'd said
"Saudi," whenever "Afghan" was mentioned?\
government wants, it says, to reach Muslims' hearts and minds, to reach "the
street." But how to do it? There is a lesson for us in the political landscape
of the Middle East. Where governments are friendly to us, we are often unpopular
with the Arab street. Where the regimes are unfriendly to us, we are usually popular.
The reason may be that in one case we are seen as a government, as an accomplice
to the unpopular local power, while in the other we are viewed as a liberating civilization.
American exceptionalism has never been more clearly demonstrated than after the
events of September 11 and our victory in Afghanistan. We stand unique in world history,
virtually unconstrained by traditional considerations of the balance of power. For
the moment, we face no credible adversary. Therefore, we are free to make fuller
use of the source of our strength and our appeal. Yet, in Reinhold Niebuhr's words,
"We should be humble hawks." We should seize this millenarian moment and
work for an international community that better reflects our ideals, which are neither
of the East nor of the West, and whose appeal transcends most cultures.
Hume Horan was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer from 1960 to 1998, serving as
Ambassador to the Ivory Coast, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea.
He is the author of To the Happy Few, a novel about terror and the Sudan (Electric
City Press, 1996). This article first appeared in the Foreign Service Journal.
He currently spends his time commentating on NBC, MSNBC and CNN.
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