The newly released tape of Osama bin Ladan marks the second time in two years that that al-Qa'eda leader has offered a "truce" to the West in the war on terror in return for unspecified changes in policy towards the Muslim world, particularly vis-à-vis Iraq, Palestine and Saudi Arabia.
Quite naturally, bin Laden's offer was rejected by European leaders in 2004 just as it's been rejected by the Bush Administration today. But while our leaders are right to reject the messenger, Americans would be wrong to dismiss the idea of a truce with the Muslim world, or even with radical Islam.
A truce does not equal capitulation to terrorists or letting Muslims off the hook for crimes committed in the name of their religion. Certainly, European leaders were right to reject the last truce offer made by bin Laden, in April, 2004. Criminals can’t offer truces, and bin Laden and other terrorists are international criminals whom the world community has an obligation to bring to justice.
But states as well as communities and even cultures can make truces. And in so doing they can make demands of the “other” side that are crucial to resolving the conflicts necessitating a truce in the first place.
Indeed, there is ample precedent for this kind of truce in Islam. The Prophet Mohammed agreed to the first Muslim truce in 628. Known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, it was between the nascent Muslim community and the Meccan pagans, and lasted for two years before being broken by the Meccans.
More recently, during the past three decades an increasingly permanent Muslim presence in Europe has led Muslims to consider that region not dar al-harb (the Abode of War, the traditional Muslim categorization of all non-Muslim lands), but dar al-hudnaa land of truce between Muslims and non-Muslims, or even dar al-Islam, a land of peace where Muslims can feel at home. Despite the growing sense of alienation among many young Muslims, religiously inspired Muslim violence is still the rare exception in Europe.
What would a truce offer consist of? On the American side, it must begin with an admission of how much our policies have violated the very principles on which our country was founded. As an elderly Iraqi lawyer asked me--after first quoting Franklin and Jefferson--in the middle of an especially bloody Baghdad afternoon, "If these are your ideals, what are you doing in Iraq?" For Muslims, most of whom know the history of US foreign policy far better than most Americans, the psychological impact of hearing us own up to the significant pain our policies have caused to their societies is hard to overstate. It would certainly do more to win hearts and minds than either the US military’s much-vaunted “full spectrum dominance” or a spectrum’s worth of American-sponsored radio and TV stations.
Second, the US and NATO should halt all offensive military actions in the Muslim world and outline a plan for the removal of troops from Muslim countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq. We may be trying to kill al-Qa'eda second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri, but it's hard to argue with his claim that "there will never be peace" as long as the US occupies Muslim countries and supports corrupt and authoritarian regimes.
Third, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and related terror networks must be transformed from a war of vengeance into what it always should have been: a vigorous international effort led by the US, the UN and, where relevant, European and other governments to apprehend, prosecute and punish people and groups involved in the September 11, 2001, assaults and similar attacks.
Fourth, military and diplomatic agreements and aid to all Middle Eastern countries that are not democratic or don’t respect the rights of the peoples under their control should be suspended. Yes, this means Israel; but also Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other so-called "moderate" American allies. Such a step is crucial to stopping the regional arms race and cycle of violence that make peace and democratic reform impossible.
Finally, a truce should outline how the hundreds of billions of dollars that would have been devoted to the “war on terror” would be redirected toward the kind of infrastructural, educational and social projects the 9/11 Commission Report argues are key to winning the “war on terror.” This will give people hope that a positive future, rather than just more empty rhetoric, is possible.
On the Muslim side, a truce offer should consist first of owning up to the incredible damage that terrorism has done to its victims, and a commitment to use non-violence to pursue opposition to the policies of their own governments, or of the United States, Israel or other non-Muslim states. Second, it should involve a recognition that the continual Israel-, Jew- and US-bashing that defines much of (but, it must be stressed, by no means all) political discourse in the Muslim world, is as ugly and immoral as it is inaccurate and unhelpful. On both sides, a commitment to making the Middle East a nuclear free region must be a cornerstone for any commitment to stop the violence.
Of course, the Bush Administration and its "war time president" cannot declare a truce with the Muslim world. His Manichean world, divided between good and evil, precludes the idea of admitting mistakes, compromising with adversaries, or accepting, as the Pentagon warned the Mr. Bush, that "they hate us for our policies, not our freedoms." In fact, there is just too much money, oil and strategic power invested in the status quo for any administration, democratic or republican, substantively to change the basis of US policy towards the region.
That means it's up to the millions of ordinary citizens of the US and Muslim world, who are after all the main victims of the war on terror, to take the truly radical step of calling a truce and demanding our leaders stop the violence and engage in serious discussion about how to heal our increasingly fragile planet. The alternative is a long and ultimately catastrophic conflict between the West and Islam.