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Washington is fighting back. After repeated missteps since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government has embarked on a
Hearts, Minds, and Dollars In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending MillionsTo Change the Very Face of Islam
By David E. Kaplan
campaign of political warfare unmatched since the height of the Cold War. From military psychological-operations teams and CIA covert operatives to openly funded media and think tanks, Washington is plowing tens of millions of dollars into a campaign to influence not only Muslim societies but Islam itself.
The White House has approved a classified new strategy, dubbed Muslim World Outreach, that for the first time states that the United States has a national security interest in influencing what happens within Islam. Because America is, as one official put it, "radioactive" in the Islamic world, the plan calls for working through third parties--moderate Muslim nations, foundations, and reform groups--to promote shared values of democracy, women's rights, and tolerance. ...A December report by the CIA-based National Intelligence Council predicts that masses of unemployed, alienated youth in the Arab world "will swell the ranks of those vulnerable to terrorist recruitment." ...Those working on covert plans tried to jump-start an information offensive that would discredit al Qaeda and its allies. One staffer, Arnold Abraham, ran a panel designed to attack Islamist propaganda. ...Among the ideas: using music, comics, poetry, and the Internet to get across America's views to the Arab world. ...Another key factor was religion. Going after the roots of Islamic fundamentalism would drag Washington into a battle involving mosques, mullahs, and Scripture, argued some, and that went against 200 years of U.S. church-state relations. The inevitable turf wars also came into play. The war of ideas cut across otherwise-neat lines of responsibility in bureaucratic Washington. ...The administration kicked off major new initiatives in foreign broadcasting--Radio Sawa, a pop music-news station in 2002, and Alhurra, a satellite-TV news network in 2004, both aimed at Arab audiences. The CIA's strategic influence unit and the Pentagon's psyop group also won major funding increases. ...But the breakthrough finally came last summer, sources say, when the NSC began reworking the White House's National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. ... A strategy called Muslim World Outreach. Aimed at strengthening the hand of moderates, the plan acknowledges that America has done poorly in reaching out to them. But it goes one big step further, stating that the United States and its allies have a national security interest not only in what happens in the Islamic world but within Islam itself, according to three sources who have seen the document. (America) .. must rely on partners who share values like democracy, women's rights, and tolerance. Among those partners: allied Muslim states, private foundations, and nonprofit groups.
Approved by President Bush, the Muslim World Outreach strategy is now being implemented across the government. But it has stirred controversy. ..."You do it quietly," says Zeyno Baran, a terrorism analyst at the Nixon Center who advised on the strategy. "You provide money and help create the political space for moderate Muslims to organize, publish, broadcast, and translate their work." Baran, an expert on Islam in central Asia, says the dilemma for Americans is that the ideological challenge of our day comes in the form of a religion--militant Islam, replete with its political manifestos, edicts, and armies. "Religion is just not an issue American policymakers are comfortable discussing," she says. "But we're talking about a fascist ideology." ...One of the era's great successes was how Washington helped break off moderate socialists from hard-core Communists overseas. "That's how we're thinking ...The role of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly come up in discussions of the new strategy, sources say. Fueled by its vast oil wealth, the Saudis are estimated to have spent up to $75 billion since 1975 to expand their fundamentalist sect, Wahhabism, worldwide. The kingdom has funded hundreds of mosques, schools, and Islamic centers abroad, spreading a once obscure sect of Islam widely blamed for preaching distrust of nonbelievers, anti-Semitism, and near-medieval attitudes toward women. Saudi-funded charities have been implicated in backing jihadist movements in some 20 countries. Saudi officials say they've cracked down on extremists, but U.S. strategists would like to see opportunities for less fundamentalist brands of Islam. Reform may be more likely to come from outside the Arab world. "Look to the periphery," predicts a knowledgeable official. "That's where change will come." One solution being pushed: offering backdoor U.S. support to reformers tied to Sufism, a tolerant branch of Islam.
Another strategy being pursued is to make peace with radical Muslim figures who eschew violence. At the top of the list: the Muslim Brotherhood, the pre-eminent Islamist society, founded in 1928 and now with tens of thousands of followers worldwide. Many brotherhood members, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, are at serious odds with al Qaeda. "I can guarantee that if you go to some of the unlikely points of contact in the Islamic world, you will find greater reception than you thought," says Milt Bearden, whose 30-year CIA career included long service in Muslim societies. "The Muslim Brotherhood is probably more a part of the solution than it is a part of the problem." Indeed, sources say U.S. intelligence officers have been meeting not only with the Muslim Brotherhood but also with members of the Deobandi sect in Pakistan, whose fundamentalism schooled the Taliban and inspired an army of al Qaeda followers. Cooperative clerics have helped tamp down fatwas calling for anti-American jihad and persuaded jailed militants to renounce violence. These sensitive ties have led to at least one breakthrough--the July arrest in Pakistan of al Qaeda's Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, whose computer held surveillance files of the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank, and other financial targets. Khan's capture led to a dozen arrests in London. "Engagement," says one official, "is absolutely key."
Among (those new moves): pouring money into neutralizing militant, anti-U.S. preachers and recruiters. "If you found out that Mullah Omar is on one street corner doing this, you set up Mullah Bradley on the other street corner to counter it," explains one recently retired official. In more-serious cases, he says, recruiters would be captured and "interrogated."
Many of the shock troops for America's new war of ideas are coming ... from ... U.S. Agency for International Development. In the three years since 9/11, spending by the government's top purveyor of foreign aid has nearly tripled to over $21 billion, and more than half of that is now destined for the Muslim world. Along with more traditional aid for agriculture and education are the kind of programs that have spurred change in the former Soviet Union--training for political organizers and funding for independent media. Increasingly, those grants are going to Islamic groups.
U.S. funds are backing restoration of Muslim holy sites, including historic mosques in Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. In Kirgizstan, embassy funding helped restore a major Sufi shrine. In Uzbekistan, money has gone to preserve antique Islamic manuscripts, including 20 Korans, some dating to the 11th century. In Bangladesh ...
Working behind the scenes, USAID now helps fund over 30 Muslim organizations in the country. Among the programs: media production, workshops for Islamic preachers, and curriculum reform for schools from rural academies to Islamic universities. One talk show on Islam and tolerance is relayed to radio stations in 40 cities and sends a weekly column to over a hundred newspapers. Also on the grants list: Islamic think tanks that are fostering a body of scholarly research showing liberal Islam's compatibility with democracy and human rights.
U.S. funds also saved from water damage that nation's oldest mosque, built in A.D. 642, yet Egyptian officials were reluctant to put USAID's red, white, and blue sign outside the building.
For those worried about future generations of jihadists, what to do about madrasahs--traditional Islamic schools--is a major concern. ... In Uganda ... the embassy announced it was funding construction of three Islamic elementary schools. "We're in the madrasah business," quipped one terrorism analyst. In the nearby Horn of Africa, the U.S. military is running a model program aimed at winning hearts and minds by, among other things, directly competing with the madrasahs. Military officers gather intelligence on where militants plan to start religious schools, Marine Maj. Gen. Samuel Helland told U.S. News ; they then target those areas by building up new public schools and the local infrastructure.
Elsewhere, U.S. officials are working quietly through third parties to train madrasah teachers to add math, science, civics, and health to their curriculum. The most ambitious program is in Pakistan, where sensitivities run so high that allegations of U.S. funding are enough to prompt parents to pull their children from schools, USAID staffers say. The agency is working through private foundations and the Pakistan Ministry of Education on what officials call a "model madrasah" program that may eventually include over a thousand schools. Drawing the line on engagement, though, can be tough.
U.S. taxpayer dollars going to Islamic radio, Islamic TV, Islamic schools, mosques, and monuments--no wonder some officials find the strategy controversial. USAID staffers argue that as long as they offer assistance to all groups and their grants are meant for secular activities, they are allowed to fund religious organizations. "We structure our programming to be in compliance with 'establishment clause' case law," says Jeffrey Grieco, a USAID spokesman, referring to the First Amendment's church-state divide. But some legal experts question whether America's growing involvement with Islam is legal, given that American courts have found that tax dollars may not be used to support religion.
The increased focus, already, it seems, is bearing fruit. A poll of Indonesians conducted last month after the tsunami relief efforts led by the U.S. military found that America's unfavorability rating had plunged from a horrid 83 percent to 54 percent; support for bin Laden, by contrast fell by more than half. ...The lesson Washington needs to learn, Harrison says, goes back to the Cold War--that the world matters and America needs to stay engaged. "You never declare victory," she warns. "You do not declare that it's the end of history and go home. The job is to continue pushing the boulder up and up, to keep investing, keep connecting."