Obama says plans to burn the Quran would be a ‘recruiting bonanza’ for Al Qaida, yet that is what the conflict in Afghanistan is doing
In the US, a crackpot pastor threatened to burn copies of the Quran and finally cancelled his plan yesterday after appeals from the president, the secretary-general of the UN, and Angelina Jolie. In Afghanistan, five US soldiers are charged with murdering civilians at random and collecting their fingers as souvenirs, while Nato troops open fire on protests against the pastor’s plans.
In Britain, the normally hawkish International Institute for Strategic Studies says the threat from Al Qaida and the Taliban has been exaggerated, and warns that the war in Afghanistan risks becoming a “long, drawn-out disaster”.
Meanwhile, Tony Blair cancels two appearances in London to publicise his memoirs after anti-war protesters pelt him with eggs and shoes in Dublin.
Welcome to the world of the ‘war on terror’, on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. It is a world more divided, fearful and conflict-ridden than a decade ago.
“We need to win not just the military action, but to win people’s minds,” Tony Blair told CNN in November 2001, at the height of the Anglo-American bombing of Afghanistan. But the struggle for Muslim hearts and minds was allowed to morph into a seeming war on Muslims. The ‘war on terror’ has resulted only in more war and more terror.
It all seemed so different in 2001. The mayor of Tehran called his counterpart in New York to offer his condolences, as Iranians held candle-lit vigils in solidarity with grieving Americans. Palestinians lined up to donate blood to the survivors of the attacks. Islamic scholars and clerics across the Middle East denounced the murderous barbarism of Al Qaida. Polls showed that vast numbers of hearts, minds and souls in the Muslim world were with the West.
But along came Guantanamo Bay, the catastrophic and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, photos of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib in 2004, and allegations of torture and murder at the US air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2005.
By 2006, Muslims across the globe were horrified and radicalised by the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, conducted with the blessing of Blair and his partner in crime, George W. Bush.
The ‘hearts and minds’ brigade had to beat a humiliating retreat.
Hopes were raised again in 2008, with the election of Barack Obama, with a Muslim middle name and an African heritage. In his first six months in office, Obama declared that “the US is not and will never be at war with Islam”; in a speech in Cairo he symbolically “reset” relations with Muslim communities.
But Guantanamo is still open for business, and the president’s demand that the Israelis ‘freeze’ illegal colonies has fallen on deaf ears. The war on terror has been ramped up in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. The deaths of US soldiers in Afghanistan and Pakistani civilians in US air strikes have increased on Obama’s watch.
On Thursday, the US President said Pastor Jones’ plans to burn the Quran would be a “recruiting bonanza” for Al Qaida. Yet he fails to recognise how the West’s war in Afghanistan provides a similar boost to extremists — on both sides.
The “enemy” in Afghanistan, concluded the IISS report released last week, is “incentivised by the presence of foreign forces”. And inside the US the likes of Jones and right-wing Republican bigots, frothing at the mouth over the ‘Ground Zero mosque’ take their cue from aggressive leaders like Blair, Bush and Obama — who send more and more troops to fight and die abroad, in faraway Muslim countries, while denying any link between militancy and western foreign policies.
Whether the swivel-eyed priest goes ahead with his plan to immolate Islam’s holiest book is, ultimately, irrelevant.
The battle for hearts and minds was lost long ago.
Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) at the New Statesman.