The newly released tape of Osama bin Ladan marks the second time in two years that that the al-Qa’eda leader has offered a “truce” to the West in the war on terror in return for various changes in policy towards the Muslim world, particularly in Iraq, Palestine and Saudi Arabia.
Quite rightly, bin Laden’s truce offers have been rejected by European and American leaders alike. But while rejecting the messenger, Americans would be wrong to dismiss the idea of a truce with the Muslim world, 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. Criminals such as bin Laden and his terrorist colleagues can no more offer a truce than could Al Capone or Pablo Escobar; they are murderers whom the world community must bring to justice.
But states, and even communities and cultures can make truces. And in so doing they can make demands of the other side that are crucial to resolving the conflicts that spawned the violence a truce is meant to stop.
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 as dar al-harb (the Abode of War, the traditional Muslim categorization of all non-Muslim lands), but rather as dar al-hudna, a land of truce, and even dar al-Islam, a land of peace. Despite the growing sense of alienation among many young Muslims, religiously inspired Muslim violence is still the rare exception among Europe’s 12 millions Muslims.
What would a “Muslim-American truce” consist of? On the American side, it must begin with an admission of how much US policies have violated our country’s founding ideals. For Muslims, the psychological impact of hearing us own up to the significant pain our policies have caused to their societies would be hard to overestimate.
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 all Muslim countries. 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 an perpetual state of war into what it always should have been: a vigorous international effort to apprehend, prosecute and punish those involved in the September 11, 2001, assaults and similar attacks.
Finally, military and non-humanitarian 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, systematic oppression, and cycle of violence that together make peace and democratic reform impossible.
As the weaker party, the Muslim world might have less to offer, but its obligations would be no less important than those of the other side. They would include, first, owning up to the incredible damage that terrorism has done to its victims, and a commitment to use non-violence to pursue the often well-justified opposition to policies of their own and other governments. Second, Muslim leaders must recognize that the continual Israel-, Jew- and US-bashing that defines much of the political discourse in the Muslim world is as ugly and immoral as it is inaccurate and unhelpful.
Finally, both sides must commit to making the Middle East a nuclear free region as the cornerstone of any commitment to stop the violence.
Sadly, neither the Bush Administration, with its Manichean world view, unwillingness to admit mistakes or compromise, and commitment to “full- spectrum dominance” of the region, nor most autocratic and corrupt Muslim leaders, have an interest in calling a truce in a war that is the foundation of their power. That means that it’s up to the millions of ordinary citizens of the US and Muslim world to call our own truce and begin a much-needed discussion about how to heal our increasingly fragile planet. The alternative is a long and ultimately catastrophic conflict between the West and Muslim world, exactly what Osama bin Laden had in mind on September 11, 2001.