Address ‘Root Causes’ of Terrorism, Muslim Envoys Urge Obama

By Patrick Goodenough | February 5, 2009 | 5:16 AM EST

Muslim students at the biggest Islamic seminary in Karachi, Pakistan, on Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009. President Obama reportedly plans to deliver a speech in a key Islamic capital, aimed at improving U.S. ties with the Muslim world. (AP Photo)

( – Looking ahead to President Obama’s planned address to the Muslim world, leading Islamic governments say improving relations between Islam and the West will require a review of anti-terror policies and a recognition of the need to address what they say are the “root causes” of terrorism.
Obama indicated last December that during his first 100 days in office, he wanted deliver a major address in a key Islamic capital aimed at improving America’s ties with the Muslim world.
At a meeting this week hosted by Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, a government advisory body, ambassadors from Muslim countries in anticipation of that speech put forward recommendations which they said would help to improve relations.
The need to identify and address the “root causes” of terrorism was stressed by several speakers, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict high on the list.
Saudi Ambassador Ali Awadh Asseri said discrimination led to discontent, citing the Palestinians. Also alluding to the Palestinians, Syrian envoy Muhammad Raid Ismat called for a distinction between terrorism and what he called a legitimate struggle for a homeland.
Iranian Ambassador Mashaallah Shakeri said attempts to improve relations with Islam were being harmed by Western sanctions, support for dictators, and the assumption that war was a solution to problems.
“President Bush spoke enough to the world,” he said. “Now the U.S. must listen prior to talking.”
Participants said Islam was misunderstood in the West, and they took issue with the linking of terrorism and Islam.
“Bloodshed and suicide attacks have nothing to do with Islam,” said Pakistan’s religious affairs minister, Hamid Saeed Kazmi. Such activities were being carried out by elements wanting to defame Muslims, he told the meeting.
The “root cause” debate pits those who say that terrorism is the result of national issues – such as poverty and economic injustice, the Palestinian and Kashmiri conflicts, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – against those who argue that it is driven by a jihadist ideology rooted in Islamic teaching.
Supporting the former view, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband last month wrote that the notion of a war on terror had been “misleading and mistaken,” and argued that Islamic terrorist groups’ motivations were disparate.
“The more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists, or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common,” he said.
Miliband highlighted the dispute over Kashmir, and said its resolution “would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms.”
Miliband came under fire in India, with politicians and media labeled him a “root cause theorist” for linking terrorism against India, including the Mumbai attacks last November, with Kashmir. His comments were also criticized at home, where Daily Telegraph columnist Con Coughlin said they “suggest a worrying misconception about the nature of the conflict Britain and its allies are engaged in fighting.”
Poverty, despair, injustice
Islamic leaders hope Obama will follow a similar approach.
In an open letter to the president coinciding with his inauguration, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) attributed terrorism to “deprivation, poverty, despair and, most importantly, political injustice.”
“The decades-long suffering of the Palestinian people provides only the most recent and potent illustration of the link between oppression, injustice, and violence,” said the OIC, calling for “an urgent and just remedy.”
Abdul Aziz al-Tuwaijri, head of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a Morocco-based body established by the OIC, wants Obama to take a new approach with regard to what he calls Islam’s “just causes.”
“Will America be a friend to the Arab and Muslim nation, which suffers from many problems as a result of imbalance of international justice scale, and America’s silence towards the crimes against humanity committed by Israel in Palestine and by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?” he asked in a recent article.
In past statements about terrorism, Obama has cited some of the “root cause” arguments.
A month after 9/11, Obama – then a state senator – expressed support for the retaliatory military operation in Afghanistan, but also raised concerns about what he called “some of the root causes of this terrorist activity.”
“For nations like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, or much of the Middle East, young men have no opportunities,” he told the Chicago Defender.
“They see poverty all around them and they are angry by that poverty,” he said. “They may be suffering under oppressive and corrupt regimes and that kind of environment is a breeding ground for fanaticism and hatred.”
Last December, in an interview with The Atlantic, the then president-elect described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “constant wound” and said its lack of a resolution “provides an excuse” for anti-American terrorists.
The Jewish Institute for National Security Policy in response countered that jihadists warred against the West “for reasons that are unlikely to change either with our new president or with the creation of a small, corrupt state wedged between Jordan and Israel.”
Criticisms of “root cause” arguments include: Islamic terrorism against the West long predated the Iraq war and was the reason for – not a result of – the war in Afghanistan; Arab terrorism against Israel predated its capture of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967; far from being poverty stricken and hopeless, many Islamic terrorists are educated and from relatively wealthy backgrounds.
Which city?
Obama’s speech talk sparked speculation about which city he would choose as a venue – one that would sidestep controversy while meeting the presumed requirement of leadership and influence in the Islamic world.
Cairo has historically been viewed as a leading Islamic center, but many Muslims would regard Riyadh as more fitting, given Saudi Arabia’s status as the birthplace of Islam. Either choice would draw criticism from groups critical of the human rights records of the two Arab governments. Although not a capital, Mecca would be a highly symbolic choice, but the Saudis restrict non-Muslim activity in Islam’s holiest city.
Non-Arab alternatives could include Jakarta, capital of the world’s most populous Muslim country and one where Obama has personal links. On the other hand, Indonesia plays a relatively low-key role in the Islamic world.
Baghdad seems unlikely because of Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war, and instability would probably rule out Islamabad.
A Turkish city has also been mooted. Both Muslim and constitutionally secular, NATO member and European Union aspirant Turkey has long presented itself as a bridge between East and West.
But Turkey’s outspoken condemnation of Israel’s recent offensive against Hamas and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s clash with Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos – U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell canceled a visit to Turkey shortly afterwards – would make it a controversial choice.
Nonetheless, Turkey made be trying to prod Obama along. The president plans to be in Europe in the first week of April – for a G20 summit on the financial crisis in London and a NATO summit co-hosted by France and Germany. Turkey has invited him to attend an “Alliance of Civilizations” event, due to take place in Istanbul that same week.
Other venues have their champions. An online campaign has been launched aimed at encouraging Obama to make his speech in Morocco.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow