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Washington: The Wrong City at the Right Time

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"Unless those Muslim leaders themselves are prepared to acknowledge the problem of radical Islam as partly of their own making, and take steps to root it out, little will change," writes Aaron David Miller.

There’s only one thing wrong with the White House summit on countering extremism and violence that’s taking place in Washington, D.C., this week. It’s being held in the wrong city.

Instead of convening here in Washington, the summit should be taking place in some Middle Eastern or South Asian capital, or preferably capitals. (Riyadh in Saudi Arabia would be a good place to start.) Indeed, this event shouldn’t be a one-off, but a series of rotating summits designed to get the Arab and Muslim world to face up squarely to the contagion of radical Islam that now stalks their lands. And here’s why.

First, most anything that comes out of Washington — and has American fingerprints — on it these days will be easily countered, resisted, and dismissed by those who live in the region as just another illegitimate effort by the West to impose its know-it-all views and values on the Arab and Muslim world. Just look at the fate of U.S. NGOs that tried to promote democracy on the ground in Egypt. Accused of acting as foreign agents, several NGOs were banned, forced out of the country, and several of their staff members put on trial. If it’s made in the United States — and it’s not some kind of military hardware or technological gizmo — it’s likely to be viewed with great suspicion. Because what the Arabs really want from America is its technology and its military might against the extremists, not its ideas on how to govern and handle their own radicals.

Sure, convening in Washington is certainly understandable: It’s safe, secure, distant from conflict, and gives the Obama administration a chance to demonstrate leadership. And certainly the summit’s focus on community efforts to root out and deal with homegrown extremism here in the United States is a worthwhile venture, but that campaign can happen independently and through a number of different U.S. agencies. But hosting this meeting in the U.S. capital city is also the second reason why the summit is likely to be a key to an empty room if the objective is to root out radical Islam in the Muslim world. Indeed, this location only serves to externalize the problem and distance it from the main region from which it is emerging — a broken, angry dysfunctional Arab world and Muslim communities in Europe that are aggrieved and alienated.

The very name alone — “The Summit on Countering Violent Extremism” — is antiseptic, politically correct, and intended not to offend the very region where the main source of the problem lies. Sure, there’s violence and extremism throughout the world perpetrated by many groups, including Jews and Christians too. But you don’t have to be a right-wing Republican to take offense at the semantic acrobatics the administration is demonstrating on this issue. We know that what the Islamic State (IS) does is terrorism, as President Obama said in his Los Angeles Times piece today. But it’s terror that is emanating from a radicalized extremist form of medieval Islamic ideology. And the sources of the dysfunction that have helped sustain IS are present in the Arab and Muslim world, not located in some far-off alien galaxy. If the president, the leader of the free world, won’t draw the connection, how will those in the region — the people who will ultimately have to face up this scourge and deal with it — draw the necessary conclusions?

Today, the vast majority of terror attacks are being directed or inspired by radical Islamist groups in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, or carried out by European Muslims angry at countries in which they live. Nobody is saying or implying that 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today are terrorists or that Islam is a violent religion. But the Obama administration has gone to the other extreme in running away from the proposition that we’re at war with some nebulous violent extremists instead of radicalized and extremist Muslims. This isn’t racist, imperialist, or prejudiced, it’s an acknowledgment of reality. And what better place to tackle a problem than in looking at the way the world is, rather than the way you might want it to be. As Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times the other day, “President Obama’s vague references to ‘violent extremists’ uncoupled from the fundamentalist Islam to which said throat-cutting extremists pledge allegiance — scarcely stands up to scrutiny. It is empty talk.”

Indeed, if we can’t or won’t honestly describe the threat we face, how do we even begin to understand its magnitude, let alone deal with it?

And finally, third, Michael Jackson got it right in his song “Man in the Mirror.” If you want to make a change, the place to start is by looking in the mirror. And in this case, when it comes to IS, local ownership of the problem is critical to resolving it. And that means regional buy-in big time and over time, and not just in Washington. The Arab League can play a role; the Organization of the Islamic Conference can, too. Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most influential Muslim actor in the Arab world, and itself a conveyer and enabler of fundamentalist Muslim ideology in the region, must also stand up and use its authority to delegitimize radical jihadis in their neighborhood. Forget Washington. Hold monthly and rotating summits in Riyadh, Baghdad, Cairo, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Islamabad.

The Obama administration may not care to acknowledge it in the clinical, antiseptic, non-judgmental world in which it chooses to live. But something is very wrong in the complex and variegated world of Islam. In certain lands of the Arabs and Muslims, no governance, bad governance, repression, sectarian confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis, and, yes, a decade of U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan have created enormous opportunities for radical jihadis to spread their poison. As CNN’s Fareed Zakaria noted in 2013, “Of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority.” Of the 24 countries that impose the most restrictions on freedom of religion, 19 are Muslim-majority. And while nearly a quarter of the world’s countries have some kind of anti-blasphemy and apostasy laws, a recent Pew poll found that the area where they are most common is the Middle East.

Key Arab states have taken some responsibility on the military side: The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan do participate in airstrikes against IS targets. Egypt recently struck at IS-affiliated targets in Libya. And Muslim governments and clerics in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan have spoken out against IS. But so much more is required in the way of reforming political systems that repress and leave little room for dissent, educational systems that continue to propagate bias against Christians and Jews, and media outlets and mosque sermons that do the same. Unless the Muslim world is prepared to take on its own extremists and to do it all day every day in mosques, classrooms, government, and universities, you might as well hang a “closed for the season” sign on any serious U.S. effort to defeat the Islamic State and the radical jihadis.

It’s fine to have a summit in America. But Washington cannot possibly have the solution of radical Islam. This is a regional problem in the main. And unless those Muslim leaders themselves are prepared to acknowledge the problem of radical Islam as partly of their own making, and take steps to root it out, little will change. And that requires a profound transformation of politics, religion, and society that just isn’t going to happen. I’m not holding my breath for such a transformation or frankly for a high-profile summit in any Arab capital to address the problem. Radicalism, extremism, and violence exist everywhere in our world. But ground zero will continue to be the Arab and Muslim world. And, sadly, that is likely to have tragic and violent consequences for all of us in the years to come.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.

About the Author

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Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more