Mafhoum Exclusive

Healing the Wounds between Islam and the West

By Patrick Seale

This week saw the formal launch in London of a major international think-tank, Conflicts Forum, dedicated to forging a new and healthier relationship between the West and the world of Islam.

A second launch is to follow in Beirut in the week 12-18 December, when a founder of the Forum will explain its aims to the Arab media and will hold meetings with representatives of Islamic groups, such as Hizballah and Hamas.

The creation of Conflicts Forum is a development of major importance because it is the first systematic attempt by a new western institution to challenge the view propagated by Washington neo-conservatives that the West is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with militant Islam.

Ever since the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001, right-wing officials and lobbyists in the United States, several of them close to Ariel Sharon’s Likud party in Israel, have sought to demonise Islam and portray it as a deadly threat to Western societies.

These views were embraced at the highest level in the United States, and to some extent in Britain as well, where the notion took hold that, for the West to be secure, militant Muslim groups had to be destroyed and Muslim societies had to be reformed, if necessary by force.

The decision to wage war in Iraq followed, as did President George W Bush’s ‘war on terror’, a global manhunt in pursuit of anyone suspected of sympathy for the cause of militant Islam.

The same attitude inspires the current U.S. campaign of seeking to impose ‘democracy’ on the Arab world in order to ‘defeat terror’.

It is widely recognised that the conflict between the United States and a world-wide Islamic insurgency has become the most explosive issue in the world today. The Middle East arena has become the epicentre of the world crisis.

Almost every day brings news of a violent clash somewhere, whether it be the assault last Monday by al-Qa‘ida gunmen on the U.S. consulate in Jiddah, the destruction by U.S. forces of the Iraqi city of Falluja, or the murder by an Islamic radical of a Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, author of a provocative film on the treatment of women in Islam. His killing set off a wave of attacks on mosques in Holland.

Across Europe, not only in Holland but also in Germany and France, there is evidence that the integration of Muslim immigrants has not always been successful and has led to severe tensions, sharpened by Israel’s brutal repression of the Palestinians and by the war in Iraq.

Rebellion against Western Policy

Because it was waged on the basis of lies and false premises, the Iraq war has aroused tremendous controversy in many parts of the world – including inside the intelligence and diplomatic services of Britain and the United States. In recent months, senior retired officials have written open letters sharply criticising the Middle East policies of their governments.

In London this week, an eminent group of nearly 40 ambassadors, military commanders and senior politicians have sent a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair urging him to set up an official enquiry into the claim -- made in October by the medical journal The Lancet -- that the war has caused the death of up to 100,000 Iraqi civilians.

The founders of Conflicts Forum denounce the ‘climate of fear’ promoted by Washington neo-conservatives. Rebelling against official Western orthodoxy that perceives Islamism as a hostile ideology, they have set themselves the ambitious task of promoting a ‘new engagement’ with Islam based on dialogue, mutual respect and tolerance.

Alastair Crooke, one of the Forum’s founders, is a former British diplomat and Middle East expert, who among many other posts served as special security adviser to Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief. He coordinated negotiations and mediation between all the parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict, establishing valuable personal contacts.

‘We need to demonstrate,’ he declares, ‘that there is an alternative relationship between the West and Islam other than one defined by laying waste of Falluja!’

Conflicts Forum is, in effect, a club of disaffected diplomats and intelligence officers, who have been joined by prominent figures from the fields of politics, business, academia and religion.

The Forum has raised funds from charitable foundations, companies, individual donors and governments. It is planning a major fund-raising drive in the United States in the New Year and appeals to Muslim movements and governments to support its campaign for a ‘New Engagement’ between the West and Islam.

Conflicts Forum has set up a separate but linked body called Conflicts Forum Consultancy (CFC) to provide selected clients with strategic analysis of world problems and political risks.

Through an international network of contacts and offices, CFC is present in several world capitals. Over the past year, it has held meetings with the European Union, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Department of State, the National Security Council, as well as several international organisations. It has also briefed Western and Arab diplomatic missions in London, Brussels and Washington.

Alastair Crooke, a founder and director of Conflicts Forum, will be in Beirut from 12 December where he will meet political leaders and address the media. The co-founder of the Forum is Dr. Beverley Milton-Edwards, a prominent academic analyst of terrorist and political Islam. She is assistant director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict at Queens University, Belfast.

In Beirut, Alastair Crooke will be accompanied by Mark Perry of Jefferson Waterman International, a prominent Washington lobbying firm, with which Conflicts Forum has developed an association. Mark Perry is well-versed in Palestinian politics and was for many years a confidential adviser to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The message Conflicts Forum is seeking to propagate may be summed up in a few simple propositions:

*The worsening estrangement between the West and Islam is a source of grave concern.

*It has brought suffering to Muslims in many parts of the world and has also damaged Western societies by severe restrictions on civil liberties.

*Muslim values pose no threat to Western societies. In fact, Muslims overwhelmingly share a desire for free elections, popular participation and effective, non-corrupt government.

*Caught in their ideological straitjacket, Western governments cannot remedy the situation. Ordinary people must act and speak out for themselves in support of dialogue and of a ‘listening’ between peoples.

*A basic belief of the founders of Conflicts Forum is the need to recognise the ‘Other’ and change the ways in which the West engages with the Muslim world.

*With this in mind, the Forum is undertaking a study of the various currents in political Islam and plans to share its findings with Western policy–makers and the public.

*A more controversial aspect of the Forum’s approach is what it describes as the need to stimulate a rigorous understanding in the West of the causes and varied nature of ‘armed political action’ by Islamic groups and to distinguish this from what is usually labelled as ‘terrorism’.

The Forum believes it is a fundamental mistake to label Hizballah and Hamas as terrorist organisations, and seek to isolate them – as the European Union has done under American and Israeli pressure.

On the contrary, Conflicts Forum argues that it is essential to bring these groups into the political process and, in the Palestinian case, to include them in the leadership of the national movement.

Swimming against the current is never easy. The coming year will demonstrate whether Conflicts Forum can convince the public, the press and policy-makers that a new Western perception of Islam is not only possible but urgently necessary.   end