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Experts talk U.S., Middle East relations

Anna Boarini | Monday, September 12, 2011

Ten years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the peace-building strategies in a post-9/11 world have shifted in priority and practice, experts said during a panel at the Kroc Institute for Peace Studies on Friday afternoon.

Kroc Institute Director Scott Appleby said the anniversary prompted the panel to explore both the events following the attacks and their effect on the United States’ foreign policy.

“Certainly, we want to focus on that event,” Appleby said. “We hoped we could say something [about the attacks] in a more innovative way, by focusing on not only what we have learned in the decade since 9/11, [but also on] the prospects for building peace and what role the United States will play in adding peace and stability to the world.”

Panelist Robin Wright, who works as a foreign correspondent, Middle East expert and U.S. foreign policy analyst, said the Arab Spring conflicts reflected a change in how the people of the Middle East protest.

“To me what has transpired over the past nine or 10 months has really been extraordinary — that the world’s most volatile region is today engaged in so many places in peaceful, civil disobedience,” Wright said.

Wright has worked in the region since she first landed in Tehran, Iran in 1973. During her time there, she witnessed the 1973 suicide bombings against the United States Embassy and the 1983 bombings of a U.S. marine compound in Beirut, Lebanon.

“I know what the violence of the region looks like,” Wright said. “To me, one of the great stories of the Middle East, and perhaps the most potent political story of the early 21st century, is this wave of uprising across the region.”

Wright said Muslims in the Middle East have paid the biggest price since the Sept. 11 attacks. Suicide bombings led to over 12,000 Iraqi deaths and over 30,000 injuries since the beginning of the war in Iraq.

This cost motivated the region’s residents to take action against injustice, Wright said.

“For the first time, people are not just reacting,” Wright said. “They are trying to seize the initiative themselves and shape their own future.”

Wright said she did not want the United States to get directly involved in future Arab efforts to establish democracy. She said she hopes the U.S. government will instead aid development programs but avoid getting involved in the region’s military disputes.

“We need to signal and show that the future is in the hands of the activists, civil society, helping empower women,” Wright said.

Panelist Waleed El-Ansary, the chair of Islamic studies at Xavier University, said peace builders need to understand the role religion plays in the region.

The Western world believes the word jihad means “holy war,” El-Ansary said. However, this word does not refer to an actual war and instead means “a struggle in the name of God.”

“By calling extremists ‘Jihadist,’ what we are doing is validating their claim to extremism,” he said. “What this really does is it identifies religion as the source of the problem.”

Instead of calling extremist Muslims who use terrorism “Jihadist,” El-Ansary said they should be called “irjaf.” He said “irjaf” is a term found in the Qur’an that refers to the quaking of the heart and comes from the Arabic root “to shake or quake.”

“[The verse in the Qur’an] said those who cause the quaking of the heart in the city, the punishment for them is execution in this life and hell in the hereafter,” he said. “There is no more powerful condemnation that we can use then by calling terrorists ‘irjaf.'”

When religion starts to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem, El-Ansary said he believed real change could happen in the Middle East.

“The obstacle to this is to get media and government to really take religion seriously and as a solution,” he said.

Retired Army officer and historian Andrew Bacevich said the religious and militaristic conflicts that dominated the last 10 years changed the way Americans view war.

“Prior to 9/11, most Americans viewed war as an [abnormal] condition,” Bacevich said. “Today that is no longer the case.”

The Pentagon uses the term “era of consistent conflict” to describe this constant state of war, Bacevich said.

“Now, the American people accept as fact that wars in which the United States engages are expected to be protracted, prove to be very costly and will probably end not in victory, but in producing some ambiguous outcome,” he said.

“Today, war is the new normalcy.”