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The War Within Islam

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Leave me for the moment -- you can beat me again later," a 17-year-old girl begs between sobs in a video airing on Pakistan's private television networks and circulating on the Internet. But the local Taliban commander continues to flog her without mercy as a group of village men watch in silence.

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These images were described in a recent New York Times dispatch, which noted that the alleged transgressions of the girl could not be definitively established. The range of possible violations of the Taliban's version of Islamic law -- from stepping outside her house without a male escort to having an illicit affair -- is appallingly vast.

The video, apparently shot on a cellphone and given to a human rights activist, is not surprising in itself. The brutal subjugation of poor, uneducated women in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan is widely if incompletely known in the West. But the brief, blurry images are revealing.

The recent U.S. strategic review, as well as learned tomes and countless op-ed columns, depict the struggle in the desolate Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier as being rooted in fierce nationalism, the region's ancient warrior culture, the failures of nation-building and the rebirth of jihadist terrorism.

But this video reminds us of another driving force too often neglected or minimized in the analysis and commentary: the desire of Pakistani and Afghan men to be left in peace to deal with their womenfolk as they see fit. There may be no more important recruiting tool for the Taliban and other Islamic extremist organizations.

This is why the video should be required viewing for U.S. officials who are urging President Obama to seek accommodation with the Taliban to help secure a graduated U.S. exit from Afghanistan and confidently boasting that 70 percent of the Taliban are "reconcilable."

The Pakistan video is unlikely to change their minds. They have good arguments about pursuing achievable U.S. goals in a time frame that is acceptable to the American public. But it will force them to look at the consequences of that kind of realism.

Moreover, the scene shot in the Swat Valley -- a region the Pakistani government turned over to the Taliban in February rather than continue fighting there -- offers its own cultural commentary on Obama's attempts to reach out to the Muslim world. In his speech last week in Turkey, he declared that the United States is not "at war with Islam."

The president is right -- as far as he goes. The struggle against al-Qaeda and its associates is not a war of religions with a monolithic Christianity fighting a unified Islam. But it is a religious war in significance and origin. Fanatical Islamic sects have framed their battle in holy terms and seek to destroy their faith's mainstream values. It is not a war on Islam but a war within Islam. Who wins has enormous consequences for the world.

That was the missing element in Obama's otherwise admirable speech, which was delivered in one of the most tolerant, sophisticated Muslim countries on Earth. The savage misogyny and feudal fury of the Swat Valley are alien to modern, urban Turkey -- as they are to Indonesia, where Obama spent part of his childhood. The countries and personal experiences he focuses on are Islamic, certainly. But they are not Islam as a whole.

All religions are absorbing the shocks of globalization. But none has felt more besieged than Islam as the flow of people, goods and instant communications across borders perturb or limit its deep reach into gender relations and family structures. And none has produced as violent a backlash from some of its adherents.

It is difficult for policymakers and generals to account for such cultural factors in strategic reviews. We all rush past the obvious -- until a video from Swat makes it unavoidable.

The realists are right about this: The United States and its NATO partners cannot "win" the war inside Islam. Perhaps all they can accomplish is to buy time for mainstream Islamic forces in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere to organize an effective response to the existential threat in their midst. That will be a costly, and essentially thankless, task for the United States. But it may yet be the least disastrous course to follow.

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religious-specific, values," Barack Obama said in a 2006 speech that warned Americans against religious intolerance. It's a pity he didn't include that thought in his Ankara outreach.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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