Psychologists say the most intense period of mourning lasts three years. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have indeed passed through several stages of grief, from disbelief to anger to a degree of acceptance. Yet, there's still a gnawing fear in our bellies that prevents full recovery. It's a fear that extends, I believe, well beyond Osama bin Laden and the prospects of another attack, and centers instead on our relationship with Islam itself.
Once familiar to most Americans mainly from seventh grade social studies, Islam has now become synonymous in the minds of many with the biggest post-Cold War threat. Even as we struggle to understand it, we're afraid of it. And because of that fear, we're drawing a Green Curtain around the Muslim world, creating an enduring divide.
Figuring out Islam's role in the 21st century is an existential challenge, but one many of us are emotionally unprepared to face. We pretend that we're not prejudiced, that we understand that most Muslims don't support the horrific bloodshed of bin Ladenism. Yet we still view 1.2 billion Muslim people spread throughout 53 countries as a threatening monolith. As long as we make that mistake, America and its allies won't feel safe, no matter how many billions of dollars are poured into security precautions.
Aside from the vital mission of tracking down bin Ladenists, military muscle is not always an effective instrument for moving forward. Nor are tepid diplomatic initiatives aimed at coaxing authoritarian governments into adopting change at a pace and in a manner that they control. There's another strategy that's gaining favor among Mideast experts: Bring Islamic movements and groups into the political process. Give Islamist parties new political space -- wide open space -- to absorb passions and sap anger.
That means accepting, even embracing, the idea that Islam is not the problem, but the way out of a political predicament that has been building quietly for decades. It means not only supporting nationalists, liberals and nascent democrats already on our side in the quest to transform the Middle East but also encouraging Islamists and their parties to participate. Basically, it means differentiating between Islamists and jihadists, and accepting anyone willing to work within a system to change it rather than work from outside to destroy it.
"It's hard to imagine political evolution in the next 20 years that does not include the Islamists," says Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank that studies international security issues. "They have established legitimacy and a following and you won't make them disappear overnight by supporting the activities of a small elite of secular modernists. . . . You have to imagine a political space that has both."
Mideast scholars say it's too late to do anything less. The alternative is alienating even more Muslims by excluding them. And alienation -- from closed political systems and corrupt economies -- is what originally drove many Muslims to seek refuge in their mosques.
Including Islamists in government is an uncomfortable idea for those of us in secular societies. It summons up haunting images of Iranian clerics and American hostages, oppressed women and antiquated laws. That's why for years, U.S. governments have accepted Algeria's military, which voided free elections won by Islamic parties, and Hosni Mubarak's suppression of Egypt's Muslim groups. That's shortsighted because perpetuating the status quo will be worse. Now that Islamists have moved from the fringe to the center of political activity, a trend that has accelerated since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, they can no longer be excluded.
We have to think outside the prism of the war on terrorism. "Even as it wages a resolute campaign against international terrorism, America should not believe that it is engaged in a fight to the finish with radical Islam," Robert Hutchings, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine. "This conflict is not a clash of civilizations, but rather a defense of our shared humanity and a search for common ground, however implausible that may seem now."
One of the hopeful signs on this third anniversary of 9/11 is the way Americans are emerging from their grief to discuss a more creative course for the future and to more effectively answer the lingering question: What can America do? A growing number of voices on both the right and the left have been emboldened to shape proposals in a broader context.
The United States has tipped its hat to political change with initiatives to promote democracy. As President Bush said in a June speech in Istanbul, "Democratic societies should welcome, not fear, the participation of the faithful."
Yet in practice, the United States still veers away from Islamists. In Iraq, which Washington seeks to turn into a model for the region, U.N. and U.S. envoys deliberately picked politicians mainly from secular parties to assume power after the formal end of the U.S.-led occupation. Despite strong support in opinion polls, Islamist parties were marginalized. Analysts now predict they'll make a comeback in next year's elections and the United States would be wise not to try to prevent it.
"Political debate must encompass Islam if the debate is to be meaningful. Exclusion of the Islamic factor in Arab politics will simply be one-sided and unrealistic in its exclusion of the single greatest force within politics," writes Graham Fuller, a former senior intelligence analyst, in a paper released this month by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The same applies to the wider Islamic world that constitutes 18 percent of the world's people.
In the race to capture the imagination of the vast, alienated middle, hard-line groups need to be operating under the same legal umbrella as more moderate groups -- or they will try to lure the faithful through other means. "It's hard to hand over individual authority to people who are illiberal. What you have to realize is that the objective is to defeat bin Ladenism and you have to start the evolution. Moderate Muslims are not the answer. Shiite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists are our salvation from future 9/11s," says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a Middle East expert and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Transitions away from authoritarian regimes may be messier and more volatile than political transformations elsewhere over the past quarter century. But "Let it roll," Gerecht advises. "Don't walk away. It's part of the process. It's trying to ensure the system is sufficiently open that fundamentalists burn themselves out. You have to rob bin Ladenism of that virulent elixir. If we don't go in that direction, we know all other roads go back to 9/11."
"You want in a Machiavellian way to have fundamentalists do the dirty work," he says. "You want them to take care of the people who slaughtered the children [in Beslan, Russia]. The only way to do that is to have them compete in the political system. It may come off the rails for a while in some places, but even if it does, you will be better off. You don't want fundamentalists to take states by coups d'etat."
The premise behind the new ideas is that activists inspired or protected by religion have stood in for jailed or exiled secular opposition figures in many societies. "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God," Benjamin Franklin once said. And more recently, liberation theologians in Latin America, Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union, South Africa's Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Catholic priests in Poland and the Philippines have played pivotal roles in political transformations.
"Conservative and even fundamentalist views of religion are manageable in a plural environment, as shown by a host of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish cases," wrote French scholar Olivier Roy in the new anthology "A Practical Guide to Winning the War on Terrorism." "A pluralist approach allows civil society to reach the cadres of youth who could be ideal targets for radicals and neo-fundamentalist groups."
Attempts to control the pace of change or choose the participants in the political process could invite an even deeper backlash than we face now. America cannot want less for Muslim countries than it wants for the rest of the world. And Muslims must not feel they are bystanders. "In the end, you have to treat Muslims as adults. They have to become responsible for their own fate," says Gerecht.
Based on conversations with Mideast experts, it appears that in the meantime, the United States could do three things. First, hold a genuine two-way dialogue. For all the hand-wringing about ending hatreds, that essential element is missing.
In a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace last month, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said that the United States must do more with the Islamic world to dispel "destructive myths" about America and to support "voices of moderation." The most striking thing about the speech was that she gave it to an American audience. Asked why no senior U.S. official had given a similar speech in any of the five largest Muslim countries in the three years since Sept. 11, she replied, "That's a good question. Maybe we should."
Dialogue must not just engage people listed in the local U.S. embassy's Rolodex. We need to listen to the bad guys too to understand where the fissures -- and opportunities -- might be.
"Even the hard-core jihadis are having big debates about who exactly the enemy is and . . . about their tactics," says Princeton University Mideast expert Michael Doran, who gets up early each morning to research Islamist and jihadi Web sites. When U.S. contractor Paul Johnson was beheaded in Saudi Arabia "some said it was wrong. Others said, 'Our violence makes us look bad.' One of the most important ideologues, Abu Baseer, a cleric who was an Afghan jihadist, said 'Westerners in our society have protection.' The radicals countered that an apostate state -- Saudi Arabia -- can't grant immunity. But Baseer said, 'That's not right, we haven't thrown traditions out.' Three years after Sept. 11 . . . the debate among them is totally unknown."
A second course of U.S. action would be to use economic tools. Several Muslim countries, including Algeria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Iran and Iraq, are seeking membership in the World Trade Organization. The United States could use WTO membership to induce change and force countries to embrace the rule of law.
Finally, we can embrace our own Islamic identity. Islam, the fastest-growing religion in the United States, is expected to become the second-largest faith in six years. Yet Muslims remain on the fringe. Just ask women who cover their heads or men with beards waiting in the boarding areas of airports.
Immediately after 9/11, Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington and said Islam was not the enemy. This is a noble sentiment, but Muslims must also become part of the mainstream -- a challenge faced throughout the West. For Europeans, the most important battle for Muslim hearts and minds over the next decade will not be fought in the Middle East but in European cities where the numbers of Muslims are growing, as Giles Kepel, a French expert on Islam, says in his new book "The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West." "If European societies are able to integrate these Muslim populations . . . this new generation of Muslims may become the Islamic vanguard of the next decade," he writes.
The unspoken undercurrent behind our failure to do more over the past three years is what former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski calls "a fear that periodically verges on panic that is in itself blind." As we look beyond our grief, we must also get beyond our prejudice and fear.