The struggle that most Americans call the war on terrorism will be won by Muslims and lost by Muslims at its now-distant end. The U.S. role must progressively shrink to shaping the battlefield for that contest rather than waging the war as an American-run enterprise.

This will be true whether Nov. 2 brings victory to George W. Bush or to John {grv} Kerry.

The next administration will need to pursue a revised strategy that puts Muslim governments and institutions on the front line of a civil war within Islam that the United States was drawn into on Sept. 11, 2001.

The mobilizing utility of the "war on terrorism" label has run its course. To continue to use it for rhetorical or organizational purposes would obscure the moral, political and social responsibilities that Muslim societies must now assume to cleanse themselves of fanatical fringe groups and ideologies.

Terrorism, it has been widely argued, is a tactic rather than an actual enemy.

Such sophistry obscures this essential point: Terrorism is a graphic expression of the intolerance that the Islamist fanatics preach, practice and -- most important -- demand that their co-religionists adopt to become observant Muslims. Terrorism is not just a tactic. It is also a statement of the inhuman values that motivate those who organize suicide bombings, hostage-taking and televised beheadings.

To the extent that any label can help, this must become a war for something. It must become a campaign for tolerance -- for the simple human decency involved in respecting and, when necessary, protecting the differing beliefs and identities of others.

Christianity and other religions are historically not strangers to using theological justification for holy warriors and sanctified atrocities. But in its latest manifestation, which dates roughly from the 1979 Iranian revolution, the struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims for domination of Islam has made that religion this era's most important and deadly religious battleground.

The related military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the operational definition of the "war on terrorism" -- have had this clarifying effect: Muslim governments that for more than a quarter-century ignored or sought to profit from the spread of intolerance toward non-Muslims can no longer pursue those options with impunity. The intolerance they countenanced or actively encouraged has metastasized into an all-consuming ideology of religious hatred that now threatens them as well.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia can no longer callously export their extremists and the Wahhabist-inspired doctrine that animates them. Sudan and Yemen can no longer safely sell protection and material support to al Qaeda and its ilk. When the USS Cole was bombed in 2000, Yemeni authorities, aided by solicitous U.S. diplomats and policymakers, frustrated the original FBI investigation of the attack.

Now Yemen helps in the hunt for al Qaeda. A Yemeni court imposed death sentences on two of the Cole saboteurs last week. That is one measure of the change wrought in the brutal opening phase of the struggle to contain and eradicate the most virulent strains of intolerance.

But these strategic gains must be consolidated into a new approach that establishes the obvious: Not only Americans or Britons or Italians are threatened by the hatemongers and must act to defend themselves. The wave of kidnappings and theologically justified executions of hostages in Iraq may paradoxically help in this necessary effort.

When kidnappers demanded as ransom that the French government change a law about religious attire in schools that affected the country's large Muslim minority, the leaders of that community quickly rejected that interference with their rights and duties as French citizens. Last week British Muslims went on television to plead for the life of a British hostage. Muslim clerics in Turkey and Egypt have asked for the release of fellow nationals as an Islamic duty.

As small and halting as they may be, such reactions represent progress over the moral and strategic blindness that prevailed in the region on Sept. 10, 2001.

But it is not enough for French or British or Egyptian Muslims to plead for lives to be spared because they share the nationality or the religion of hostages. Only by pleading for the lives of fellow human beings of whatever nationality or religion, and by depriving the hostage-takers of any shred of religious justification, can Islamic leaders purge their community of this illness.

Launching a war against al Qaeda and other terrorism groups and their supporters was necessary. Pursuing it in its present form will not be sufficient, for President Bush or for President Kerry. The leadership in a broader struggle must inexorably pass to Muslims who honor tolerance and human dignity -- and who are willing to place themselves at risk to defend those values for all faiths and races.

jimhoagland@washpost.com