"We're losing the war of ideas," an Arab-American acquaintance told me.
He meant the war to dissuade Arabs and other Muslims from public or private endorsement of Osama bin Laden's call for jihad against America. No matter how many U.S. officials deliver the message that we aren't warring on Islam, it doesn't seem to resonate with Egyptian, or Indonesian, or Pakistani masses.
State-supported Muslim clerics in Egypt or Saudi Arabia may dismiss bin Laden's acts as un-Islamic, but no prominent sheikh goes on al-Jazeera television to counter his call for jihad. No leading Islamic thinkers dial up the Mideast's equivalent of CNN and demand airtime to assail bin Laden's hijacking of Islamic symbols to justify mass murder.
This is terribly disturbing, because bin Laden is assaulting the Muslim faith with the same deadly accuracy as the terrorists did the World Trade Center.
In fact, the war for Muslim hearts and minds isn't ours to win, though we can certainly contribute to the fight. It must be waged within the community of Muslim believers, clerics, intellectuals, scholars. So far most Muslim moderates seem too fearful, or ambivalent, to take bin Laden on.
I've been given a host of explanations why:
One. The Islamic religion has no central authority or religious associations so each preacher in a mosque can say what he wants. But this doesn't explain why prominent Muslim scholars haven't been more vocal.
Two. Extremist groups like bin Laden's have always been marginal to Islam, so there's nothing to worry about. Yes, but such groups have had a powerful influence. Bin Laden appeals for the overthrow of Arab and other Muslim governments and their replacement by regimes of Taliban-like extremism. This should terrify moderate Arabs.
Three. The most popular explanation: Critics can't assault bin Laden's religious blasphemies because he cleverly intertwines them with attacks on U.S. political positions that are widely resented by Muslims. These include U.S. support for Israel, sanctions against Iraq that affect children, and U.S. "occupation" of Saudi Arabia by basing troops there. To this add the often-heard complaint that America supports undemocratic Arab regimes.
"The guy is hitting on all the issues the public cares about," says the University of Maryland's Shibley Telhami, one of the most thoughtful commentators on this issue. "They (the Arab moderates) have no answers. These ideas resonate it's a message that promises to deliver change."
But whose fault is it that positive change has eluded Arab countries or that fabulous oil wealth has failed to produce progressive regimes? If the United States pulled out of Saudi Arabia and bin Laden took over would this make the desert kingdom democratic? Would an end to Iraqi sanctions prevent Saddam Hussein from using poison gas against Muslims, as he did against Kurds and Iranians?
As for a Palestinian state however desirable will this reverse the reluctance of Arab regimes to relax authoritarian rule and fight corruption? True, the existence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process calmed much of the Mideast region during the 1990s, and created new hopes for economic prosperity. But a Palestinian state will emerge only if the region pushes back the forces of extremist Islam.
Bin Laden's appeal shows that far too many people want to blame their problems on a convenient American scapegoat.
The old ideologies are dead. Pan-Arab nationalism failed, as did the promise of socialism and communism that drew so many bright Arab intellectuals. So no one should be surprised at the appeal of a false prophet who offers yet another ideology, the promise of political Islam.
But the mix of politics and Islam has never succeeded in the modern era. It reached its apex in the Iranian revolution, but the mullahs failed to deliver economic prosperity. Young Iranians have demonstrated overwhelmingly that they want a more modern system.
If bin Laden's variant of political Islam were debated on its merits, its hollowness and immorality would be apparent. But this is a debate that we can only encourage. The real arguments must take place among Muslims themselves.