U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld raised the matter of the education being given in Islamic schools (called madrassas) in his famous leaked memo of Oct. 16, 2003:
Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell extended these comments in a radio interview on Jan. 21:
We have been talking not only to the Saudis, but to other Middle Eastern leaders and Muslim leaders around the world, and made it clear to them that Islam is a great religion. But they also have to be educating their youngsters not just in the tenets of Islam and the Islamic religion, but they have to educate their youngsters for the demands of the 21st century. They've got to give them skills. They've got to teach them to read and write. They've got to teach them Science and Math and all the other things that are necessary for societies to be successful in the 21st century. And if they're just going to take their young people and put them in these madrasas, these schools that do nothing but indoctrinate them in the worst aspects of a religion, then they are shorting themselves, they are leaving themselves back as well as teaching hatred that will not help us bring peace to the region, and will not help their societies. And we're working on them on— in this regard. We have the Middle East Partnership Initiative. We're helping them to learn how to educate youngsters for the 21st century.
Sadly, the American leaders' raising this critical topic is now understood by many Muslims, including those in leadership positions, as pointing to an attack on Islam. Here are typical comments, these coming from Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, reported today in the Times (London): "To talk about international terrorism and include Iraq, Palestine and madrassas in Pakistan is to turn the war on terror into a criticism of Islam."
Moussa's relatively mild statement fits into a larger context of increasingly alarmist claims that the West is engaged in a "War on Islam." That, for instance, is the title of two wild-eyed, conspiracist books in English and no less than 14,000 mentions at google.com. This topic needs to be addressed by politicians: No, it is not a war on Islam, nor is it a clash of civilizations, but it is a war on a totalitarian ideology, a war that Muslim governments (including the Algerian, Egyptian, Turkish, and Afghan) are fighting with no less determination than are Western ones. (January 24, 2004)
Jan. 29, 2004 update: Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, added his important voice today to this matter: "two broader strategic problems that we have to deal with, that must be dealt with in a broad range, happen to be Pakistan and Saudi Arabia…. Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are involved in their own fight against extremists that is crucial to the ability of their nations to maintain control of the internal situation." he told reporters. He then praised Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf in this way: "He is moving against those that he knows ... are extremist."
June 27, 2004 update: Saudi Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz, his country's minister of the interior, stated today that "Islam is now a target of superpowers."
Oct. 20, 2004 update: A poll by Zogby International poll of 1,846 American Muslims found that the percentage who think the U.S. government is engaged in a war against Islam has more than doubled from 18 in November 2001 to 38 now. These numbers neatly track the Pew survey data regarding attitudes of (predominantly non-Muslim) Americans toward Islam that I discussed in "[Fixing] Islam's Image Problem." That research found a jump from 25 percent in March 2002 to 44 percent in July 2003 of Americans who find that Islam, more than other religions, is likely "to encourage violence among its believers." As I explained there, how could it otherwise, when the most prominent and public face of Islam in the United States belongs to the Islamists?