In Iraq, the ongoing lack of security is slowing US rebuilding efforts and stoking resentment of American occupation forces. But commentator Joe Loconte says that in Iraq the US is actually functioning as the world's strongest defender of Islam.
Within days of the September 11th attacks, there were fears that the war on terrorism would become a war against Islam. Sure enough, critics view the US-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq as acts of imperialism and an affront to Muslims everywhere. They've got it exactly backwards. America is the most important defender of peace-loving Muslims in the world.
Consider what's happened over the last 18 months. Two of the most brutal regimes in modern times have been toppled. The Taliban had imposed a nightmarish version of Islamic law in Afghanistan. The vast majority of its citizens lost any semblance of political or religious liberty. And Saddam Hussein ran Iraq like a Soviet Gulag. Most of the victims of these governments were Muslim, people who embrace the Koran as their holy book.
Eighteen months ago, the approximately 45 million Muslims in these countries were living in fear. Today in Afghanistan, girls and women previously banned from some mosques now worship more freely. In Iraq, Shiite Muslims can hold Friday prayers and religious festivals without facing a government crackdown.
It was not the Arab League that came to their rescue. It was the US military under the leadership of George W. Bush. That gives the administration the authority to help ensure that liberal governments emerge in both nations.
It will not be easy. Extremists threaten the process. I think the United States must oppose religious radicals who would destroy the foundation for civil and religious religious liberty. The right to worship freely according to one's conscience is not merely an American invention. It's an idea affirmed in nearly every international human rights document of the last 50 years. It's also a principle that can be found in the Koran, that there should be no coercion in religion. Millions of Muslims uphold this value as essential to the faith.
Don't the Muslims of Afghanistan and Iraq deserve governments that respect their religious traditions? Shouldn't all Muslims be able to attend the mosque of their choice? It is no crusade against Islam to protect the rights of all those who claim Muhammad as their prophet. If the extremists win, freedom-loving Muslims will lose because radical Islam turns faith into fanaticism. It leads not to Mecca or Medina but to torture chambers and unmarked graves.
Joseph Loconte, religion fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is editor of the forthcoming "The End of Illusions: America's Churches and Hitler's Gathering Storm, 1938-41.''
First aired on National Public Radio's All Things Considered