WASHINGTON — The subject of religion has taken a prominent spot right where President Bush didn't want it — front-and-center in the war against terrorism.
The president's journey through Asia, a trip designed to allay fears that America targets the Muslim world, was instead roiled repeatedly by questions over whether the United States is a Christian nation that is anti-Muslim, and whether the Muslim world is anti-Jewish.
Bush got caught in the middle when he took Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to task for criticizing Jews, but then didn't seem inclined to discipline a high-ranking American military officer, Lt. Gen. William Boykin, for comparing the anti-terror effort to the struggle between Christians and Satan.
For many in the Muslim world, religious motives were plain to see.
"While they condemn Dr. Mahathir when he speaks about the Jews and other injustices inflicted on the poor and the Muslims, there are no such condemnation or reaction when the Muslims are called terrorists," a columnist in the New Straits Times newspaper, which has close ties to Mahathir's party, wrote Wednesday.
In the Mideast, where newspapers and television closely covered Boykin's words, a columnist in the pro-government Egyptian daily Al-Ahram noted that "nobody moved to question Boykin about his attack on Islam" the way Bush confronted Mahathir. "Doesn't that mean that what happened to Mohamad (Mahathir) is in itself extremist and racist?"
Bush did repudiate Boykin and the Pentagon is investigating his statements. But another Egyptian daily, Al-Akhbar, said any apologies were "not enough to answer the questions about the background ideology of the senior commanders and politicians" who lead the U.S. terrorism fight.
Damage to Bush's overall public diplomacy effort in the Arab and Muslim worlds may not be irreparable, but it won't be easy to repair, said Rice University political scientist Richard Stoll.
"It would be a great mistake for the White House to say, 'What press release or photo op or single speech can we do to say this is not an anti-Muslim thing?' " Stoll said. "Repeatedly through time, the speeches you make and actions you take must demonstrate this is false."
Similarly, any progress on a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, facilitated by the United States, would also help, Stoll said.
Bush's own words and deeds are partly to blame for the lingering suspicions that America is anti-Muslim, said Dipak Gupta, a political science professor at San Diego State University. Many have not forgotten that in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush characterized his anti-terror effort as a "crusade" — offensive to many Muslims as a reminder of the brutal Crusades waged by medieval Christians. The president apologized for that in a meeting with religious leaders in Indonesia, one participant said.
Also, Bush's habit of using biblical allegories in his speeches plays into the hands of those who want to cast the anti-terror campaign in religious terms, Gupta said.
"The antipathy in the Islamic world toward the U.S. in general, and the current administration in particular, is too deep rooted to be dispelled any time soon," Gupta said.
Bush did try to dispel that antipathy. In Indonesia, he announced a $157 million grant for education programs designed to stem the influence of hardline Islamic schools there. He also had an intense discussion about U.S. foreign policy with three moderate Muslim religious leaders, a Hindu cleric and a Roman Catholic priest.
The president said he spent most of that session listening, occasionally interjecting his thoughts. The religious leaders directly addressed their concerns about Boykin, Iraq and U.S. policy toward Israel, Bush said. He in turn tried to dispute the notion "that Americans believe that Muslims are terrorists."
Overall, Bush deserved credit both for telling Mahathir face-to-face that his words were offensive, and for trying to explain U.S. policies to moderate Muslims, said Peter Schramm, political science and history professor at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.
"He's doing some very high, serious, long-range diplomacy by speaking on these matters," Schramm said.
Nevertheless, not much is going right for Bush on the issue, Schramm said, in part because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The prime disagreement … is with regard to our policy in Israel and Palestine," Schramm said. "That's a real hard nut to crack."
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