The lifting of U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq won't silence the critics of the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Many of them see the U.S.-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan as "acts of imperialism" and an affront to Muslims everywhere. They talk as if the war against terror were really a crusade against Islam.

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. In Afghanistan, the Taliban (search) had imposed a nightmarish version of Islamic law. Men could be tortured for playing chess or listening to the radio. Girls were prohibited from attending school and banned from certain mosques. Wives accused of adultery might be executed on the spot. The Taliban leadership had a saying: "Women belong in the house or the grave."

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein ran the country like a Soviet gulag. Each day we learn more about the arbitrary arrests, the mutilations, the special prisons for children. About the athletes tortured for failing to win a soccer match. We read about the "fedayeen" — a terrorist version of the KGB — that publicly beheaded women considered political troublemakers. Each day, it seems, we watch mothers weep over the remains of missing children discovered in a mass grave.

Most of the victims of these governments were Muslim: men, women and children 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 can attend school and worship with much greater freedom. In Iraq, Shi'a Muslims — perhaps the most persecuted group — can hold Friday prayers, funeral processions and religious festivals without facing a government crackdown.

It wasn't the Arab League that came to their rescue. It was the U.S. military, under the leadership of George W. Bush. As political and cultural critic Paul Berman (search) writes in Terror and Liberalism: "No country on earth has fought so hard and consistently as the United States on behalf of Muslim populations." This gives the administration the moral authority to help ensure that liberal governments emerge in both nations.

Make no mistake: America and her allies have taken on an immensely difficult task. They're trying to maintain security amid populations drenched in corruption and violence. They hope to establish free elections in nations ruled for decades by thugs and dictators. Meanwhile, extremists want to create Islamic regimes that use the power of the state to enforce religious orthodoxy. That not only would set Muslims against non-Muslims, but a narrow vision of Islam against all others.

The United States must oppose religious radicals who would manipulate a democratic process to destroy the foundation for democratic liberties. Clerics who reject the means to secure these liberties — free speech, freedom of association, equality under the law — should be stigmatized. Above all else, the emerging leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq must produce a legal system that reflects the highest ideals of their Islamic populations, while respecting the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

A good place to begin is the area of religious freedom. The right to worship freely, according to one's conscience, is not 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 compulsion in religion." Millions of Muslims worldwide uphold this value as essential to the faith.

Don't all Muslims of Afghanistan and Iraq deserve governments that respect their religious traditions? Shouldn't the inherent dignity of Muslim women be enshrined in local and national laws? It is no crusade against Islam to protect the rights of all those who claim Muhammad as their prophet. "We support the advance of freedom in the Middle East because it is our founding principle, and because it is in our national interest," President Bush recently told graduates at the University of South Carolina. "And the men and women of the Muslim world ... share this hope of liberty."

It's not the United States that poses a threat to freedom and security in the Middle East. It's the Islamic extremists. If they win, freedom-loving Muslims will lose, because radical Islam always turns faith into fanaticism. Their pilgrimage leads not to Mecca or Medina, but to torture chambers and unmarked graves.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at The Heritage Foundation and a commentator for National Public Radio.

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