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This article examines from a legal and historical perspective (a) the United States’ implicit ratification of the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the first fairly and freely elected Egyptian president and (b) how the perceived U.S. support for the coup contributes to Islamic terrorism.

To guarantee that oil has been readily available (and during the Cold War to prevent the spread of communism), the U.S. has supported secular, authoritarian regimes in the Islamic world, including the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, the Shah of Iran, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and, initially, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, not to mention autocratic leaders of the tiny, oil-rich Gulf states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. This history and U.S.’s implicit ratification of the Egyptian coup and the military’s violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood marginalizes Islamic moderates, strengthens the extremists, and sends the unmistakable message to Islamic fundamentalists that they cannot win by the ballot box, but only by violence. (Since the coup, terrorist acts in Egypt have increased exponentially.)

Revolutionary developments in international law since the end of World War II may help guide United States and its allies towards fashioning a counter-terrorism policy and practice relying less on armed force and more on diplomacy and law enforcement. After 1945, the international community has recognized human rights and outlawed torture, extrajudicial killing of a state’s own nationals, systematic racial, ethnic and religious discrimination, aggressive warfare, annexation, and a state’s acquisition of new colonies. The international community is now also moving to outlaw military overthrow of democratically elected leaders.

What is usually left out of discussions on Islamic terrorism is that Russia and European nations colonized almost all Muslim countries. This colonization almost without exception led to exploitation of these countries, discrimination against Muslims, and to a conflict between secularists and Islamic fundamentalists. Although the U.S. had never colonized an Islamic nation, U.S. policies and practices since World War II, not to mention its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, led the U.S. in effect to assume the mantle of the former European colonial powers.

Granted these examples of colonization and invidious discrimination generally took place before the international community declared them illegal, and international law applies only prospectively, not retrospectively. African-Americans, however, had suffered under the “separate but equal doctrine” before the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 declared the doctrine unconstitutional. Likewise, the pain, humiliation, and resentment engendered by conquest, colonization, and accompanying racial discrimination had been just as sharply felt by the people experiencing these practices before the international community formally outlawed them. Enlarging on the theme in my book, United States, International Law, and the Struggle against Terrorism (Routledge 2011), the article contends that Russia and the West (including Europe and the U.S.) have a moral, if not strictly legal, obligation to make reparation by fostering democratic institutions, the rule of law, and international human rights in the Islamic world.

Implicitly ratifying the coup and the Egyptian military’s extreme violence in putting down protest eviscerates this final objective. If we are serious about reducing the threat of Islamic terrorism, we, with our European and other allies, have to stop applying a double standard to Arabs and Muslims, including their fundamentalists, and, instead, have to recognize and affirmatively address the suffering all peoples in the Middle East have experienced.