What Charlie Wilson’s War can Teach Texans and Muslims about the Fight Against Radical Islam


In the 1980’s the United States was preoccupied with defeating the Soviet Union and the specter of communism, simultaneously calls for Jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan were heralded across the Islamic word. At that unique moment, the interests of the United States and Islamic world were aligned, and through close cooperation dealt a mighty death blow to communist Russia in Afghanistan. The film, “Charlie Wilson’s War”, highlights the work of a swashbuckling East Texas Congressman, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) and a seductive southern debutante, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), who ultimately compelled the United States to fund the mujahedeen (freedom fighters) of Afghanistan. This tag team worked the inner sanctum of the Washington defense establishment and Texas fundraising circuit to immensely expand U.S funding for Afghanistan.

 Today, the United States and the Islamic world face the same existential threat: the rise of militant Islam which destabilizes Muslim nations and brings Islam and the West closer to fulfilling the ominous “Clash of Civilizations” prophecy. This mutual enemy creates an opportunity for the mainstream Islamic world and the United States to collaborate. Even though Osama Bin Laden is dead, both the systemic causes of his warped world view and the continued proliferation of his dogma are very much alive. The ideology that serially sends disaffected youth to public places to commit mass murder, destroys civil life, and creates sectarian strife in Muslim countries, is the same ideology that plans the next terrorist attack against America. Conventional warfare, however, has proved inadequate: two wars, Guantanamo Bay, the corrosion of civil liberties and a massive federal deficit have yielded little real progress.

 The weapons to defeat this threat are not stinger missiles and Kalashnikov assault rifles, instead, the battle against the myopic ideology of militant Islam, requires schools and economic development.  Both Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times have called for increased aid for education to Pakistan and Yemen, respectively. Friedman going so far as to state “For every Predator missile we fire at an Al Qaeda target here, we should help Yemen build 50 new modern schools that teach science and math and critical thinking.” Rampant unemployment and scarce opportunity for advancement are fodder for extremism and martyrdom.

 Demographics can shape destiny and the Islamic world is at a crucial impasse with the potential for incredible economic development or an unprecedented expansion of existing problems. The Islamic world is extremely young and rapidly growing. Of the fastest growing 48 countries 28 are Muslim majority countries or have Muslim minorities of 33% or more according to Jack Goldstone, writing in Foreign Affairs. In Pakistan, Malaysia and Egypt at least 30% of the populations is age 14 or younger. A young prodigious population can be a powerful catalyst for industrialization and mobility; however, if development lapses the consequences can be dire as even greater numbers of people are without means and opportunity.

 Texas has a unique role to play in the fight against radical Islam as it did in the fight against communism. Texas wields significant political influence. Of the last ten Presidents four were either born in Texas or used Texas as a political base, while Texas only represents one-fifteenth of our nation’s population. The Catalogue for Philanthropy ranks Texas the fourth most giving state reflecting an ethic of giving among Texans that has supported higher education, healthcare and community development. The confluence of Texas’s political power, wealth, and philanthropic predisposition creates a unique opportunity for Texans and Muslim-Texans to partner. 

 I recently attended a fundraiser in Austin for The Citizens Foundation, a trailblazing NGO that has built 730 schools in Pakistan. I was, however, disappointed that with the exception of one person, all donors present were from the Muslim community. The need for development in Muslim nations is not only a concern of their Diasporas but equally of the West.  Partnership with the Muslim migrant communities who maintain ties to their home countries through a network of charities and remittances should be developed.

 “Charlie Wilson’s War” offers an inspiring road map for Texas in defeating militancy and radicalism. What the Soviet threat was to a generation ago, radical Islam is for today. What the weapons of guns and rockets were to a generation ago, the shipment of books and computers are for today. Once these logical connections are established in philanthropy and political activism, I am confident that Texas can rise to the occasion as it did in the generation of Charlie Wilson.




The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

Zuhair Khan

Evercore Parnters

Zuhair Khan works in the restructuring group of Evercore Partners, a boutique investment bank headquartered in New York City. Zuhair also serves...


#1 Fantastic work, Zuhair! I

Fantastic work, Zuhair! I certainly agree that a partnership with the Muslim migrant communities who maintain ties to their home countries through a network of charities and remittances should be developed. Looking forward to our next visit, John

#2 This is a thoughtful analysis

This is a thoughtful analysis with conclusions and reccomendations that merit serious consideration and action by policymakers and others interested in growing prosperity rather than discord. The author's background gives him a valid perspective on the topic and underscores the value of a UT McCombs School of Business degree.

#3 Great article. While I have

Great article. While I have not seen "Charlie Wilson’s War", I found this article to be insightful.

#4 This is a very insightful

This is a very insightful piece and I couldn't agree with you more. The question at hand is not whether or not this is the right way of handling issues in the Middle East, but rather, how do we get our short-sided politicians to act on this. Disregard the comment from the communist above as he is clearly behind the times and doesn't understand human nature.

#5 Great article. Part of me

Great article. Part of me wishes you would have titled it "How Educating Muslims Can Help the West More Than Murdering Them." Don't know if readership would increase or decrease as a function of bluntness...

#6 I found your piece to be

I found your piece to be intriguing and offer a potential route to re-think the conflict with militant Islam in terms other than a hard power dynamic. The reality is that these regions of the world are sources of global instability, and while there may be legitimate grievances, the lack of opportunities, especially educational ones serves to limit the lens in which people pursue to redress their grievances. Education is a powerful enabler, and encourages greater social stability and societal knowledge and thus limits the space in which self-destructive ideological narratives can operate unchallenged. I liked the idea that one way, we as Texans, can fight this battle without putting more boots on the ground is to participate in these type of education projects that limit the growth of the militant meme and provides a space for indigenous challenges to apocalyptical/clash ideologies. We are all responsible for our collective security, and encouraging philanthropic efforts for education projects seems like a superb and effective way for Texans to do our part.

#7 I find all this piece does is

I find all this piece does is justify greater intervention into a part of the world that doesn't want us there, rather than make a clear argument for economic development. At the same time, we might think of economic development as one of the precipitating factors behind the fascist political movements we encounter in the Middle-East. Is it not Yemen's failure in the global economic system it's reason for turning to extremism? To think the instability caused by global, capitalism will make the world a better place to live in is ridiculous. The labor unions in Egypt that struggled for greater democracy might have told you that. Comparing the popular Marxist struggle to Islamic-fascism is misleading and suggests somehow that Marxist movements were not home grown or popular before we intervened and put them down.

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