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Muslims Raise Fairness Issues As U.S. Gets ‘Tough on Terrorism’

BY Gabriel Meyer

August 30-September 5, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/30/98 at 2:00 PM

 

WASHINGTON—Sudanese protesters may be filling the streets of Khartoum with placards reading “No war for Monica” — a reference to suspicions that President Bill Clinton's mid-August bombing raids on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and suspected terrorist bases in Afghanistan were undertaken to deflect attention from the president's domestic troubles — but most Muslim observers and Middle East specialists are thinking hard about the long-range implications of the Administration's new “get tough on terrorism” policy.

On the morning of Aug. 20, the United States launched military strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan aimed at groups believed responsible for bomb attacks at American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya Aug. 7 that killed more than 260 people and wounded 5,500 others, mostly Kenyans. U.S. officials said that early investigations by American and African intelligence teams had led them to target the terrorist network believed to be run by the super-wealthy Saudi dissident and guerrilla leader Osamma bin Laden.

The Clinton Administration later characterized the actions as part of a broader “war against terrorism” and vowed to crush the bin Laden organization, a loose coalition of radical groups with bases in many predominantly Islamic countries, that law enforcement officials have long believed to be behind terrorist attacks in the United States, the Middle East, and now Africa.

Despite all the anti-terrorism rhetoric, however, Administration officials have gone out of their way to distance their war against bin Laden from relations with the Muslim world at large.

“I want the world to understand,” said Clinton in his formal address to the nation Aug. 20, “that our actions today were not aimed against Islam.” Instead, the president made careful distinctions between the Muslim followers of “a great religion” and radical groups that espouse “a horrible distortion of their religion to justify the murder of innocents.”

(Bin Laden, who is not an Islamic jurist, issued a fatwa, or “ruling,” earlier this year in which he said that killing American civilians, in addition to targeting military personnel and government employees, was religiously permitted.)

The Administration's stance was, as Gustav Niebuhr noted in The New York Times Aug. 22, an unusual mix of national security considerations, the recognition of the importance of a religious faith, and a gingerly attempt to zig-zag through the minefield that lay between the two.

“It was as if, after a Cold War that obscured forces like religion, ethnicity, and national culture within a global struggle between democracy and Communism,” Niebuhr remarked, “Mr. Clinton was saying that his Administration did not want to see the struggle revived as a confrontation between the West and Islam.”

Aside from anticipated anti-American protests in a few Muslim capitals, the general response of the Islamic world so far to the bombings — and, more particularly, the response of America's Muslims — has been critical, but thoughtful, and, some say, may well presage a more concerted attempt on the part of mainstream Muslim organizations to help shape, and temper, the new U.S. anti-terrorism crusade.

“I have, frankly, mixed feelings about the president's comments about Islam,” Salaam al Marayati, director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), told the Register.

“On the one hand we have these gentle words about the Islamic faith,” he said. “But on the other, the Islamic world is treated to these harsh military actions. There really is a double standard at work here.”

Al-Marayati pointed to the examples of Ireland and Bosnia.

“There's terrorism there, too,” he said, “but there the U.S. advocates diplomatic solutions. In the Muslim world, though, the first reaction is the use of military muscle. It's all getting a bit transparent.”

And counterproductive, he said.

We don't attack Radko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, Serbian warlords who are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, even though they're headquartered within a few miles of American forces stationed in Bosnia, al-Marayati opined, because we fear they'll retaliate against our troops.

“We go against cheap targets, poor countries like Sudan or Afghanistan who have no conventional means to hit back,” he said. “And precisely because they have no conventional way to respond, the likelihood of the use of terrorism increases.”

“Air strikes, anger, anti-American feelings, terrorism — we're caught in this vicious cycle of violence,” said al Marayati.

Dr. Maher Hathout, spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California, and a leading Muslim inter-faith leader in the Los Angeles area, thinks that one of the ways the United States might break out of the “old paradigm” is to include American Muslims in the development of anti-terrorism policy.

According to most estimates there are more than 4 million Muslims in the United States today.

“Who has more to lose from terrorist acts [like those attributed to bin Laden] than ordinary Muslims? Terrorism puts us in a very difficult position. On the one hand, it kills Americans, our fellow countrymen. On the other, terrorism tends to scapegoat Islam, and puts people in Muslim countries in harm's way. We have more to gain from eliminating terrorism than anybody else, so why shouldn't we be included in the policy debate?” he asked in a recent radio interview.

Hathout is writing an open letter to the president calling for a public debate on anti-terrorism policy. In addition, several Muslim organizations, including MPAC, are planning to convene a conference on the subject in Washington, D.C., before the end of the year.

However, Joshua Muravchik, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., finds himself less than impressed with the current Muslim reactions to the campaign against Osamma bin Laden.

“I'd be happy to see more Muslims denounce him,” he said. “What disturbs me is that, instead of denouncing extremists, most Muslim groups denounce the West for stereotyping.”

There's an easy way to stop the West from stereotyping Muslims, said Muravchik.

“Make more noise about how repugnant you find what these extremists stand for; how angry you are about what they do; how serious the misrepresentation of Islam is that they pose. I just find most Muslim spokespeople grudging, finally, in their denunciations.”

But Muravchik agrees the recent U.S. air strikes are “worthless if they're not part of a broader policy.”

“I think that it will be necessary to combine fighting terrorism with making a maximum effort to cultivate forces in the Islamic world that share certain basic civilizational assumptions with us,” he said.

“I have to imagine that encouraging the development of democratic values in the Islamic world is a big part of that.”

For Christian Brother David Carroll, assistant to the secretary general of the New York-based Catholic New East Welfare Association (CNEWA), empowering majorities in the Muslim world to reject violence is the key to solving the terrorism dilemma.

“It's really a matter of moral suasion,” said Brother Carroll. “Not air strikes.”

Brother Carroll pointed to the example of Northern Ireland.

“We couldn't just ‘write off’ the nationalist groups that were violent,” he said. “They were part of the problem, they needed to be part of the solution. Eventually the desire of the majority for peace, and the majority's disillusionment with violence, compelled the extremists to come to the table.”

Now that much of the Irish Republican Army mainstream has been persuaded to join the peace process through patient dialogue, Carroll said, “the cranks can be effectively isolated.”

The same goes for the Middle East, he said.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was long considered a terrorist group, but today they form the basis of the Palestine Authority and negotiate with the government of the state of Israel, he pointed out.

“There's no easy way to bring such developments about,” he said. “Certainly not by knocking out military dormitories and shooting ranges in a Third World country.”

“The process of long, sustained dialogue — that's the crucial element.”

Paradoxically, Carroll sees a potential opening for dialogue in the aftermath of the U.S. air strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan.

“There's a window of opportunity now for Western leaders to sit down with the regime in Khartoum,” he said. The long-isolated Sudanese regime of Hassan al-Turabi issued an invitation Aug. 24 for United Nations officials and other international leaders to inspect the damaged pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum that the United States contends was used to make precursors for chemical warfare.

“A lot will depend on how the West responds,” he said. “There's a chance here to start a process that might help moderate this regime. I just hope we seize it,” he said.

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.

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