- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 2, 2002

President George W. Bush may be the world's most powerful leader, but religious leaders don't seem all that impressed. Among Protestants, only the Southern Baptists have endorsed the idea of pre-emptive action against Saddam Hussein, whom they describe as " … [an] international outlaw beyond the reach of all international sanctions." Arrayed against the Baptists and Mr. Bush, however, are the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and dozens of individual Protestant and Orthodox religious leaders.

The World Council of Churches goes so far as to demand the United States "desist from any military threats against Iraq," and urges other nations to resist pressure to join a campaign "under the pretext of the 'war on terrorism.' " Spokesmen for the United Methodists and Episcopal Churches have voiced similar concerns. The U.S. Conference of Bishops, which gave qualified support to the war in Afghanistan, actually favors removing international sanctions against Iraq and opposes military action there.

There is nothing new about this. Not even the trauma of September 11 has softened the voices of those who believe that we are as wrong today in the Middle East as they thought we were in Vietnam.

But it is the absence of any parallel debate in the Arab world that should concern us. A year after September 11 and on the eve of probable war with Iraq, the silence among moderate Muslims is ominous.

There is a reason for this silence. Dissent in the Muslim world is dangerous. Most moderates have long since been cowed into silence by their radical brethren. They hide their opinions for their own good, while radical religious leaders preach hate and stifle dissent. From Baghdad to Khartoum and Karachi and from Algeria to Afghanistan, the extremists who hold sway brook little dissent. Thousands of Christians have been forcibly converted to Islam in Indonesia, while millions of non-Muslims have been killed or enslaved in Sudan. Christian churches are torched regularly in "friendly" Pakistan, where non-Muslims face the death penalty for "blasphemy" if their words are judged critical of the Koran.

As a result, the world must deal with radicals. Thus, as Yasser Arafat dined at the White House during the Clinton years, ordinary Palestinians risked execution as Israeli collaborators for daring to differ with him.

The silence of the moderates is as striking in supposedly friendly Egypt and Saudi Arabia as it is in Syria and Iran. Indeed, in these nations respected Muslim religious leaders routinely fan the flames of hatred. Take Sheik You Al Qaradawi, who reaches millions each week through his own show on Qatar-based Al Jazeera television. He was praised by the New York Times for condemning the September 11 attacks, but he only opposed them because the planes that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon carried civilian passengers ("had there been nobody on board, the matter would be different.") The sheik went on to endorse female suicide bombers in the Holy Land.

Egypt's grand mufti, Sheikh Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb, seems cut from the same cloth. He has declared that suicide attacks are "the sole means of struggle which the Palestinians have in current circumstances" and should not be condemned.

The bottom line is that ordinary Arabs and Muslims have no voice. Millions of them oppose violence and abhor terrorism, but remain silent in the face of intimidation and death.

So, the contagion spreads. Just a few days ago, the United Arab Emirates' deputy prime minister chaired a conference at the Zayed Center, a respected Arab think-tank in Abu Dhabi, at which the center's executive director dismissed Israel's right to exist and issued a press release declaring the Holocaust a "false fable."

These "men of god" even endorse the use of nuclear weapons against the enemies of Islam. Aaed ben Maqbul al-Qurni, a leading Muslim theologian, recently argued, for example, that Arabs must reject the obligations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because there can be "no agreement with (heretics) concerning the prohibition of such weapons, [unless] either they become Muslims … or accept the reign of Islam … or a battle with whatever weapons are allowed by Islamic law." In other words, he invokes Islamic tradition to urge Muslim governments to acquire and deploy weapons of mass destruction against Israel and other "enemies of Islam."

The clock is ticking. Political, religious and human-rights leaders must either publicly condemn the "apocalypse now" rhetoric gripping the Arab and Muslim world, or be prepared to witness the fulfillment of the vision of the preachers of hate.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organization. Harold Brackman is a historical consultant to the center.

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