- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

BEIRUT — The rash of kidnappings, beheadings and explosions in Iraq, the killing of innocent children in Russia, and car bombings in Turkey and Indonesia have provoked debate among Arab intellectuals about why most terrorist acts are being committed by Muslims acting in the name of Islam.

Some blame the violence on an atmosphere of intolerance and extremism that has bred hatred of non-Muslims, and urge honest soul-searching as a remedy; others insist that the problem is with the West, particularly Washington’s unconditional support of Israel and its war on Iraq.

The debate in newspaper columns, letters from readers and television talk shows may be low-key, intermittent and limited to the intellectual elite, but some Arabs think it’s a step toward breaking the taboo of speaking out against problems within the Muslim religious establishment and its clergy, and reversing support for extremism.

“The debate is a very positive indicator,” said Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir. “If it continues, it could pose the larger and more important question of how qualified are the Muslim religious establishment and clergy to lead a political platform?

“Right now, Muslim youths can choose only between Osama bin Laden and semiliterate clerics,” Mr. Noureddine added. “What is required is an Arab religious establishment that’s civilized, educated and vigilant.”

Speaking out against extremism is not new. A few months after the September 11 attacks on the United States, carried out by 19 Arabs, dozens of columns and opinion pieces urging moderation appeared in newspapers in the Middle East, especially those in Saudi Arabia, homeland of 15 of the hijackers.

But in the past few weeks, with the school siege in Russia that left about 330 people dead and the resurgence of terrorist attacks in Iraq, where the victims of car bombs and beheadings are overwhelmingly Iraqis or Muslims, the debate has gained momentum. The effort is not an organized movement nor is it widespread, but it’s a reflection of what’s being discussed among some Arabs.

Condemnation has come not only from secular intellectuals, but also from some of the Muslim world’s most prominent scholars. Egypt’s foremost religious leader, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, declared: “Beheadings and mutilation of bodies stand against Islam.” Lebanon’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, said Islam doesn’t sanction the killing or abduction of foreigners who are working and feel secure in Muslim countries.

However, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many religion scholars say suicide bombings by the groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad are acceptable.

“The Palestinian resistance against Zionist terrorism is one that we demand, bless and sanction,” said Abdul-Aziz al-Khayat, a Jordanian scholar and former minister of religious affairs.

But he said blowing up buildings in Iraq, Turkey or Afghanistan, the kidnappings in Iraq, and attacks on Western residential compounds in Saudi Arabia “cannot be sanctioned because they don’t target an oppressive power.”

It’s a view held by many Arabs, but it’s being increasingly challenged.

Saudi columnist Sulaiman al-Hattlan said Arabs “lack a human face” when it comes to condemning terrorist attacks, including those against Israelis. He said those who denounce such bombings usually do so for political reasons — because they do not advance the attackers’ cause — rather than for humanitarian reasons.

“You have to have a moral standard. You have to look at others as human,” he said.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a Saudi who is general manager of Al Arabiya television, said the problem of extremism is an internal one and the solution must come from within Muslim societies.

Mr. al-Rashed wrote one of the most provocative pieces on the issue, saying in a column in the wake of the school siege in Beslan, Russia, that Muslims must acknowledge the painful fact that they are the main perpetrators of terrorism.

In his column, published in Asharq Al-Awsat — the world’s largest Arabic daily, published in Saudi Arabia — Mr. al-Rashed listed recent attacks by Islamist extremists in Russia, Iraq, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, many of which were influenced by the ideology of bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of the al Qaeda terror network.

“What a terrible record,” he wrote. “Doesn’t it say something about us, our societies, our cultures?”

Not everyone agrees. One letter, from a reader identified only as Muhammad, said:

“I don’t know whether al-Rashed lives on planet Earth or on Mars and can only see Fox News and [Britain-based] Sky News. Do you know about the crimes of terrorist [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon? Do you know about the crimes of terrorist [President] Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan?”

“We all know,” Mr. al-Rashed wrote back. “But that’s not an excuse to kill innocent, unarmed civilians.”

Salama Ahmed Salama, an Egyptian columnist, said such self-blame “has been exaggerated.”

He said that although it’s true that most terrorist attacks have been perpetrated by Muslims, Europe and Asia are no strangers to terrorism.

“The logic of terrorism is not new in international politics,” he said. “It’s not Arabs who invented it.”

“We shouldn’t be unfair to ourselves,” he added. “But at the same time, we should tell groups that have chosen jihad as a course that it’s not the right one. The world has turned against Islam and Muslims because of the barbaric acts.”

Mr. al-Rashed said a change of heart also has occurred among many Muslims, who now believe terrorists are acting not only against their stated enemies — the West and Israel — but also against fellow Arabs and Muslims, such as in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

“People can now see that those groups do not have a political stand against America, but an extremist stand that believes everybody is wrong,” Mr. al-Rashed said.

He said that although the discussions are limited to the intellectual elite, word will filter down to impressionable youths.

“You can’t convince the masses before you convince the elite,” he said. “They are the ones who will take the word to the masses.”

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