- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

The attacks of September 11 marked the beginning of a new era, not only for America but for the Arab and Islamic world as well. Once again, as with Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the actions of a small group of individuals with a cultist outlook tried to decide the destiny of the Arab world. It is time for us all, including the Arab and Muslim political movements, to declare where we stand. Our response will determine the shape of our world for a generation.
The United States has reacted decisively. We find her today moving from a pacifist mood, avoiding a direct confrontation with Islamic extremism, to a total confrontation with all forms of extremist violence and the political atmospheres that encourage it.
The Bush administration has admirably gone to great lengths to stress that this war on terrorism is directed neither against Arabs, Muslims, nor Islam, but solely against extremist violence. But we face the uncomfortable fact that the perpetrators of the worst attack in U.S. history were both Arab and Muslim. We are further discomfited by the terrorists' claims that they were defending Arab causes, and motivated by their Islamic faith.
The world is now paying attention to Islam as never before, and it is important to define a few terms. While all adherents to Islam are Muslims, irrespective of their level of devotion or orthodoxy, those that utilize Islamic teachings as a political tool are called "Islamists," and their movements called "Islamism" or "political Islam." Most Islamist movements are legitimate political entities that represent large constituencies and eschew violence. But some have clear currents of extremist thought, manifest as extremist speech; others cross the line to incite or commit violence.
Admittedly, we must consider the environment that feeds this extremism: hopeless poverty, no social mobility, no democratic process for change, poor education, loss of respect, and loss of self. Arabs and Muslims feel humiliated, downtrodden and filled with rage as they watch Israeli forces attack Palestinian targets. And they notice that the Israelis are using American-made Apache helicopters and F-16s. They also see the Iraqis suffering under Saddam's rule, and see no end, either to Saddam or to the international sanctions. Their frustration accumulates and boils up into hatred looking for an outlet. Islamist movements tap into this anger and frustration, and stoke it to increase their influence among their followers.
Again, most Islamists are not violent. Unfortunately, however, distinguishing between political Islam and Islamic extremism is not always easy. The rhetoric we hear, even from some nonviolent movements, is so fiery that the distinction between them and the terrorists is obscured. This presents a challenge to the allied governments U.S. and Western, Arab and Islamic, and others who are fighting extremist violence.
Fortunately, one solution to this problem lies within reach of the Islamists themselves. They must begin political changes within their ranks, and ease their followers back from the brink. They must tone down their political speech, emphasize their peaceful goals, embrace pluralism and show that they will not force a certain political regime on the larger society.
In the current political landscape, political Islam is ascendant in several Arab and Asian countries. Islamists dominate more than one parliament and more than one government. They also have financial and political influence in the region. No other political movement can compete with them since the retreat of the Arab nationalists in the 1970s. Indeed, Islamic movements have forced many Arab governments into political hesitation approaching inaction and have literally put on trial leading intellectuals and writers. They have come to dominate the educational process in most Arab countries and are pressing many governments to adopt Islamic law as the law of the land.
As this clash between civilization and terror continues, Arab countries and governments will be more fearful of Islamist movements. They will limit Islamist activities, financial resources, and influence. The attempts to impose Islamic law will grind to a halt, especially after the highly public failure of the Afghan model.
This international confrontation will leave its marks on Islamic movements. It will move them to a defensive position, and may force them into a regional retreat. Nevertheless, ample space will remain for Islamists that see the necessity of political accommodation, both domestic and international.
Yet the question remains: Who will fill the vacuum left by a retreating Islamic movement? Will it be filled with another extremism, still tapping into anger and frustration directed at the world? Or will it be filled with a movement toward tolerance and a de-politicized, stable environment? Clearly, a daunting task lies ahead, and dialogue, education and understanding must be central to its accomplishment.

Shafeeq Ghabra, a political science professor from Kuwait University, is director of the Kuwait Information Office in Washington. The views expressed are his own.


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