War on Terrorism, or War on Islam?

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Wednesday September 26 12:20 AM ET

War on Terrorism, or War on Islam?

By Terry Friel, Copyright Reuters News, Fair Use for Educational and Research Purposes Only

JAKARTA (Reuters) - The U.S. vow that war against terrorism is not war against Islam may have fallen on deaf ears as cries of jihad, or holy war, resound across the Muslim world. The accompanying threat to strike Afghanistan in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the devastating September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, risks triggering a violent backlash among the world's billion Muslims.

``If they act without clear evidence and outside the U.N., then the danger is that this will be seen as a war against Islam,'' said Emad Gad, a political analyst at the Cairo-based al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. ``It's a kind of arrogance of power. They say you are either with us or against us...''

Some Islamic leaders say the planned U.S. retaliation over the attacks which may have killed about 7,000 people is nothing more than an undisguised crusade against Muslims. President Bush's call for a crusade against evildoers revived for some images of Christian crusades against Islam. ``They've created an atmosphere of hatred toward Muslims because they need to search for a victim, any victim...,'' said Lebanon-based Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. ``We find that the Muslims are exposed to an American attack in the name of a coalition 'war on terrorism' that has no credible basis,'' said the former Hizbollah spiritual adviser, regarded as an authority for Shi'ite Muslims around the world and who has forbidden Muslims from joining any U.S. reprisals.


Islamic support is important to American success for several reasons: Afghanistan is surrounded mainly by Islamic countries; it broadens the coalition behind the United States and it brings with it some of the world's biggest countries. ``The United States should know that without Islamic support, the obstacles will be dangerous,'' said Saudi Arabia's Arabic language al-Riyadh newspaper in an editorial. ``The United States should be aware of how entwined its position and interests are with the Islamic world in times of war and peace.''

As moderates seek to reassure their followers Washington is not on an anti-Muslim crusade, hard-liners from Europe to the Middle East to Asia are readying for a fight. ``There have been attacks and violence for years in the Arab and Muslim world as a result of the U.S., so there was a reason that this happened,'' said an angry young Sudanese at the central mosque in Paris. ``If there is a war, I'm ready.'' In the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, young men denouncing U.S. aggression are signing up to go to Afghanistan to fight a jihad while others hunt for American citizens. The country's main Muslim clerics' organization, the Council of Ulemas (MUI), has condemned both the attacks on the United States and any retaliation against a Muslim country. ``So, we call on Muslims in the world for a jihad fie sabilillah (holy war for truth) should aggression by the U.S. and its allies against Afghanistan and the Islamic world occur,'' said MUI secretary-general Din Syamsuddin.

Calls for jihad if the United States strikes are echoing around the Islamic world, including the Middle East, Malaysia and Pakistan, where four people died in weekend anti-U.S. protests. Bin Laden has described the dead Pakistani protesters as ''the first martyrs in the battle of Islam of this age.''


However, Indian Islamic scholar and head of the powerful Muslim Personal Law Board Kalbe Sadiq said Muslims could not support Afghanistan's ruling Taliban if they were proved guilty. ``But we can't support the United States because their previous record isn't good, either,'' he told Reuters. ``So this is a battle between two thugs.'' India's Muslim minority of about 120 million approaches the population of Pakistan. Analysts say while extremists are a tiny fraction of the Islamic world, a long and bloody U.S. campaign with heavy civilian casualties, and any failure by Washington to reassess its own foreign policies, may swing some moderates behind them.

``If there is a war in Afghanistan and the powers of the West are pitted against the Taliban, and if that war goes on for a few years, the Taliban would be seen by a lot of Muslims as defenders of Islam,'' said Malaysian opposition politician Chandra Muzaffar. Saudi social anthropologist Mai Yamani said she was worried about the fallout from any American military reprisals. ``That could strengthen the radical trend that we have here in the Arab Muslim world and crush the moderate trend,'' she said.

German-born Indonesian Catholic priest Franz Magnis-Suseno said: ``It's safe for us now here... but these small groups can change everything.'' Resentment at U.S. actions in the Middle East, especially its support for Israel and the sanctions against Iraq, is the common thread linking the most moderate Muslims to the most radical. ``America helps Israel in attacking Palestinians,'' said Ubaid-ul-Haq, a 32-year-old painter in the Indian capital, New Delhi. ``America must understand why people want to attack it.''

Professor Amin Saikal, from the Australian National University's Arab and Islamic studies center, told Reuters a military campaign with clear objectives and a marked foreign policy shift were vital to easing Islamic suspicions. But he also believes ethnic, cultural and political divisions mean the Islamic world cannot sustain a united opposition. ``If they could, they would have done so by now over Israel,'' he said. ``But there are groups in the Muslim world that in the short term may act against the U.S.''

Islam varies dramatically in geography and teaching, from its softer face in the vast Southeast Asian archipelago of Indonesia, built on animist and even Hindu beginnings, to the Taliban's own ultra-strict interpretation in Afghanistan. But as the world waits for any U.S. strike, Afghani-American writer Mir Tamim Ansary warns a devastating conflict between Islam and the West is, in fact, bin Laden's ultimate aim. ``We're flirting with a world war between Islam and the West,'' he wrote in a widely-circulated email. ``And guess what: that's bin Laden's program. That's why he did this. ``Who has the belly for that? Bin Laden does. Anyone else?''

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), September 26, 2001

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