Where's the Muslim voice on Kosovo?

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During the NATO bombing in Yugoslavia and the stepped-up "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo's Albanian Muslims, anguished Muslims around the world have been asking themselves several questions.

Why are the leaders of Muslim countries so silent? What can and should be done by Muslim and Western nations to stop Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic?

Once again, Muslims feel that the leaders of nations with predominantly Muslim populations have failed in the face of external challenges. While no one is surprised to hear that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has thrown his support behind Mr. Milosevic, what about the leaders of other Muslim countries? What about Iran and Pakistan? Why do they remain so silent in this unfolding tragedy?

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Of the Arab nations, only Jordan has strongly denounced Yugoslavia. To his credit, King Abdullah recalled the nation's charg d'affaires in Belgrade.

Palestinians in the West Bank staged a large demonstration in support of the people of Kosovo, but their out-of-step president, Yasser Arafat, was paying an untimely visit to Moscow, Milosevic's strongest benefactor.

Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi first decried the illegality of the air strikes before criticizing the ethnic cleansing itself. This muted response is typical of Muslim governments.

But newspapers in the region carry extensive coverage of the crisis. And the Arab world's preeminent TV channel, Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, provides comprehensive coverage, rivaling CNN.

In these countries, a vigorous debate rages among intellectuals and journalists about what the Islamic-Arabic response should be to the genocide in Kosovo and the Western military actions. Some have argued that under no circumstances should Muslims or Arabs endorse American-led NATO airstrikes, because these same powers have for decades maintained an unjust and hypocritical double standard vis--vis the Middle East.

Why should Belgrade and Baghdad be bombed for transgressions, they ask, while Israel is allowed to carry out another form of "ethnic cleansing" - the daily confiscation of Palestinian lands and establishment of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza - and the military occupation of southern Lebanon.

Ironically, this position is shared by hawkish Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, but for vastly different reasons. Mr. Sharon, architect of recent efforts to confiscate more Palestinian land and create immutable "facts on the ground" in the form of Israeli settlements, was quoted in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot saying, "If Israel supports the type of action that is going on in Kosovo, it risks becoming the next victim. Imagine ... the Arabs of Galilee decide to demand autonomy for their region and join up with the Palestinian National Authority...."

Others in the region argue that despite the West's lack of credibility over its dealings with Muslim nations, the extreme nature of the threat against the very existence of Kosovar Albanians warrants Muslim support for military action against Serb forces. A leading proponent of this view, moderate Islamic thinker Fahmy Huwaidy, wrote recently: "We had to choose between sacrificing international legality or sacrificing hundreds of thousands of Muslim Kosovars, and I say unhesitatingly ... let us not sacrifice thousands of people."

I, like many American Muslims, share this view. While US policies toward the Muslim world have been misguided and frequently unjust, we nevertheless endorse military action against Serbia's ethnic cleansing.

Also, Islamic nations should withdraw their ambassadors from Belgrade and expel Yugoslavia's ambassadors from their capitals. These nations, as well as the West, must recognize the right of the Kosovars to self-determination and enable them to defend themselves by providing arms and military training.

Further, Muslim nations should send humanitarian and medical assistance to ease the suffering of the Kosovo refugees. While temporary relocation of some refugees on a voluntary basis can be considered to ease the crush on neighboring Albania and Macedonia, these refugees should be repatriated to Kosovo as soon as possible.

Recent naive suggestions that it would be cheaper to simply resettle the Kosovar Albanians are unhelpful and sidestep the fundamental rights of these people to self-determination in their homeland. Such resettlement efforts would play directly into the hands of Milosevic's ethnic cleansing campaign.

American Muslims largely support a genuine international effort to hold Milosevic and his associates, including the notorious "Arkan" (Zeljko Raznatovic), accountable for genocide.

Only by attaining justice for the Kosovar victims of genocide can we hope to deter future tyrants from similar policies.

*Riad Abdelkarim, a physician in Anaheim, Calif., is director of research for the Muslim Council of Southern California, an organization of American Muslim professionals and scholars.

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