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Why Egypt produces extremists

By Geneive Abdo / October 12, 2001



CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

Before Americans ever heard of Mohammad Atta, the Egyptian-born engineer identified as a ringleader in the Sept. 11 attacks, there was Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind spiritual guide of extremist Islamic groups, now in a New York jail. And before him, there was Khalid Islambuli, charged with killing former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and many other extremists who have one thing in common: their hatred for the Egyptian government.

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Since the attacks, press coverage has focused on the anti-American sentiment driving Islamic extremism. But at least as much of this hostility stems from the extremists' frustration with their respective governments in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Across the Arab world, religious activists have been deprived of any forum allowing them to influence domestic politics. The lack of a free press and pluralistic political system leaves no room for Islamic expression inside the state. Compounding this anxiety is the United States' financial and political support for authoritarian governments as rewards for stifling political participation.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has ruled for some 20 years under emergency law. Suspected militants are tried before military judges, where they have little chance of receiving justice; public demonstrations are banned; and it is illegal to criticize the president in published statements. Add to the list the routine torture of perceived political dissidents; a shoot-to-kill policy against the extremist strand of the Islamic movement; state control of a majority of 60,000 mosques in order to censor sermons; and a lack of free elections.

It should come as no surprise that when Mohammad Atta and all those before him found no voice at home, they roamed the mountains of Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden provides political power and an agenda addressing their grievances. It is no accident that Mr. bin Laden's closest lieutenants are from Egypt's Islamic Jihad organization, which wants to create an Islamic state and has been battling Mubarak's government for 20 years.

The views of the disfranchised are now heard on the Arab world's CNN, the al-Jazeera satellite network. US attempts in recent days to pressure the Qatari government, the owner of al-Jazeera, is more evidence supporting the double standard that Muslims in the Arab world have endured for decades. Since its inception five years ago, al-Jazeera has provided free expression to dissidents of all stripes. A few days ago, the network ran footage of bin Laden's response to the Sept. 11 attacks. But even before his statement was aired, Secretary of State Colin Powell last week had asked Qatar to pull the plug on al-Jazeera, which the US says fuels anti-American sentiment.

Dissatisfied with the progress Arab regimes have made in quashing dissent, the US has gone a step further in trying to ban free expression, which is assumed as a civic right in the West, but deemed too dangerous for the Arab world. Again, the US is providing a service to authoritarian rule: Many Arab governments, too, want al-Jazeera shut down because it routinely airs the views of their political foes. For many in the Arab middle class, the US pressure on al-Jazeera is part of a wider pattern of behavior that has left America alienated from what could be a core constituency in the Muslim world. One-sided support for Israel against the aspirations of the Palestinian people, the continued bombing and sanctions against fellow Arabs in Iraq, backing for corrupt and unpopular Arab regimes, and a general unease as America pursues its economic and cultural globalization drive, have undermined US prestige across the region.

Yasser Arafat's unprecedented decision this week to instruct his police force to fire on Palestinian demonstrators cheering bin Laden and denouncing the US certainly adds a new and dangerous element to Arab public opinion.

In taking such a decision, Arafat has clearly sent a signal that he is with Washington and against the sentiments of his own people. He apparently believes he has little choice. The result of a lack of expression demonstrated this week in the Gaza Strip and the history of authoritarian rule in the Arab world has left many Muslims prepared to view the deadly attacks of Sept. 11 with understanding, if not sympathy, for the hijackers. This, in turn, creates an atmosphere in which a radical fringe can recruit and operate in the margins of society.

It must be made clear that the vast majority of Muslims in no way condone the Sept. 11 attacks or any violence in the name of Islam. This is precisely the reason militant Islamic movements from Egypt to Algeria have found little support from ordinary citizens. Moderate Islamic activists fighting for political pluralism in Egypt for decades have condemned the violence launched by Islamic Jihad and other groups against government officials, policemen, and foreigners.

Yet the leap from the moderate Islamist fighting for a free press to the militant jet-setter with safe houses stretching from Pakistan to Germany and Florida is not great. The lack of democracy in the Arab world, openly encouraged by the US, will only breed more militants and deter those who would seek compromise rather than violence if given a voice in determining their destinies.

Geneive Abdo is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and the author of 'No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam' (Oxford University Press, 2000).

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