Arab press finds roots of terrorism closer to home

Public debate is emerging over the link between political oppression and militancy.

It was not just the West that felt the world change on Sept. 11. The aftermath of that day's events has led to a remarkably vocal debate in the Arab world, dismayed by how its image and that of Islam have been tarnished in the eyes of many Westerners because of the actions of militant extremists.

To be sure, many commentators see US foreign policy in the Middle East as the root cause of terrorism - particularly US support of Israel and sanctions against Iraq. But a growing number are beginning to argue that ills in their own societies - and their own governments - are also to blame.

From Egypt to the Persian Gulf, journalists, politicians, and academics are asking why thousands of young Arabs felt so alienated at home that they became involved in violence in distant, non-Arab lands such as Afghanistan or Albania, only to return because they were under arrest or in a coffin. The way to eradicate extremism, many of these writers argue, is to foster democracy, improve social justice, and overhaul religious education systems.

This new public debate, largely overlooked by the Western media, has been unfolding for months, with views and opinions expressed that were once taboo.

"Rearranging the Arab house has always been a pressing matter, but now it is an inescapable one," Mustafa al-Fiqi, an Egyptian diplomat and member of parliament, wrote in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat.

What is needed, Mr. Fiqi argues, is "the cleaning up of Arab society, which is beset by defects, misguided beliefs, and the deviant use of our religion."

This is likely to make disquieting reading for many Arab leaders, who are also coming under strong press criticism in the region for failing to rally effectively behind the beleaguered Palestinians because of alleged US pressure to remain silent.

According to a columnist in the Daily Star in Lebanon, people "have started to link their governments' failure to help the Palestinians with their failure to promote democracy and civil liberties at home."

Noting that most of the suicide hijackers came from Arab countries, other writers and intellectuals have criticized fellow commentators for "pursuing a policy of denial and disavowal" in rejecting any link between "Arabs, Muslims, and terrorism."

Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari, dean of the College of Sharia and Law at the University of Qatar, wrote in Al-Hayat: "We should be responsible for confronting the idea of terrorism in our midst. There is paralysis in our society that is forcing young people to become involved with terrorist groups."

There has also been growing criticism of the degree to which the regimes have tolerated and even tacitly supported militant Islamists, while publicly trying to suppress them.

Criticizing Arab rulers, Saudi writer Daud al-Shiryan said the 1981 assassination of Egypt's President Sadat by the militant Islamic movement, and other violent confrontations, "should have been sufficient to open their eyes to the danger of this movement and its reliance on violence as a means of expression."

The regimes tackled the movement by imposing "restrictions on public liberty and the silencing of other voices in society, oblivious of the need for democracy and freedom of expression, the building of state institutions, economic reform and a campaign against corruption." That policy itself created "a new generation of extremists."

The need to boost democracy in a part of the world where it has made only tentative inroads has become a common theme in much recent Arab press comment.

There was a stark warning from Abd al Khaliq, a professor in the United Arab Emirates, of what would happen unless the Arabs blended the "innovations of the modern world with the best influences and beliefs from our own Arab and Islamic legacy." The Arab nation will "remain in a state of permanent fracture, division, extremism, and confrontation one with another," while producing and exporting terrorists.

Echoing other commentators, he cautioned that if the Arab world does not put its own house in order, "then order will be imposed from outside" by the US, in accordance with its own "interests and desires."

The extent to which Arab leaders will respond to the new debate remains to be seen. Skeptics suspect some Arab governments view the debate merely as a safety valve for a restless public.

But for many, the fact that a debate on such sensitive issues is being aired at all reflects a sea change in the regional atmosphere, which could also help promote a genuine dialogue between Islamic and Western civilizations.

"It doesn't mean to say that there will be instant solutions, but it's a huge step forward to have all these things talked about," says Gerald Butt, Gulf editor of the Middle East Economic Survey. "Having opened up this debate, you can't really close it down again."

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