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Moderate Muslims fear fundamentalist backlash from war

Terrorist leaders recruit with claims of a global, US-led 'crusade' against Islam.

By Special to the Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 2003


One of America's stated goals for an invasion of Iraq is to bring a more open political system to that country. US officials say a postwar Iraq might just prove a model for Muslim nations across the globe.

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But from Pakistan to Indonesia, Islamic reformers who are allies of pluralism and moderation are watching the kmassing of US troops in the Gulf with something approaching panic. They expect an Iraq war to galvanize Muslim populations - but not in the way the US hopes. They fear that in the slipstream of invasion will be a surge of global Muslim anger that will play into the hands of fundamentalist politicians and curtail reformers' influence.

"A unilateral US war in Iraq will put the moderates and liberals in the Islamic world in a difficult position,'' says Andrew Tan, a political scientist at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore. "The reality will be the creation of greater support for the radicals."

That support is by and large peaceful, but on its far fringes, it feeds terrorism. Fundamentalist leaders recruit with claims that a global, US-led "crusade" against Muslims can be countered only with Islamic unity and government. In deposition after deposition, terrorists with links to Al Qaeda - whether Indonesian operatives involved in last year's bomb attack in Bali or senior Al Qaeda members in US custody - insist they're defending themselves against a US-led "crusade."

It's no accident that Osama bin Laden calls his organization "The World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders" more often than he calls it "Al Qaeda." Imam Samudra, a confessed leader of the Al Qaeda-linked cell that blew up two Bali nightclubs last October, cited everything from the US invasion of Afghanistan to sectarian violence in India as evidence of a US-led war against Islam and justification for the attack.

Now, Dr. Tan says, Iraq will be added to that list, since the US has failed to convince the global Muslim community that a planned invasion of Iraq is justified. "This could add to the reservoir of revenge sentiment and a rise in anti-Americanism."

He says the invasion will also hurt Islamic reformers because it elevates the importance of religious unity - a core concept in Islam, which calls for the creation of a brotherhood of believers that emphasizes solidarity and mutual assistance. This romantic vision inspires both Arab volunteers who claim to be seeking martyrdom in defense of Hussein's regime and peace-loving participants at antiwar rallies from Dhaka to Kuala Lumpur. That, in turn, puts power in the hands of conservative clerics who argue that reformers are introducing dangerous divisions.

"The invasion could tighten the space for Muslims to talk about what role their religion should play,'' says Suzaina Kadir, a political scientist who tracks Islamic political currents at the National University of Singapore.