Rare Muslim debate over terrorist acts

The attack on Russian schoolchildren sparks criticalself-examination among some Muslim opinion leaders.

The revulsion felt across the globe after the murder of some 335 people by Chechen separatists didn't bypass the Arab world. Condemnation has rung out from Arab governments and editorial pages. The attack on schoolchildren has created space for a rare debate over what Muslims can do to clean up what many see as a small and dirty corner of their own house.

"It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims,'' wrote Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Al-Arabiya, one of the Arab world's two major satellite news channels. In an article published Sept. 5 in a leading Middle Eastern daily, he lists several recent attacks on civilians. "What an abominable 'achievement.' Does all this tell us anything about ourselves, our societies, and our culture?"

Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks - when disgust at the violence was tempered by a sense among many that the US got what it deserved - Muslim ambivalence is being replaced in a few influential corners by self-examination and demands for clerics to take a tougher stance against the killers.

While unlikely to reach the hard-core terrorists, the shifting climate could alter public opinion in the longer term, say Arab analysts. Many point to the suicide bombings in Iraq and an Al Qaeda-linked attack in Saudi Arabia last November that left 17 people dead, most of them Arab, as turning points, too.

"I don't think the shock just begins with the Chechnya thing. It's been building, with the multiple attacks in Iraq. People can't square the killing of Iraqis standing in line to get bread with legitimate grievances,'' says Youssef Ibrahim, a Dubai-based political analyst who wrote a piece condemning the attacks for the Gulf News. "At first, there was a certain glee that Americans were getting a black eye in Iraq, but since, there's been some serious questioning about where Islam the religion ends and where the Islam of the political extreme begins."

There's also a growing sense among Arab opinion leaders that such events play into the Western stereotypes about Islam, and that the sins of the few are harming the interests of the majority.

Mr. Rashed's opinion piece in the daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat is part of that discussion. Rashed, a Saudi national, also attacked the influential Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is often described as a moderate but recently condoned the use of suicide bombers in Israel and the killing of civilians in Iraq.

"How can we believe him when he tells us that Islam is the religion of mercy and peace while he is turning it into a religion of blood and slaughter?'' wrote Mr. Rashed. "It would be easy to cure ourselves if we realize the seriousness of our sickness. Self-cure starts with self-realization and confession. We should then run after our terrorist sons, in the full knowledge that they are the sour grapes of a deformed culture."

An Egyptian Islamist writer, Fahmy Howeidi says that Sheikh Qaradawi was misquoted, and that he doesn't support attacks on US civilians. Mr. Ibrahim says a growing number of Arab writers are ridiculing fatwas (religious edicts) that condone violence, and points to a recent program on Al-Arabiya, where an Islamist cleric faced off in a debate with a secular Lebanese who challenged the cleric again and again. "This is a new phenomenon,'' says Mr. Ibrahim. "The traditional Islamic religious establishment which used to have total impunity no longer has that impunity. It is now being seriously questioned."

There are other signs of self-examination. Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, told The New York Times this week, that Muslims don't take enough responsibility for their problems. "This is the single biggest failure of Muslims at present," he said. "You don't have credible leaders. You don't have a real voice of conscience." When things go wrong, he says, leaders blame "the Americans and the Jews and the Christians.... we are still in a state of denial."

Still, there are many Arab commentators who disagree. "It is not acceptable to fight in this way, the Koran is very clear. If you kill one innocent person, it's like you've killed the whole world,'' says Mr. Howeidi, a leading Egyptian Islamist. "But this crime [in Beslan] came after the Russians did far worse. I've been to Grozny, and I saw what the Russians did, so I can understand why this happened. This didn't happen because they're Muslims. But because they've been driven mad."

Howeidi wrote an article in Al-Sharq al-Awsat in response to Rashed's piece. "Yes, there are many terrorists among Muslims, but we should remember that the Muslims are the most oppressed people in the world," he says. "Non-Muslims would react in the same way to such oppression." He says it's unfair to expect Muslims to rein in such "un-Islamic" activity when, for instance, Russian troops have committed atrocities in Chechnya, the Palestine-Israel peace process has fallen apart, and 140,000 American troops are in Iraq.

"The answer to reducing fanaticism should be a two-pronged approach that sees the Arab leadership engaging its citizens and owning up to their responsibilities as leaders, whilst the US plays the role of an honest broker," says Massoud Derhally, a journalist and political analyst based in Dubai. "You'll always have the crazy 1 percent that can't be reached, you have them even in America,'' says Ibrahim, the Dubai analyst. "But can we reach the majority, the silent majority? I think we can and we are beginning to reach them."

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