Hijacking the place of worship

The 9/11 Commission Report currently topping bestseller lists is good on intelligence reform. And it may be an excellent administrative design for a new strategy to fight terrorism.

But the report fails at analyzing the basic political problem of the Middle East: failing governance. That is a state security vulnerability that is a primal cause of terrorism. There is no country in the Middle East that adequately delivers services to its people, and all of those countries face major threats to their existence or stability.

Because of this, US security is linked with the security of the Middle East, especially since 9/11. That's why the 9/11 Commission Report is an important document for those in the Middle East as well as in the US.

Let us consider the relevance to terrorism of the "state of the state" in the Middle East.

It helps to point out that the current form of terrorism in the Middle East can be seen as a non-conventional, criminal, and misguided guerrilla war of political liberation. And while terrorists use inhumane and dramatic tactics to produce the maximum impact of damage and public attention, terrorists are not the only source of terror in the region.

Believe it or not, terrorists are not the most dangerous menace in the larger scheme of things. In fact, terrorists are a byproduct of a possibly even greater source of menace: the terror of the state.

Increasingly, the Middle East is becoming ungovernable. The people are enraged but cannot express their feelings openly. They face the threat of punishment from their governments that have massive technologies of terror: intelligence networks, expanding numbers of prison cells, paranoid censorship, medieval torture, zones of security, walls of security and capital punishment for "treason, or apostasy."

Arab terrorists originally organized to fight their own political regimes, but, to an appreciable extent, they failed. Terrorists initially fought in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria and elsewhere, but the armies of "security" punished them fiercely.

State terror in the Middle East is all-inclusive; it is directed at acquisition of power and its maintenance. It has silenced poets, peace activists, reformers, university students, writers, poets, visionaries, human rights activists, feminists, religious critics, sociologists, union leaders, and others. State terror has liquidated or co-opted all agents of positive social change.

What the Middle East state has failed to silence effectively is the politician who pretends to be religious or who has abused religion . They are internally political and externally religious. All religions have their bigots, not only Islam. The Imams who support terrorism have disqualified themselves from being "Islamic," but they remain members of the Muslim community. The Imams who support "blasting the infidels" cannot be considered Islamic because the Koran considers Christianity and Judaism as people of the (Holy) Book. The massive Arab anger about the West in the Muslim world is largely about the US foreign policy, and not a religious response. The terrorists have found religious infrastructure as a haven for political organization that is immune from state retribution.

The terrorists are politicians that have discovered the mosque as a refuge to organize followers; they have covered their fascist ideology with sectarian language; they have painted the enemy as an adversary of faith; they have recruited from among the young, a group that is passionate for absolute ideology and revealed truth. The terrorists have hijacked the place of worship and imprisoned the faithful in despair.

By labeling the terrorists "Islamic," the 9/11 Commission Report has unintentionally served the purpose of these underground organizers of violence. For it is the terrorist leaders that cleverly and unjustifiably defined Islam to serve their political purpose. But many Islamic authorities have not accepted their interpretation of Islam. After 9/11 the Council on American Islamic Relations condemned terrorism publicly on repeated occasions. The (Egyptian) Azhar authorities have done the same. Naturally there are exceptions to this trend, but again here, there are parallels in Christianity (historically and currently) and other religions, where clerics rationalize hatred, criminal action, and demonization on pseudo-religious grounds.

The Islamic label that is assigned to terrorists in the Report may also encourage the politically motivated US fundamentalist groups to further sharpen their own merciless media attacks on Islam and Muslims. The 13th Annual Arab-US Policy Makers Conference that was held in Washington earlier this month highlighted the the bias of US sectarian media against Islam. (To be fair, Arab media on the "Christian West and Jews" is also equally regrettable.) Reverend Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, for example, use the media to express their hostility to Islam. Such clerical media stars portray Islam as a religion of violence on a regular basis on TV and radio. (For more evidence consult Grace Halsell's book Forcing God's Hands)

While mentioning the relevance of dialogue with moderate groups in the Muslim and Arab world, the 9/11 Report fails to recommend any serious measures for controlling media attacks on Islam in the US.

The Report, unintentionally, may reinforce the myth that there is a "good Islam and a bad Islam," and that the Commission will support "good" Islam. Non-Muslims should not redefine Islam for Muslims. There is "good" Muslim and "bad" Muslim behavior, and there is "good" Christian and "bad" Christian behavior. But we do not speak of "bad" Islam or "bad" Christianity. There are Muslims who abide by their doctrine of peace and those who do not. Muslims differ in their practice of Islam just as Christians or Jews do. We do not condemn Islam for the behavior of some Muslim just as we do not condemn Christianity for behavior of some Christians.

Terrorism will not subside without a radical, comprehensive plan for reform that is negotiated regionally and internationally. Is the Middle East ready for a new rule-of-law social order? The report could have speculated more candidly on this central and thorny question.

There is no easy answer to the political rebuilding of failing or ailing states, says Professor Francis Fukayama, in his latest book, "State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century." The United Nations Development Program's Arab Human Development Reports is a good start for pointing out deficiencies (in freedom, women's rights, and education) but this document has no political teeth and is too polite about state terror.

To deal with terrorism, the US must reevaluate its foreign policy to respond creatively and seriously to the problem of autocracy in the region. The report recommends vague measures of reform but has no plans to support them. For example, supporting the peace process earnestly in the Middle East would open up new fertile grounds for dialogue with Arabs and the wider Muslim world. And a new economic plan of industrialization, debt relief, and fair trade for the region would facilitate future American partnership with this region.

In conclusion, Arab state terror is rivaled by terrorism, but the latter is a response to the former. It is regional suffering that needs to be better explained in the 9/11 Report. Building democracy is a long road. Building a middle class through industrialization is a prerequisite for democracy-building. Middle East politics should be the background for future US policy on security and US-Arab relations, not "Islamic terrorism."

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