AFTER the February bombing of the World Trade Center, the debate about radical Islam has received undue attention. In many cases, reporting in the American media on the link between fundamentalist Islam and the terrorists who perpetrated this act tended to be sensational. A minor radical Egyptian preacher, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman who lives in New Jersey, became a star.
Sheikh Rahman's incoherent fulminations against the Egyptian government, often expressed obscenely, have been interpreted as a sign that the government in Egypt is near collapse. A closer look reveals that American media unwittingly distorted and tarnished the Islamic faith, a tolerant religion.
Although there is nothing conspiratorial about sensational coverage of a sensational act of terrorism, the media have been guilty of exaggerating the strength of radical Islamic groups in the Middle East, especially in Egypt. The attention lavished on Rahman, catapulted him into overnight television stardom. Watching him basking in the glare of publicity, Rahman was no doubt enjoying his exposure.
But without media attention, the sheikh would have remained an obscure figure preaching to a limited number of followers. The majority of Muslims shrink from his incendiary sermons and the unseemly obscenities that characterize his diction. There is nothing in the sheikh's career to distinguish him as an Islamic thinker of any merit. His contribution to the current debate over the renewal of Islam is nil. He seems to be a frustrated man operating outside the legitimate pale of Islam.
LISTENING to the sheikh and reading the spate of reports written from Egypt about radical Islamic groups, one gets the impression that Egypt's government is in trouble. But sensational acts of terrorist violence are just that: sensationalized acts meant for the media. Actually, they reveal the weakness rather than the strength of radical Islam.
This is not to minimize the danger posed by groups dedicated to murder, mayhem and disruption. They may have embarrassed the government and disrupted tourism, but these are the acts of the desperate.
In the short term they may stage acts of terrorism. But they are losers because they are violating society's laws. We have reason to believe that in the present confrontation the terrorists will be routed.
For one thing, Egypt as represented by its political parties, professional associations, and labor organizations is united in opposing the radicals. Even members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who desire an Islamic state, have denounced radical tactics. For another, the silent majority in Egypt has been horrified by these tactics. The silent majority is sloughing off indifference and helping the government to pursue and bring the terrorists to justice.
Although no one can deny the link between economic hardship and the rise of radical Islam, the point should not be belabored. Most of those arrested in the present campaign against terrorism do not belong to the ranks of the unemployed or the economically disadvantaged. Many are well-financed and enjoy an easy life - thanks to the backing of Iran and some wealthy individuals in the Gulf area.
The Egyptian government is not blind to the plight of the less fortunate who are victimized by a vigorous economic reform program supported by international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. President Hosni Mubarak, unlike his predecessors, bit the bullet and pursued a course of economic reform that in the last few years has caused some pain - but also seems the right remedy. Under the first phase of that program, inflation has been brought under control, and vast infrastructure projects have been implemented.
The discontent that seems to fuel terrorist acts is the result not of deprivation but of rising expectations that attend economic reforms after decades of neglect. By and large, life for ordinary Egyptians has improved considering the enormous challenges: a burgeoning population and the effort to rebuild the economy.
The radical Islamists - we call them terrorists, based on their tactics and ideology - are alienating the majority of Egyptians. Egyptians are now aware that the extremists offer no real alternative. Furthermore, by their reliance on violence, they constitute a living danger to the democratization program being pursued by Mr. Mubarak. Egyptians rightly believe the instability terrorists bring threatens their economic well-being.
Islamic radicals may succeed in some disruptive acts. They may catch the headlines now and then. But they are losers who have disassociated themselves from mainstream thinking and teaching of Islam, which is tolerant and which abhors violence. They have given their own religion a bad name. In the words of Dr. Kamal Abdul Magd, one of the most prominent and respected Islamic thinkers in Egypt: "When religion becomes coercion, it becomes more pernicious than terrorism. It becomes subversion seeking not onl y to intimidate but to subvert society's moral and physical underpinnings."