Moderate Muslims fear fundamentalist backlash from war

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

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.

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.

Ulil Abshar-Abdalla knows how hard it is to speak out about reforming Islam. The Indonesian cleric runs the Liberal Islam Network and is a member of an interfaith organization promoting tolerance. Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, also has significant Hindu and Christian minorities.

Late last year, Athian Ali, an Indonesian cleric who advocates an Islamic state, issued a death threat against Mr. Ulil because of the latter's argument that wearing a veil and cutting off the hands of thieves are not required under Islam.

Other Islamic opponents have sought to brand him a "US puppet" for his views. Ulil worries that his struggle could lose further ground in the event of a US invasion.

"There is a possibility that this war will increase the prominence of the radicals and make their opinions seem more credible,'' he says. "It's not happening yet, but that could change as soon as there are civilian casualties."

Indonesian Islamist political groups who say they expect big gains in the 2004 election, have begun to criticize the government for not being strong enough in its condemnation of the US. President Megawati Sukarnoputri has upped the antiwar rhetoric in response. Five cabinet ministers attended antiwar protests earlier this month.

A minor casualty of invasion may also be the loss of US prestige in the eyes of reformers like Ulil. "For people like me, it's easy to separate between the American government and American people - but of course I'm really disappointed by the Bush administration. From my perspective, the Bush war in Iraq is a sort of jihad, its own sort of fundamentalism."

Yesterday, Islamic scholars in Cairo called on Muslims to fight a jihad if US forces invade Iraq. Their comments followed a sermon last week by a moderate Egyptian cleric, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, asking Muslims not to aid US troops.

Erstwhile Muslim allies are being pushed away from America. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed delivered a thinly veiled attack on the US earlier this month that stung US officials, who had been pleased with Malaysia's efforts to neutralize Al Qaeda-linked terror cells over the past year.

Political analysts say that while Dr. Mahathir's comments probably reflected his opinions, the force and publicity with which they were delivered was calculated to protect his own position from attack by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), his principal opposition and an advocate of making Malaysia an Islamic state. PAS has been gaining in strength in recent years, and has often sought to portray the secular Mahathir as pro-American.

Most frightening, from a US perspective, has been the boom in support for fundamentalist Islamic parties in Pakistan, which have used the US ties of the regime of General Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999, to win political support.

In national elections last October, the Islamist coalition won a third of the seats in parliament and control of the Northwest Frontier province by hammering Musharraf on his support for the US invasion of Afghanistan.

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