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Assessing extremism- a global necessity

By Alia A. Toukan

THERE IS much speculation as to what propelled the terrorists to attack key
targets in the US on Sept. 11. Some explanations, which have appeared in local
and international media, seem credible and noteworthy. Most, however, are
strikingly simplistic and lack awareness and self-appraisal.

In order to truly and genuinely understand why these horrid incidents took
place, and to ensure that such acts do not happen again or indeed are no longer
justified or tolerated by some in any way, all of us- whether Western or Arab
and Muslim journalists, leaders, intellectuals, or experts- must go beyond
finger pointing and sound bites. A concerted effort should be made by us all to
understand that many sides are either directly or indirectly responsible for
what happened on Sept. 11.

What is needed now more than ever is a harsh self-assessment by all concerned
parties-the US, Arabs and Muslims, as well as other players in this war,
including the Fourth Estate. All have somehow contributed, inadvertently or
otherwise, to causing, fostering or encouraging such insane sentiments of

Over the years, we have repeatedly heard the voices of reason warning that
poverty, destitution as well as political and social marginalisation are an
explosive mix that can only lead to extremism. Everyone knows this. However,
most of us choose to ignore facts until they touch us personally.

Many governments in the Muslim world bear a direct responsibility for pushing,
and sometimes encouraging, some of their people into political and religious
extremism. Lack of democratisation and political legitimacy of most regimes in
the Muslim world (most notably among Arab countries), rampant corruption,
absence of accountability and the widespread sentiment among people that they
do not matter as individuals within their own country and do not have a voice
to affect their own future in any way may turn an often educated person to
alternative sources of societal support, at best, and, at worst, to political

It is no secret that it is the Islamic political parties in many countries in
our region that take on the role of the protector and provider. And in the
absence of political freedoms and democratic institutions in a country, those
providing the basis for civil society become de facto leaders of the masses.
That is not to say that there is a necessary correlation between Islamic
political parties and extremism, but rather that a weak and undemocratic state
serves to encourage an alternative national identity for a person, which could
be one of the reasons for the evident increase of political Islam in the 1980s
and 90s.

This is not our war; this is an American-led war for retribution. But it has
become our war by virtue of the fact that a fanatic has come out from our midst
and claims to speak on our behalf. And whether we care to admit it or not,
those who committed the terror attacks on the US are home grown. As such, this
necessitates that every Muslim and Arab asks him/herself what has gone wrong-
how is it that our religion and culture have been so shamelessly hijacked by
zealots who don't seem to respect the most basic of Islamic principles
espousing religious tolerance and acceptance?

Through the past few decades, devout and moderate Muslims alike have witnessed
their own interpretation of Islam being totally sidelined. Our voices have been
silenced by an extremist minority which enforces a rigid understanding of the
religion. The likes of Osama Ben Laden feed on, and indeed survive, because of
this silence. The moderates, who constitute the majority of Muslims, have been
silenced by virtue of the fact that they did not fight back. They have allowed
the perception of their faith to be determined by the minority, to a point
where a Muslim in the West is synonymous with "terrorist" and "extremist". A
moderate Muslim, or indeed a plain Muslim, no longer exists in the
international lexicon.

It is through mass organisation and grassroots education (of their
interpretation of Islam) that the extremists have been able to do this. The
moderates may be able to counter this force by using the same methods; most
importantly, by utilising their voting power to bring in moderates, if and when
any elections take place, whether for professional associations,
municipalities, parliaments or otherwise. Through dialogue, mass awareness and
education, as well as the support of moderate religious leaders and even
moderate Muslim Brotherhood movements which in fact do exist, the moderates can
win this battle, albeit slowly.

At times like these, however, the voice of the moderates in the Muslim world is
further weakened. While understandably angry and emotional about the murder of
over 5,000 civilians on Sept. 11, the Bush administration cannot be excused for
using terms such as "crusade", and stating that people must either be "with us
or against us". All this does is fan the flames of hatred, alienate people and
push them into the extremist camp- and not just Muslims, but Christian Arabs as

If anything, the US administration should be encouraging the American media to
speak to the majority moderates in the Arab and Muslim world, rather than
simply entrenching stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims by showing the usual scenes
of extremist minorities burning American flags. After all, by following the
American print and broadcast media, it has become evident that the US
administration does in fact have a hand in the media coverage of the "war on
terror". Nearly all major US networks and newspapers are covering the war in a
monolithic fashion, neglecting to directly question the American backing of the
fundamentalists in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and the failure of
the CIA and FBI in the Sept. 11 attacks, which is surprising coming from a
democracy and a staunch advocate of freedom of speech and expression.

While it is true that America has stood by Muslims in certain instances, most
notably in the cases of Bosnia, Kosovo, and to a lesser degree Chechnya, its
failure to force Israel, in its brutal occupation of the Palestinians, to
comply with internationally backed UN resolutions, while simultaneously
enforcing an international boycott on countries such as Iraq, Iran and Libya
for not complying with global norms of behaviour, is indeed baffling to almost
all Arabs and Muslims. As many from our region have been saying for years,
successive US administrations' unwavering support for the Jewish state is
providing fodder for extremists. While it may not stop the extremists from
attacking the US both in the literal and metaphoric sense, if the American
administration should finally choose to pressure Israel to accept an equitable
and just peace, it will unquestionably diminish support for such extremists
within the Arab and Muslim worlds, such that radicalism will eventually no
longer be sustained or tolerated.

It is hoped that all concerned parties will recognise the role they have played
in encouraging extremism, and that this recognition will lead to concrete
changes in the near future. Otherwise, when the war on Afghanistan is completed
and the extremists have been rooted out, it still won't be over, even if the US
goes after every single "terrorist" in the Arab and Muslim world.

The writer is a media consultant and freelance journalist.


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