JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review May 21, 2003 / 19 Iyar, 5763

Terror at a crossroads: Will Muslim moderates finally speak out against extremists?

Whether the terrorist element regains full strength will depend upon Western (mostly American) perseverance in the war against terrorism, and, equally, on the actions of Muslim moderates. Is this even possible?

By Ira Rifkin

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | In mid-April, Indonesian authorities indicted a prominent Muslim cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, charging him with treason and plotting to violently establish an Islamic state. "It's clear that the radicals are on the back foot," an unidentified "senior Western official" told The New York Times. "This has to be seen in that broader context."

The past week's events notwithstanding, the official is correct. Since 9/11, Muslim extremists have suffered a string of significant loses that reasonable observers must conclude has, thankfully, immensely set back their cause. Not to be overlooked is that mainstream Islamic interests have also suffered considerable damage.

Afghanistan's Taliban were driven from power, denying al-Qaida a safe haven, disrupting its chain of command, and forcing it to operate on the run. Clearly, al-Qaida is hardly finished, as the latest atrocities likely perpetrated by the group and its fellow travelers in Saudi Arabia and Morocco underscore. But these recent attacks will also increase pressure on al-Qaida by forcing recalcitrant Arab governments to finally take action, if only for self-preservation.

Meanwhile, the American and Western European Muslim communities that were gaining broad political and social acceptance in their adopted homelands are under a cloud of suspicion that will not soon lift, as are the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even Jordan, which are no longer seen in Washington as bankable allies. Nations as diverse as the Philippines and Yemen have accepted American military aid to battle homegrown Muslim extremists.

Pakistan's government has largely cast its lot with the West, hobbling Kashmiri Muslim separatists, and the Chechen Muslim cause no longer stirs much concern in the West, no how brutal the Russian retaliation. Palestinian terrorism has led not to a state, but instead to the destruction of the nascent Palestinian state and the current pressure to marginalize Yasser Arafat.

The latest wave of Palestinian terrorist bombings underscores just how self-defeating the extremist mentality is: Just when the so-called "road map" promises a Palestinian state by 2005, a wave of suicide bombers ensures that will be yet another lost chance. Now, Saddam Hussein has been ousted, a large American military presence is in Iraq for who knows how long, and Syria, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah also face stepped-up pressures from Washington.

All this points to how Muslims have paid dearly for the Osama bin Ladens in their midst. The question is: Will moderate Muslims - the mainstream Muslim silent majority we keep hearing about, and which failed to act decisively after 9/11 - finally attempt to rid themselves of the extremist cancer that continues to bring death, destruction, and political and economic instability to Muslims everywhere?

The quick answer: probably not any time soon.

A prime reason why is that the majority of mainstream Muslims around the world accepts as self-evident truths the anti-American, anti-Israeli, and increasingly anti-Semitic attitudes that have been drummed into them by self-serving politicians and religious leaders. Moreover, the political and social culture of virtually every Muslim-majority nation has ill-prepared those Muslims who are not anti-American or anti-Semitic (forget about finding many Muslims who are not anti-Israel) to voice opinions that challenge the prevailing "wisdom."

The world is approaching a decisive phase in the era of jihad-inspired terrorism. The extremists have, indeed, weakened their cause by bearing their claws and opening themselves to retaliation. Whether the terrorist element regains full strength will depend upon Western (mostly American) perseverance in the war against terrorism, and, equally, on the actions of Muslim moderates.

What the moderates must do is find the courage to speak out, and they must do so not in Western media, but in the media, mosques, universities, and other public forums of their native lands. Threats and repression will preclude them from doing so in some Muslim nations, and we in the West must understand that. But they must try, or they will forfeit the future anyway. Should the moderates cling to the belief that the war against global terrorism is only meant to redraw the Middle East and broader Muslim world according to U.S. designs, and to protect Israel, they will be felled along with the radicals when the West's full military force is eventually brought to bear, as surely will be the case if terrorism continues.

Is there reason to hope that the Muslim mainstream will act in its enlightened self-interest? One reason to do so is an essay recently posted on IslamiCity.com, a leading American Muslim Web site. Mohammad Omar Farooq, an economics professor at Upper Iowa University, wrote of his anguish over contemporary Islam's emphasis on outward forms at the expense of personal and societal growth. "As much emphasis Muslims put on fighting (much of which is among themselves), so little emphasis is placed on positively touching others' lives," he said.

His is just one essay on one Web site. But let's hope it's a harbinger. Because only the reform actions of moderate Muslims worldwide can prevent a full-scale clash of civilizations, which is the aim of their radical co-religionists.

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Ira Rifkin is the author of "Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval" (Skylight Paths). He lives in Annapolis, Md. To comment, please click here.


© 2003, Ira Rifkin