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The Observer, 07.10.2001

Fighting Islam's Ku Klux Klan

The Muslim world cannot forever attribute all its ills to the Great Satan America, writes the Iraqi dissident, Kanan Makiya

The Arab and Muslim worlds suddenly find themselves facing a civilisational challenge such as they have not had to face since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. For, in the years to come, the greatest price of the madness that was unleashed upon New York and Washington on 11 September will be borne by them and by all individuals of Arab or Muslim origin, wherever they might live in the world.

I am not talking about the next war in Afghanistan or greatly redoubled efforts to hunt down Muslim and Arab terrorists from Boston and Hamburg to Cairo and Karachi. The price I am talking about is not paid in blood or by being the victim of the kinds of humiliating slurs and racist attacks that are everywhere on the rise in the West. It is the much greater price brought about by continuing to wallow in the sense of one's own victimhood to the point of losing the essentially universal idea of human dignity and worth that is the only true measure of civility.

Arab and Muslim resentment at the West is grounded in many grievances, some legitimate, others less so. Without question, the West has blundered in its dealings with the Arab world. The United States has in recent years behaved unjustly towards the Palestinians. The Allied victory in the Gulf War of 1990-1991 was a lost opportunity to rectify this record, to show that the West, and the United States in particular, was capable of reaching out the hand of friendship and support to the peoples of the Arab world, to their democrats and civil libertarians, not merely to a host of tyrannical and unrepresentative regimes.

Like Germans after the First World War, Arabs felt they deserved a different lot after the Gulf War. They thought of themselves as having tried to change the ways they did politics in the past, and got nowhere. Palestinian living standards have actually declined since the Oslo accord in 1993, and Iraqi society (much less its polity and economy) is in a state of steady disintegration. So Arabs grew more resentful and angry at the West than at any other time in modern Arab history. This resentment can be felt everywhere; it has taken root in the most Westernised sections of the Arab population, among businessmen and students of science and engineering, and even among the sons of the mega-rich like Osama bin Laden.

However, grievances alone do not explain the apocalyptic act of fury that was unleashed upon New York and Washington. Arabs and Muslims need today to face up to the fact that their resentment at America has long since become unmoored from any rational underpinnings it might once have had; like the anti-Semitism of the interwar years, it is today steeped in deeply embedded conspiratorial patterns of thought rooted in profound ignorance of how a society and a polity like the United States, much less Israel, functions.

Attribution of all of the ills of one's own world to either the great Satan, America, or the little Satan, Israel, has been the driving force of Arab politics since 1967. As a powerful undercurrent of Arab culture and politics, it has been around much longer than that. After 1967, however, it became the legitimising cement upon which such murderous regimes as Saddam Hussein's Iraq were built.

From the hands of secular Arab nationalists, anti-Americanism was passed on to religious zealots. In 1979, it fused with anti-Shah sentiments to become the animating force of the Iranian revolution and, with that seminal event, major sections of the Islamic movement. Today, it has become a murderous brew of passions fuelled by paranoia and frustration.

In the five-page letter left in a suitcase in the car-park of Boston's airport, this passage, giving guidance to the hijackers in case they should meet resistance from a passenger, appears: 'If God grants any one of you a slaughter, you should perform it as an offering on behalf of your father and mother, for they are owed by you. Do not disagree among yourselves, but listen and obey. If you slaughter, you should plunder those you slaughter, for that is a sanctioned custom of the Prophet's, on the condition that you do not get occupied with the plunder so that you would leave what is more important, such as paying attention to the enemy, his treachery and attacks. That is because such action is very harmful [to the mission].'

This is not Islam any more than the Ku Klux Klan is Christianity. No concessions can be made to either mindset which have more in common with one another than they do with the religions they claim to represent.

To argue, as many Arabs and Muslims are doing today (and not a few liberal Western voices), that 'Americans should ask themselves why they are so hated in the world' is to make such a concession; it is to provide a justification, however unwittingly, for this kind of warped mindset. The thinking is the same as the 'linkage' dreamed up by Saddam Hussein when he tried to get the Arab world to believe that he had occupied Kuwait in 1990 in order to liberate Palestine. The difference being that if the argument was intellectually vacuous then, it is a thousand times more so now.

Worse than being wrong, however, it is morally bankrupt, to say nothing of being counterproductive. For every attempt to 'rationalise' or 'explain' the new anti-Americanism rampant in so much of the Muslim and Arab worlds bolsters the project of the perpetrators of the heinous act of 11 September, which is to blur the lines that separate their sect of a few hundred people from hundreds of millions of peace-loving Muslims and Arabs.

But it is now up to Arabs and Muslims to draw the line that separates them from the Osama bin Ladens of this world just as it was up to Americans to excoriate, isolate, outlaw, imprison and eventually root out the members of the Klan from their midst. Mercifully, the very same Western leaders who are preparing for the coming 'War Against Terrorism' are trying hard, and genuinely, to say their efforts are not directed at Muslims and Arab or Muslim culture. Constantly, they are being seen with Muslim clerics and visiting mosques. That is all for the good.

But it is not enough to turn the tide of public opinion which will increasingly need and want to know who is 'the other' in this coming war. Terrorism is a tactic, after all, not a side. Usage of the word 'war', however understandable, was a strategic mistake by the American President. For like the wars on drugs or poverty it inculcates expectations at the risk of showing few results. The problem is deeper than bin Laden and his associates, and will not end with their demise. As I wrote in Cruelty and Silence, citing the 1930s Iraqi alter ego of Tom Lehrer, Aziz Ali, Da' illi beena, minna wa feena: 'The disease that is in us, is from us and within us.' Against this kind of enemy the West can do nothing. We have to do it ourselves.

Muslims and Arabs have to be on the front lines of a new kind of war, one that is worth waging for their own salvation and in their own souls. And that, as good out-of-fashion Muslim scholars will tell you, is the true meaning of jihad, a meaning that has been hijacked by terrorists and suicide bombers and all those who applaud or find excuses for them. To exorcise what they have done in our name is the civilisational challenge of the twenty-first century for every Arab and Muslim in the world today.

Kanan Makiya. The author, who was born in Iraq, now teaches in the US. His books include Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World and the forthcoming The Rock.

Deutsche Muslim-Liga Bonn e.V. - 1423 / 2003