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Islam on the Defensive By: Michael Radu
Front Page Magazine | Sunday, November 03, 2002


The recent spate of arguments and judicial actions in France against intellectuals accused of insulting Islam — first Michel Houellebeck, then Oriana Fallaci, continues a line which started with Salman Rushdie — any criticism of any form of Islam is blasphemy and thus a crime. While the Rushdie scandal could be laid to the doorstep of Khomeini, the others are the result of Western confusion over its own values and the culturally suicidal impact of mindless "multiculturalism." The latest spate was provoked by the British author's Martin Amis criticism of Islamic militants as humorless and sexually insecure. While such frivolous criticism could, and should be itself criticized on its merits, the problem is that rational criticism was not what Islamic spokesmen in Europe choose to do.

Less than surprising, according to the London Times , Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, of the extremist al-Muhajiroun group [and a major recruiter of Islamists in the United Kingdom] , said: "When people speak about radical Islam it conflicts with so-called human values. I believe this is a war against Islam. Any comment on radical Islam is a hidden attack on Islam. Islam is for the whole of mankind. Muslim sisters are as active as Muslim brothers. What he has said is a way of subverting Islam." Interestingly, Omar Bakri probably meant "human rights" when he referred to "so-called human values" — "so-called" because his brand of Islam does not accept such thing — for it humanity is restricted to (radical) Islam.

However, according to the same source, Dr Zaki Badawi, Principal of the Muslim College, said: "Can he say the same about radical Christianity or radical Judaism? Radical Islam is very difficult to defend, but radical Judaism is offensive to women, and there is no sense of humour at all. I cannot criticise him. I agree with him. But I think that non-Muslims are very unwise to comment on Islam, [emphasis added — MR] particularly a man like Martin Amis, a novelist, because he has not studied it. They should be a little more cautious. They should leave it to the specialists." From there to the claim of the main ideologue of South East Asian Islamic terrorism , Abu Bakar Bashir, who claims, like his friend Ossama, that his being accused of the Bali mass murder is a "grand ploy against Islam" is only a small step.

Translation — even if September 11th proved, as the very moderate (but still a plaintiff in the Houllebeck case !) Rector of the Paris Grand Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur put it, that " a certain [type of] Islam" could be dangerous for the West", Moslems should be the only ones entitled to criticize that "certain type of Islam." Indeed, non-Moslems trying to do so are immediately accused of "orientalism," one of the most poisonous and indeed dangerous concepts ever invented — creation of a Christian Palestinian professor at Columbia, Edward Said. Hence, Western specialists on Islam are, ipso facto, expressions of Western imperialism (Said), or ignorant (Badawi), or criminally blasphemous (Omar Bakri). Islam is a world by itself, to be understood and examined by its inhabitants only, whether they live in the West or in the Moslem world. And here lies the problem, as well as, optimistically, the opportunity.

During the early 1980s a political joke circulating in Cuba claimed that Cuba was the largest country in the world — with its government in Moscow, army in Africa and economy in Miami. To paraphrase, and this is definitely not a joke, Al Qaeda is the largest Non Governmental Organization (NGO) in the world: its recruiters are largely in London, its recruits in Western Europe and Saudi Arabia, its leaders in Pakistan, its dead ideologues were in Egypt, its actions everywhere, from Bali to Lackawana and from Morocco to Yemen. So then, where do we start in dealing with it ?

The recruits and operatives are being dealt with most effectively in Moslem countries, where terrorist organizations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir are treated as terrorist organizations — which they are, in Egypt and Central Asia, while they are legal in "Londonistan". Human rights fundamentalists á la ACLU or Amnesty International may not like it, but in a war friends are more important than nice friends — after all the United States was the ally of "Uncle Joe", was it not? Would they have objected to the anti-Nazi alliance on the ground that Stalin was a mass murderer? — one could never know, but one suspects not. The Al Qaeda International's operations in country after country are a matter of intelligence, police and occasionally military action.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter — the recruiters and ideologues, the ideological struggle within Islam between "modernizers", to use an admittedly loose term, and terrorist fundamentalists. In the long term, it is just this aspect of the "war on terrorism" which will decide the outcome, and the statements and actions of non-fundamentalists are not very encouraging at this point.

There is a defensive reaction of Moslems of all kinds when Al Qaeda and its nebula of associated groups is criticized as an Islamic phenomenon — and that is the main obstacle in the ideological war — which is what has to happen and has to be won within Islam — and it could only be described as the circling of the wagons, as demonstrated above. To state that attacks against the Al Qaeda nebula, let alone the musings of Houellebeck, Fallaci and Amis, are "anti-Islamic" or dangerously close to an attack on "Islam" is to play into the hands of the Omar Bakris, Bashirs and Bin Ladens. Islamic solidarity , the notion of umma, (Islamic community) is far easier to manipulate by terrorist fundamentalists that by the ambiguous attitudes of a Boubakeur or Badawi. Indeed, for centuries now, self-analysis, logical and rational, has not been the Islamic culture's strong point — and that is what has to be revived, if the intra-Islamic ideological conflict between modernists (or "moderates") and Islamists is to be won in the long run.

All of this brings us to the center of the current debate about the nature of Islam, its ability to live with, or adapt to Western laws, values and rules — the real key on the cultural war within Islam and the only way to avoid Al Qaeda's march through the Islamic world.


Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.


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