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The Long-Planned "Spontaneous" Riots By: Dr. Walid Phares
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, May 19, 2005

With one sentence, Newsweek triggered a series of violent intifadas in countries as remote as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond. That's at least how mainstream media, government officials, and most of the public see it. The truth is more complicated: Islamists had been planning these riots long before this story ever made it into print.

True, the short piece by Michael Isikoff and John Barry, which attempted to unveil a new scandal, became the trigger for mass violence led by Islamists across the world. But the jihadists had mobilized for a counteroffensive against the "infidels" long ago. Ironically, these two developments have something in common: both undermine the credibility of the U.S-supported democracy movements in the Arab world.


The violent marches in Pakistan and Afghanistan were not an abrupt and sudden reaction to the weekly magazine's sentence accusing U.S. personnel of desecrating a copy of the Muslim holy book. Since the fall of Tora Bora in December of 2001, al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants were waiting for this moment: they call it "al awda," meaning the "return." Patiently, the leaders of the jihadists, including Thawahiri, Mullah Umar, and the various Islamists of Jamiet Islami and Hizbu Tahrir, were working on mounting the major counteroffensive against the democratically elected government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. Day after day, from Kabul to Kandahar, the Afghan society was moving away from the mental and political grip of the Taliban. And year after year, more and more al-Qaeda leaders were being eliminated and arrested, two over the past few weeks alone.


The more lethal danger facing the jihadi ideology is the success of democracy in the region. Afghani women voted by the millions; Iraq's 8.5 million voters braved Zarqawi's killers; a million marchers challenged Syria's military in Beirut, and just this week, Kuwaiti women forced parliament to give them the right to vote. By jihadi standards, the war of ideas is being lost. The Newsweek story gave them the ability to counterattack and try to gain ground in their terror war.


Preparing their "come back," the Salafists understood that demonstrations are their best weapons for the time being. Suicide bombings and beheadings made them look as evil as they are, even in the eyes of most Arabs and Muslims. They saw how popular expressions from Kabul to Beirut, from Tehran to Baghdad, captured the imagination of younger and younger Muslims, but also the attention of public opinion in the West. Back in the early winter, Ayman al Thawahiri, al-Qaeda's number two, called on his followers to "take back the country and reduce Karzai to his palace." That was the mission order: to find a way to re-conquer the street and, from there, the entire Arab world. On Al Ansar websites, on al Jazeera and on Hezbollah's al Manar TV, a global propaganda campaign has been waged since 2002, increasing sharply since the fall of Saddam. In the chat rooms I visit, the dominant motif is: America  has made war on Islam as a whole, as a religion.


The clever clerics played with the doctrinal genes of their followers. Day in and day out, from Saudi Arabia to Virginia, the jihadis patiently prepared for the moment of the explosion. In a sum, Newsweek's article didn't create the "Big Bang"; it triggered it. The explosion was coming, but the apparent motive had to be supplied. It could have been a rape, a killing, or another Western desecration. Newsweek's "investigative journalists" provided this fuse.


Messrs. Isikoff and Barry, probably on a domestic political crusade, wrote hastily: "sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet." As simple as that and in a style more appropriate to Arab popular media than to the Western press, the "story" hit the presses. Basing their accusations on a source they weren't able to identify, they provided a graphic description of the act. Since at least one of the authors, Michael Isikoff, describes himself as an "expert on terrorism," he should have known that describing flushing a Koran down a toilet was the equivalent of shooting napalm into a warehouse packed with dynamite.


More disturbing is the pattern behind the short article. Isikoff has shown a deliberate trend of activist-writing rather than objective journalism. Back in October, Isikoff targeted a coalition of American Middle Eastern groups supporting Washington's campaign for democracy. After a series of interviews with the members of that coalition, he accuses them in an article (October 29) of "Lobbying for Libya." He didn't inform his readers though, that among the coalition members, were dissident Libyans who were calling for a regime change in Tripoli. As for this week's scandal, Isikoff initially wanted to undermine the policies of the Bush administration. He ended up lying, denying any error to his readers, and provoking chaos. The ludicrous "Libyan" accusation may have caused some minor tensions among Middle Eastern Americans, but his "Koran" accusation cost lives and human suffering, 16 dead and 100+ injured.


One element lost in all the coverage of the jihadist-inspired riots is the rioters' utter hypocrisy. Their concerns for the Muslim holy book did not manifest when they burned mosques to the ground in Pakistan over the past few months. Nor did they launch demonstrations after they destroyed mosques in Iraq throughout the year. There were certainly hundreds of Korans burned into ashes. (It didn't hurt that the owners of these mosques were Shi'ites.) A couple of decades earlier, Hafez Assad's brutal brigades leveled off the mosques of the city of Hama. Thousands of Korans were destroyed (along with 20,000 Sunnis). Yet, the Arab and Islamic world didn't raise a ruckus. The selective outrage over the destroyed Korans is not theological but political. It is only when the Islamists want to wage a jihad for their holy book that infractions begin to make any difference to them. When Arab militias raids black Muslim villages in Darfur, and destroy them, along with their holy books, that is acceptable, but one sentence in an article published in a U.S. magazine deserves a whole holy war? Who are we kidding here? 

What the jihadists want is to mobilize their followers on "religious" grounds. They see the march of democratic principles, secularism, and modernity, and they want to stop it. They are using their last weapons: dogmatic extremism. They want to fight back against the force that is diminishing the grip they've had over their followers since the Dark Ages. Around the region, Salafist scholars are stating, (joined recently by Hassan Fadlallah of Hezbollah), "This is not about a particular incident, it is about America waging a war against Islam as a religion." This is the grand scheme. Civil societies in the Arab world are not duped; they understood the threat Islamist demonstrations posed. Unfortunately, while the true democrats of the region stave off the onslaught of their own troglodytes, Newsweek extended a special invitation for global jihad and gave the Islamists the spark they needed for their malicious counteroffensive.

Dr Walid Phares is the author of the newly released book Future Jihad. He is also a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington DC.

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