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The Washington Quarterly 25.2 (2002) 177-190

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Mixed Message:
The Arab and Muslim Response to 'Terrorism'

Mustafa Al Sayyid

Many Arab and Muslim countries sympathized with the victims of September 11 and offered valuable support to the United States in its campaign against Osama bin Laden's organization and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Yet, large sections of the Arab and Muslim public, as well as many of their governments, cannot offer the United States full support in its fight against terrorism because they do not share with the United States the same definition of terrorism and suspect a hidden agenda behind the future phases of this campaign. The general public in the West, particularly in the United States, may not realize that the earliest victims of armed groups claiming to be inspired by certain interpretations of Islam were themselves Muslims--intellectuals, senior officials of government, ordinary citizens, and security forces. These people lived in Muslim countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia years before a small group of alleged members of an Islamic organization launched its deadly attacks of September 11 in New York City and Washington, D.C. Arab and Muslim countries, therefore, did not need any particular preaching on the part of Washington to join an international campaign against terrorism because many of them had long been involved. Arab people have learned, however, that terrorism cannot be defeated if those who fight it rely exclusively on military force.

Islam and Terrorism

To start this story at its inception, reflection on any possible link between Islam and terrorism is important. Because some Western media tend to label [End Page 177] those individuals involved in terrorist actions "Muslim terrorists," the positions taken by Arab and Muslim states on the White House's "war on terrorism" should be analyzed. One should consider that the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations mostly includes organizations that are active in Muslim countries, which becomes the focus of media reporting, while ignoring organizations in non-Muslim countries, such as Spain, Northern Ireland, and Latin America, and reinforcing a perception in Western public opinion that terrorism is exclusively Islamic. Western media also uses jihad to convey the notion of an armed struggle launched by Muslims against people of other religions in order to compel them to renounce their religions and adopt Islam. Based on these observations, examining if there is an unbroken link between Islam and terrorism is necessary.

Popular Western media tends to misconstrue the relationship between Islam and terrorism significantly. Attributing a particular policy position on the use of armed struggle for political ends to any religion as a whole is difficult. Among Christians, one can find militant priests in Latin America, such as Colombia's Camillo Torres, who justify armed struggle in terms of a theology of liberation. Islam, as any other world religion, can be interpreted in various ways.

More importantly, those who believe that Islam can guide and inspire a political order do not necessarily seek to establish that political order by force. Many Islamic political movements try to seek political power using peaceful methods. The Rafah Party in Turkey is one; others can be found in Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Islamic organizations such as the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, and the Nahda Party in Tunisia accept a pluralist political system and an electoral path to political power. The government in each of these countries bans these parties, however, because they constitute serious contenders for power that the ruling groups, who are reluctant to accept any transfer of power through the ballot box, reject.

Furthermore, the notion of forced conversion is alien to Islam. Although explaining their religion to others is a duty incumbent on Muslims, Islam considers the question of faith a personal matter. Most Muslims recognize and respect the religions of Christians and Jews and consider their holy books sacred texts for Muslims as well. Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad married a Coptic Christian from Egypt. When the notion of jihad was...


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