TOPICS > World

Holy War?

October 11, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We are the friends of almost a billion worldwide who practice the Islamic faith.

DONALD RUMSFELD: The world stands united in this effort. It is not about a religion.

TONY BLAIR: As I’ve said many times before, that this is not a war with Islam.

RAY SUAREZ: When the bombing began Sunday, western leaders repeated their daily, diplomatic refrain: Islam is not the enemy. Osama bin Laden’s rebuttal came quickly.

OSAMA BIN LADEN (Translated): These incidents divided the entire world into two regions: One of faith where there is no hypocrisy, and other of infidels.

RAY SUAREZ: The Islamic nation, bin Laden said, has been tasting humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years, an apparent reference to British and French domination of much of the Middle East after the collapse of the Muslim Ottoman Empire in World War I, and the 1917 Balfour Declaration, a resolution to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

OSAMA BIN LADEN (Translated): Its sons are being killed, its blood is being shed, its holy places are being attacked, and it is not being ruled according to what God has decreed.

RAY SUAREZ: His remarks were aimed at the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. Since the bombing began, tens of thousands of Muslims have turned out to praise bin Laden and condemn America.

In Quetta, Pakistan, the border city where many residents are Afghans, demonstrations turned violent. Protesters burned several buildings, including the U.N. compound, and police responded with live fire, killing at least five. There have been smaller demonstrations in other Pakistani cities: Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi.

DEMONSTRATOR: We want to do Jihad by our hate, and also by everything we can do, we will do Jihad.

RAY SUAREZ: Still, President Pervez Musharraf continues to support Washington. He said the demonstrators are a vocal minority, and that he would not tolerate further dissent. Other leaders in the region face similar pressures, including Yasser Arafat. In the Israeli occupied Gaza Strip Monday, 2,000 Palestinians marched at Islamic University, exhorting bin laden to hit Tel Aviv next.

Two people, including a teenage boy, died in rare clashes with Palestinian police. Arafat’s government now bans foreign journalists from the area, which makes it harder to broadcast pictures like these: Palestinians celebrating the events of September 11. (Cheers) In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic nation, small anti-American groups have turned out all week.

In the capital Jakarta and elsewhere, protesters ripped apart an American flag and burned an effigy of President Bush. There are similar tensions in the Persian Gulf. 15,000 turned out Monday in Iraq, another area of western oppression against Islam, according to bin Laden’s latest decree.

SALWA ALI, Protester: It is to show their condemnation against the American aggression on Afghanistan, a Muslim country.

RAY SUAREZ: There are even sporadic protests in Oman, where large numbers of British and American troops are deployed. On Tuesday, bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization made the battleground even clearer.

SLEIMAN ABOU-GHEITH (Translated): The parties today have come together against the nation of Islam and the Muslims. America must know that the nation will not keep quiet and will not allow what happens against it. The Jihad today is a duty of every Muslim.

RAY SUAREZ: Many Islamic leaders support the U.S. but now have some reservations. The Organization of the Islamic Conference called an emergency meeting yesterday in Qatar.

HAMAD BIN JABER BIN JESSUM, Qatar Foreign Minister (Translated): We stand against the action of killing innocent people, and we are aware that any military action will harm civilians. It is important to note civilians were killed in the World Trade Center, but it should not be an eye for an eye.

RAY SUAREZ: Islamic leaders are now bracing for unrest tomorrow. Historically, many Muslim protests have begun after Friday prayers.

RAY SUAREZ: For more we turn to Shibley Telhami, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland; author and journalist Milton Viorst. His most recent book on the Middle East is “In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam.” And Ali Abootalebi, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of “Islam and Democracy: State-Society Relations in Developing Countries.”

Well, you all saw Osama bin Laden call on the Islamic nation—what he called the Islamic nation—to rise up and fight the United States. What’s been the reaction among those people that he’s made that call to? Professor Abootalebi?

ALI ABOOTALEBI: Yes. I have not seen that. I’m not having a TV in front of me, but I did hear the piece. What needs to be said about this is that what we hear and what we see necessarily does not reflect the majority of most Muslims. That is, you know, we have cameras and we see very limited number of people demonstrating and shouting anti-U.S. slogans.

That is not necessarily the reflection of the majority of the Muslim people. Having said, that nonetheless, there are legitimate concerns that a lot of people in the streets have when it comes to the way they look at themselves within their own societies and the way they look at their own governments and the way they look at the world as a whole. So they have some legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.

For example, we know that most of these people that we see on TV, they live under non-democratic regimes. So we do not really know about the public sentiments. We don’t have any thermometer to understand where these people are coming from. That’s a major problem in the region that we have to address. And on top of that, of course as your piece tried to indicate, there are historical grievances and legitimate issues that people on the streets have.

And of course they use this occasion as a way to voice their discontent, not only with the general status of their life but also with their own governments, as well as international politics, I guess, in general.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me turn to Professor Telhami at that point. Do you agree that we don’t know what kind of reaction that call to struggle to Jihad is getting in the Islamic world?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, there’s no such thing as a Islamic nation today. I mean we have a – not a monolithic Islamic world or a monolithic Arab world. We have diverse states with conflicting interests. We have a lot of different cultures even within the Arab and Islamic world. We have even different theological traditions. So we don’t have a single world.

However, there are issues, important issues that resonate across the Muslim world and the Arab world. And these groups are really focusing on those issues that resonate a lot: the issue of Iraq, the issue of Palestine, the issue of poverty, the issue of American presence. Those issues resonate, and there’s a lot of anger across the board on those specific issues.

That’s why they focus on them when they get public support. But when we see the reactions that we are seeing, we have to understand that not everyone agrees either with the method or with the aims of these groups. Today we have, for example, a survey that was release the in the Palestinian areas. 64 percent of the public, the Palestinian public, where there’s a lot of despair, said that the attacks on the U.S. were actually a violation of Islamic law. I think the problem, however, is a little bit more complicated because, even though the militants may be a minority, and I think they are, they are on the offensive in a war of ideas.

I think the moderates in the governments in the Middle East are on the defensive. They’re unable to confront these groups on the issues that they care most deeply about because they have no answer. They have no answer for change. The public wants change, and I think what has happened in the 1990s, there was a paradigm. There was a paradigm that governments and elites could point to in confronting the militants. There was a paradigm that we’re going to have a negotiated settlement of disputes, both on the Arab-Israeli issue and on the Iraq issue.

There was a promise of an economic dividend, of a new world order, a political change that would happen. That bought time and people could go on television and confront the militants and say, “well, no, we have a process, it’s going to pay off.” Well, the whole thing collapsed. And today there’s a vacuum of ideas. That’s why the militants actually, small as they are, they are basically taking control of the airwaves because the moderates are on the defensive, and they’re unable to put an alternate vision.

RAY SUAREZ: Milton Viorst, we saw western leaders saying again and again, this is not a war against Islam. Osama bin Laden comes right out and says, “Oh, yes, it is.” What is it?

MILTON VIORST: Well, listen, he has an interest in making it into a war between Islam and the West. If you read his early statements, I think it was quite interesting because they did sound like a warrior from 1,000 years ago who is still thinking in terms of Islam versus the Christian world. He’s modified that a little bit. He’s changed now to the specific political issues that Shibley referred to, particularly the Arab-Israeli issues, but presence of troops in Saudi Arabia.

I think that it is clear that the Arab world is responding to this. There is a feeling that they have been treated quite badly by the West. There is this large-scale historical feeling that dates back to the time of the prophet, and there are the more recent issues over which the United States has a certain amount of control. I mean we do have an ability to influence policy between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We have some ability to influence policy in Iraq. So the fact that Islam is directing itself as Osama bin Laden would have us think, against the United States shouldn’t be all that surprising to us.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Abootalebi, when Osama bin Laden uses resentment of the United States as sort of a way to talk to mass opinion in many of these societies, why the United States in particular? I’m guessing that that wouldn’t have been the same 40 years ago, 50 years ago or earlier on in some of the existences of these countries?

ALI ABOOTALEBI: Well, they have—make a very important point. The simple issue has been raised why isn’t Canada or some European countries haven’t been victimized by these terrorist attacks. Obviously, this country is a superpower and as a superpower, plays a specific role in world politics. And as such, you basically, you make a lot of people angry and a lot of people happy.

But when it comes to the Middle East, the U.S. does not have a very good record. In the post-World War II era, you could name a very good number of examples, including the ’53 coup d’etat in Iran, and including Arab-Israeli wars, a strong support for Israel, which in the eyes of the Arab public is rather not justified. The whole question of Iran-Iraq war, the whole question of sanctions on Iraq and the 1990-91 campaign, and now this incident.

That is, when you look at the popular belief or perception in the region, they do not necessarily trust the United States and its intentions; that is, we are talking about here constantly that this is not a war against Islam, we are fighting terrorism and we are not fighting Islam. But that might be true, but again, it is not how it is perceived in the region.

And why people do not trust America? They simply look at its record. There is one way out of all this, I would argue, and that is we need to have a better dialogue, a better relationship with people in the region and not necessarily confine ourselves to the governments in the region. We need to have a better relationship with states.

Our relationship with the Islamic states, particularly in the Middle East, is not based on respect of all mutually beneficial relationships. We do not treat Muslim states in the Middle East the same way as we treat our European allies. And there’s a lot of… What needs to be done in terms of building bridges and in terms of proving in a way that the United States does indeed care about the Palestinians who are dying in the street. The United States really does care about the settlement of this issue and hopefully bring peace to the region, you know, for both Israelis, as well as the Palestinians. So we have a lot of work to be done.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it important at this point to draw a distinction between the use of the Arab world, that phrase, and the Muslim world — because that same sense of grievance that the professor talks about, you don’t find it in Senegal, necessarily or in Kenya — or in any other places with large Islamic populations.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: There’s no question that there is a difference. There’s a historical difference, a cultural difference. Arab world constitutes only about a quarter of the Islamic world. And most Muslims are not Arabs. I think the most important difference is really the history, the political history of the Arab world and the language because the language is important in the media. The media today essentially… The Arab world faces the same media because it’s using the language, and therefore they have a more uniform political view.

But I think on the issues that these groups are hammering on, these issues really resonate across the board in the Muslim and the Arab world. Nonetheless, I think the point on the U.S., it has to be remembered that, up until the mid ’60s, actually, the U.S. image in the Middle East was rather positive. And I think what happened in the mid ’60s is the U.S. essentially inherited the colonial order, the European powers withdrew, the U.S. moved in with a lot of influence, first playing the role on the Arab-Israeli conflict and also in the Gulf — and clearly became the power in the region — and therefore, is seen by the rest of the region as the anchor of political order that is not to their advantage.

And so to that extent, to the extent that they want change, they see the U.S. as the symbol of power, certainly on the Arab-Israeli issue, on the Iraq issue, on the Gulf. But in a way, they see it also as dominating their lives through their governments. And to the extent that they want change and their governments are not able to give them change, they don’t seem to have full control over their own life. What these groups do is they try to empower them. Essentially what you heard from bin Laden in his tape, he said, “the winds of change are blowing.”

Now, that is very significant because what he’s trying to say to them is, “look, with a few dozen men with bare knives, we were able to shake up a superpower.” It’s a message that he wants to send that the people can have a power with even limited means to change the order they don’t like. And that, I’m afraid, is a message that clearly is resonating with a desperate many maybe the minority, but a desperate many who want to see change. And again, the moderates, the majority who don’t want to see this happen, they oppose the means and the aims, are not able to present a vision of change. And that’s what is required, both for the U.S. and really for the elites in the governments in the region, in the fight against the militants.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you make of the conference in Qatar that issued– I don’t know– a kind of quiet denunciation and quiet support for the United States, or implicit support for the United States?

MILTON VIORST: Well, I think that the conference in Qatar is looking over its shoulder, as all politicians do, and these are the political leaders of the Arab world. They cannot come out with 100% endorsement of the United States for as long as, as Shibley as pointed out, for as long as it is identified with a lot of causes, most defiantly identified with a lot of causes, which appear to them to be anti-Arab, anti-Islamic. I find it a little bit more upsetting that some… many of these demonstrations are taking place in places that we didn’t think of as being anti-American among Muslims–


MILTON VIORST: In Indonesia were a, for example, if we can believe television and I think we have to, there are an awful lot of street demonstrations. And I think what’s going on is one of the things we haven’t noticed that there is also a kind of a worldwide class struggle going on. Unfortunately, the Arab world, Pakistan, much of the Muslim world beyond to the East, the people who are demonstrating are saying, “look, we still are poor and you westerners are rich.

And we object, also, to the riches and how you are using it.” And I think that’s what the World Trade Center represented, and that’s why it has created so much excitement, because it is the symbol of our civilization, of our wealth, of our style of living, the kinds of things that people in the villages of Pakistan find so distant and find no irritating.

So when leaders get together in Qatar to say, “well, what are we going to do about this?” I don’t think that they’re particularly enthusiastic about terrorism, and I don’t think most Muslims are very enthusiastic about terrorism, but they resent the fact that they continue to be poor, that they continue to be an international underclass, at a time when the rest of the world seems to be thriving with globalization, globalization from which they are largely excluded. We have a serious, I think, worldwide class struggle going on, as well as a religious struggle.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, do you agree with Shibley that the United States has become the heir of resentment that may have one day been aimed at France and Great Britain?

MILTON VIORST: Yeah, I think it has. And it has not done enough really to preserve that pristine vision that Arabs, the third world had of the United States at the end of World War I, during the Wilsonian era and still had at the end of World War II and over the half century that’s passed since then, our esteem in this area has slipped considerably.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Abootalebi, and guests here in Washington, thank you all.