Muslims Against Terrorism

Voice of America – ON THE LINE  / Host: Eric Felten 

Host: Muslims Against Terrorism. Next, On the Line.

Host: From the murder of school children in Beslan, Russia, to the beheading of foreign workers in Iraq, Islamic terrorists continue to kill innocent people in what they say is a holy war against the U-S and the West. But an increasing number of Muslims are speaking out against this terrorism. Abdel Rahman al-Rashed is the general manager of the Arab satellite television station Al-Arabiya. He wrote in the London daily newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, that it is “shameful and degrading” that Muslims commit acts of terrorism. Pointing out that, quote, “The majority of those who carried out suicide operations against buses, schools, houses, and buildings around the world in the last ten years are Muslims,” Mr. Rashed said that Islam “has suffered an injustice” at the hands of those who preach violence.

And in the Saudi government daily newspaper Okaz, Khaled Hamed al-Suleiman denounced what he called “Butchers in the Name of Allah.” He wrote, “The time has come for Muslims to be the first to come out against those interested in abducting Islam in the same way they abducted innocent children.”

Such protests are growing among Muslims around the world. Joining us to discuss these important developments are Kamal Nawash, President of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism; Ammar Abdulhamid, Visiting Fellow in the Project on U.S. Policy Toward the Islamic World at The Brookings Institution. And joining us by phone from Boston, is Zainab Al-Suwaij, the executive director of the American Islamic Congress. Welcome and thanks for joining us today.

Kamal Nawash, Mr. Al-Rashed of Al-Arabiya television, in his article in the London paper also said: “We can not correct the condition of our youth, who carry out these disgraceful operations until we have treated the minds of our Sheiks who have turned themselves into pulpit revolutionaries who send the children of others to fight.” Is there a recognition, a growing recognition that there’s a problem in the pulpit there?

Nawash: Well there is definitely a problem within the pulpit. I mean, we’ve written ourselves that most of our pulpits — our imams, belong behind bars rather than behind a pulpit. We have a serious problem with extremism right now, but we think that the root cause of it, the root cause of all this is an ideology. And it’s an ideology that’s what we call political Islam. And this idea, the desire of it, the basis behind it is a desire to create what they call theocracies, or Islamic states. And these people believe that what they’re doing is so noble, or that basically they’re implementing the wishes of God, so for many, because they think that they’re implementing the wishes of God, they find a way to justify just about any act of violence, you know, that somehow God will accept it. We have a serious problem and because we’re fighting an ideology, the only ones who can defeat this — it’s not going to be America. It’s not going to be [President George W.] Bush. The only ones who can defeat this ideology are moderate Muslims themselves.

Host: Ammar Abdulhamid, are there moderate Muslims who are taking on this ideology?

Abdulhamid: Well, they’re beginning to. I think the shocks of nine-eleven and the developments that took place around the world after that have really served as a wake up call to many Muslims around the world. And increasingly, there have been people coming out and speaking against terrorism and trying to make it clear to the people around the world and to the Muslims themselves that the religion itself is being tainted by recourse to political ideologies, as my colleague has just said. And is that going to be enough? The problem is I’m not sure you’re being as far-reaching as you have to and as far as our criticism is concerned. The problem is, especially for a person who’s not simply a moderate Muslim but a liberal Arab, being, you know, on the secular end of things, is that we have our own criticisms vis-à-vis the traditional world view of Islam, but at the same time, we don’t want our internal criticisms also to be used as a weapon in a sort of a blind war on Islam as such. But, you have to speak out. We have to speak out. We can not be apologists for the religion. At the same time, there is a necessity for internal voices within the community of the believers to speak out against active terror, to speak out for reform, perhaps in reformation of the faith for a variety of reasons not related to terrorism. But terrorism has sort of urgency that because of so many years of silence on a variety of issues, the religion itself now is being hijacked by the extremist elements and is being used in a way that’s negated our rights also. As I speak from an Islamic background, all moderate Muslims to speak out to reform our religion and to influence our society.

Host: Zainab Al-Suwaij are you there by phone?

Al-Suwaij: Yes, I am.

Host: Is there a taboo in the Arab world of speaking out on these issues, for fear, as Ammar said, that it might be used in the West as a way to criticize Islam?

Al-Suwaij: Well, there are different and many groups in the Muslim world. Some of them, the majority of them are moderate voices but we always see that the extremists and the terrorists get the ear and the attention of the media. Within the community itself, back there, each group, they have their own methodology, their own school of teaching and preaching for Islam. But certainly for many years and hundreds of years that was not — you know killing innocent people in the name of a religion is a horrible thing. And I think within the Muslim community, inside the Muslim world, they don’t know yet how to deal with it.

Host: Kamal Nawash, the problem can’t be just in the mosque. [One] does see, as Zainab Al-Suwaij mentions, the attention the media gets. And in the Arab media there’s a lot of attention for terrorist acts. And there’s a reason that the terrorists put things up on web sites. There’s an audience for this. How do you address the issues of there being an audience for acts of terrorism.

Nawash: You know, I don’t know if I agree with what she said. I think she’s implying that the extremists are small in number. And I don’t think that is the case. We have a serious problem with extremism and they have won popular support. They have won. I mean there’s no two ways about it. The organizations that she calls moderate. I don’t think they are moderate. For example, like the ones that we have in the United States here today. Their ideology is not very different than the terrorists. It’s not very different from Hamas and Hezbollah, maybe not Al-Qaida. The root cause of this ideology, this evil, is the desire to create Islamic states. That is the problem. And because, for example, I use the American organizations that describe themselves as moderate. Because they share the same ideology as, for example, Hamas, they’re not going to attack them. I’ve never heard a Muslim organization in this country attack Hamas or Hezbollah, and that is the heart of the problem.

Al-Suwaij: We did.

Nawash: Let me finish. [crosstalk]

Host: Well, let me get Zainab in on this question.

Al-Suwaij: You say there is no single Muslim organization and I think our organization did that before. And we keep doing it. If you’re not aware of it, I suggest that you search and look for that.

Host: Ammar Abdulhamid.

Abdulhamid: In a sense I sympathize with what Zainab is trying to say, but I have to agree with Kamal. The reality is there has been an insistence upon holding onto traditional values as they are and the traditional world view that posits the community of the believers as the center of the universe. There has really been very little criticism — well, ever since the beginning of the twentieth century at least there was some movement at that time for renewal — but that movement was really shot down. And sort of the Islamic world and most Muslim, Islamic intellectuals really have fallen back on a traditional stance. And sometimes out of fear for themselves from the extremist elements, but also out of sympathy, I’ve seen, to the very cause of establishing Islamic states. The great majority of Muslims really, intellectuals, have not been able to reconcile themselves to the idea of secularism one hundred percent. They still believe in an Islamic state. And as long as they do believe in an Islamic state, their ideologies and their stance and sometimes even the infrastructure that they’ve built is going to be used by extremist elements. However, I think I might have pointed [that] out. To the Iraq point: the extremists now have their own organizations. They appeal more to the popular sentiments of the Muslims because they are bellicose in their stance vis-à-vis the world, and to an extent that compensates for the hurt pride that many Muslims feel, for the sense of marginalization that Muslims feel, for the sense of weakness and lack of empowerment that many Muslims feel around the world. These extremists can appeal to that somehow by their bellicose stance. On the other hand, you find that so-called moderate Muslims are too shy and when they come up in support they come up usually in a very apologetic manner. And I can understand why, because there is so much criticism form all over the place. They’re losing their own power base in the Islamic societies. They are being criticized by the extremist groups themselves, they’ve been criticized by secularists and now the media is also on the case of Islam. So, their position is very difficult. But I think the best way to do in the face of this situation is to walk forward, is to actually embark and to try to make a more brave stand and more clear stand on a variety of issues. One of them is terrorism, the others are related to the reformation of the Islamic idea itself.

Host: Zainab, you’ve spent a lot of time in Iraq recently working on women’s issues there. How has the proliferation of terrorist attacks in Iraq affected the views of Muslims in Iraq toward the issue of terrorism?

Al-Suwaij: Well, in the past year and a few months that I spent in Iraq, I think people will start right now to realize that the terrorist acts, for example in Iraq are not for religious purposes. Most of it is for political reasons and to serve a certain political agenda. For example, all Baathists who were loyal to Saddam Hussein, they are now coming under a new identity, which is being an Islamic. And because they knew that, for example, inside Iraq, Baathists are not welcome, and Iraqis don’t want them any more in the society, so they come under this identity of being Islamist and of course they have a lot of support from many terrorist groups, including Al-Qaida and also the neighboring countries. Around Iraq they are contributing a lot to these groups inside Iraq. And you see, for example, you see in Iraq and the southern part of Iraq recently, there are offices of Hezbollah and Hamas are opening there, are recruiting young people. This is a problem.

Nawash: If I may interrupt, Zainab. You are putting yourself here really — you’ve pointed out two correct things but at the same time you’ve touched upon the contradiction, the central contradiction I believe in the stand of many traditional Muslims. You said that people realize that the acts of terror that are taking place are political or motivated by political reasons and that religion is innocent.

Al-Suwaij: That’s right.

Nawash: Now this is a problem I have with the traditional Muslims. On the one hand they insist on this separation of religion and politics where it comes down to terror, on the other hand they advocate — I mean, I’m not speaking necessarily about you in particular but in general — they advocate a concept of an Islamic state saying that Islam doesn’t allow for the separation of religion and poltics.

Al-Suwaij: That’s not true.

Nawash: That’s exactly the kind of apologetic attitude. [crosstalk]

Host: Let’s let …

Al-Suwaij: It depends on what school you’re following. I think in Iraq, for example, if you are looking at the Shia tradition, the Shia practice in Iraq is different than the Shia practice in Iran. They have always kept religion separated from politics.

Nawash: That’s not right.

Al-Suwaij: But there are a lot of groups coming back to Iraq now who used to live in Iran…

Nawash: But the movement is not really separated isn’t it?

Al-Suwaij: Who want to have the same Islamic state in Iraq, which is not going to be possible. You have these examples all over Muslim countries. And this is not only in Iraq, I’m talking [about] but in many other Muslim countries as well.

Host: Actually, I want to move to something, Kamal Nawash, you raised the issue a little earlier of Hamas and Hezbollah, which revolves around the issue of Israel and recently, Abdul-Aziz al-Khayat who’s a former minister of religious affairs in Jordan, in an article in which he wrote about attacks in Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, “can not be sanctioned because they don’t target an impressive power” in an article against terrorism. Then he moves on to say that attacks against Israel, “We demand, bless and sanction.”

Nawash: That’s the problem. See, that’s our position. The problem is, if you make an exception for Hamas, because you believe in their cause — and I admit, I’m a Palestinian. I’m a Palestinian refugee and I’m a proud Palestinian, but I think Hamas is a criminal terrorist organization and needs to be destroyed. Absolutely, no two ways about it. [crosstalk]

Al-Suwaij: Absolutely. We do not disagree on that.

Nawash: Because if you can not make an exception. If you don’t make an exception, then you’re going to have some other group, somewhere else out there that’s going to want an exception for Al-Qaida or someone else. So if you don’t take a zero-tolerance [approach], you end up losing. I want to point out something important. I mentioned earlier that they won, that the extremists won. It’s important to figure out how they won. Now this extremist movement, or the desire to create an Islamic state — and I call this a fascist movement, because any Islamic state will always be a fascist state — this desire has been around for the entire twentieth century. It started in the twenties in Egypt, but it was for the most part unsuccessful until the 1980s. Several things happened that made it basically spread like wildfire and one of those things is they learned to use P-R, public relations, those Islamists. And one of the things they learned to do or they started doing is they started adopting popular Arab and Muslim causes as their own to get support. And for example, what’s the most popular Arab-Muslim cause out there? It’s the Palestinian-Arab conflict. And of course today you have Iraq. Why is that very clever, because when you adopt the Israeli issue or the Abu Ghraib issue, if you’re a moderate Muslim and you want to attack them, it becomes very difficult because they’ll tell you: “Wait, wait a second. Are you for the Israelis? Are for the Americans in Abu Ghraib?” And then you have the naive Muslims, the real naïve Muslims who do not understand that the general goal of these organizations is not really about Israel, not about Iraq, it’s about creating these theocracies, so they side with them for their purported goals and they end up with disaster. The point is we need a reformation in Islam today. And we need to get rid of the idea that an Islamic state can actually succeed. Every example of an Islamic state today is a failure. It can not succeed.

Host: Ammar Abdulhamid, this question of trying to say we’ll allow terrorism if it’s against Israel, to the extent that Muslims are speaking against terrorism, are people willing to take on that issue to say that there should be no tolerance?

Abdulhamid: In fact, one of the first things to emerge out among — since I’m Syrian — is that there was some criticism of the armed intifada in Syria from the very beginning, both on a strategic level and from the point of view that the various attacks that had taken place were aimed at civilian targets. So there were, in fact, people from the very beginning trying to call, “Look, if you want to create some kind of space for freedom fighters — if you want to call them this way then at least make it into a military operation. Target military targets somehow. But the focus on civilian targets has really created a problem for some Arab intellectuals, for some Arab activists. But, once again, these are the liberal few out there. Their voice is not really very well heard around the Arab world. They do not appeal to the emotional aspect of Arab identity. As I said right now, in many parts of the Arab world, the lack of empowerment, the feeling of frustration that people have, the idea that we are always taking dictates from foreign powers and so-on, have created a sense of frustration. The people like Hamas when they can create a balance of terror, or organization like Hamas, when they create a balance of terror with Israel, they get a sense of empowerment back. They are playing to the people’s emotions, not to their reason. And that’s the situation we find ourselves in at this stage.

Host: Zainab Al-Suwaij, how do you make the case that when terrorism is going on in Israel, that those tactics and the willingness to kill innocent civilians then leads over into the other context and leads to terrorism in Saudi Arabia, in Iraq.

Al-Suwaij: Well the word terrorism has the same meaning anywhere in the world. I mean, killing innocent people is unjustified. And I think wherever it’s happening or it’s going to happen, it’s not acceptable. As Muslims and as organizations that work against terrorism and want to have the Muslim voice being heard all around the world. Now we are still trying to do that but there are these, as I said before, these are the terrorist acts all over the world, you see all the media is focusing on it and giving it that attention. It’s absolutely much bigger than that that some liberal Muslims or moderate Muslims try to do. We are really in a very, how can I say, awkward situation, which is we need to have, we’re trying to have our voice being heard. We’re trying to work toward that, but the main function, or the main attraction is on these acts.

Host: Ammar, we have a little less than a minute.

Abdulhamid: Well you have to understand the nature of the media. In order to get media attention, you have to create a media event. We have not been able to deal with the media in the right way. I mean, why not organize a demonstration by Muslims, for instance, in a variety of parts of the Muslim world against terrorism? This would attract media attention. If you want to get media to our side we have to become active, we have to create events and we have to use the media in our favor. We have not been able to do that for a variety of reasons. But we should try to remedy the state of affairs.

Host: I’m afraid that’s going to have to be the last word for today, we’re out of time. But I’d like to thank my guests: Kamal Nawash of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism; Ammar Abdulhamid of the Brookings Institution; and joining us by phone from Boston: Zainab Al-Suwaij of the American Islamic Congress. Before we go, I’d like to invite you to send us your questions or comments. You can reach us through our web site at w-w-w-dot-v-o-a-news-dot-com-slash-ontheline For On the Line, I’m Eric Felten.