Embattled Islam

December 13, 1992

The world is accustomed to Muslims at war with Jews ove Israel and Palestine, which has obscured the longer history in which those two religions coexisted more easily than most. Now other Muslims are persecuted by Christians in Europe, in mass atrocity in Bosnia and small-scale terrorism in Germany. And an extremist Hindu demolition of a 16th Century mosque in the Indian town of Ayodhya has sparked an orgy of Hindu-Muslim slaughters throughout India and backlash against Hinduism in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The impression grows of embattled Islam at war with the infidel world. Everyone has heard of militant Islamic extremism. But that picture is wrong, because in each of the examples cited, Islamic fundamentalism has nothing to do with it.

Extremist Hinduism as a political force was at work in Ayodhya, exploiting ancient grievances. In Germany the motives are nationalistic, economic, racist, cultural -- anything but religious. In Israel and Palestine and in Bosnia the motives are mostly nationalist, with religion serving mainly as an identity badge of nationality. The PLO began life as a secular organization. This does not mean there is no militant Islamic zeal in the world. It is booming. Its centers are in countries where Islam monopolizes faith. Its current major power is Iran. Fundamentalism is a threat to more secular Islamic regimes in Egypt and Algeria, which are cracking down on fundamentalists for self-preservation.

But the persecutions in Bosnia and India, the suppression on the West Bank, the acts of terror in Germany feed the fires of holy war in Qom and other hotbeds. They create the impression of a world choosing war with Islam so that true zealots and false demagogues sell the need to respond in bazaars and mosques. The rapid rearmament of extremist Iran poses a long-term threat to peace and stability. But while Iran's rulers might cite the need to defend the faithful from Jewish, Hindu and Christian depredations, their own threat is mainly to Islamic regimes of which they disapprove.

The world is too small for a war among adherents of great religions. The world view held by Islamic extremists is dangerous, bigoted, mean-spirited, wrong and unrepresentative of most Islamic believers. But the clashes throughout Eurasia between people of Islamic and non-Islamic heritage can only help the fanatic minority. Moderates in Israel's Labor Party, Germany's Christian Democratic and Social Democratic Parties and India's Congress Party all see this clearly enough. That they have not prevailed against strife is a tragedy for the Islamic world, and the world.


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