Islam under siege

William Safire

March 22, 1993|By William Safire

ISLAM, one of the world's great religions, is under attack from within. The nations with the firmest tradition for the protection of religious liberty and a free press -- Britain and the U.S. -- have become the bases for extremists seeking to turn Islam into an aggressive political movement.

In Washington last week Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told President Clinton that fundamentalists incited by Iran were infiltrating Muslim institutions in the West.

The Israeli informed journalists last Wednesday that "the intelligence community here is showing a growing awareness of the threat."

Unfortunately, when Jews talk to Christians about a problem among Muslims, a natural reaction in the Islamic world is to close ranks and protest religious prejudice.

A wiser reaction would be to face up to their religion's subversion by radicals.

In Europe earlier last week, intelligence officials told me that French and German internal security agents -- using "light harassment" and incessant wiretaps -- had driven the fundamentalist leadership first to London and more recently to two areas in the U.S.: New York-New Jersey and Texas-Arizona.

The radical leaders cannot operate in most of the Arab world. Syria's deal with its non-Arab ally Iran to keep fundamentalists out is underscored by President Assad's readiness to massacre troublemakers; Egypt, its leaders often assassinated by the movement, has begun sending police into suspect mosques with guns blazing.

That's why the newspaper of the Egyptian jihad is now published in New Jersey and mailed to the Middle East. It's also why Jordanian and Algerian members of the Islamic Front operate out of New York. And it's why videotaped sermons by a Lebanese radical are distributed out of Dallas.

European spooks marvel at the way our FBI is hamstrung by the simple code of the radicals: Instead of issuing a fatwa, or death warrant, which would be prosecutable, a sheik simply declares a targeted Muslim opponent murtid -- "apostate" -- which falls within the bounds of religious comment here but which is understood by hit men to be a sentence of execution.

Our network of extremist mosques escape detection by using Edgar Allan Poe's theory of the purloined letter -- that is, by operating in the open. A convention in Oklahoma City attended by many law-abiding, orthodox Muslims also included lectures by a Hezbollah sheik whose message was more inciting than insightful.

Who are the warriors of the movement? "An Afghani is not an Afghan," says a longtime radical-watcher. The Afghanis are the legion of fighters of many races and nations recruited and trained by Pakistan and the U.S. to help defeat Soviet invaders in the '80s.

From camps in the Peshawar region on the Pakistani-Afghan border, these hardened soldiers now are given Sudanese passports by Iranian agents and transported through Sudan to Egypt and Algeria and Lebanon.

Until Desert Storm, money extorted from Saudi royal family members was the main financial support of the movement. Saudis could claim that contributions to the legitimate social activities of the radical mosques were a counterweight to their irreligious behavior.

Iran has since supplemented the estimated $200 million annual budget, but unlike the frightened Saudis, radical Iranians want terrorist results shown before they put up money.

Since the terrorist display at New York's World Trade Center, the FBI is playing catch-up, even using CIA connections in meeting what is belatedly seen as a domestic threat.

How will we contain religio-terrorism? Our own way, with proactive police work, court-warranted surveillance and relentless prosecution -- not by shooting up mosques, abusing the accused or limiting our freedom to worship and express ourselves.

Non-Muslims can help by recognizing the great trial that millions of their fellow Americans are going through, and by not thoughtlessly lumping together the orthodox, the secular and the extremist.

Muslims can help by refusing to be intimidated by their violent minority, which is now an act of considerable personal courage, and by recognizing that the law's worldwide counterattack against fanaticism can only strengthen Islam.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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