We're wrong about Islamic terrorism

April 21, 1996|By EDWARD N. LUTTWAK

THE RECENT "Summit of the Peacemakers" in Egypt may have been a great diplomatic success for all concerned, but it perpetuated a most misleading myth about the targets of Islamic terrorists.

Tens of thousands of violent Islamists are now active from Morocco to the Philippines, and their attacks large and small are killing thousands of people each year. Governments that may be very Islamic in Western eyes but which are judged insufficiently Islamic by the Islamists are by far their most important target. Algeria and Egypt are the best-known cases, but with the exception of ultra-Islamic Iran and Sudan, every Islamic government now has its Islamist opposition, including Saudi Arabia, which sent money to Islamists everywhere until very recently.

Non-Islamic governments are also targets of course: India, most of all because of the struggle over Kashmir; the Philippines, where Muslims want an Islamic state of their own on Mindanao; multiconfessional Lebanon and, of course, Israel.

By now everyone knows that events in Israel are overreported, but the recent Islamist attacks are extreme examples. Total Israeli casualties over the last two years from all types of terrorism have been fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of Algeria's or Kashmir's casualties during the same period. Further, terrorism barely damaged Israel's tourism, let alone its high-technology economy, which has been growing very nicely. Elsewhere, by contrast, Islamist violence has caused much economic damage. The regional economies of Kashmir and Mindanao, as well as Algeria's entire national economy, have been wrecked.

The first step in understanding the Islamist threat is, therefore, to ignore the particular case of Israel. The second is to recognize that in every Arab state except Sudan the Islamists are the only functioning opposition to anti-democratic governments. As such, FTC they are supported by many people who are not at all enthusiastic about the Islamist program, but who want to oppose the regime in some way. Hence democratization is the best way of weakening Islamist movements, as King Hussein of Jordan has already proved in his semidemocracy.

By contrast, Islamist opposition cannot be bought off by imposing more Islamic rules on society, as most Islamic states have done. Islamist leaders are not religious activists who have entered politics, but political activists who express themselves in religious terms. (Otherwise Shiite Iran could not be the model-state of Sunni Islamists: For devout Sunnis, Shiism is heresy.) Hence religious concessions only provoke demands for more concessions, never a moderate response.

Economic measures would be much more effective. At the local level, Islamist cadres are mostly poorly paid preachers in slum and village mosques, while their followers are unemployed youths. As of now, their best option is to pass their empty days around the mosque. Government technical training programs for youths, with some role for the preachers, could provide an alternative at modest cost, pending the general development of economies that might not develop fast enough to avert the danger of more Irans.

Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow Center for Strategic and International Studies, is author of "The Endangered American Dream."

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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