Muslim world suffers by actions of terrorists Radical groups' hatred for U.S. fed by policy, history of colonialism

August 23, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The word "Islam" is derived from the Arabic word for peace, and the overwhelming majority of the world's 1 billion Muslims have little sympathy for murder in their name and resent the media's association of their religion with the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Yet most U.S. experts agree that the greatest foreign terrorist threat to Americans today comes from small, radical Islamic groups who cloak their bloodshed in the language of holy war. Spread across half the globe and often divided by language and nationality, they are united by their implacable hostility to the United States.

"As far as the U.S. is concerned, the global threat at this time is unfortunately largely from Islamic extremists," says Yonah Alexander, director of terrorism studies at George Washington University, who has studied the phenomenon for 40 years. "There's a loose confederation of Islamic extremists that reaches from the Philippines to Turkey. It's really a corruption of Islam. They utilize religious concepts to achieve political goals."

What may seem to besenseless hatred for America actually is motivated by very specific U.S. foreign policies, say those who study the terrorist groups. They point to three major reasons for the militants' targeting of the United States:

U.S. support for Israel, which is seen as having displaced and mistreated Palestinians and occupied Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islamic tradition after Mecca and Medina.

American backing for authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries, where U.S. interests in political stability and steady oil supplies are seen as taking precedence over Americans' stated championing of democracy and human rights.

The U.S. leadership role in the Persian Gulf war and its aftermath, particularly the continuing economic sanctions against Iraq, where shortages of food and medicine are blamed for tens of thousands of deaths.

"Without doubt, some U.S. policies hurt citizens of other countries, whether the policies are right or wrong," says Robert W. White, an Indiana University sociologist who studies the psychology of terrorism.

Economics and culture

While terrorist leaders are often educated and sometimes wealthy, the foot soldiers of their movements are recruited from the slums of Beirut, Gaza, Kabul and Khartoum, their motive not just politics or religion but economic desperation.

Anti-American feeling is further fueled by the anger of conservative Muslims at the relentless advance of American pop culture -- Hollywood movies featuring explicit sex and non-traditional roles for women, rock music and other fashionable assaults on religious values.

"It's the whole Coca-Cola culture, the idea that sneaky capitalism is slowly subverting traditional culture," White says.

The choice of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania for attack this month was logical in the symbolic language of the anti-American terrorist, says Gary R. Perl-stein, who studies terrorism at Portland State University in Oregon. "An embassy is a perfect symbol, because under international law it's U.S. soil," Perlstein says.

The holy war, or jihad, declared by some radical Muslims against the United States has deep historical roots, experts say. The militants associate America's presence and influence in the Muslim world with the West's colonialism in the Muslim world in the 19th century and even the Crusades of medieval European Christians against Muslims beginning in the 11th century.

It is no coincidence that Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born millionaire whose terrorist network was targeted in Thursday's U.S. cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and the Sudan, has referred to American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia as "crusaders." The name of his organization is the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.

While bin Laden and other ideologues of terrorism can cite American policies as their justification, facts and subtleties are often lost in their anti-American extremism, says Marius Deeb, a Lebanese-born professor of Middle Eastern politics at Johns Hopkins' Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

"The U.S. is in Saudi Arabia not because it wants to be but because a bully like Saddam Hussein went into Kuwait," Deeb says. But the radicals "have a vision, a conspiracy theory. They believe the U.S. wants to dominate, wants to be everywhere. If you know American policy at all, you know the U.S. doesn't want to get involved anywhere."

Media carelessness

Scholars agree that the news media have been careless in not sufficiently distinguishing between the radical fringe of terrorists Muslim countries, such as bin Laden, and the peaceful millions who follow the teachings of Mohammed, both the 90 percent in the Sunni tradition and the 10 percent who are Shiites.

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