Somebody needs to tell Muslim kids

January 09, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has warned us that the war on terrorism will be a long struggle. But how will we know when we've won even Round One?

Simple. We will have won Round One once we've killed Osama bin Laden and his allies and once the leaders of the Arab-Muslim world have killed his ideas. That's the division of labor: We have to eliminate the killers and they have to delegitimize his ideas. I fear, though, that we'll do our part but Arab-Muslim leaders won't do theirs. If that's how Round One ends, then on your next flight keep an eye on the tennis shoes of the guy next to you.

Bin Laden and his key cohorts Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mohammed Atef and Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar must all be eliminated for a very important reason -- beyond sheer justice: because the four of them have made a career of sending young Muslim men to commit suicide, while they sit back, relishing the fallout on their homemade videos.

We need to send the message that anyone who orders suicide bombings against Americans, or protects those who do, commits suicide himself. And U.S. Marines will search every cave in Afghanistan to make that principle stick. You order, you die -- absolutely, positively, you die.

Yet Round One cannot end with the leaders of al-Qaida eliminated but their ideas still intact. One would think that killing these ideas would be easy. The most striking thing about bin Laden's tapes is how little the man has to say. There is no program for Arab-Muslim development, just venom built on the mantras of "jihad," "infidels" and "Allah."

Yet, to this day, the only two leaders to directly take on bin Laden and his warped view of Islam have been George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Why? One reason is that the Mideast leaders have no tradition of talking frankly to their people, particularly about religion. In times of trouble, their instinct is to button up the tent and let the sandstorm blow over. Some leaders are also afraid of directly challenging bin Laden for fear of becoming his main target. After all, this man has taken on two superpowers.

But the biggest reason is this: Give bin Laden his due; he is an authentic person, who gave up a life of riches in Saudi Arabia to go live in a cave and fight the Soviets and Americans. To counter his authentic message of hate, you need an authentic messenger of progress, tolerance and modernism.

But there are very few such messages or messengers in the Arab-Muslim world today. To begin with, it's hard to develop an authentic voice in authoritarian societies where thought-leaders -- imams, academics, politicians or columnists -- are either owned by the regime or jailed by the regime.

Moreover, the natural answer to bin Laden's religious totalitarianism is an ideology that's also grounded in Islamic tradition and values, but is progressive and forward-looking -- and no Arab-Muslim leader today has articulated such a vision. To the contrary, bin Laden is just an extreme form of the same austere religious ideology many of these Arab regimes have used to legitimate themselves.

It was Israel that executed Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, but it was modern Germany that executed Nazism, by writing one of the world's most democratic constitutions and living up to it. In so doing, Germans transformed Germany from a destructive to a constructive force for themselves, Europe and the world.

Bin Ladenism has to be fought the same way. There are some faint signs of hope. The Arab world has gone through three phases since Sept. 11: shock that Arab Muslims could have done this, then denial -- blaming Israel or the CIA -- and now, finally, the first stirrings of introspection.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah told a meeting of gulf leaders last week: "Catastrophes are in fact opportunities that make it incumbent upon us to conduct self-scrutiny, review our attitudes and repair errors. ... The real and deadly risk is to face crises with hands folded and blame others instead of confronting the crises and taking responsibility for our role."

This is healthy talk and needs to be encouraged. Up to now, the Bush team has let our key Arab-Muslim allies cooperate with us secretly, while never calling on them to answer bin Laden or to tell their own people that his view of America is a sick perversion. In effect, we let these leaders carry on an illicit relationship with us, while always making sure that no one ever told their kids. We can't afford that anymore. Someone needs to tell the kids.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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