Battling for minds of young Muslims

May 07, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Last Thursday, I sat in the garden of the Pesantren Darunnajah, one of Jakarta's finest Islamic boarding schools, with 20 thoughtful young Indonesians to ask them for their views of America.

I wanted to understand how the world's largest Muslim nation was reacting to Sept. 11 and the Middle East crisis. I could tell you in my own words, but let me instead run the tape of my chat with the most articulate student: 18-year-old Wisam Rochalina.

"Most Muslims are afraid of America because they think America is against Islam," she began. "You can see that America is backing the Israelians, and the enmity between Islam and Israel, the Jews [and] Judaism, is obvious. It is not that Americans are afraid of Muslims, but that Muslims are afraid of Americans.

"As for the [Sept. 11] tragedy, we can't prove that Muslims did it. Because up to now they have not found evidence to prove that [Osama bin Laden] is the one who did it. Also I read in some newspaper that the real people who did that tragedy are Americans. ... I don't know [what] percent of the Congress are Jewish, [but] America is backing Israel, and I think therein lies the feeling of enmity toward America."

Where do you get your news?

"I get most information from the TV, from the Internet, too. ... I really like to read the [online] Arabic magazines because they give a different point of view. If I read Indonesian magazines, they don't have a lot of information about Muslims and Islam."

Why are so many Muslims so angry with America and Israel now?

"I think it has something to do [with] Muslims feeling like they are being called murderers and they are being treated in the U.S. like they are terrorists - they are being blamed for something they haven't done."

What do you think of President Bush?

"At the beginning, when George Bush became president, some people thought he is only going to be like his father and he's not going to make anything new - and also people did not want Al Gore to win because he was Jewish. So people said, `OK, George Bush is better. ...' He promised a lot of really good things but [has] not realized them up to now."

Would you like to study in America?

"Of course I would! Because if I go there, I can understand how that world really thinks."

Ms. Rochalina's views are widely shared by millions of Muslim youths. They are a product of many things: a reaction to America's war on terrorism and Ariel Sharon's war on Yasser Arafat, the failure of Muslim states to master modernity, Muslim resentment at being blamed for Sept. 11, unquestioning congressional support for Israel and outright incitement against Israel and Jews in Arab and European media and Web sites.

Stir it all together, and what comes out is a single big idea melding in the minds of many young Muslims: America, Israel and the Jews are working together to undermine Islam and dominate the world.

This is not good. But how does one reverse it? Spreading democracy in the Muslim world would help enormously, but that's not going to happen soon. In the near term, Israel has got to get out of the West Bank and Gaza any way it can - just get out - and get this war with Palestinians off TV. It will not end Muslim hostility to the Jewish state, but it will eliminate a good chunk of raw material.

At the same time, America needs to make a much bigger investment in public diplomacy in the Muslim world, and vigorously challenge what is published there. In an era when blind rage can become a weapon of mass destruction, this is as important as any missile shield. We can make a difference with young people. Their views are easily acquired and easily shed.

A U.S. diplomat in Jakarta told me she had just visited the town of Malang and had seen an Indonesian boy there wearing an Osama bin Laden T-shirt and a New York Yankees cap. So all isn't lost. But we must make sure that he grows into the hat, not the T-shirt.

Thomas L. Friedman's syndicated column appears in The Sun Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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