Islam's battle within itself

October 12, 2005|By EDWARD S. WALKER JR.

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has outlined a strategy for fighting terrorists who are trying to "enslave whole nations and intimidate the world," saying that "defeating the militant network is difficult because it thrives, like a parasite, on the suffering and frustration of others."

He spoke of the U.S. battle against extremist ideologies and described Iraq as the central front against terror. When he spoke at the United Nations Sept. 14, he said that "this war will not be won by force of arms alone. ... We must also defeat them in the battle of ideas."

I remember after 9/11, when it was considered unpatriotic for Americans to suggest that poverty, lack of opportunity and absence of hope play a part in the terrorist cycle. It has taken a long time for Americans to recognize publicly that terrorism does not simply spring from the minds of a few religious fanatics and that the human condition plays a part in creating ground where terrorists can be cultivated.

What Mr. Bush did not dwell on is another battle that is going on today to defeat terrorism - the battle within Islam. And it may prove to be the most important battle of all.

It is a battle being spearheaded by King Abdullah II of Jordan, and it has the solid support of other Muslim leaders around the world.

Jordan issued the "Amman Message" on Islam Nov. 9, nearly a year ago. It spoke of those who claim to belong to Islam who have "done gruesome and criminal acts in its name." It preached the message of tolerance, brotherhood and humanity, upholding what is good and forbidding what is wrong.

It denounced extremism and condemned "fighting against non-fighters - no assault on civilians and their properties, on children in their mothers' laps, on students in the schools, on older men and women." And the statement concluded, "On religious grounds, on moral grounds, we denounce the contemporary concept of terrorism."

It was a strong statement, but on its own it would have meant very little. So the king took the Amman statement to the International Islamic Conference in July. With participants from Muslim countries around the world, the conference represented the broad spectrum of religious scholars from the different schools of Islam.

The conference, in King Abdullah's words, "agreed that religious edicts [fatwas] cannot be issued by people lacking the proper qualifications and religious knowledge" (like Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq). The king added: "We intend to revisit education and media roles as well. The ultimate goal is to take back our religion from the vocal, violent, and ignorant extremists who have tried to hijack Islam over the last hundred years. They do not speak for Islam any more than a Christian terrorist speaks for Christianity."

True to his word, the king is in the forefront of educational reform in Jordan. His actions are being mirrored in other countries as well. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recently allocated $3.3 billion from his country's oil-revenue surplus for modernizing the Saudi educational systems and curriculum. At the same time, he has taken a leading role in a Saudi campaign to delegitimize the preaching of those who support bin Laden's false theology.

The battle is not over. Even if we are successful militarily and can make inroads on poverty and hopelessness, the Jordanian king and other Muslim leaders have their work cut out for them to win the battle for Islam.

In the Pew Global Attitudes project report released in July, 57 percent of Jordanians said they believed that violence against civilian targets is often or sometimes justified. Compare this to Morocco, where 79 percent said it is never justified. In most Muslim countries surveyed by Pew, with the exception of Jordan, "support for suicide bombings and other acts of violence in defense of Islam has declined significantly." That is encouraging news.

It is important for the countries of the world to continue to join with Mr. Bush in putting pressure on the terrorists, in draining their financial resources, in digging them out of mountain redoubts, and particularly in changing the conditions of poverty and hopelessness.

But the final battle will be fought within Islam itself. So we can take comfort in the allies we have, the kings and presidents in the Muslim world, who are stepping up in their leadership of this battle of ideas.

Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute, was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and U.S. ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

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