While Western leaders, led by Bush and Blair, insist the campaign against Bin Laden is against terrorism, not Islam, it was Bush himself who introduced a religious dimension to the campaign by calling it a “crusade.” Many Western politicians and commentators have since come up with similar statements which contend, openly or tacitly, that Islam has something to do with terrorism and that the very notion of jihad implies a form of terrorist activity. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi went as far as to describe Islam as a backward civilisation, then apologised when he realised that trying to ride that particular wave would harm his image rather than help him win the next elections. And, at a time when the British government was trying hard to win over the support of Islamic countries for the international alliance against Bin Laden, former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher criticised British Muslims for not reacting with sufficient outrage to the terrorist incidents of 11 September, the clear implication being that their lack of compassion derived from their religious persuasion.
The West’s predisposition to regard Islam as a violent religion that somehow condones terrorism is rooted in a historical legacy of hostility between the Christian West and Islam. This perception is reinforced by Bin Laden himself, who wages his war of terror under the banner of Islam and justifies his terrorist activities in terms of a jihad against infidels. In a prerecorded message aired shortly after the raids on Afghanistan began, and while Arab writers and analysts were exploring other avenues in an attempt to come up with convincing evidence that the 11 September attacks were carried out by parties other than Muslims, such as the Mossad, the American far right, the Japanese Red Army, and even Serb radicals, Bin Laden said nothing that could be construed as a denial of his responsibility, and much to buttress claims that Islam endorses terrorism.
The main victims of identifying terrorism with Islam are, of course, the Muslims themselves, especially predominantly Muslim states that have suffered greatly from terrorist activities. They, more than anyone else, have every interest in reminding the world that the phenomenon of terrorism is by no means exclusive to Islam, and that Islamic nations are just as keen as everyone else to eradicate this scourge from the face of the earth. It should be made clear that the new bipolarity which has emerged in the world system is between terrorism and the rest of the world, not, as some would have it, between Islam and the rest of the world.
As a country that has for long been waging a battle against terrorism, Egypt is well placed to drive this message home. The line Cairo has adopted draws a sharp distinction between terrorism and Islam. On the one hand, it has strongly condemned the terrorist attacks on America and declared itself ready to cooperate with Washington in helping destroy the terrorist networks; on the other, it refused to send troops to cooperate in a military operation against Afghanistan, on the grounds that waging war against a Muslim country as part of the war on terror would blur the distinction between Islam and terrorism.
Overcoming the present crisis entails making a total separation between terrorism and Islam, which in turn entails overcoming the West’s visceral tendency to connect the two. In the final analysis, the outcome of the confrontation will depend on what Arab and Muslim masses find more repellent: terrorism, or America’s championship of a Western military alliance against one or more Islamic countries. To dispel its anti-Islamic image, America will have to take steps to demonstrate that it is against terrorism specifically and not against Arabs and Muslims in general. Here the Palestinian issue can be very pertinent.
For the first time, Bush is asserting that he considers himself committed to the implementation of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, in order to reach “a just, comprehensive and final settlement” in the Middle East, including the recognition of a Palestinian state, provided the latter respects Israel’s right to exist. Shortly thereafter, British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared in Cairo that he supports Mubarak’s proposal for an international conference on terrorism and that he considers peace in the Middle East as vital for world peace. He also declared his support for the creation of a Palestinian state, provided it upholds Israel’s security. The same theme was taken up by German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder, who linked the war against terrorism to a solution of the Middle East problem, noting that in the absence of a settlement terrorists and those who support them can exploit the grievances of wide masses affected by the conflict.
The sudden and long overdue promotion of the Palestinian problem to the forefront of international concern is a welcome development. However, it comes up against the intransigence of the Sharon government, which is more opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state than any previous Israeli government. Indeed, Sharon is advocating the liquidation of the PA, even the liquidation of Arafat himself if possible, instead of dealing with him as a partner in a process aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state and a final solution to the Middle East problem. But the real test of how committed Bush and other Western leaders are to the creation of a Palestinian state is not only to talk about it in general terms, but to directly involve Sharon in such talks.
A fact no one can deny is that eight years of peaceful negotiations have produced no results, while a single act of terrorism, albeit of the magnitude of the one perpetrated on 11 September, was enough to propel the Palestinian problem to the top of the international agenda. An obvious — and dangerous –conclusion to be drawn from this is that terrorism pays. America had the power and influence to broker a lasting peace in the Middle East. Instead, it left the Palestinian problem until Bin Laden could claim credit for forcing it to acknowledge the need for a Palestinian state.
It is all very well to talk now of the need for a Palestinian state, but whether it is no more than a slogan raised to deceive the Arab parties or reflects a serious intention to work towards its realisation remains to be seen. The real test is to induce Sharon into responding to what everyone has suddenly realised is a pressing need. It would not be the first time America has forced Israel to toe the line when there is a clear conflict of interest between the two states.
In 1956, President Eisenhower compelled Israel to pull out of Sinai. After the Suez debacle, the US government sought to replace Britain and France as the dominant power in the Middle East, and there was no question of allowing Israel, the junior member of the tripartite alliance, to sabotage the total withdrawal of alliance troops from Egyptian territory. During the 1991 Gulf war, the US government forced Israel not to respond to Iraq’s missile raids against Israeli targets because an Israeli retaliatory attack against Iraq at the time could have jeopardised the coalition the US had built up with moderate Arab states against Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. America has proved able to impose its will on Israel whenever its interests require it to do so. And that is the case now too.
The global balance of power as perceived by Western capitals before 11 September was defective. The West underestimated the cards held by terrorists and proved unaware of the loopholes in the world system that terrorists could exploit, such as using hijacked planes as flying bombs to destroy skyscrapers and coordinating different teams of suicide operators to maximise the harm they inflict. In successfully carrying out their dreadful mission, the terrorists proved to be more imaginative and determined than any defence systems set in place to avert just such an eventuality. The real horror of the events of 11 September is not so much what actually happened, but the promise they carry of possibly deadlier, attacks in future.
The dreaded spectre of bioterrorism has reared its ugly head, with anthrax spores sent in envelopes through the mail, while the FBI has issued a public alert warning of multiple terrorist strikes over the next several days. As Americans brace themselves for new horrors, it is becoming clear that the rules of the game are being set not by the pole of world order but by the shadowy pole of terrorism.
For the rule of law to be reinstated and normal life resumed, America must break the vicious circle in which it now finds itself, by addressing the reasons why this terror has been unleashed against it. In this context, it is more imperative than ever to make a serious effort to resolve the Middle East conflict, with the Palestinian problem at its heart.