Terror Attacks Set Back Cause of Democracy in Islam
Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister of
Malaysia, is serving a 15-year jail sentence after a trial most observers
was a political vendetta waged by Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir.
- Never in Islam's entire history has the action of so few of its followers
caused the religion and its community of believers to be such an abomination
in the eyes of others. Millions of Muslims who fled to North America and
Europe to escape poverty and persecution at home have become the object
of hatred and are now profiled as potential terrorists.
And the nascent democratic movements in Muslim countries will regress
for a few decades as ruling autocrats use their participation in the global
war against terrorism to terrorize their critics and dissenters.
This is what Mohamed Atta and his fellow terrorists and sponsors have
done to Islam and its community worldwide by their murder of innocents
at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington,
The attack must be condemned, and the condemnation must be without reservation.
The foremost Islamic religious authorities are outraged and have issued
statements denouncing the monstrous murders. All efforts to punish the
perpetrators must be supported.
One is therefore perturbed by the confusion among Muslims who responded
to the attack with a misplaced diatribe against the United States. In
Malaysia, the government-controlled media have been deployed to stir anti-American
sentiments, while members of the political elite use a different language
for international diplomacy.
Certainly there are legitimate grievances against the US and good reason
for despondency over the fate of the Palestinians, who now face an even
more arrogant Israel. But this is not the time for sermonizing or moralizing
over US foreign policy. Had we Malaysians been the victims in such a tragedy,
we would find such hectoring tasteless and repulsive.
One wonders how, in the 21st century, the Muslim world could have produced
an Osama bin Laden? In the centuries when Islam created civilizations,
men of wealth created pious foundations supporting universities and hospitals.
Princes competed with one another to patronize scientists, philosophers
and men of letters.
The greatest of scientists and philosophers of the medieval age, Ibn Sina,
was a product of that system. But Bin Laden uses his personal fortune
to sponsor terror and murder, not learning or creativity, and to wreak
destruction rather than promote creation. Bin Laden and his proteges are
the children of desperation; they come from countries where political
struggle through peaceful means is futile. In many Muslim countries, political
dissent is simply illegal.
Yet, year by year, the size of the educated class and the number of young
professionals continue to increase. These people need space to express
their political and social concerns. But state control is total, leaving
no room for civil society to grow.
Muslim intellectuals and elites carry the enormous moral responsibility
of stamping out terrorism in their midst, unless they want Islam to be
demonized everywhere because of the outrageous acts of a small band of
One must note also that these terrorists belong to the energetic and resourceful
new professional class rather than the clerical class. Only when political
space is provided for their genuine participation can their energies be
channeled toward social progress. The need for Muslim communities to address
their internal social and political development has become more urgent
than ever. Economic development alone is clearly insufficient.
Economic development creates its own dynamics and tensions in the social
and political spheres, which must be addressed. Avenues must be provided
for their expression.
A proper orientation must be developed for Muslim engagement with the
world at large. Participation in the global processes must not be the
monopoly of the government. It is the sense of alienation and the perception
that the whole world is against them that nurture desperation and bitterness
among those who resort to terrorism.
Confusion and bitterness against the global order and its only superpower
have been brought about by the failure of the Muslim world to address
several crucial issues: Afghanistan's descent into chaos and anarchy as
a result of Soviet invasion and occupation from 1979 to 1989; the rise
of the Taliban following the expulsion of the Soviets; and the suffering
inflicted on the Muslim masses in Iraq by its dictator as well as by sanctions.
For ethical reasons, Muslims will support the global initiative against
terrorism. But there is a growing perception that autocrats in their midst
will seize the opportunity to prop up their regimes and deal a severe
blow to the nascent democratic movement. President Vladimir Putin of Russia
will use it to defend atrocities in Chechnya, Israel to reinforce its
intransigence, and Malaysia to defend its draconian detentions without
trial. Necessity will prompt the US to seek the collaboration of the governments
of Muslim countries. This is understandable. But they do not hold all
the answers to terrorism. The growth of democracy, political participation
and civil society is the final answer to terrorism.
Thus, by softening its endorsement of the struggle for democracy and the
restoration of human rights, the US will inadvertently be strengthening
dictatorial regimes, thus replicating past associations of America with
the late Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, the former Indonesian
strongman Suharto and the Shah of Iran. For more than a hundred years
the Muslim world has had to grapple with the problem of modernity and
the issue of its participation in the modern world. Of greatest urgency
is the work to inculcate an intellectual temper and political orientation
that promote democracy and openness. This work must be carried out with
conviction and fervor.
Intellectuals and politicians must have the courage to condemn fanaticism
in all its forms and reject fanatics who seek change through violent means.
But they must, in the same breath, equally condemn tyrants and oppressive
regimes that dash every hope of peaceful change.