Outside editorial: The war of ideas

Posted: Tuesday, October 09, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

As U.S.-led airstrikes continued against targets in Afghanistan this week, another crucial theater of conflict was opening up across the Muslim world. In Pakistan, thousands of supporters of Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan's Taliban regime burned buildings and fought with police. In Indonesia, Islamic militants protested in front of the U.S. Embassy and threatened to hunt down and kill Americans if the government did not break relations with the United States. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians fought gun battles against their own security forces following a demonstration by more than 1,000 Islamic students in support of Mr. bin Laden.

As these events vividly demonstrated, the terrorist enemy that the United States and its allies are facing includes not just networks of fighters and their leaders but an extremist ideology that has gained a substantial following. Its tenets were encapsulated in the chilling statement from Osama bin Laden released Sunday and repeatedly broadcast on both Middle East and Western television. The world, says the al Qaeda leader, is divided into Muslims and non-believers; the "head of the international infidels" is President Bush, who, in league with Arab governments and Israel, is inflicting injury on Iraqis, Palestinians and other Muslims. "Every Muslim must rise to defend his religion," bin Laden said a task he says will not be fulfilled until Israel is destroyed, the Saudi monarchy overthrown and U.S. forces driven out of the Arabian peninsula.

As President Bush said in his own television address, this is a grotesque distortion of a great religion, delivered by criminals in order to justify mass murder. But the sobering truth is that bin Laden's noxious mix of religious cant and anti-Western demagoguery strikes a chord among people in many Muslim nations, especially among the poor and disenfranchised. These people are not the majority in any country, even Afghanistan. But they are numerous enough to intimidate otherwise friendly governments into withholding support from the campaign against terrorism as Indonesia has done or support it only quietly and with reservations, as have Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The governments also make little or no effort to counter the diffusion of the extremists' ideological pitch, which gains bin Laden and other terrorist organizations a continual stream of fresh recruits.

The war against terrorism will be won only if this extremist ideology is defeated and discredited, just as the ideology of communism was during the Cold War. President Bush and his Cabinet, along with some other leaders such as Britain's Tony Blair, clearly understand this challenge; that is why they have placed so much emphasis on separating the terrorist enemy from the community of Muslims. But this week's events suggested how hard the struggle will be and also how far many of the Muslim governments are from being prepared for it. ...

The Bush administration has focused so far on winning the help of friendly Arab governments in shutting down al Qaeda's networks, and in forcing others to choose. But soon it must move to the harder task of inducing Muslim governments to answer bin Laden. They, and their state-supported clerics, can do so in part by broadcasting the truth about Islam. But ultimately message alone cannot win the war, just as one-sided concessions to the Palestinians and Iraq would not. Instead, Muslim countries will have to offer policies that promise economic progress and political liberty. Only that can trump the extremists' program of hate.

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