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The need to speak up

Oct 11th 2001 From The Economist print edition

Faith cannot flourish without tolerance. Some extremist Islamists threaten to destroy both


AMERICA and its allies are right to emphasise that their struggle against Osama bin Laden and his supporters is not a war against Islam. They must keep on saying it, not only because the claim is expedient—the fight will be much more difficult to win without the backing of moderate Muslims—but also because it is true.

The West has no quarrel with Islam. The West is secular, but this does not mean that it frowns upon religion in general, or on any religion in particular. Quite the opposite: the West values and protects all manner of religious belief. Millions of Muslims live in the West, and their right to worship as they see fit is a freedom which the allies ranged against al-Qaeda recognise as second to none. In other words, the West can live in peace with Islam. What is unclear is whether Islam can live in peace with the West.

Many Muslims in many parts of the world flatly say it cannot. The anti-western and specifically anti-American rage that animates the most militant strands of Muslim fundamentalism brooks no compromise. In his video broadcast this week Mr bin Laden took care to link the attacks on the United States with American support for Israel and the American military presence in Saudi Arabia, doubtless intending to suggest that, if those grievances were addressed, amity might prevail between Islam and the Great Satan. But if that is how you see the world, amity seems unlikely.

Militant Islam despises the West not for what it does but for what it is. If American “imperialism” were the principal bone of contention, why should the United States be so much more despised than the Soviet Union ever was, or than Russia still is, despite the fact that Russia rules over millions of Muslims who would rather not be its subjects? Europe, not America, you might argue, had “imperial” ambitions in the Middle East even after independent states had been created in the region: America crushed those ideas by humiliating Britain and France during the Suez crisis of 1956. Israel notwithstanding, America's supposed crimes of foreign policy in the region are utterly incommensurate with the hatred directed against it.

The truth is, America is despised mainly for its success; for the appealing and, critics would say, corrupting alternative it presents to a traditional Islamic way of life; and for the humiliation which many Muslims feel when they consider the comparative failure, in material terms, of their once-mighty civilisation. It helps Arab governments no doubt to blame that failure on outsiders. Plenty of western intellectuals are happy to agree that the economic plight of North Africa and the Middle East is more to do with American oppression than with its real, domestic, causes. (Causes that do not include Islam, by the way: blame decades of socialism followed by statism, corruption and incompetence.) Yet to think this way—to see the West as an infidel oppressor and capitalist exploiter, rather than as a partner with whom a fruitful friendship is possible—is to rule out all possibility of peaceful coexistence. Arab leaders and their western apologists should reflect on that.

Still, Muslims who think the West must be fought and defeated are not going to be bombed into changing their minds, that's for sure. And they are probably not going to be talked into changing their minds by outsiders. They themselves must examine their own history, and that of the West, if they are to see how an accommodation might be reached. Common ground will be hard to find unless most Muslims can deplore, in their hearts, apologies of any kind, active or passive, for the killings of September 11th. On the other hand, if the fundamentalist view of the West gains ground, people in the West might conceivably be bombed into changing their minds—that is, into agreeing with Mr bin Laden that this is a war of civilisations that must be fought and won. A horrifying thought.

Say it loud In all this, a particular responsibility falls on Muslims in the West. Most such Muslims, and nearly all of their leaders, have denounced the acts of September 11th in plain words. At the same time, they have spoken of their concerns for non-Taliban Muslims as the military actions against Afghanistan continue. That too is as it should be. But some Muslims in the West, a loud and therefore disproportionately audible minority, continue to speak for the fundamentalists, explaining and even trying to justify the crimes of September 11th.

It is crucial that the moderate Muslim majority deplores those views out loud, and publicly repudiates the people who espouse them. Any idea that loyalty to brothers in the faith must inhibit such criticism should be rejected. Mr bin Laden and his defenders are not championing Islam, they are defaming it. And without the tolerance that the terrorists seek to smash, no faith can hope to flourish in peace in this world.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 15, 2001

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