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‘War on terror’ needs Muslims to be part of solution

by Mona Eltahawy

November 1, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Imagine for a moment a Muslim teenager somewhere in Europe, "with the Internet in his living room, the world in his mind and his heart torn apart by a million identities," as Swiss-born Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan described him.

How do you prevent that young Muslim from being lured by radical ideas? That was the question at the heart of a conference organized at The Hague recently by the Dutch national coordinator for counterterrorism.

The answer often depended on the religious background of the speaker. Muslims said historical grievances -- real or imagined -- that had left the Islamic world feeling wronged by the West must be tackled. The sense of being wronged, they said, fuels anger that could push a young Muslim into the arms of radicals.

Non-Muslim speakers said the gap between the values practiced inside the home of that European Muslim teenager and those practiced outside his front door were the points of vulnerabilities. The truth is somewhere in the middle and probably best understood by Muslims who live in the West.

Unfortunately, not enough of them were present to offer their solutions. Ramadan and I were the only ones on the conference list of speakers. One Dutch Muslim was co-chair of one event. Had more Western Muslims been invited to speak, they could have posed some questions -- about historical grievances, about values -- that would demand self-criticism from all of us.

Historical grievances are indeed important, but how far back should we go? The Spanish defeat of Muslims in 1492? The end of the Ottoman Empire in 1912? The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Palestinian dispossession? The European colonization of several Muslim countries during the 20th century? The two U.S.-led wars in Iraq, the second of which continues its bloody spiral to this day?

Radical groups are particularly fond of using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and numerous studies have shown what a jihadi magnet the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has become. It is foolishly dangerous to deny that.

Who can forget Shehzad Tanweer, the 22-year-old British-born-and-raised Muslim, who killed himself and six others in one of the suicide attacks on the London Underground on July 7, 2005? In a message he recorded before the attacks and aired on their anniversary a year later, Tanweer warned of more attacks in the United Kingdom unless it pulled its soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq and stopped its "financial and military aid to America and Israel."

But Muslims must acknowledge and take responsibility for the manipulation of historical grievances, as Osama bin Laden's latest message clearly shows. In an audio recording that appeared on a jihadi Web site during our conference, Bin Laden called on followers to go to Darfur to fight "Crusader invaders" -- by which he meant a U.N.-African peacekeeping force to be sent to the war-torn Sudanese region.

But here's the catch: Muslims are killing Muslims in Darfur. This is no Israeli occupation or U.S.-led invasion with which he inflames the masses. Bin Laden is manipulating the sheer ignorance among many Muslims about events in Darfur. And just as importantly, he is playing on grievances, which in this instance are only perceived.

The sad fact is that more Muslims today are dying at the hands of Muslims than by acts of Israelis, Americans or any other perceived enemies, whether it's from almost weekly suicide bombings in Pakistan, intra-Palestinian fighting or sectarian violence in Iraq.

History shows external influences have certainly been brutal in all those areas, but a clearer focus on the present could help Muslims realize it is not all about "us vs. them," but also "us vs. us."

It would be na?ve to deny that there is a problem over common values in Europe today. When Muslim men deny their wives treatment at the hands of male doctors in the emergency rooms of European hospitals, it's a problem. When young girls and women are considered "too Western" and murdered by their families for the sake of honor, of course it is a problem.

But it would be simplistic and prejudicial to assume that all Muslims share such views or values. Had more Western Muslims been invited to the conference to share their experiences -- dealing with radicalization or as liberals who identify with "European values" -- that diversity would have been made clearer.

At one point, frustrated by questions of "where are the moderate Muslims" from various European delegates -- one even said his country had invited a liberal group all the way from Indonesia, because they could not find one closer to home -- I offered to connect them with various "moderate," liberal and secular Muslim groups I had found throughout various countries on the continent. It was disheartening to think that I had found them while some from the counterterrorism community could not.

As Ramadan reminded the conference, preventative methods are bound to fail unless they include Muslims as part of the solution. To only view Muslims as potential radicals is the quickest way to alienate the very people needed to solve the problems.

The word "prevention" is not heard enough in the chatter over the "war on terror." So kudos to the Dutch for including it on their counterterrorism agenda.

They would be wise to also include European Muslims in future conferences on how best to promote that prevention.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

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