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Not all militant Islamic groups are out to get America

We shouldn't lump all terrorist groups into one. Many have political motivations that have nothing to do with the United States.

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002


Since that awful September day, millions of words have been written and spoken about the 19 hijackers -- men of mostly Saudi or Egyptian nationality who belonged to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

All but overlooked is who the hijackers were not. There were no Palestinians among them. Nor Kashmiris, nor Chechens nor Chinese separatists from Xinjiang Province. Although each of these groups is largely Muslim in makeup, there is no evidence they had anything to do with the U.S. terrorist attacks or that they bear any murderous hatred for America.

Still, the idea persists that there is a monolithic force called "militant Islamic fundamentalism." And since Sept. 11, it has given rise to the related idea that all militant Islamic groups spring from the same ideological roots as al-Qaida and must have the same insidious aim -- to destroy America's democratic way of life and indeed all of Western civilization.

"Militant Islamic fundamentalism is a phenomenon that seeks to impose its sovereignty around the world," Steven Emerson, producer of the 1994 film Jihad in America, said in a recent speech in St. Petersburg.

Is that a realistic notion? Or is it a simplistic view that makes the United States ill-prepared to recognize and deal with what may be legitimate political movements, albeit movements that sometimes use violence?

Consider the case in China, a country that before Sept. 11 was rarely mentioned in the same breath as Islam. Trying to justify its brutal treatment of Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang, China announced last week that that some had been trained and financed by al-Qaida.

"That movement was going on long before Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida," says Richard Bulliet, former director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. "The Chinese are trying to do exactly this sort of condemnation by association. Al-Qaida has become a tar baby that if you touch it, you're stuck with it.

"I certainly don't want to create the impression that there is good terrorism and bad terrorism, because I think all terrorism is bad. But there are also just causes and unjust causes. If you dismiss the possibility that a particular cause may be just and may have some legitimate claim to international sympathy because you can now attach it to al-Qaida -- which has no claim to international sympathy -- that is political trickery and I deplore it."

China is by no means the only country that has found it helpful to try and link a localized Muslim group to al-Qaida.

India has managed to downplay its own substantial role in the turmoil in Kashmir by blaming Muslim extremists purportedly associated with bin Laden's network. And Russia has effectively silenced U.S. criticism of its treatment of Muslim separatists in Chechnya by claiming they are financed by al-Qaida.

"If you say that all organizations that happen to have Muslims in them are categorically bad because they are like or are part of al-Qaida, then you are simply saying that in the Muslim world fighting for a cause is not permitted," Bulliet says.

Bulliet and others note that many non-Muslim groups have also used violence in fighting what they see as repressive regimes. Catholics and Protestants battling over control of Northern Ireland have been killing each for decades. The African National Congress engaged in armed struggle against South Africa's white apartheid government. And before Israel's 1948 independence, the Jewish underground group Irgun used kidnappings, bombings and assassinations to retaliate against Arab attacks and drive the British out of Palestine.

Yet from these violent acts grew the seeds of constructive change. Martin McGuinness, a reputed leader of the Irish Republican Army, is now education minister in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. Nelson Mandela, a founder of the ANC's military wing, went on to become a Nobel Prize winner and South Africa's first black president. And Menachem Begin, the Irgun commander, later served as Israel's prime minister and signed the historic peace treaty with Egypt.

One of the best known and controversial causes in the world today is the Palestinian struggle for statehood. Not surprisingly, some of the most energetic attempts to link al-Qaida with other Muslim groups have centered on two Palestinian organizations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In his speech on Islamic terrorism, Emerson repeatedly mentioned Islamic Jihad and charged that an Islamic institute and charity that operated at the University of South Florida until 1995 were actually "fronts" for the Palestinian terrorist group. (A federal immigration judge, after examining secret evidence and holding a week-long public hearing, concluded that both organizations were legitimate.)

There is no arguing that Islamic Jihad, like Hamas, has engaged in horrific acts of violence against Israeli citizens in an effort to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But there is little to suggest that either Hamas or Islamic Jihad had anything to do with Sept. 11 or poses any significant threat outside of a fairly small, though crucial, area of the Middle East.

"It would be politically irrational for a Palestinian to attack the United States when it is universally believed by Palestinians that without the United States there is no hope for any settlement," says Bulliet. "For Palestinians to participate in acts against Israel is deplorable when those acts take innocent lives, but it is a rationally political calculation."

John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, thinks pro-Israel groups and scholars are trying to tie the Palestinian organizations to al-Qaida as a way of cementing Israel's alliance with the United States.

It is in their interest to foster the idea that "there is kind of a militant Muslim monolith out there and that Israel is the only friend the United States has in the region," Esposito says. "I think Israel is an important and strong friend, but on the other hand so are Arab and Muslim countries simply because of their magnitude and resources, which include oil. So in terms of American national interest, it is important not to get into this kind of false dichotomist view."

Pro-Israel scholars like Martin Kramer, however, argue that Esposito, Bulliet and many other U.S. academics are little more than apologists for corrupt, undemocratic Arab regimes, and that they failed to see the threat from Islamic militancy.

"The academics remain in a state of denial," Kramer wrote last month in the Wall Street Journal. "They refuse to acknowledge that their paradigms collapsed with the twin towers. But the record of failure exacts no price. Ironically, the very same professors who helped to anesthetize America to the danger of radical Islam are enjoying a windfall. Their phones don't stop ringing, their books sell briskly and their courses fill to overflowing. . . . But as we begin to ask why the country was so unprepared, one conclusion is inescapable: The academics are part of the problem, not the remedy."

Esposito counters that Kramer is trying to promote his own book, recently published by a Washington D.C. think tank affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. And, Esposito notes, no one -- including Steven Emerson in his 1994 Jihad in America -- came anywhere close to predicting the events and magnitude of Sept. 11.

"Many of us were writing about extremism in the Muslim world and that Osama bin Laden was responsible for acts of terrorism, but nobody expected this kind of attack when they did it and the way the did it," Esposito says. "It's not just a majority of academics didn't predict it, but government didn't predict it. I don't think people like Emerson and others should be given any sort of exaggerated credit or seen as particularly prescient."

James Bill, a Middle East expert at the College of William & Mary, says one major problem with trying to tie every militant Muslim group to al-Qaida is that so little is known about al-Qaida itself.

"I think we are flying in the dark on a lot of this. Our information is secondhand on a lot of these organizations in Afghanistan -- there are 345 different tribes in Afghanistan, we don't speak their languages very well, we rely on information from informants who tell us what we want to hear. We have to improve our intelligence -- we have a lot of firepower, I'm not sure how much brain power we have."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

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