Never in Islam's history have the actions 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 objects of hatred and are now profiled as potential terrorists. 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 and the Pentagon. The attacks must be condemned, and the condemnation must be without reservation. The foremost 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 U.S. In Malaysia, the government-controlled media have been deployed to stir up anti-American sentiments, while members of the political Elite use a different language for international diplomacy. Certainly there are legitimate grievances against the U.S. 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 U.S. foreign policy. Had we Malaysians been the victims of 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 forged civilizations, men of wealth created pious foundations supporting universities and hospitals, and 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 protégés 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.
The need for Muslim societies to address their internal social and political development has become more urgent than ever. Economic development alone is clearly insufficient: it creates its own tensions in the social and political spheres, which must be addressed. 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 world is against them that nurture bitterness among those who resort to terrorism. Confusion and anger against the global order and its only superpower have been brought about by the failure of the Muslim world to address two crucial issues: Afghanistan's descent into chaos and anarchy as a result of the Soviet invasion and the subsequent rise of the Taliban, and the suffering inflicted on the Muslim masses in Iraq by its dictator as well as by sanctions imposed on that long-suffering nation.
For ethical reasons, Muslims will support the global initiative against terrorism. But there is a growing perception that autocrats of all types will seize the opportunity to prop up their regimes and deal a severe blow to democratic movements. Russian President Vladimir Putin will use it to defend atrocities in Chechnya, Israel to defend its intransigence and Malaysia its detentions without trial.
Necessity will prompt the U.S. 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. By softening its endorsement of the struggle for democracy and the protection of human rights, the U.S. will inadvertently strengthen dictatorial regimes, thus replicating past associations with Marcos, Suharto and the Shah of Iran.
For more than 100 years, the Muslim world has had to grapple with the problem of modernity. Of greatest urgency is the effort to inculcate an intellectual and political orientation that promotes democracy and openness. Intellectuals and politicians must have the courage to condemn fanaticism in all its forms. But they must, in the same breath, equally condemn the tyrants and oppressive regimes that dash every hope of peaceful change.
According to Anwar Ibrahim's lawyer, this essay will be part of a lawsuit that Anwar, the jailed former Deputy Prime Minister, plans to file this week against the Malaysian government for alleged defamation resulting from a state-owned TV broadcast that he says characterized him as an Islamic extremist and a threat to national security.