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By Anwar Ibrahim

Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, is serving a 15-year jail sentence after a trial most observers believe was a political vendetta waged by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. This is followed by a commentary from Egyptian writer Gaber Askfour.

KUALA LUMPUR -- Never in Islam's entire history has the action 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 object of hatred and are now profiled as potential terrorists.

And 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 in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

The attack must be condemned, and the condemnation must be without reservation. The foremost Islamic 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 United States. In Malaysia, the government-controlled media have been deployed to stir anti-American sentiments, while members of the political elite use a different language for international diplomacy.

Certainly there are legitimate grievances against the United States 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 in 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 created civilizations, men of wealth created pious foundations supporting universities and hospitals. 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 proteges 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.

Muslim intellectuals and elites carry the enormous moral responsibility of stamping out terrorism in their midst, unless they want Islam to be demonized everywhere because of the outrageous acts of a small band of misguided faithfuls.

One must note also that these terrorists belong to the energetic and resourceful new professional class rather than the clerical class. Only when political space is provided for their genuine participation can their energies be channeled toward social progress. The need for Muslim communities to address their internal social and political development has become more urgent than ever. Economic development alone is clearly insufficient.

Economic development creates its own dynamics and tensions in the social and political spheres, which must be addressed.

Avenues must be provided for their expression.

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 whole world is against them that nurture desperation and bitterness among those who resort to terrorism.

Confusion and bitterness against the global order and its only superpower have been brought about by the failure of the Muslim world to address several crucial issues: Afghanistan's descent into chaos and anarchy as a result of Soviet invasion and occupation from 1979 to 1989; the rise of the Taliban following the expulsion of the Soviets; and the suffering inflicted on the Muslim masses in Iraq by its dictator as well as by sanctions.

For ethical reasons, Muslims will support the global initiative against terrorism. But there is a growing perception that autocrats in their midst will seize the opportunity to prop up their regimes and deal a severe blow to the nascent democratic movement.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia will use it to defend atrocities in Chechnya, Israel to reinforce its intransigence, and Malaysia to defend its draconian detentions without trial. Necessity will prompt the United States 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 to terrorism.

Thus, by softening its endorsement of the struggle for democracy and the restoration of human rights, the United States will inadvertently be strengthening dictatorial regimes, thus replicating past associations of America with the late Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, the former Indonesian strongman Suharto and the Shah of Iran. For more than a hundred years the Muslim world has had to grapple with the problem of modernity and the issue of its participation in the modern world. Of greatest urgency is the work to inculcate an intellectual temper and political orientation that promote democracy and openness. This work must be carried out with conviction and fervor.

Intellectuals and politicians must have the courage to condemn fanaticism in all its forms and reject fanatics who seek change through violent means. But they must, in the same breath, equally condemn tyrants and oppressive regimes that dash every hope of peaceful change.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 10/11/01)