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By Mahathir bin Mohamad

Mahathir Mohamad is the prime minister of Malaysia.

KUALA LUMPUR -- In the aftermath of the villainous attacks in New York and Washington by terrorists, the world, including the Muslim world, is being asked to join in a coalition against terrorism. And the world should -- the Muslim world included -- join the coalition because terrorism is evil, and good people, innocent people everywhere, of all faiths and creeds, are the victims. No one is safe from acts of terrorism, as evidenced by the 50-plus nationalities killed in the World Trade Center in New York.

But so far what we see is not a fight against terrorism as such but a fight to eliminate, or to bring to justice, those who had collaborated or are associated with the particular terrorists who attacked New York and Washington. Is the coalition intended to be against only these people, or is it really a fight against terrorism and terrorists in general?

This question is relevant because modern, sophisticated terrorist attacks have been with us for the past 50 years or so, and a huge number of people have lived in fear and suffered grievously from these attacks.

If the coalition is to be limited to hunting the collaborators of the Sept. 11 attacks only, then can there be full-hearted support from everyone, including those who have suffered, are still suffering and will continue to suffer from terrorist attacks?

Some will say that, compared to what happened on Sept. 11, the other incidents are minor, hardly qualifying as acts of terror. But can we consider ethnic cleansing by the Serbs, resulting in 200,000 Bosnians being tortured, raped and killed; the murder of Palestinians and Chechens, including children; numerous hijackings and systematic assassinations; the rocket assaults on civilians by Israel; and the resultant killing of Israelis by human bombs minor? Can we consider the kidnapping and beheading of tourists acceptable?

Surely many countries will not join the coalition if it is only meant to avenge and to destroy the terror organization apparently involved in the attack on Sept. 11. If we want everyone to join a coalition against terrorists, we must make it clear that our fight is not only against certain terrorists but against all terrorists and terrorism everywhere.

To do this, we must be able to define who are terrorists. We know that many who were described as terrorists in the past are now respectable people, even leaders of independent countries. The leaders of the Stern Gang and the Irgun Zvai Leumi of Israel, Jomo Kenyata and Robert Mugabe of Africa and others were described as terrorists before, but now sit and dine with kings and presidents. The Irish Republican Army is regarded by the British as a terrorist organization, but many Americans think of them as freedom fighters worthy of financial support. While most terrorists are people with no legitimate standing, some are actually government officers and employees tasked with acts of terror.

Osama bin Laden was supported by the United States before, not then regarded as a terrorist. But he is so regarded now. I need not mention the many Latin American leaders who carried out a reign of terror in their countries, installed and supported by foreign governments.

We have a need therefore to distinguish between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Otherwise we will deprive people wishing to free themselves from foreign occupation or terrorist governments of their rights to fight for their own salvation.

The best way to identify terrorists is through the enormity of the acts they perpetrate. Where people have a right to change governments through legitimate means, for example, by winning majority support in a democracy, acts of violence and the use of force are not justified. Acts that put fear in the hearts of ordinary people must be regarded as terror and the people concerned must be regarded as terrorists.

But when there are no means of redress, violence may be used to fight oppressive regimes or foreign governments. Even then there must be a limit to the violence used. Certain acts must be considered as acts of terror and the perpetrators considered as terrorists who should be outlawed and hunted down.

War is about killing people, yet killing by the use of poison gas is proscribed by international law. If in war certain acts are illegal, then in the fight for freedom or against injustice, acts that terrorize innocent people must be illegal also. Thus hijacking aircrafts, exploding bombs in public places, the use of chemical and biological weapons, deliberate genocide, the use of gas and other lethal substances must be classified as terroristic and their users must be classified as terrorists.

Once we have defined terrorism and determined who is a terrorist and who is not, then the whole world can participate seriously and wholeheartedly in a hunt for terrorists, no matter who they are, where they are and what particular acts of terror they are involved in. Countries that are the targets of terror should have the right to take legal action against terrorists no matter where they are apprehended. There should perhaps be an agreed code on the punishment of terrorists.

Once we have agreed on these important issues and the operation mounted is against all terrorists, including governments that commit acts of terror, the Muslim world should have no hesitation about joining the coalition and going all out to track the terrorists and to act against them. This is not to say that none in the Muslim world is participating in the hunt for terrorists now. But its participation would be more relevant, because Muslims are the most frequent victims of and have suffered the most from acts of terrorism.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 11/5/01)