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World: Muslims In The West Are Talking, But Is Anyone Listening?

  • Don Hill

In Saudi Arabia, six prominent Muslim clerics go on television to denounce deadly attacks by Muslim extremists on Westerners there. In the United States, an interfaith group calling itself "FaithfulAmerica.org" raises thousands of dollars from ordinary citizens to buy time on Arab television networks to apologize for what they call the "sinful" behavior of U.S. soldiers in Iraq prisons. These could be welcome words on both sides of the world. But knowledgeable observers say, first, that these sentiments are nothing new, and, second, that they are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Prague, 18 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The most recent deadly attacks on foreigners in Saudi Arabia drew an angry response this week from a group of six Muslim clerics there.

Also this week, an interfaith group in the United States said it has raised thousands of dollars to buy 30-second spots on the Arab television networks Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah to apologize to the Muslim world for what the group calls "sinful and systemic" abuses by the U.S. military in Abu Ghurayb and other Iraq prisons.

It might seem as though a new attitude of civility is entering the discourse between well-meaning Westerners and Muslim moderates. To the editor of the "Views and Analysis" page of the website "Islam Online," however, the words say nothing new.

Azizuddin el-Kaissouni says that Muslim nations have more and longer experience as victims of Islamic terrorism than do countries in the West, and a long record of opposing terror attacks.
"Some groups in the Muslim world try to use the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq as proof that America is waging war against Muslims." -- Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the U.S.-based Islamic Institute


"We've obviously had our own run-ins with domestic terrorism around the Muslim world. Egypt and several other countries have had their own experiences fighting Islamic insurgencies and that, in a sense, necessitated that a large body of criticism be directed at the [belief system] that motivates these groups," el-Kaissouni says.

In a telephone interview from his base in Egypt, he tells RFE/RL's correspondent that -- although Westerners seem not to notice -- mainstream Muslims have been condemning terrorism since the 11 September 2001, attacks and long before.

"In the aftermath of 11 September you had an international outflow on behalf of Muslims condemning terrorism in general and attempting to distance mainstream Islam from the terrorist attacks of 11 September as much as possible. And in fact, it has colored much of the discourse I think between Muslim groups and the West over the past several years, in the sense that there's almost an obligation on the part of any Muslim who makes a statement or represents a significant movement or organization to attempt to denounce terrorism as a whole," el-Kaissouni says.

In the United States, Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the U.S.-based Islamic Institute, says that some Muslims and some non-Muslims share a conviction that there is a war under way between the two groups. Saffuri says he is convinced, however, that majorities in both groups do not believe this.

"Some groups in the Muslim world try to use the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq as proof that America is waging war against Muslims. And the majority [of Muslims] did not buy it. But there's a big chunk of Muslims that believe that America is engaged in [such a] war. By the same token, some right-wing reporters in the U.S. and organizations say that Islam and Muslims `are waging war against us' and a small group of Americans are buying it," Saffuri says.

El-Kaissouni agrees. He says that Muslim protestations of horror of terrorism are not heard nor are they noticed in the West.

"Here at my job on the website, we receive a lot of feedback from our audience in the West and this has been a consistent theme in many of the e-mails we receive -- questions along the lines of, 'Why have the Muslims not denounced terrorism? Why have they not stood up and condemned it if they are, in fact, innocent of supporting terrorism.' We've repeatedly tried to clarify the stance in terms of our website and in terms of Islamic organizations and Islamic intellectuals, who have repeatedly condemned [terrorism]. And, again, it does seem to be falling on deaf ears," el-Kaissouni says.

Steven A. Cook is a fellow of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, specializing in Arab politics and U.S. Middle East policy. He says appeals like FaithAmerica's Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah television spots, while well intentioned, will likely have little impact.

"Because the credibility of the United States in the region right now is so low, I'm not sure than anything that is coming from the United States -- even if they are ads that are placed on Al-Jazeera -- will be regarded as anything more than government propaganda -- U.S. government propaganda. Even with the recognition that these are private groups getting together to place these ads, we've been so tainted by the situation and the way that it has developed in both Iraq and in the Israel-Palestine situation, that virtually anything we do has been dismissed by Arab publics as little more than propaganda," Cook says.

"Islam Online's" el-Kaissouni says Arabs feel so flooded with U.S. propaganda that they automatically close their ears to anything purporting to be information from the United States. He cites, for example, a U.S. State Department-funded magazine called "Hi." The full-color magazine was to acquaint readers in the Muslim world with U.S. culture and the lives of Muslims there. When it hit the newsstands in 2003, he says, it remained on the newsstands. "Almost nobody bought it," he says.
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