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Russia: Observers Comment On Arab Coverage Of Beslan Tragedy

Women wait during the raid Observers say they detect differences in the way the Arab media has covered the Russian school siege from previous terrorist attacks. The siege in Beslan in early September killed some 330 people. Considerable attention appears to have been focused on the victims -- many of whom were children -- rather than simply the terrorists and their causes.

Dubai, 14 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The mass killings in the southern Russian city of Beslan ended days ago, but Arab newspapers and columnists are still running articles and commentaries on the topic.

Jihad Khazen is a prominent columnist and former editor of the London-based "Al Hayat" newspaper. He said the Beslan siege has driven home the point that most terrorist acts in the world these days are carried out by Muslims. In his view, this should bring shame to all Arabs.

"At the moment, [this] seems to be true. There have been terrorists in the Balkans. There have been terrorists in Africa. At the moment, most of the terrorist acts are carried out by Muslim extremists, and this is -- apart from being a crime if nothing else -- it should be very embarrassing for Arabs and Muslims. We have some legitimate national causes, [but] no right will justify killing children. In fact, when you kill women and children, you take away from that right, you take away from that just cause, and this is what I think happened with the Chechen terrorists who killed the women and children in that school."

Mohammed Seyd Saeed, an Egyptian political analyst, says the school siege has elicited a stronger reaction this time because the victims were largely children.
Some Arab commentators have warned that the hostage-taking incident could signal a turning point in the Russian people's attitudes toward Arabs in general.

"Those are our own kids, not the kids of our enemy," Seyd Saeed commented. "All the kids in the world are our own as well. Kids and children, generally, have to be secured."

To be sure, there are many in the Arab world who accuse people like Khazen of having become propagandists or anti-Arab sentiment. Mohammad Salah, an Egyptian political analyst and a student of radical movements in the Middle East, said writers like Khazen have become part of an effort to portray Arabs as terrorists.

"In my opinion there is an argument about the image portrayed by Arab youth in Muslim countries and outside, and there is an attempt to slap them with charges of terrorism," Salah said. "There is a great effort in that and there are some Arab intellectuals and politicians participating in that, including analysts and journalists."

Salah said that while it is true that many suicide bombings are carried out by Arabs and Muslims, this is something to be proud of. He said, in his view, only deeply religious Muslims can become suicide bombers.

Some Arab commentators have warned that the hostage-taking incident could signal a turning point in the Russian people's attitudes toward Arabs in general.

Youssef Ibrahim, a veteran Middle East analyst, said that in the past, Russians have been able to distinguish between the Muslim separatist cause in Chechnya and the greater Arab world. Now, he said, that distinction might be blurring.

"Nothing has happened yet, but I assume that 144 million Russians now really hate the Arabs and Muslims altogether," Ibrahim said. "Certainly, they have rallied behind [Russian President Vladimir] Putin."

Ibrahim said it is the Arab people and not their governments that have been behind efforts to condemn the hostage taking. He said that is typical of the slowness with which Arab governments perform.

Ibrahim said comments condemning the hostage takers have been more vocal in countries like Egypt and Lebanon -- rather than in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. In the latter countries, he said, it is still taboo to criticize groups operating in the name of religion.