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World: Experts Warn Of Danger In Alienating Muslims In War On Terror

A Muslim woman demonstrates in Britain (AFP) In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States by Islamic extremists, the United States has sought to wage a "war on terror" while avoiding the perception that it is hostile to Islam. The effort has not always been successful, and public opinion in a number of predominantly Muslim countries remains hostile toward the West in general, and the United States in particular. For their part, extremist or terrorist groups have sought to portray U.S.-led efforts as a Western "war on Islam." Experts on Islam warn that the resulting anger in the Muslim world needs to be countered -- both in the West and in Islamic society.

20 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A number of Muslim governments joined U.S.-led efforts to fight terrorism in the wake of the devastating attacks against the United States in September 2001.

But over the next four years, some of those alliances have been tested. First, the United States led an invasion army to root out Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan and topple the Islamic fundamentalists who had been harboring it. Less than two years later, the United States assembled a "coalition of the willing" to wage war in Iraq and topple its long-time dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Martin van Bruinessen is a professor of Islamic Studies at International Institute for the Study of Islam in Leiden, in the Netherlands. He says the view is widespread that Washington and its allies have in fact embarked on a war against Islam.

"You have, of course, extremists, and the vast majority of Muslims do not agree with the methods of extremists," he said. "But there is a very large constituency that supports at least the aims of extremists. If you'd ask average people in the streets anywhere in Pakistan, Indonesia, [or] any Arab country about Israel or about present occupation of Iraq, I think the vast majority would say that the occupying force has to leave."

Such a view begs the question: If so many Muslims oppose Western policy, can the war on terror be won without their active participation?

Andrei Piontkovsky, a prominent Russian political analyst, warns against thinking it can: "Anyone who saw jubilant crowds in the streets of the Muslim world on 11 September 2001 would say 'No!' It might sound banal, but the war against radical Islam -- the 'fascist Islam' as [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush correctly named this phenomenon -- can be won only as a war for the minds and hearts of the Muslim people."

Experts like Piontovsky stress that the battle for trust in no easy task.

Critics argue that U.S. policy on Iraq has created a hotbed of terrorism in a country that was run by a dictator, but was secular and had no global terrorism network. The current insurgency in Iraq breeds global terrorism, according to the International Institute for the Study of Islam's Van Bruinessen.

Piontkovsky agrees, and says that current economic and social difficulties in many Muslim societies make the problem more acute. "What is important is that many people have begun adopting these ideas," he said. "At the roots of youth protests are real social problems -- such as massive unemployment, total corruption of authorities, police terror. They adopt contagious Islamic slogans. This process is similar to those in the 20th century, when people were marching under communist banners and with catchy slogans in order to express their social discontent."

Nedzad Grabus is in the faculty on Islamic studies at the University of Sarajevo. He says misinterpretation and misinformation about Islam in the West adds to the problem, and fosters negative perceptions of Muslims in non-Muslim societies.

"Political, cultural, economic, and other problems which exist in the modern world, in my opinion, cannot be narrowed down to the religious one," he said. "I, as a Muslim, cannot accept the fact that Islam is seen and presented as a possible threat and a source of misunderstanding among people. Extremely negative examples are presented in the media. Not very often will you hear any positive examples of tolerance and mutual understanding between Muslims and others."

So, what can be done to strengthen the dialogue between predominantly Muslim and Western civilizations?

Shukhrat Ismoilov of Uzbekistan's State Committee for Religious Affairs says Muslims should take an active role in preventing extremists from invoking Islamic ideals: "The war on terror will bring no result if Muslims and non-Muslims don't make unified efforts together -- regardless their ethnicity, citizenship, race, or gender. Muslims should be particularly active in the war on terror, as Muslims know that they are not allowed to shed blood, to commit suicide, or kill others. They understand that these actions are sinful. Therefore, it is Muslims' duty to explain these to [non-Muslims]."

Rostar Taraki, a former professor of law and politics at Kabul University, agrees that Muslims should help combat terrorism. He adds that Islamic groups should also be allowed to have their say in the world politics.

"If Islamic organizations are given adequate political representation through democratic means, I think that will be the only way for international powers to combat terrorism," he said. "Most Islamic parties are deprived of political power or given less chances. So I can say in response to your question that without broad political participation of Islamic parties, the war against terrorism would be meaningless."

Will the world witness a deepening rift between Muslim and Western societies, and increasing anti-Americanism?

Professor Van Bruinessen from the Netherlands says the answer depends largely on the West's policy toward Muslims. In his words, "much of the contemporary terrorism is a direct response to Western policy."

(Compiled by Gulnoza Saidazimova with contributions from RFE/RL's Russian, Uzbek, Afghan, and South Slavic and Albanian Language Services.)

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