Washington, 8 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. congressman says it is an unwise and even dangerous foreign policy for the U.S. and other Western nations to equate Islam and extremism.
Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) made the statement Thursday in Washington during a forum at the U.S. State Department called "The Evolution of Extremism: A Viable Threat to U.S. National Security?"
Rohrabacher, who was once an adviser on Afghanistan to former President Ronald Reagan and traveled extensively in the country, says it is important to remember that most Muslims in the world are not extremists and instead take joy in promoting the fundamental beliefs of their religion which include tolerance, understanding, and non-violence.
Rohrabacher said it is unfortunate that extremist Muslim groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan and terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam heavily affect the way Western leaders and lawmakers think about the religion and its followers as a whole.
In terms of this affects U.S. foreign policy, Rohrabacher said that in the case of Afghanistan, it was America's poor understanding of Islam that contributed to the rise of the Taliban. He said the U.S. supported the wrong factions in Afghanistan and ended up funneling arms and money to virulently anti-Western and anti-U.S. forces.
Rohrabacher said: "I've been crying out on this issue, like a voice in the wilderness, for the past three years. And I have said that the Taliban's form of Muslim extremism does not reflect the (beliefs of the) people of Afghanistan. And, in fact, I will predict to you today, that the people of Afghanistan will not put up with the Taliban. The people of Afghanistan will not be told what to do ... And they will not let someone tell them what rules they can have for their families."
Rohrabacher said that as a result of this poor understanding of the dynamics of Islam and politics, the U.S. must now deal with the Islamic extremism of the Taliban, coupled with a billion dollars in narcotics trade. He added that he believes this will eventually become a potent destabilizing force in the region adversely affecting Pakistan and having a dramatic impact on the development of democracy in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.
Another speaker, Charles Fairbanks -- director of the Central Asia Institute at John Hopkins University -- said he believes Islamic extremism can best be described as "faith without information." He says that the rise of Islamic extremism is a reaction to the West and not a continuation of traditional Islamic teachings.
Fairbanks says part of the reason for the extremism is that Islam is clashing with the forces of modernity, much as Christianity did several hundred years ago.
"The victory of modernity led to an impoverishment of the religious tradition," he explained.
Fairbanks said that what is interesting about Islamic extremism today is that it tends to pick up modern Western misunderstandings of Islam and embrace them, putting a positive assessment on them.
Fairbanks said: "For example ... the frequent turning of Friday into a day of rest is not really Islamic, it is obviously an imitation of Sunday in Western countries. Also the great emphasis on many Islamic movements on subordination of women -- while there are certainly rules in the Islamic tradition -- this theme has a prominence (today) that is much greater...than it was in previous centuries."
Fairbanks also said the tendency for extremist Islamic movements today to embrace severe punishments such as the cutting off the hand of a thief is, in his opinion, a reaction to a Western image of Islam rather than an actual expression of Islamic teachings. He added that bloody acts of terror in the name of Islam are not outlined or supported in either Islamic tradition or religion.
Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America also spoke at the forum, saying that Islam opposes the use of violence in any form and that extremists are not acting in accordance with Islamic tradition or teachings.
Kabbani said it is an insult for the West to put all Muslims together and label them as extremists. He said a closer inspection of Islam would show that it is a tolerant religion whose true believers adhere to rules of non-violence and tolerance.
Kabbani echoed Fairbanks claims that many of today's leaders of various Muslim extremist movements are far removed for the real beliefs of the Islam religion.
Kabbani said: "These leaders of some of these countries -- they are trying to label themselves as the pioneers of Islam and use extremist ideology. (In fact,) they are themselves away from Islamic practices. And in their homes you can find every kind of non-Islamic material and non-Islamic works."
Kabbani added that practices embraced by some extremist Islamic movements such as stoning to death, repression of women, and executing people for adultery are simply not based in the Koran.
He concluded: "Islam is a religion of moderation, tolerance, love and being loved, and living in peace with all other faiths."