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South Slavic: November 15, 2001

15 November 2001, Volume 3, Number 38


This week, we bring you an interview with Ferid Muhic, a professor from Skopje and lecturer at several American universities, as well as the University of Kuala Lumpur. He stresses that a jihad is a fight against Muslims' own bad side, not a struggle against nonbelievers. Branka Mihajlovic of RFE/RL's South Slavic Service conducted this interview on 10 October.

RFE/RL: Tonight, Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization Al-Qaeda issued an appeal to all Muslims urging them to wage a "holy war" against America. Professor Ferid Muhic now talks with us about the meaning of this appeal, the extent of support for the Taliban's extremism in the Islamic world, and the possibility that the world could become polarized if the military campaign continues indefinitely.

Muhic: The idea that Afghanistan declares war on the United States of America cannot be seen as anything but pure dreaming on the part of those think this way.

RFE/RL: Do you actually claim that there is no dangerous terrorist network behind bin Laden that could be activated by his appeal?

Muhic: There might be a network behind him. However, considering the disproportion of the respective forces, it would be nonsense to call this a war. At the most, bin Laden can muster up to 2,000 fanatics, who will sooner or later commit suicide....

RFE/RL: What is the impact of his message in the Islamic world?

Muhic: I think that the reaction of the Islamic world now depends more on the response and prudence of the United States of America and its allies, rather than on anything bin Laden or any of the Taliban might say.

The point is that any connection between the Taliban or bin Laden on the one hand, and the Islamic world on the other -- except for the broader aspect of their shared Islam -- is not worth mentioning.

Who follows the Taliban's lead? Do Malaysia or Indonesia have any political, cultural, or any other strategic connection with them? No, nothing. Quite the contrary. For example, the Taliban's destroying of Buddhist monuments was harshly condemned by all the Muslims in the world, even by those in Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.

RFE/RL: Talking about the protests in those countries whose governments are more or less supporting the international fight against terrorism, do those protests indicate support for bin Laden or just disagreement with the use of force against Afghanistan?

Muhic: I would opt for the second possibility. What I mean is that those protests are the result of revulsion over an attack by a very powerful country on a very weak one. It would have been better had a political solution been pursued and adequate proof shown of who was behind the actions in New York and Washington.

RFE/RL: What about the Islamic countries? Are they strong enough to oppose and suppress their own extremists?

Muhic: That is another good question. I do not think that extremism in the Islamic countries -- with the exception of Afghanistan -- represents a real danger. Extremism is not typical of the Muslim world, so one should not make too much of it.

What is needed is better communication, and not a Manichaean division of the world into the forces of good and the forces of the evil. This hatred of Islam threatens to spread throughout much of the civilized world.

RFE/RL: Professor Muhic, do you expect Islamic religious leaders and intellectuals to distance themselves from the abuse of the term jihad by extremists? Many of those competent to talk about the Koran claim that what we have here is a misinterpretation, because jihad does not really mean a holy war in terms of armed resistance.

Muhic: They have been distancing themselves for quite some time, but, at the same time, under the impact of media propaganda and the antagonisms in this divided world, one forgets that jihad really does not mean a war against all those belonging to other religions.

Quite the contrary, this is very clearly and explicitly explained at least four times in the Koran. According to the Koran, there cannot be coercion in religion, and any sort of coercion against another religion is actually considered a sin committed by the one who did it.

RFE/RL: Does that mean that anyone who calls for a holy war in terms of terrorist attacks is actually abusing the Koran?

Muhic: Absolutely. And more than abusing, he is actually falsifying it. First of all, jihad is a fight against our own negative side and vice. Therefore, it is a call for us to purify ourselves and bring our own moral standards up to a higher level of purity, not only the way our hands and face can be clean, but the way the soul is pure.

RFE/RL: How stable are the governments of the Islamic countries supporting the international antiterrorist coalition? Could they be threatened in the event that the bombing of Afghanistan lasts a long time?

Muhic: They could be threatened. Their stability is partly dependent on an international correlation of forces in which they have little say. Today's world can be roughly divided into the powerful West and the largely powerless Rest.

RFE/RL: Is there a kind of coalition among the states that do not support America?

Muhic: That would not be good or at all productive. Such a polarization seems possible, but it would bring no good.

RFE/RL: It seems that the most delicate situation is in Pakistan.

Muhic: America's influence is immense. It is not easy to say "no" [to it] at a moment like this. But it is not easy to say "yes," either.

Pakistan is put to the test for several reasons. It is the only Islamic country with a nuclear bomb. This is what makes it -- in a manner of speaking -- the most powerful Islamic country. But it is also a prisoner of its geography. If Pakistan yields to American pressure and attacks its neighbor, it will still have to live with Afghanistan as its neighbor in the future.

This is what makes the position of the Pakistani government very difficult. I think that it would be difficult to find any single person -- starting with President Musharraf on down through the entire political leadership -- who could find an easy approach to dealing with America's request for support.

As to the other Islamic countries, they could produce the extreme reaction desired by some Western hawks if the war drags on and civilian casualties mount.

RFE/RL: America is carrying out this operation with two messages. One is that this is a war against the terrorists, not against Islam. The other is that no one can remain neutral.

Muhic: That is the arrogance I have alluded to. To say that no one can remain neutral, that we must all choose sides -- that is absolutely arrogant. This approach denies others their sovereign right to choose.

The message that this is not a war against Islam certainly must be taken very seriously. It would a huge mistake if the war were against Islam, because there are no grounds for that.