WAR ON TERROR: Target ideas, not gunmen
Youssef M. Ibrahim

In the long fight against Al Qaeda and company that lies ahead, it will be crucial to target ideas rather than gunmen. Gunmen, as the American saying goes, are a dime-a-dozen.

It is those planting the religious, political, or other rationale for murder in these young killers’ heads who are the culprits to go after. Those religious figures speaking in mosques on government-sponsored radio and television are giving license to kill in the name of God. Under the guise of their status, they promote bigotry against infidels, against Muslims, Jews, and Christians, intellectuals, secularists, and indeed anyone who disagrees with them. They, not only the gunmen, must be identified, singled out, and taken on or taken out.

When a group of masked men stand behind a helpless, bound victim invoking the name of God while they cut his head off, it must be asked which religious leader persuaded them that this atrocity, which shames Islam and all Muslims, was a ‘good’ deed.

When a bomb kills 30 or 40 Iraqi men, women, and children standing in line to seek a job or buy bread, one must ask what kind of religious or patriotic motivation justifies such murders.

When Israeli sniper-soldiers deliberately take aim and shoot at an ambulance carrying wounded Palestinians or kill a young boy in his father’s arms, we must ask which Rabbi told them they could do so in the name of God. And when Jewish zealots confiscate Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza because 3,000 years ago God promised it to them, we must ask which religious figure and what religion tolerates this kind of ethnic cleansing. And when Palestinian extremists detonate bombs killing innocent civilians, again, one must ask in the name of which God they did so?

Similarly, when American soldiers strip a man and put him on a leash to be dragged about a jail or ask a Muslim Iraqi prisoner to insult his religion, what honor code, what ideology, and what fanaticism got them there? It must be asked.

Radical, wrongful, religious thinking is not a Muslim monopoly. Bigotry comes in all colors and is found in all religions. Israel’s supreme court, the Pentagon, and indeed the White House, urged the torture of Iraqis and Palestinians.

This is done by nations that claim a higher moral ground. General Boykin, an assistant defense secretary in the Pentagon, publicly said Christians are superior to all other species. He has insulted Islam and the Prophet without reprimand. Osama Bin Laden, too, tells us he is the only one who really knows about God and we are all infidels if we do not believe what he believes.

Mind boggling, isn’t it? These religious, political, ideological commissars, these grand sheikhs, such as Qatar’s Youssef Al Karadawi, along with rabbis and the reverends who preach hate in the name of religion, are the true purveyors of poison.

Governments that give them quarters, support, and money, allow them to dictate school curricula and business practices, let them tell women and men how to dress or what to read, are giving away their own authority. What is a religious police other than a thought police? During the Inquisition, Catholics burned anyone who did not believe as they believed, producing one of Christianity’s darkest chapters.

Today we are witnessing one of Islam’s and Judaism’s darkest chapters. What is being done in the name of Islam in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Europe and what is being done in the name of Judaism in Palestine are war crimes, nothing less, nothing more. And we should call a spade a spade.

These rotten ideas can only be fought with ideas. If we allow people to ban books, if we continue to put liberals behind bars on charges of blasphemy, if we suppress debate within religious and cultural establishments on how to catch up with the twenty-first century, then we leave the field wide open to the crazed lot, and to the gunmen they breed.

Those who say there is no ‘moral equivalency’ between humiliating a whole Palestinian population, targeting civilians be they Westerners, Arabs, or Jews, are deluding themselves. Evil has no religion or nationality.

For Muslims, it is wise to heed the example of Malaysia, a Muslim modernist state, and that of the United Arab Emirates. Both are demonstrating that Muslim societies can be multiracial, multireligious, tolerant, and progressive all at the same time. Islam and modernity are not contradictory. This is the winning formula. Losers surround us even in the most progressive societies.

America won strictly military battles in Vietnam and in Iraq, but, in the end, lost the war of ideas, and, with that, hearts and minds. Our societies are now under a similar threat. If we do not fight those who are distorting Islam we will all be their victims.

Radical groups led by people like Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahri, and Abu Musab Al Zarkawi have no social programs to offer, no promise for any future. Killing is not a social project.

For this kind of fight you need religious and political leaders willing to stand up to other religious leaders spreading darkness and hatred, men and women of thought and courage. You need clerics who speak the truth. Above all, you need governments that stop saying everything is fine when the house in on fire.

Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times and energy editor of the Wall Street Journal, is managing director of the Dubai-based Strategic Energy Investment Group