How Terrorists Hijacked Islam
by Jessica Stern
USA TODAY (c. October 1, 2001)

For the past 4 years, I have been interviewing violent religious extremists all over the world. They subscribe to every religion and are found in nearly every country. But only Muslim extremists have managed to generate a large following.

Charismatic leaders, misreading religious texts, find arguments to justify holy war against anyone or any country believed to be promoting a purported ''anti-Islam agenda,'' in Osama bin Laden's words. And socioeconomic conditions have made a large pool of young men susceptible to the argument that they can best serve Allah by donating their lives to the cause. Although wealthy young men also are drawn to ''holy war,'' it is predominantly the poor and deprived who serve as cannon fodder.

Fighting such extremism requires understanding that this is a war not between Islam and the West, but between certitude and open-mindedness, dogma and thought, prejudice and tolerance. These are points President Bush has made repeatedly. Military might alone cannot win this war because we are fighting a movement, not a state, not even just a network.

How can we fight this scourge, spread around the world in tiny pockets of fury and pain?

We first need to remember that extremists thrive on festering conflicts such as those in the Middle East, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Kashmir. They also flourish when economies collapse and when states fail to provide basic services. In Afghanistan, for example, the literacy rate is around 25%, the child mortality rate is among the world's highest, and only a few have access to safe water, sanitation, health care and public education. Bin Laden has helped to fill this void, becoming a major benefactor to the people of Afghanistan, now a kind of ''Jihad U.''

Use more than force to win

Of course, if we can find a way to use military force to deter terrorist attacks, we should do so. But if we are serious about winning this war, we need a multi-pronged approach. We will have to emphasize international intelligence cooperation, the extradition and prosecution of terrorist suspects in our courts, and the interception of extremist groups' funding.

Education and economic assistance must be part of our arsenal. Pakistan's inadequate public-education system, for example, encourages poor families to send their children to extremist religious schools, where they are taught to view fighting in Afghanistan as a religious duty. And by financing and training the Afghan mujahedin during its war with the Soviet Union, the United States ended up leaving the region awash with guns, drugs and mujahedin, who are still seeking new jihads to fight. It is in our interest to help give these young men real alternatives in this world -- not just the next.

A grotesque distortion

Most importantly, we need to think about how to undermine the appeal of these terrorist groups. Most Islamic scholars interpret jihad as the striving for justice (and principally an inner striving to purify the self). But extremists equate jihad with total war. Islam strictly prohibits targeting innocent civilians, yet these extremists developed convoluted arguments to justify murdering women and children. Religious scholars need to get out the message loud and clear that bin Laden's version of Islam is a grotesque distortion of their faith. Those scholars should be speaking out, not just in the U.S., but all over the world, too.

Religion has two sides. One is spiritual: It unifies people, transcending national and religious boundaries. The other side is all about boundaries: To be Catholic is to be not Protestant; to be Christian is to be non-Muslim; to be Muslim is to be not Jewish. Extremists focus on the divisive aspect of religion and ignore its spiritual, universal aspects.

Let's not fall into the same trap.

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Jessica Stern, a public policy lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and an adjunct fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of The Ultimate Terrorists.  
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© Copyright 2001 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc


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