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Arab Commentators Examine Terrorism, Islam Link - 2004-09-09

The violent hostage-taking at a school in Russia last week blamed on Chechen terrorists has sparked condemnation from the Arab media in the Middle East. Commentators have launched a debate on the essence of Islam and its links to terrorism.

The Russian government identifies the terrorists who seized and eventually blew up a large school in the Russian town of Beslan as Chechen nationalists. Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim region in southwestern Russia. The government initially said some of the attackers were Arabs, but that has now been withdrawn.

Still, Arabic newspapers have devoted many pages to the atrocity, with several analysts and commentators bemoaning the apparent link between Islam and terrorism in Russia and elsewhere, and challenging the Muslim world to engage in greater self-analysis and self-criticism.

Writing in the pan-Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on Wednesday, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Al-Arabiya news channel, said that "It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims."

Mr. al-Rashed accused what he called "neo-Muslims" of corrupting the real message of Islam, which he described as "An innocent and benevolent religion," in which murder is the most heinous of crimes. He says the 'neo-Muslims' have made Islam "a global message of hate and a universal war cry," but he says the Koran teaches that "if you kill one person you have killed humanity as a whole."

Egyptian columnist and expert on Islamic affairs Fahmy Howeidi says no good Muslim could ever condone the type of attack that has become commonplace.

"We don't accept killing any innocent person, either Muslim or non-Muslim," Mr. Howeidi says. "We know according to our religion that this is banned according to the Koran. We should not do that. It is not acceptable and should not be acceptable. Those are innocent people, especially the children. This is not accepted by all means. They are human beings and you should defend their lives and their right to live."

But Mr. Howeidi also argued that Chechen terrorism has more to do with nationalism than with religion, and he says terrorist acts have been perpetrated by Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. Mr. Howeidi added that while what happened in Beslan must be condemned, so must Russian actions in Chechnya for the last 150 years.

The kidnapping of hundreds of people, nearly 350 of whom died including many children, is being described in terms of outrage and disgust in newspapers in Kuwait, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

In an article in the Saudi official daily Okaz, columnist Khaled Hamed al-Suleiman wrote that "the time has come for Muslims to be the first to come out against those interested in abducting Islam in the same way they abducted innocent children."

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood advocates installing an Islam-based government and has been outlawed as subversive. But a prominent member and the group's spokesman, Issam El Arian, says attacks on innocent people are not acceptable.

"We first of all condemn the incident and the massacre done in the school in Russia in Beslan," Mr. Arian says. "We are against this way, we are against the isolated violent groups, whoever they are, whatever their goals. We must differentiate between the right of the people to defend their land against any invasion, the right of people to liberate their occupied land from any invasion, and the others who are bloody, blindly walking by violent activities against innocent victims."

Mr. El Arian argued that extremists groups flourish in Muslim countries because of a lack of civil liberties and political representation. He says democratic reform would enable moderate Islam to assert itself.

In the Lebanon-based newspaper the Daily Star, editor-in-chief Rami Khoury wrote that "the Arab-Asian region of the world, predominantly Islamic, is the heartland and major wellspring of the spectacular global terror attacks of recent years."

Mr. Khoury wrote that Arabs should recognize the difference between what he might agree is legitimate violence, and other violence that he says is clearly not legitimate, such as some of the attacks going on in Iraq. He wrote, "Most Arabs identified strongly and willingly with the images of Palestinian and Lebanese guerrillas fighting against the Israeli occupation troops; but all of us today are dehumanized and brutalized by the images of Arabs kidnapping and beheading foreign hostages. We must ask and know how and why our societies made this ugly trek."