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Author Describes Islamic Militant Rage - 2002-02-25

The rage of militant Islam has terrorized nations around the world, most recently the United States. Veteran reporter Robin Wright has been tracking the spread of this form of Islam for two decades. Miss Wright spoke about her updated book on the subject, entitled Sacred Rage, which traces the roots of religious extremism, including Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

Islamic extremism, Miss Wright said, is as old as time. The word zealot, thug or assassin derives from extremist religious movements that date back centuries.

In Sacred Rage, Robin Wright describes the wrath of militant Islam today as a reaction to repressive governments that give little space to political dissent. "The rage that has been witnessed over the past two decades," she said, "has been played out in many ways but the common denominator is a rage or fury at the lack of political space, the manipulation of economic systems to a tiny minority, the corruption, the failure to engage in the kind of achievements that Islam was noted for in past centuries."

Ms. Wright said the United States is often targeted because of its links to the unpopular governments.

She said the Islamic Revolution that toppled an American ally, Shah Reza Pahlevi of Iran, has been an inspiration for Islamic militants around the world.

Robin Wright's reporting of the revolution and its leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was captured in her first book, In the Name of God, the Khomeini Decade. Two years ago she chronicled the changing face of revolution in another book, The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran.

"Iranians are openly defying many of the clerics who still rule Iran in order to achieve empowerment," she said. "Women are forming their own groups. Young people are taking to the streets and challenging the regime openly often leading to their imprisonment. So there is a kind of transition that happens. Extremism does not have to remain extremism. There are increasing signs that when included in the system, people are willing to abandon the bullet in favor of the ballot."

Miss Wright arrived in the Middle East in the 1973 to report on the Arab-Israeli war for the U.S. newspaper Christian Science Monitor. She said Arab-Israeli hostilities continue to fuel Muslim outrage. "The Arab-Israeli conflict has played a critical role at various junctions," she continued. "In 1967, the humiliating loss of huge chunks of Egypt, Syria and Jordan led many Muslims to turn inward. And that was one of the original seeds for the Islamic movement. By 1973, Muslims were turning increasingly to their faith and the war, the fourth Arab-Israeli war was fought for Islam."

But, Miss Wright said Islamic militants like Osama bin Laden focus less today on the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict and more on a vision of Islam as the means to alter society. "Islam is widely seen from Algeria to the Philippines as a viable idiom of political opposition to change systems. Osama bin Laden gave very little lip service to the Arab-Israeli issue. Most of his operatives were more concerned with their own backyards. That's why you didn't see many Palestinians among the operatives," she said.

During the past two decades, Miss Wright has reported on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism from Beirut to Kabul for CBS News, The Sunday Times of London, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. She has won national awards for her reportage from Iran and her coverage of the Angolan conflict.

As senior diplomatic correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, Miss Wright now examines U.S. foreign policy, including the campaign against terrorism. She says sending troops to hunt down the terrorists is only half the battle. "The tougher part of the war," she said, "is dealing with the political environment that created these people, including many of the regimes we now rely on to fight the war, be it Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Algeria, and Egypt. Trying to figure out ways to help people create civil society, to encourage governments to open up politically, to end corruption, to redistribute wealth more equitably - these will be the real challenges that will take decades not just the month of a military campaign."

Miss Wright's reporting career has taken her to more than 130 countries on six continents but she says the Middle East is like a magnet for her. Miss Wright said, "I was first involved in the Middle East during the 1973 war. And there's a saying about foreign correspondents that you can't really cover the world unless you cover the Middle East. And second, once you have reported on the Middle East, it's really hard to let go of it. And so, while I went off and did other parts of the world, I kept being drawn back more and more to the region. So I lived there in the 1980's and have been going back two, three times a year ever since."

In Sacred Rage, Robin Wright's first-hand knowledge of the Middle East helps her put a human face on a very complex and controversial subject the wrath of militant Islam.