The Arab-Muslim world reaps what it sowed

Posted in Broader Middle East | 06-May-05 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

An Egyptian police guard the area after a blast in central Cairo April 30, 2005.
WASHINGTON In the last few weeks, not only has Iraq been destabilized by multiple suicide bombers in the same day, but Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also witnessed similar attacks by jihadist fanatics. How do you get so many people to commit suicide on demand, day after day? What's going on?

In part, the Arab-Muslim world is reaping something it sowed. Way too many Arab intellectuals and religious and political leaders were ready to extol suicide bombing when it was directed against Israelis. Now they are seeing how this weapon of nihilism - once sanctified and glorified - can be used against their own societies. It was wrong when it was used against Jews, and it is wrong when it is used against Muslims. You can't build a decent society on the graves of suicide bombers and their victims.

But these bombings are also signs of the deeper struggle that the U.S. attempt to erect democracy in Iraq has touched off. My friend Raymond Stock, the biographer and translator of Naguib Mahfouz and a longtime resident of Cairo, argues that we are seeing in Baghdad, Cairo and Riyadh the modern incarnation of several deeply rooted and interlocking wars. These are, he said, the war within Islam between traditionalists and rationalists, which dates back to Baghdad in the ninth century; the struggle between ardent Sunnis and Shiites, which dates back to succession battles in early Islam; and the confrontation between Islam and the West, which dates back to the Arab conquests of the seventh century and the Crusades.

In the modern incarnation of each of these struggles, members of the Sunni-traditionalistjihadist minority are losing. And the more that becomes evident, the more violent this minority will become - because their whole vision is in danger of being repudiated by fellow Arabs and Muslims.

"The Iraqi election was a total shock to the militant jihadist forces in the Arab-Muslim world," Stock noted. "They warned Iraqis that 'you vote - you die,' and instead millions of Iraqis said back to them, 'We vote - we decide."' And the thing they are deciding on is not to be pro-American, not to be pro-Western, but to try to build their own Arab society in a way that will be open to modernism and interpretations of Islam that encourage innovation, adaptation and progress.

The jihadist forces hate this notion. They see the struggle for democracy in Iraq as anathema to everything they stand for: a literalist interpretation of Islam, unsullied by modernity, adaptation, women's rights or political and religious pluralism.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born jihadist behind much of the Iraq violence, spelled it all out in his January 2005 declaration. Democracy must be opposed, he said, because it is based "on the right to choose your religion," and that is "against the rule of God." He added: "Oh, people of Iraq, where is your honor? Have you accepted oppression of the Crusader harlots?"

Zarqawi and his Saudi and Egyptian allies are trying to defeat America and its allies in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, but Zarqawi & Co. are losing - and they know it.

Having lost the argument with their own community, and unable to offer any program, the Sunnitraditionalist-jihadists seem to have become totally unhinged, with people becoming suicide bombers at the rate of three and four a day.

The jihadists "know that if democracy comes to this part of the world, the Zarqawis and their ilk are done," Stock said. "Because the majority of people do not buy their methods or most of their message. They don't want to live like the Taliban. If democracy manages to spread in the Arab world, it will not necessarily be pro-American, but it will definitely be pro-living, not pro-suicide. It will not be a cult of death, but a culture of life." A recent cover of a popular Egyptian magazine, Rose el-Youssef, Stock noted, shows two well-known female Arab pop singers under the headline: "Stronger than Extremism."

So yes, this is a big, deep struggle in Iraq. Yes, the forces of decency and pluralism are slowly winning. But it is not over - not by a long shot. The U.S. Army and the first freely elected Iraqi government still do not control all the terrain there. Unless we can help the Iraqis create a secure environment in their country, and unless their new government can find a way to integrate the more pragmatic Sunni Baathists, and even dejected jihadists, who want to be part of a better future for Iraq, that nation will not see self-sustaining democracy.

The bad guys won't win, but neither will the good guys, and all we will have produced is a bloody stalemate.