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January 19, 2002
Column #1064


     Have we been fighting a religious war? Is this a war between the Christian West and the Muslim East?

     From the beginning, President Bush and other Administration leaders have consistently said, no this is not a war against Islam but against terrorism. However, there were many practical reasons to take this stance. 

     First, America is a nation built on freedom of religion and religious tolerance. U.S. leaders would never declare war on a faith.

     Second, Islam is one of the fastest growing faiths in the U.S., partly because no country has been so open to Muslim immigration. That's why the terrorists could live so easily among us without arousing suspicion. While exact figures are unknown there are at least 3 million Muslims in this country, who are largely very well educated and supportive of democracy and peace. The President would not want to radicalize any of them. 

     Third, America gets much of its oil from such Muslim states as Saudi Arabia, whom we want to keep friendly. If the conflict is perceived as Islam vs. the West, Gulf oil states might be pressured to stand with the world's billion Muslims, and could create another oil embargo.

     However, Bin Laden has been remarkably successful in casting the struggle as a religious war between Islam and the West which is largely Christian. At the solemn National Cathedral service just three days after September 11, the spokesman for the American Muslim community did not say the terror was contrary to Islam or criticize those who did it. Other than Pakistan's president who has courageously supported America's war on terrorism at considerable risk, it is hard to think of any other head of a Muslim nation has been publicly supportive of the war.

     Why? Muslim extremists did kill Egypt's Sadat and tried to assassinate his successor. Bin Laden has targeted such rulers as King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, as corrupt toadies of America. He is incensed that U.S. troops are still stationed in Saudi Arabia, home of Mecca.

     Why haven't Muslim leaders noted that America gone to war to protect the freedom of Muslims in three nations within a decade Kuwait, Bosnia and Afghanistan? Even in New York, at the 96th Street Mosque, the imam claimed it was the Jews who executed the New York and Pentagon bombings!

     Clearly, these religious and political leaders are either sympathetic to the notion that Islam is at war with Christianity, or they are fearful of reprisals if they spoke out. After all, Bin Laden and his top Afghan and Al Qaeda associates are still free to foment more terror. 

     However, America's swift victory in routing both terrorists and the Taliban government which nurtured them has begun to have a salutary effect on the mindsets of some Muslim leaders. As Bin Laden said in a videotape aired in mid-December, ''When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.''

     For a few weeks, Bin Laden looked like the strong horse. Thousands of Pakistanis went to Afghanistan to join the Taliban military after the World Trade Center terrorism, at the urging of Muslim clerics. ''It was a struggle between Muslims and Christians, they said,'' reports the Washington Post. Maksood Khan, interviewed in an Afghan prison said, ''Not only me, but there were quite a lot of people who were persuaded by people who said America started doing cruel things in Afghanistan and we should stand up against the cruelty.'' 

     Now the strong horse looks like America to the Muslim world. 

     Kuwait was moving toward installing sharia, Islamic law that punishes with amputations. The nation has reversed course, and is now banning Islamic charities that supported extremists. 

     Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah showed rare introspection with gulf leaders recently: ''Catastrophes are in fact opportunities that make it incumbent upon us to conduct self-scrutiny, review our attitudes, and repair errors....the real and deadly risk is to face crises with hands folded and blame others instead of confronting the crises and taking responsibility for our role.'' 

     Perhaps Saudi Arabia will let its 6 million foreign residents worship as they wish.

     Now the Phillippines have asked for help in going after the Abu Sayyaf terrorists linked to Al Qaeda who have been burning churches, killing Christians and are holding two missionaries as hostage. The U.S. has sent in 600 troops to help rout the killers. Good.

     Power and justice spark respect. Or as Bin Laden might put it, ''People like the strong horse.''

Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.

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