By Caryle Murphy
Sunday, September 16, 2001; Page B01
The suicide bombers who drew us into a frightening new war last week were surely Muslims with a horribly twisted version of Islam.They obviously hated us.
President Bush declared that the terrorists -- said to be minions of the radical Islamic militant and Saudi Arabian fugitive Osama bin Laden -- had presented the United States with "an opportunity to do generations a favor, by coming together and whipping terrorism; hunting it down . . . and holding them accountable."
Retaliation and punishment are surely coming. And then what?
If the recent past is any indication, whatever the United States does next to battle this brand of terrorism will require an expertise that has not been evident in the years since the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which claimed six lives. That incident has been followed by a steady stream of attacks -- carried out by terrorists known or suspected to have links to militant Islam -- on other American targets: a U.S. military base in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, in 1996, 19 dead; two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, 224 dead; the USS Cole in Yemen last year, 17 dead.
While it strains the national patience at a time like this, the first step in an effective anti-terrorism policy is to examine how such terrorists come to be and why they despise us so.
It is no secret that in the Middle East, Islam's birthplace, the faith is at a complex historical juncture that has left many Muslims frustrated and angry. Having spent many years living in the region and learning about Islam, I believe that three major factors have brought it to this point: authoritarian governments that have spawned extremist movements by failing to develop a civil society that permits dissent; the inability of modern interpretations of Islam to prevail over outdated, orthodox versions; and America's failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Clearly, these forces have not turned every Muslim into a kamikaze. But in recent decades, they have helped create a climate that produces a fanatically extremist minority. From his hideaways in Afghanistan, bin Laden is the mastermind of a dangerous band of outlaws and the suspected author of Tuesday's attacks. It is no coincidence that his recruits are coming mostly from countries where these factors breed frustration, anger and hate toward America.
From Algeria to Egypt to Yemen, from Iraq to Pakistan, military or authoritarian governments -- many of them U.S. allies -- deny their citizens basic freedoms. Even in the freest of these nations -- Egypt -- Hosni Mubarak has been president for 20 years, reelected by referendums with dubious results, usually in the 90 percent range.
As Rifaat Said, an Egyptian politician, once said, "Civil society is a very vague concept. It is composed of a parliament, of a free press, a free system of education, a free trade union, an independent judicial system and so on. But in Egypt . . . all these elements are linked together in a key chain. And the key chain is in the pocket of the president."
Those who go too far in defying these authoritarian states face dire consequences, ranging from torture to years in prison with no trial. As a result, many young people have given up trying to change their governments.
But they have not given up thinking about Islam. Indeed, Islam is experiencing unprecedented intellectual and theological ferment. As a crowded, competitive, technology-driven 21st century begins, more Muslims than ever before are reexamining their faith in light of the political, economic and intellectual challenges of contemporary life. They are pondering hefty questions: How can Islam and democracy be wed? Who holds authority in Islam? Should Islamic law, or sharia, be overhauled? If intellectual freedom is a right, how far can a modern Muslim go in reinterpreting his faith without being called an apostate?
"There is a technological revolution. We need to be part of that," a teacher in Jordan once told me. "I don't think we have succeeded yet in combining our modernization with the indispensable part of our life, which is Islam."
The downside of this introspective ferment is that it has set off a raging fight within Islam. Secularists, moderate Muslims, orthodox thinkers and extremists are proffering competing versions of Islam. "One problem in the Muslim world is that Islam with all its cultural strength has no hierarchy to speak on its behalf," said Laith Kubba, founder of Islam21, a forum for liberal Muslims. "Today there are countless numbers of self-appointed authorities claiming they have an interpretation that is valid."
In many parts of the world, particularly in the West, moderate Muslim activists seeking to make their faith more relevant to modern life are gaining advantage. But in the Middle East, they remain the underdogs. Barred from organizing and staging public debates by authoritarian governments, they are hounded by their orthodox and extremist brethren, who respond to modernity by rejecting it.
The Taliban, Afghanistan's ruling Islamic movement, is the most radical example of this extremist orthodoxy, which is based on a literal reading of the Koran, Islam's holy book. Its proponents, who seek to expand Islam throughout the world, display a woeful ignorance of life in the United States, reject moderate Islam's historical tolerance for other faiths and show no interest in the scientific mind-set that is at the root of the West's technological prowess.
In other Middle East countries, the forces of orthodoxy are less radical but problematic nonetheless. In Saudi Arabia, for example, which subscribes to a conservative and sometimes intolerant brand of Islam, Christians are banned from holding worship services.
Against this unsettled backdrop, the 50-year-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians rages on. Seen through Muslim eyes, it is a conflict prolonged by America's bias toward Israel. Muslims do not comprehend, for example, how the United States, which gives Israel more than $3 billion annually, could not have stopped Israel from allowing more than 200,000 Jewish settlers -- half of them since the 1993 Oslo peace agreement -- to move into occupied territory Palestinians had envisioned as their homeland.
To many Americans, these issues may seem irrelevant in the face of the evil of last week -- evil that can never be excused. And those who lost loved ones do not want to hear explanations.
I understand those reactions, grounded in grief, only too well: My family was twice wounded in this national catastrophe. First, we got news that one of our closest friends, the Rev. Francis E. Grogan, was on United Airlines flight 175, which rammed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. The 76-year-old Roman Catholic priest, who was virtually a member of the family, was headed from Boston to Los Angeles to see his sister. Then we heard that Richard Keane, married to my cousin, Judy Keane, for 31 years, and the father of five, has not called home since Tuesday. An insurance consultant, he was in a meeting on the 99th floor of the south tower.
I have to admit my head and my heart are battling each other. The hurt inflicted last week is testing my patience and my resolve to understand Islam. But after the funerals and our military reprisals, our country still has to exist in a world with 1 billion Muslims, about one-third of them in the Middle East. And the same forces that helped create the fanatics who attacked us will still be there.
If we want to avoid creating more terrorists, we must end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly and in a way both sides see as fair. We must demand that authoritarian governments open up, and we must make a greater effort to engage and encourage those Muslims who promote moderate and modernist versions of Islam. That's an anti-terrorism program worthy of our lost loved ones.
Caryle Murphy covers religion for the Metro staff of The Post and was Cairo bureau chief from 1989 to 1994.