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The West's Misperception of Islam

A REPORT by the FBI warns that ``underground cells of Islamic extremists'' sponsored by Iraq and Libya are located in major American cities, poised for terrorist attacks. Former diplomat Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Vice President Dan Quayle also single out ``Islamic fundamentalism'' as the new enemy of the West, succeeding communism and Nazism. Such distorted warnings could trigger an anti-Muslim backlash in the US and Europe, and they reveal the extent of misinformation about Islam. Western perceptions are often shaped by the actions of dictators in Muslim nations. It is assumed that these dictators adhere to Islamic principles and that Islam itself is an oppressive belief system. Ironically, Western leaders also fear changes of leadership. If the current despots are somehow replaced by the Islamic leadership, the West often feels its interests in the Muslim world will be harmed. This argument is often used to justify the continued support of oppressive regimes.

Self-styled ``experts'' on Islam also add to the confusion. In Israel, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Libya, India, Soviet Central Asia, China, and the Philippines, Islamic movements with genuine grievances are dismissed by Western analysts as the product of religious fanaticism.

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The FBI report illustrates a double standard. Islamic opposition groups are heavily prosecuted in Iraq and Libya, the nations cited in the report. Yet, terrorist groups sponsored by these dictatorships are referred to as ``Islamic extremists.'' Many regimes exploit Islam to maintain their own power. In other parts of the world, such as Haiti, where a charismatic former Roman Catholic priest was elected president, no one talks of Christian extremism.

In reality, most genuine Islamic movements are committed to the principles of justice, compassion, and equality. Rather than fundamentalism, these groups often promote Islamic reform, liberation, or Muslim identity.

In Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan, Islamic reformists oppose the concept of government by monarchy, which contradicts the Islamic principle of egalitarianism. The inequitable distribution of wealth in these nations is also anathema to Muslim reformists, as is the distorted way Islamic law is interpreted.

And in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Turkey, Muslim reformists hope to transform corrupt, ineffective, and politically repressive regimes into governments guided by Islamic principles, including a commitment to human rights, social welfare, and freedom of expression. Despite their achievements in building hospitals and other charities, Muslim reformists are heavily restricted in their activities and often jailed, while governments work to undermine all expression of Islam. In Turkey, for instance, women are prohibited from donning the traditional Islamic scarf over their heads.

Some Islamic movements fight for liberation. In Afghanistan, the mujahideen have fought for over a decade to remove the Soviet-imposed government in Kabul. In Kashmir, Muslims have struggled to obtain self-determination. In the Philippines, Muslims have long sought autonomy on the island of Mindanao. And in Palestine, Muslim activists have become increasingly active in the intifada against the brutal Israeli occupation of their homeland.

In the Soviet Union, China, and Bulgaria, where Muslims comprise considerable minorities, Muslims have sought to assert their Islamic identity, often in concert with attempts to seek political and economic independence. Communist authorities in these countries continue to repress Islamic revivalist movements. Muslims have been targeted for forced assimilation. In Bulgaria, for example, ethnic Turkish Muslims have been forced to adopt Slavic names. Turkish books are banned, as is speaking the Turkish language and the study of Turkish in schools.

Islamic movements in the US and Western Europe often strive to help Muslims maintain their Islamic identity, as well as to educate their fellow citizens about Islam. Western Islamic movements have been especially active in combating racism and discrimination. In the US, Muslims number 6 million and comprise the fastest growing religious minority.

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Clearly, Islamic movements around the world are too diverse to be restricted to a broad category like ``Islamic fundamentalism.'' The West could help by listening to the concerns of Muslims with an open mind. The legacy of the Crusades, Western imperialism, and irresponsible post-colonialist Western policies in the Muslim world have engendered a deep mistrust of any Western intervention in Muslim affairs. A US-led military adventure in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq only serves to deepen Muslim antipathy. If the ``new world order'' is to include a rapprochement between Islam and the West, the West must begin to understand rather than attack the Muslim world.

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