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Islam rising: US challenge

When the last Taliban fighter retreats into the mountains of Afghanistan and a new government is established in Kabul, the United States and its supporters in the war on terrorism will undoubtedly claim victory. But in the long term, Osama bin Laden is likely to be only a footnote in the history of conflicts between East and West.

The more profound challenge facing the US is the broad-based Islamization of societies - ordinary Muslims searching for the path toward religious purity. Islamization of these societies has spurred opposition to their respective governments, and because the US supports these governments, it has indirectly fostered anti-American sentiment.

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Islamization is in full bloom in Egypt, where it began about 30 years ago, and in other countries and regions, such as Pakistan and the Gaza Strip. In other states, the rise in Islamist sentiment remains in an early stage, but will undoubtedly grow. In Turkey, the grass-roots Islamic movement is groping for a place in the background of the overpowering Kemalist state, which represses most forms of public religious expression.

Similarly, the authoritarian government of Uzbekistan is trying to stem a budding Islamic tide, as popular religious schools emerge from the shadows.

Millions of mainstream Muslim activists, embarrassed that Mr. bin Laden unleashed his brutal war in the name of Islam, could nonetheless use this conflict to their advantage. With governments in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan under more pressure to crack down on Islamic militancy, moderate Islamists can be expected to seize upon this political opening.

For years, a fundamental dynamic has operated between nation-states in the Islamic world and their citizens: When the state becomes more repressive in response to religious extremism, moderate activists gain popularity by offering themselves as a political alternative. Generally, the rebellious discourse of the militant fringe resonates in the mainstream and revives the lists of grievances among society as a whole.

The now-famous question of Sept. 11 - Why do they hate us? - was always misplaced. The more pressing issue, from Casablanca to Karachi, is: Why do so many Muslims, particularly middle-class professionals, see the attacks as an understandable response to the frustration the Islamic world feels about US behavior?

Widespread demonstrations in many Islamic countries were misinterpreted as a seal of approval for violence. Rather, bin Laden's attack was a wake-up call that brought out the crowds.

Bin Laden's primary grievance is US support for repressive governments, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He shares the belief with many mainstream Islamic activists that, if not for this US support, Muslims would be more in control of their destinies.

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In recent weeks, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has ordered the imprisonment and trial of dozens of suspected Islamic militants to show the world his resolve in fighting terrorism. The action has placed him again at the center of criticism from Egypt's moderate Islamists, who, through the universities, professional unions, and Islamic welfare organizations, have gained substantial political power in recent decades.

A related process is unfolding in the Gaza Strip. As Palestinian President Yasser Arafat responds to US government demands to reign in Hamas militants, ordinary Palestinians are responding with a growing desire for a mainstream Islamic movement.

In recent university student elections, Palestinian students for the first time voted overwhelmingly for students aligned with Hamas. The vote was interpreted as an expression of their religious zeal. In addition, a recent wave of arrests prompted 2,500 Palestinians who were described as Islamic militants to stage protests. Even if these demonstrations were organized by a few, Palestinian society at large has shown its repeated support for the spirit of such protests against Mr. Arafat. And during periods when Arafat's popularity has plummeted, Hamas moderates have won big.

Growing Islamic activism in Saudi Arabia has also surprised the US. As the ruling family spends hundreds of thousands of dollars advertising in major American and European publications to counter allegations that the kingdom has been weak in its support for the war on terrorism, recent reports tell a different story.

Young Saudi students, in fact, open their textbooks each day to be indoctrinated in Wahhabi Islam, an austere interpretation of the faith that is intolerant of competing schools of religious thought and contemptuous of non-Muslims.

Since Sept. 11, the US government has tried to reach out to mainstream Muslims in unprecedented ways.

For the first time, a traditional dinner was held at the White House to break the Ramadan fast; President Bush made a high-profile visit to a Muslim community center; and Laura Bush delivered a radio address to point out the suffering of Afghan women under Taliban rule.

Such attempts at bridge-building are being received with guarded optimism in the Muslim world. If the rhetoric is not followed up with a change in policies, Islamic societies will know that this campaign to bring harmony between East and West was simply a calculated move in the heat of wartime to win support among ordinary Muslims. It is these millions of Muslims seeking self-determination and peaceful accommodation with the West - not Osama bin Laden - who will decide whether the United States will ultimately be successful in the war on terrorism.

Geneive Abdo, a Nieman fellow at Harvard, has reported from numerous Islamic countries over the past decade. She was the Tehran correspondent for the The (London) Guardian from 1998 to 2001. She is the author of 'No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam' (Oxford University Press, 2000).


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