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Mahathir Mohamad


October 26, 2003

Radical Islam Gains a Seductive New Voice


NEW DELHI — American officials scolded Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia last week for declaring to the world's largest Muslim organization that Jews control the world and that frustrated Muslims should try to learn from them. President Bush privately told the Malaysian leader that his comments were "wrong and divisive," presidential aides said. The national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said, "I don't think they are emblematic of the Muslim world."

By many accounts, though, Ms. Rice is voicing wishful thinking.

After Mr. Mahathir spoke, the Muslim heads of state gathered at the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference gave him a standing ovation for his speech, which ultimately criticized the Islamic world for failing to modernize.

The acceptance of such conspiratorial views may strike Americans as despicable or even laughable, but they reflect the influence of Islamic radicals on the worldviews of millions of Muslims. Conveyed with ease and authority via the Internet and satellite television, anti-American and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories abound, not only in Muslim countries but across the world.

Many of these theories are spread by radical groups that adhere to an ideology loosely known as political Islam. Stridently anti-Western and antimodern, political Islam portrays itself as the strongest ideological counter to democracy and capitalism.

Radical Islamists do far more than simply declare that President Bush and Israel, for example, are evil. Political Islam is a sophisticated mixture of fundamentalism and nationalism that can foment acts of violence against Western targets. But for its followers, it is a romantic liberation movement — a militant ideology with Marxist echoes that combines Islam's powerful call for social equality with a critique of Western corporate imperialism and the corrupt Muslim elites who benefit from it.

The growing voice of political Islam suggests that the United States faces a much more nebulous enemy in its war on terrorism than a movement of religious zealots. It is an ideology that persuades some alienated young Muslims, whether deeply religious or not, to join what they see as an epic struggle against an evil empire.

Pollsters emphasize that popular support for radical Islamists remains relatively low in the Muslim world, a vast amalgam of 1.5 billion people that is by no means monolithic. But by taking advantage of overwhelming Muslim public disapproval of American policies in Israel and Iraq, political Islam appears to be gaining traction in some regions.

Growing numbers of Muslims surveyed after the invasion of Iraq say they see the American war on terrorism as a campaign to weaken Muslims — a charge long made by radical Islamists. Majorities in seven of eight predominantly Muslim countries say they worry that the United States might threaten their countries.

At the same time, statements by Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders perceived to be offensive are instantly transmitted around the world on satellite TV or on the Internet, fueling polarization on all sides. Recent comments made at a church breakfast by Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, a top Pentagon official, likening America's war against Muslim extremists to a battle against Satan, are a case in point.

Statements like that, analysts say, play into Islamist conspiracy theories, which blame the United States and Jews for the Muslim world's oppressive rulers, stagnant economies and sense of powerlessness.

"You are explaining events that are painful to the public, for which the public has no other explanation that is available, and over which the public has no power," said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and a member of a Bush administration panel that recently surveyed Muslim attitudes and found "shocking levels of hostility" toward the United States. "They put forth a theory that explains that the responsibility lies with someone else."

The Islamist groups are keenly political, often with excellent organizational and public relations skills. In Pakistan, for example, a coalition of religious parties that received only 11 percent of the popular vote in parliamentary elections last year has turned itself into the country's main opposition group.

The organizations vary widely, ranging from Algeria's ultra-conservative and ultra-violent Armed Islamic Group to Jamaat-e-Islami, a decades-old political movement in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India that calls for establishing Islamic rule through nonviolent, democratic means. The goal, like that of any political organization, is gaining power. At times, they blame their enemies for their most reprehensible acts. They try to turn their own weakness, as well as their opponents' overwhelming strength, into an asset.

After a car bombing on Oct. 12 at an American complex in Baghdad, crowds of Iraqis began chanting that the United States had set off the explosion itself. Two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many Pakistanis still believe the United States invaded Afghanistan solely for its natural gas reserves, which are, by global standards, comparatively small.

Last week, President Bush appeared to be surprised by the depth of suspicion that moderate religious leaders expressed to him in Indonesia. "Do they really believe that we think all Muslims are terrorists?" he asked his aides, shaking his head.

Robert Jackall, a sociology professor at Williams College, said the Islamists' voice was far larger than their numbers. "There is a fanatical group, a fringe element," he said, "that have been able to command the media and have been able to propagate a series of fantastic world images and a series of fantastic conspiracy theories."

From Iraq to Afghanistan, the number of people who join the guerrilla wars being waged against American forces may not be large, but as past attacks have shown, even a small number can do huge damage.

In an Oct. 16 memo published by USA Today last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked whether the United States was losing the effort to halt the creation of a next generation of terrorists. "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?" Mr. Rumsfeld wrote, referring to Islamic religious schools. "The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists' costs of millions."

For American policymakers, countering political Islam and its conspiracy theories can seem baffling. After his meeting with Muslim leaders in Indonesia, Mr. Bush seemed particularly perplexed by their belief that the United States was uninterested in the creation of a Palestinian state, something the president has repeatedly said he supports. It was unclear whether the Muslim leaders had not heard Mr. Bush's prior statements or considered them a subterfuge.

Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, said part of political Islam's antimodern approach was a rejection of the Western scientific method. So when some Islamists declared, for instance, that al Qaeda caused this summer's blackout on the East Coast, that could be accepted without any proof.

"When there is a break in cause and effect," Mr. Ajami said, "it's easy to sell these views of the world."

Supporters of an aggressive military campaign against terrorism say the United States, as the world's lone superpower, will be distrusted no matter what it does. But members of the Bush administration panel that surveyed Muslim attitudes say American public diplomacy efforts must be redoubled.

Professor Jackall said the problem was more difficult in some ways than battling Communism. Sweeping efforts to counter political Islam could confirm its conspiracy theories and demonstrate its suppleness as an ideology. After Mr. Mahathir's statements were harshly criticized, for example, the Malaysian prime minister said the outcry his speech provoked had proved him right. "The reaction of the world shows that they control the world," he said, referring to the Jews.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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