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November 21, 2001

AFTER SEPT. 11: Panelists explore the links between Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism

It is "very possible" that Osama bin Laden was telling the truth when he bragged that his al-Qaida terrorist network possesses nuclear weapons, Pitt professor Phil Williams said last week.

But those weapons almost surely would not be atomic bombs or missiles, he said, but crude explosive devices that could temporarily contaminate sections of cities with radioactivity.

During the early 1990s, smuggling of nuclear materials flowed mainly from eastern to western Europe, said Williams, a professor of public and international affairs.

"What you see now is that the flow is moving south, through the Caucasus, central Asia, Turkey and Afghanistan, the very places that al-Qaida hangs about," he said.

Williams was one of five panelists at the Pitt Program Council's "Truth Behind the Terror" discussion on Nov. 14.

Much of the discussion focused on Islam and links between Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks sent Americans scurrying to their bookshelves, searching the Koran for some explanation of the violence, said Carnegie Mellon University history professor Laurie Eisenberg.

But focusing on the Koran is misguided "because most Muslims are no more theologians or Koranic scholars than most Christians or Jews are versed in the intricacies and interpretations of their holy books," Eisenberg said.

What is important is not what's in the Koran, she said, but instead the anti-Western, anti-Israel, anti-modernism messages being preached in mosques throughout the world.

We Americans flatter ourselves when we assume that Islamic fundamentalism primarily targets our country, Eisenberg maintained. "Islamic fundamentalism is, first and foremost, a family affair," she said. "It is an expression of protest and discontent with the regimes in the Islamic world, regimes that are seen by many of their own people, and certainly by fundamentalists, as being corrupt, as being puppets of the West or the United States, as not being Islamic enough, not genuinely Islamic in their policies and their approach to the world."

Autocratic governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other "moderate" Muslim states play into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists by banning opposition parties and denying their peoples the right to express even the mildest political and social grievances, Eisenberg said.

"The only place left to these people, where they can meet in large numbers and listen to a speaker, is the mosque," she said.

Dissatisfied masses provide "soft support" for the tiny minority of terrorists, to whom they turn in their frustration and despair. But such people also represent the best hope for the future because "they don't have a narrow vision that compels them to hate. They really only want their just due," Eisenberg said.

Adel Fergany, president of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, declared that neither Islam nor U.S. foreign policy justified the Sept. 11 attacks.

But he had a suggestion: Just as criminologists study crimes in order to better understand and prevent them, Americans should examine elements of U.S. policy that offend Muslim sensibilities and, arguably, motivated the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Many Muslims believe the United States is grossly biased in favor of Israel, indifferent to the sufferings of Palestinians, and insensitive toward cultures that are less materialistic and sexually free than America, Fergany said.

American news coverage of Islam, he argued, tends to be negative and uninformed — for example, reporters still routinely translate the Arabic word "jihad" as "holy war," no matter how many times Muslims point out that the word really means both "struggle" and "peace," Fergany said.

He noted that the Koran refers to a little jihad (defense of one's self, family, property and homeland against attack) and a great jihad (the individual's struggle to obey God and resist temptation).

The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh held a press conference and issued a news release on Sept. 12, condemning the previous day's terrorist attacks. But the center's statements received little coverage, according to Fergany.

Commenting on Western criticisms that Islamic countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia oppress women, Fergany said: "Everybody in those countries is oppressed, so why are you talking just about the women?"

Two predominantly Muslim nations with populations of more than 100 million people, Bangladesh and Indonesia, have women heads of state. "Have we achieved this in the United States?" asked Fergany.

Asked how continuation of the war in Afghanistan during the holy month of Ramadan will affect Muslim public opinion, Fergany replied: "If people are being killed, it doesn't matter if they are being killed during Ramadan or after Ramadan. Whenever a human life is lost, it is a very sad thing.

"However, for Muslims in general, Ramadan is a month for kindness. Essentially, everybody should be at his or her best towards others, whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims. So, seeing innocent people being killed during Ramadan is a further aggravation of the suffering" of Afghan civilians, and will harden anti-American feelings among many Muslims, Fergany said.

Eisenberg agreed that Western bombing during Ramadan will negatively affect public opinion in much of the Islamic world. "But I would point out that this is a 'straw man' sort of argument," she said.

"Because in 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel and not only was it during Ramadan, but the day that they chose to attack Israel was Yom Kippur, which is the holiest day in the Jewish year. So clearly, the Islamic states themselves have not had any compunction about undertaking military activity either during their holy time or anybody else's."

Eisenberg said terrorists are to blame for associating the peaceful, tolerant faith of Islam with violence. "They are self-declared as Muslim activists. They tell us, 'I am doing this in the name of Islam.' It's not a matter of the West imposing this," she said.

The plight of Palestinians is just one issue motivating Islamic fundamentalists, Eisenberg said. And while that issue excites fervor and pledges of Muslim solidarity from people in the streets, leaders of Islamic nations "have a tremendous history of failing to act on behalf of the Palestinians" and of promoting anti-American and anti-Israel feelings to justify their own aggression and distract their people from domestic problems.

Despite his pious claims to the contrary, "Saddam Hussein did not invade Kuwait because of Israel," Eisenberg said. "Osama bin Laden did not attack the United States because of Israel."

America has been guilty of hypocrisy and a "love 'em and leave 'em" approach to Muslim allies-of-convenience such as Afghan mujahedeen who fought the Soviets, Eisenberg allowed. "But the United States, for all of the missteps that it makes, has also done an awful lot of good things," she argued. "Even during the Taliban regime, the United States has been the No. 1 source of foreign aid to Afghanistan."

According to Williams, the Bush administration has responded well to the current national security crisis with one exception — its insistence on pursuing, at enormous cost, an anti-ballistic missile defense system.

Such a system would not have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks, Williams noted. Besides, terrorists know that missiles can be traced to their sources, inviting U.S. retaliation. Williams argued instead for "container defense," noting that weapons of mass destruction are far more likely to be smuggled into America in innocuous-looking shipping containers. Only 4 percent of containers coming into the United States are inspected "and that's a very generous estimate," according to Williams.

Terrorists are fighting an asymmetrical war against America, turning our strengths against us — using our postal service as a biological weapons-delivery system, for example, Williams said.

He denied that the Sept. 11 attacks required the involvement of Iraq or any other nation. "A criminal network can be very effective, particularly when it's got a lot of resources, like al-Qaida has.

"This was [an attack by] 19 guys, an operation that cost less than $1 million, and it created the damage and the deaths and despair that you have all seen," Williams said.

Only a long-term, comprehensive war can defeat terrorism, he said. Al-Qaida cannot be decapitated. "Even if you get bin Laden's head on a platter, it's not going to stop the network. These folks are very resilient. They have a lot of tentacles, and imbed themselves in our society.

"As the administration says, this is not going to be over in six months or a year. This is the defining conflict of the 21st century." Terrorist and criminal gangs may prove to be more formidable enemies than the Soviet Union, Williams said.

Rand P. Miller, U.S. Air Force National Defense Fellow in Pitt's Ridgway Center for International Security, said he believes the Taliban underestimated the effectiveness of American precision air strikes, which involve space- and air-based surveillance and reconnaissance and are far more sophisticated than Soviet air strikes of the 1980s.

The other major difference between America's war in Afghanistan and the USSR's, Miller said, is that the United States doesn't want to occupy or control the country, only replace an unpopular government with one that will not harbor anti-Western terrorists. "As a result, coalition forces are not subject to extensive guerilla warfare," he said.

As of Nov. 14, Miller reported, U.S. forces had dropped nearly 1.5 million daily food rations over Afghanistan, all of them meatless and labeled with drawings indicating their contents.

As frightening as the recent anthrax attacks have been, they killed only four people between Oct. 12 and Nov. 2, noted Samuel Watson, director of the Public Health and Bioterrorism Response Program at the Ridgway Center. During that same period, 23,000 Americans died of smoking-related diseases; 3,600 from influenza and pneumonia; 3,500 in automobile accidents, and 900 of AIDS.

"I'm not trying to minimize the anthrax deaths, only to put them in perspective," Watson said.

Only four of the 10 people diagnosed as having inhaled anthrax spores died. "We used to think in the public health community that inhalation anthrax would have a 90 percent mortality rate," said Watson. "Thanks to early intervention, we got it down to 40 percent, which is pretty darned good."

On the other hand, a lethal and highly communicable disease such as smallpox, if obtained and unleashed on the public by terrorists, "could spread like wildfire," Watson warned. Hospitals probably would be swamped, and victims would have to be treated in gymnasiums and National Guard armories, just like victims of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, he said.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 7

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