Fri, Sep. 10, 2004

All terror merits rejection by clerics

JERUSALEM -- The sickening pictures aired on Russian TV, showing masked terrorists in Belsan preparing their deadly explosives while elementary-school pupils kneel with their hands up, generated waves of shock all over the world. Even Muslim leaders stepped forward to condemn this barbaric act, which resulted in the horrible death of at least 350 innocent people, most of them children.

Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the top Muslim cleric in Egypt, said that ''those who carry out the kidnappings are criminals, not Muslims.'' Even Mohammed Mahdi Akef, leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest Islamic group, felt that this time some Muslims had crossed the line. Kidnappings may be justified, he said, but killings are not. ''What happened is not jihad [holy war],'' he explained, ``because Islam obligates us to respect the souls of human beings; it is not about taking them away.''

Denouncing the massacre

No wonder these leaders were alarmed. The fact that the kidnappers in Belsan picked kids on their first day in school as their victims, and the presence of at least nine Arabs among the terrorists, would have only intensified the already growing conviction in the world that there is something sinister in Islam if it breeds such monstrosities.

In last Friday's prayers, Tantawi went out of his way to denounce the massacre. ``What is the guilt of those children? Why should they be responsible for your conflict with the government? You are taking Islam as a cover, and it is a deceptive cover.''

Of course, in such cases, there are always some weird apologetics who will try to deflect the accusations and blame others. Ali Abdullah, an Islamic scholar in Bahrain, insisted that Muslims were not involved and recycled an old and ludicrous conspiracy theory: ''I have no doubt that this is the work of the Israelis, who want to tarnish the image of Muslims.'' However, most respected Muslim thinkers and commentators showed disgust. Abdulrahman al-Rashed wrote a damning article in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. Under the headline The painful truth: All world terrorists are Muslims! he warned that Muslims will not be able to cleanse their image unless ''we admit the scandalous facts. . . . Our terrorist sons are an end-product of our corrupted culture. The picture is humiliating, painful and harsh for all of us.'' Also, Ahmed Bahgat wrote in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram that the gruesome pictures shown on Russian television ``showed Muslims as monsters who are fed by the blood of children and the pain of their families.''

All this is nice and well, even if one might wonder whether these statements reflect true remorse over the barbaric butchering of children or just misgivings over tactics. After all, the same Bahgat had this to say on hostage-takers in Russia and Iraq: ``If all the enemies of Islam united and decided to harm it . . . they wouldn't have ruined and harmed its image as much as the sons of Islam have done by their stupidity, miscalculations and misunderstanding.''

No outrage at killing Jews

Nevertheless, let us assume that the shock and revulsion in the Arab and Muslim world is genuine. Let us also believe for a moment that those Arabs and Muslims who claim to be disgusted and ashamed by the beheadings in Iraq (carried out by a group that prides itself with the name ''the Islamic Army in Iraq'') are truly disgusted and ashamed.

One thing, however, keeps bothering me: How come all these clerics and commentators keep mute when Muslims blow themselves up in the midst of innocent café-goers in Jerusalem? Why don't they bother to condemn with the same righteousness the slaying of nonsuspecting Israeli bus drivers and riders?

Is there something about killing Jews that is different?

Only when Muslims wash their hands of all kinds of terror will I be convinced of their sincerity. Meanwhile, I can't forget the scene shown on Russian TV, where one of the kidnappers spoke over his cellphone, probably with his operator, and said in Arabic: ``We will follow the path of God, Insh'Allah [God willing].''

Uri Dromi is the director of International Outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.