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Wrestling with the enemy within
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune


November 07, 2005

LONDON - One recent Sunday in Hyde Park, Mohammed Hussein climbed a three-step ladder and began shouting: "Americans are killers. ... Every one of you will die through your barbaric thinking. ... When the bombs start coming down here, you are going to start worrying."

Some in the crowd scurried away, shock and fear distorting their faces.

Others heckled Hussein: "Liar ... hate preacher. ... Go home to Mummy and shave your beard."

Still others defended him: "We have free speech in this country. He can say what he likes."

Once little more than a tourist attraction, Speakers Corner in Hyde Park now is a microcosm of an urgent new debate about extremism - not in the Middle East, but in the home of America's closest cultural cousins and political allies.

Jihadist rage is rising in England and across Europe, posing a major challenge in the fight against terrorism. It is testing the strengths and limits of democracy and forcing a reassessment of U.S. antiterrorism strategies.

It also is fueling an emotional debate over how the Western world can live in harmony with its Muslim communities - where a few radicals can recruit followers while most people seek respectful coexistence with non-Muslims.

One strategy for defusing the terrorist crisis is to promote democracy in the Middle East and Asia.

But the suicide bombers suspected in the London attack on July 7 were British, not stealth visitors from another country. They were surrounded by a model democracy, and they were engaged in its institutions.

Mohammad Sidique Khan, who police say was the ringleader, worked as a classroom assistant in a primary school. His mother-in-law had received a community service award from the queen at Buckingham Palace.

"You want to believe in someone who was born here and benefited from the educational system, the health care system and the civil liberties of a democratic society," said Julian Lew, a prominent London attorney who has taught law students from St. Paul's Hamline University.

"The bombers' (Yorkshire) accents made them sound like local boys," he said. "That's why it was so shocking. ... New York didn't have to deal with homegrown terrorists."

Now, in an abrupt turnabout, one of the key questions roiling Britain is how much freedom a democracy should yield for the sake of security.

Antiterrorism experts on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean differ over prospects for planting democracy in the Middle East. But they tend to agree that established democracies can stand tough against terrorism without violating their core values.

"I view terrorism as a form of crime," said Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, who is a leading international expert on Islamic movements. "Combating crime is not incompatible with democratic values. So the real issue is what specific policies are being adopted by the police. ... Clearly, in some countries, the focus was inadequate."

By a large measure, Europe's democracies have helped to impede the spread of radical rage, Cole said.

"Terrorist thinking will catch hold only on a radical fringe in western Europe, whereas in the Middle East and parts of Asia it is potentially a political movement of massive proportions," he said.

Much of Afghanistan, for example, was overtaken for several years during the 1990s by the Taliban.

"In Europe, we really are dealing with groups that are like our Ku Klux Klan in the United States," Cole said. "They are a fringe movement, and they don't have much chance of emerging as mass political movements."

Step out of the subway station at Edgeware Road, and you could be in Beirut or Kuwait City or Islamabad.

The street hosts a vibrant enclave of Arabic-language bookstores and kebob houses where bearded men in long white robes smoke water pipes in the tea shops, and black-veiled women push baby strollers into stores advertising halal meats.

The community had been celebrated as an honorary badge of Britain's ethnic diversity. Now it's called "Londistan," an expression of the seismic change set in motion when Khan allegedly blew himself up at the Edgeware station in one of four suicide bombings that killed 52 commuters on July 7.

Around the world, those blasts drove home a chilling reminder that the front lines of the war against terrorism do not stop in Afghanistan or the Middle East.

While radical thinking may be outside of Europe's mainstream, it is nevertheless potentially deadly on both sides of the Atlantic.

Long before the London bombings, U.S. authorities had warily watched an escalation of terrorist attacks in Europe, and there had been trans-Atlantic cooperation on many antiterrorism fronts - from sharing intelligence to freezing funding for terrorists' networks.

But recent State Department reports and congressional hearings have highlighted a host of unresolved concerns.

One worry is what some critics see as a gaping hole in U.S. immigration procedures. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it has been much more difficult for men with passports from Middle Eastern countries to get visas to visit the United States.

But Khan's British passport could have entitled him to enter without a visa.

"The Pentagon wages war in the Middle East to stop terrorist attacks on the United States, but the growing nightmare of officials at the Department of Homeland Security is passport-carrying, visa-exempt mujahedeen coming from the United States' western European allies," Robert Leiken wrote in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. He directs the Immigration and National Security Program at the Nixon Center in Washington.

Leiken was referring to a U.S. policy that allows travelers from 27 low-risk countries, 19 of them European, to visit the United States for up to 90 days without visas. Thousands of tourists and business travelers use it to crisscross the Atlantic every day with relative ease. And the notion of tinkering with it sets off alarms in business circles.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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