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Islam vs. Islam
by Martin Schram
Scripps Howard News Service


January 05, 2005

When we look back, one year from now, we will see that the big story of 2005 was nothing like the mild, myopic goulash that the print pundits and TV chattering heads just dished us as New Year's predictions about Bush-this, Hillary-that, Iraq-this, Social Security-that.

The big story will be that 2005 was the year of Islam vs. Islam.

It will be a year of Islamic conflicts that will erupt explosively in various ways around the planet. Islamic fundamentalist militants, moderates, monarchs, military and non-military autocrats who are fundamentalist and not-so-fundamentalist will clash in Saudi Arabia, the now-forming Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and to varying degrees in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. These will be clashes of ideology, militancy and just plain power-grabbing, local politics style.

Much has changed in the Islamic world in recent months. In some areas, voices of authority and moderation have begun speaking with increased urgency and persuasive power. But militants, most notably al Qaeda, have begun to turn their terror against Islamic targets of authority, most notably in Saudi Arabia. Put those forces together and the result may well be clashes that could decide whether ours will be a world relatively at peace or plunged into further mindless and bloody wars of terror for years to come.

We know all this now because we have stepped back just a few steps, widened our lens just a bit. So we can reflect upon the big picture that has been clearly taking shape before our eyes. Even though many didn't see it because our media news-deciders too often considered these pictures unworthy of display on the TV news or the front pages of our newspapers.

In Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda has begun bombing Saudi government sites in its escalated campaign to topple the Saudi monarchy. For years, the Saudi rulers bought themselves time by paying what amounted to protection money so that Osama bin Laden would mount his terror attacks in any sand box but theirs. Saudis funded mosques and religious schools that taught militant fundamentalist justifications for acts of terror against the West.

In December, an audiotape apparently recorded by bin Laden praised the bombing of a U.S. consulate in Jeddah and blasted the ruling al-Saud family as "agents of infidels." The Saudis have quietly mounted a major effort to destroy al Qaeda cells and backers operating in their country. The Saudis claim overwhelming success - which may incite al Qaeda to attempt to disprove that with one or more new terror attacks there.

The country of bin Laden's birth is populated by those loyal to the ruling family, some moderates educated in the West, and militant fundamentalist Muslims. Conventional wisdom says Saudi rulers are too powerful to be toppled. Just as they said in the late 1970s that the Shah could never be toppled in Iran.

As for the Palestinians: Mahmoud Abbas, overwhelming frontrunner in their upcoming presidential election, last week declared that the continuing rocket assaults against Israel are "useless" and called on Palestinian militants to stop them.

Abbas, a battler on a tightrope, has also declared that he will consider it his job to protect those who launched attacks against Israel in the name of Palestinian freedom and will not turn them over to Israeli authorities. He is the best hope for peace; but it remains to be seen whether calm heads will suddenly prevail within Hamas and the other groups that have launched terrorist strikes in Israel.

Importantly, in a stunning shift, President Mubarak of Egypt recently declared that Israel's longtime hardliner Ariel Sharon, who is moving to hand over the Gaza to the Palestinians, now appears to be the Palestinian's best chance for forging a lasting peace.

While many U.S. officials have criticized the coverage of the two largest Arab news networks, Al Jezeera and Al Arabiya, they are not the same.

Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, a Saudi who this year became the head of Al Arabiya, is a staunch critic of Islamic fundamentalist militants. After more than 300 died when Islamic rebels from Chechnya seized a school, he wrote a newspaper column declaring: "It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims. ... We cannot tolerate in our midst those who abduct journalists, murder civilians, explode buses; we cannot accept them as related to us, whatever the sufferings they claim to justify their criminal deeds. These are the people who have smeared Islam and stained its image."

The emergence of Islamic moderates in positions of power is perhaps the most hopeful sign of all in this time of conflict.


Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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