Muslims under Bush's bed

SCMP April 8

Seven months after September 11, Osama Bin Laden is surely enduring - assuming he is still alive - a most uncomfortable existence. But he probably has a grin on his face too as he surveys the ever spreading ramifications of the "war on terror" that he has incited.

The US physical riposte was as swift and effective as anyone could have imagined. Just as the attacks of September 11 exceeded the dreams of the assassins, so the speed and effectiveness of US military actions in destroying the Taliban regime and ousting most of the el-Qaida Arab core from Afghanistan was impressive.

However, the success of revolutionary terror is judged not by the physical damage it inflicts but by its impact on the status quo. Destruction of old relationships, undermining of institutions, sowing of new hatreds, are the goals. In the Mr Osama case, this was to set the west against Islam, and Arabs against each so that his radical version of Islam would eventually triumph over secularist tendencies and monarchies which mixed conservatism at home with external alliances with the west. As I wrote shortly after September 11, the degree of Mr Osama's success or failure would be determined by the way the US, and the world in general, reacted to those events.

The initial over-reaction such as reluctance of businessmen to travel has now been overcome. At the economic level, dramatic reductions in interest rates and sharp rises in government spending have nullified the economic impact. September 11 provided a cause for stronger stimulus than would otherwise have been prudent.

However, at the political level, some of Mr Osama's goals are making progress. The Bush administration has sought to equate all kinds of movements, terrorist or otherwise, with el-Qaida. At the same time, western claims to be the bodyguards of human rights, due process and media independence are daily being classed as hypocritical.

Immediately after September 11, it was hoped that one silver lining could be a serious western effort impose a settlement on Israelis and Palestinians in line with the Oslo accord and UN Resolution 242. Whilst Palestine is a side issue for Mr Osama, it has created resentments against the west which are very deep. For the Bush administration to simply right off the Palestinian mainstream reacting against occupation as "terrorists" shows a level of ignorance which is alarming.

The suicide bombings are certainly horrific. But the basic fact remains that Palestinians, far from being aggressors, have been on the retreat ever since the day in 1917 when the British, without reference to the inhabitants, offered to support "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people".

More recent history reveals mistakes on both sides which might have produced a permanent peace. However Mr Sharon has never made much secret of his desire to plant any many Jewish settlements as possible on the West Bank. His record of violence is well known.

The US effort to renew war on Iraq as part of the anti-terror fight is also playing into Mr Osama's hands. Saddam Hussein certainly runs a very nasty regime. But it has almost nothing in common with Mr Osama's Islamic visions.

Western antipathy to Islam can be exaggerated and become an excuse for local failings. But it is not a mirage as recent western media coverage of Islamic issues in Asia shows. Nothing gets better play in western-owned media than allegations of Muslim "terror groups" running rampant around the region. Malaysia was accused of being a key el-Qaida base and Indonesia was roundly criticised for not arresting some Muslim fundamentalists at US say-so despite lack of evidence of illegal activities.

Malaysia and Singapore get praised for following the latest US practice of jailing people incommunicado as well as without trial. Apparently free speech is good - except for Muslims. Western media have played up allegations in the Singapore's Straits Times of a terror network in Indonesia but ignored investigations by Tempo magazine which concluded that the documents on which it was based contained numerous inventions. Tempo has a long record of independence. The Straits Times has a history of close links to its government.

It is worth noting the contrast between the reports by this paper's resident correspondent in Jakarta, Vaudine England, on Islamic radicals in Indonesia and the "terror" beat-ups written by parachuted correspondents keen to meet the expectations of editors. As Ms England has pointed out, most of these fundamentalists have been around for years and others are military in clerical disguise. If they are a threat, it is to fellow Indonesians such as Christians in the Malukus.

Media demonisation of Islamic nations reached a new low evident in last week's issue of the once-respected Far Eastern Economic Review. "Beware of Bangladesh" screamed a cover story which turned out to be an ill-documented and overblown account of the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh. For sure, some nasty extremists do exist in this as in all countries, but the nation's secular polity and the precedence of Bengali over Islamic identity is rooted in its independent history.

This was the first cover story that FEER had run on the fifth largest country in its region in more than a decade. The Dow Jones-owned magazine which purports to be in favour of democracy, a free press etc had given just one paragraph coverage to the 2001 election in Bangladesh which led to an orderly change of government. One gets the impression that it is concerned less about giving a true and fair of the region than meeting expectations of bosses in New York eager to hear of Muslim terror in all corners.

No one can doubt Dow Jones commitment to the US "war on terror". In addition to its jingoist editorials, it has publicly defended handing over information a reporter acquired in Afghanistan to US authorities long before publishing it. It may be legitimate for a national news organisation to put what it sees as national interests ahead of news value and transparency. However, it cannot simultaneously claim to be "international" and demand global access and other rights as though it were independent. Such policies also put non-US reporters in an impossible position.

Ethnic balance has never been an obvious goal in western media staffing. Muslims, whether western or other nationals, have been conspicuous by their rarity. Since September 11, much of the western owned media has lost its balance and followed an agenda of propaganda and prejudice. Meanwhile most of the real enemies of the west, the educated but disillusioned Muslims misfits of the type who carried out the attacks, are still sitting and seething in London, Hamburg, Marseilles, Toronto etc.

By going after make-believe enemies in Basilan, Bandung and Bangladesh the west is avoiding the real issues and playing into Mr Osama's hands, alienating hundreds of millions of Muslims in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran etc. Most of them are far more moderate than the Christian fundamentalist zealots such as attorney general John Ashcroft in Mr Bush's government. ends


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