THAT the assault on New York's highest buildings and the American military headquarters appears to have been organised by Osama bin Laden and carried out exclusively by Muslims has large implications for the way Muslim populations living in all Western countries will be seen in the future.
Knowing a bit of background helps to explain what brought us to this situation. Bin Laden's men are not just Muslims but also Islamists. Islam (a religion) is not the problem, but Islamism (a totalitarian ideology) is. Islamism is not so much a distortion of Islam, but a radically new interpretation. It politicises the religion, turning it into a blueprint for establishing a coerced utopia. In many ways, its programme resembles those of fascism and Marxism/Leninism.
This week's events mark not the outbreak of a new problem but the heightening of a two-decade-long pattern of Islamist violence. That violence is a truly global phenomenon, affecting such varied countries as Algeria, Pakistan, Russia, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Philippines. Islamists constitute a small but significant minority of Muslims, perhaps 10 to 15 per cent of the population. Many of them are peaceable in appearance, but they all must be considered potential killers.
Here is some guidance, starting with steps to take to protect the rights of the Muslim minority:
- Maintain the utmost respect for individual Muslims, mosques and other institutions. A time of crisis does not change the assumption that each of us is innocent until proved guilty.
- Do not make any prejudicial statements against Muslims, a great majority of whom are innocent of Islamism or illegal behaviour.
- Provide extra protection against acts of vandalism or hooliganism against Muslim property and individuals.
- The press, politicians and other opinion leaders should speak out on these points.
So much for the easy steps. The harder ones concern the investigation of past crimes and their prevention in the future. The painful fact is that Muslims alone are susceptible to the lure of Islamist extremism. While safeguarding the civil rights and religious freedoms of Muslims, then, steps must be taken to diminish their unique susceptibility to this totalitarian ideology. Here are some recommendations:
- Crack down hard on the Islamic institutions that funnel Muslim youth into jihad (sacred war) activities. This is a particularly British problem. For about a decade, these youths have signed on for such acceptable foreign activities as studying at Islamic seminaries or working for Islamic charities, which have then served as recruiting devices for jihad against non-Muslims in such places as Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir. These men clearly serve as potential cadres for attacks within Britain, perhaps elsewhere.
- Worry about Islamist "sleepers". These individuals go quietly about their business until one day they are called into action. Ali A Mohamed, a naturalised US citizen born in Egypt, reached the rank of sergeant in the US army; earlier this year, he pleaded guilty to scouting out the American embassy in Nairobi as a bombing target on behalf of bin Laden, as well as assorted other tasks.
- Combat the broader climate of hatred and extremism among Muslim populations resident in the West that has repeatedly lead to terrorism. Rashid Baz, the Lebanese-born delivery driver who randomly killed a Hasidic Jewish boy on the Brooklyn Bridge in March 1994, one report found, "lived in a milieu that cultivated terrorism" and "encouraged him to perpetrate violence".
- Listen to the advice of anti-Islamist Muslims, the people first threatened by Islamism, who know it from closest proximity, and who can help penetrate its clandestine hierarchies.
- Close internet sites that promote violence, raise money for this purpose and recruit new members. The American government took a first step in this direction last week by closing down InfoCom, a Dallas-based host for many Islamist organisations.
- Guard vigilantly against the possibility of visitors and immigrants with Islamist records entering the country. No Western government has dared do this because it smacks of bias (the British ban on Louis Farrakhan was a temporary exception). But each Islamist who enters is an enemy on the home front.
- Beef up aircraft profiling - the practice of looking at passengers' ethnic and religious characteristics. This has been controversial in the US, where lobbies have impeded law enforcement officials from using their common sense to keep an especially watchful eye for Islamists because, allegedly, this "unfairly singles out" minorities. The consequences of not profiling became painfully obvious on Tuesday, when between 12 and 24 Islamists hijacked four separate flights.
- Isolate noisy and prominent Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Human Rights Council. These are in fact fringe organisations and they should be avoided by politicians, the media, corporations and all the rest of mainstream society.
- Reconsider past mistakes. Universities, media outlets, churches and government bureaus have some hard soul-searching to do; their experts on Islam and Muslims have an influential group of apologists (one recent example is the BBC with its week-long BBC programming on Islam). They have counselled against every one of the steps outlined here. These specialists bear some responsibility for the unpreparedness that led to this week's disaster. They and their institutions must review past mistakes and begin with a fresh, realistic approach.
The goal in formulating policy toward domestic Muslim populations must be two-fold: to combine fairness toward their moderate majority with a very tough stance toward the Islamists. This balance requires sensitivity but not political correctness - a match that can be achieved if done honestly and intelligently.