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Radicalism is Destroying Muslim Societies

By Ian Wendt

Today, the Muslim world is struggling with numerous challenges: absolute monarchs, dictators, internal inequalities, confrontation with modernity and social change, the poison of oil wealth, economic stagnation, human rights abuses to name a few. But the paramount ordeal for contemporary Muslim societies is the disease of radicalism.

Radical militants terrorize, radicalize and destroy their own communities first. Only then do they attack their neighbors and the world. Even as they spread carnage and terror abroad, Muslim radicals make graveyards of their own communities. For their own sake, Muslim societies must reject radical militancy. For our sake, we need to help them.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), then the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Hamas, and other militant groups became famous by attacking Israel, western airplanes, and western innocents. But they have done their greatest damage to the Palestinian people. The current fighting between Fatah (the PLO's political party) and Hamas is the most recent obvious expression of decades of corruption, abuse, militant attacks and internal terror perpetrated by radicals against the Palestinian people.

In Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion, a decade long fight by various Mujahideen, followed by a decade of civil war rendered this once diverse, moderate, even cosmopolitan, land a wasteland of radicalism under the rule of the Taliban. The Taliban became international radical Muslim stars, supporting Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and exporting radicalism to the world, all while destroying their own society. Their continuing war on the people of Afghanistan has wrought generational devastation.

Lebanese radicalism is embodied in Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. The Lebanese civil war destroyed a once beautiful society. Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad have also maintained a long term, low-level war with Israel. Moreover, they continue to strive to radicalize, divide and do violence to their own society. This week an anti-Syrian Muslim legislator and nine others were killed in a car bombing, threatening the stability of the Lebanese unity government.

Iranian radicalism enjoys the distinction of long-term state power. Iranian radicals have been responsible for numerous terrorist and militant attacks in recent decades. The Iranian Quds Force is currently active in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But radical clerics and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard suppress the Iranian people far more than their enemies abroad.

In the world of Muslim radicals, Al Qaeda is a relative late bloomer, born out of radicalism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Arabia. It claims to attack the West, but clearly Al Qaeda in Iraq has killed many more Muslims than non-Muslims. In fact, it would not be difficult to argue that, including the September 11th attacks, Al Qaeda has done much greater harm to Muslim societies than it has done to the West.

Finally, radical groups have gained increasingly violent potency in Iraq over the last few years. Like roaches scurrying out from under a lifted stone, Sunni insurgents, Saddam loyalists, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Shiite death squads have proliferated in post-Saddam Iraq. Many of them claim to fight American and coalition soldiers. They have succeeded in killing and injuring thousands of foreign troops. But the murder, terror and violence they have wrought on Iraqis is far greater.

Amazingly, notwithstanding this litany of radical groups that attack and strive to destroy their own societies, the Muslim world contains hundreds of millions of people in conservative to moderate societies that want peace, stability, prosperity, and freedom. Radicalism threatens their very survival, even more than it threatens terror attacks on us.

The world tends to respond to radical Muslim militancy in two distinct and incomplete ways. Principally, many fear it and attack it because it is a threat to other societies around the world. By contrast, others view it as a natural expression of Muslim victimhood at the hands of the West or Israel. The first response - to 'fight fire with fire' - is the War on Terror response. The second - Muslim victimhood - is a prominent response from both the Muslim world and the liberal left.

Both responses are currently failing, particularly the Muslim world.

The Muslim victimhood response is disastrous for several reasons. It denies and misidentifies the problem by blaming foreign groups; it excuses, condones and fuels radical violence; and it denies the agency and responsibility of Muslim people.

The 'fight fire with fire' response is understandable, necessary even, but incomplete. The chief drawbacks of a predominantly military response to radical Muslim militancy are: attacks reinforce Muslim feelings of grievance; attacks fuel reprisals and increased radicalism; foreign soldiers make ideal targets for radicals; and most importantly, powerful foreign military activities inhibit the ability of Muslim communities to identify, confront and defeat the internal cancer of radicalism.

Muslim radical violence must be resisted and fought militarily. But we also need a comprehensive approach that clearly discredits and undermines Muslim radicalism both within and without Muslim societies. Because radicalism attacks its own community first, it must be defeated there first. Our current responses either deny or fuel the problem without effectively defeating it.

If we are to enjoy peace again, if we are to win our struggle against radical Muslim militancy, we - the Western world, the Muslim world, the entire world - must recognize that Muslim radicalism is most devastating to Muslim communities and societies. We must help Muslim societies correctly identify, fight and eradicate the cancer that attacks their people. Muslim societies can and must do it, and we need to help them.

Ian Wendt is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Washington State University. He is the editor of .

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