Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

An unprecedented summit

The upcoming Washington summit on fighting terrorism and extremism is an opportunity for Arab and Muslim countries to speak with one voice against the equation of terrorism with Islam, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris early this month, the United States government proposed a summit meeting in Washington, DC to discuss ways to fight extremism and terrorism. No details have been given, so far, as to the list of guests or the summit agenda. Only the date is known, 18 February.

The summit will be the first of its kind as far as an international response to terrorism is concerned. In the 1980s, the Egyptian government called for such a conference. But the reactions from Western governments were not positive, and the meeting never took place. The West, at that time, was fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, relying on groups and political forces, from within and outside Afghanistan, that were to become real threats to many Arab and Muslim governments once Soviet forces withdrew in 1988.

Egypt was the country that suffered most from the phenomenon known as the return of the “Afghan Arabs” — young men trained and indoctrinated to fight what they described as al-taghout, or the despot, a concept borrowed from the Quran and applied incorrectly.

Back then some Western countries, like Britain, decided to grant residency permits and asylum status to some leaders of these groups. Their numbers increased to the extent that the British capital came to be called “Londonistan”, and rightly so.

The British turned deaf ears to the Egyptian government and its requests not to harbour those elements who were behind the terrorist attacks that targeted Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s, and that climaxed with the Luxor massacre on 17 November 1997 that took the lives of no less than 60 foreign tourists.

The Egyptian argument was simple and straightforward: sooner or later, those militants (I would rather call them terrorists-in-waiting) will strike in the heart of Western capitals, and the West’s near-certainty that providing such people with a safe haven would be an effective and successful insurance policy against terrorist attacks would prove utterly wrong.

Egyptian warnings were borne out when 11 September 2001 arrived, with attacks both in New York and the US capital, and later, in July 2005, in London. The Paris attacks this month should be seen in this historic context. Luckily, the Belgian police succeeded in dismantling a terrorist cell in the week after the Paris attacks. The cell was allegedly planning major attacks within Belgium.

According to press reports, Belgian investigators found police uniforms in the cell’s apartment, suggesting that an attack was planned on a police station. Thisould have resulted in mayhem. Fortunately, Belgian police foiled this madness.

The last four years in the Arab world have proven that the West, or at least some Western governments, still believe they can deal with terrorist and extremist groups to achieve political ends. The situation in Syria is a case in point. The stalemate in Syria proved to be a fertile ground for extremists and terrorist organisations that benefitted from the short-sightedness of the group of countries that was known as the “Friends of Syria”, a group that included some Arab governments and the Arab League.

This group has funded and trained some of these extremists to enable them to overthrow the Syrian government. But instead of reaching this end, Western and Arab policies led to the emergence of “Daesh” — the Islamic State (IS) group — and Al-Nusra Front, both of which emerged from Al-Qaeda. Al-Nusra Front does not deny its affiliation with Al-Qaeda. Daesh now controls almost half of Iraq’s territory, particularly in Sunni areas, and one third of Syria.

One of the basic questions that will be decisive in the success or failure of the Washington summit will centre around the political instrumentalisation of these terrorist groups by some governments, whether in the Gulf or in the West. Judging from the changing winds in Syria, it seems that there is a political will to face these groups in an all-out confrontation. The summit will prove successful if it ends that kind of political instrumetalisation.

Another challenge in Washington will be underlining the complete dissociation of Islam and Muslim communities living in the West from terrorism and extremism. Judging from official statements that have emanated from Western capitals in the wake of the Paris attacks, particularly from French President Francois Hollande and other high-level officials in France, this crucial question will top the agenda at the Washington summit.

Inviting the grand sheikh of the prestigious Al-Azhar will go a long way to emphasising that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. In the same context lies the idea of inviting a representative of the Shia sect.

Addressing the Institute of the Arab World in Paris, the French president said ten days ago that Muslims have been victims of terrorism and that the Muslims of France are protected by law as equals to Christians, Jews and atheists, or believers and nonbelievers, under the protection of the ideals of the French republic. He warned against associating Islam and Muslims with terrorism.

To drive the point home, the French government decided to grant French citizenship to the Muslim worker from Mali who helped Jewish people hide from the terrorist who stormed a Jewish grocery shop in Paris and killed four innocent French Jews one day after the attack on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The president of France said that all places of worship, be they synagogues, churches or mosques, would be protected against attacks and arson. He thanked Arab representatives who participated in “La Marche Republicaine” on 11 January, showing solidarity with the French people in their fight against terrorism. He also talked about cooperation across the Mediterranean, between Europe and Arab countries, to defeat extremism and terrorism.

Western leaders in Europe and elsewhere have gone to great lengths to portray the battle against terrorism as a fight of the world as a whole, including Muslim countries, against the forces of evil. They have taken pains to drive an important point home: the fight against terrorist groups is neither a fight against Islam, nor against Muslims — especially Muslim communities in the West.

Hopefully, one of the basic messages that will come out of the Washington summit will be that the battle against terrorism is an all-out fight against terrorist groups and extremism, and has nothing to do with Islam and Muslims.

The terrorist groups that have been fighting in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, raising the black flags of Al-Qaeda, seek to portray their ideology and actions as a fight in the name of Islam against the world of non-Muslims.

In Washington we have to prove them utterly wrong. They act neither in the name of Islam, nor on behalf of Muslims around the world.

It is to be hoped that Arab and Muslim countries, in addition to religious institutions invited to the Washington summit, will attend with common positions. I hope that their agenda will be one of tolerance, coexistence with other cultures, religions and civilisations in mutual respect, as well as acceptance of religious and political diversity.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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