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Putting Islamism on the Defensive

November 10, 2005 By:
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The streets of Parisian suburbs have been burning this week. It remains to be seen just how far-reaching the impact of a virtual revolt against the authority of the French republic by North African Muslim immigrants will be.

There are, no doubt, some Americans who will point to the spectacle of a virtual intifada in the heart of European civilization, and say that Americans will ignore the peril of Islamic fundamentalism at their peril. But such comparisons will be, at best, inappropriate.

French leaders have ignored the festering problem of having so large an immigrant group that has faced discrimination while also showing little inclination to integrate into an insular French culture. Perhaps they are waking up to the realization that appeasing them solely by support of Middle Eastern dictators and hostility to Israel won't work.

Here in the United States, where the majority of immigrants, be they Muslim or any other religious or ethnic minority, are desirous of assimilation and generally welcomed into society, there is no comparison with the situation in France.

But while Europeans are only just now realizing the challenge that Islamist radicals pose to their nations, Americans had their minds concentrated on the threat more than four years ago with the 9/11 attacks. The question here is not one of riots, but of whether the consensus that coalesced behind a war against terrorism is there anymore.

Is Apathy Growing?
On that front, there is both good news and bad news.

On the negative side of the ledger, years of indecisive war in Iraq have helped chip away at not only support for the administration, but also the notion that America must try to fight Islamists and hostile Arab/Muslim regimes on their own turf rather than wait for them here.

More troubling is the notion, promulgated by the radical left, but seeping into mainstream debate, that the entire concept of the war on terror is merely a Bush administration stratagem to hoodwink the nation.

The lack of further catastrophic attacks since Sept. 11 (even though the atrocities in Madrid in 2004 and London this past summer should remind us that Al Qaeda is alive and well) seems to have similarly undermined the notion that what is going is a real war rather than a one-time failure to catch a few evil terrorists.

As Steven Emerson, director of the Investigative Project and an expert on the question of Islamist terror, puts it, "As law enforcement successfully prevents acts of terror, our ability to mobilize the public to see the threat is diminished."

As Emerson sees it, the U.S. government has gone a long way from the apathy of the 1990s when America was used by a variety of Islamic terror groups as a virtual "safe haven," a moral outrage that should still stick in our throats. Since then, the Justice Department has acted to close down "charities" whose real purpose was to fund terrorists such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Fundraisers for these killers have been put on trial and convicted.

But the battle's far from won.

Domestic radical Islamic groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations are still seen by many, especially in the mainstream media, as legitimate voices of American Muslims and Arabs.

Such groups have been allowed to advocate extremism below the radar screen while pretending to be reasonable when the cameras are running.

As Emerson points out, a conference of radicals held by the Islamic Society of North America took place right here in Philadelphia in July 2003, where calls for jihad were made and videos of suicide bombings in Israel were sold. But the only coverage this event generated in The Philadelphia Inquirer was a puff piece about Muslims celebrating the Fourth of July.

Also troubling is the fact that the main source of funding of a host of radical Islamist causes still has the status of a U.S.-ally: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Nothing better illustrates America's schizophrenic attitude toward the war against Islamic terrorists than the virtual free pass that the Saudis have received for their role in spreading radical Islam. And even though, as Emerson says, President Bush deserves credit for finally giving a speech in which the words "radical" and "Islam" were used together in a sentence (as he did earlier this fall), Washington still goes weak at the knees anytime anyone suggests getting tough on the Saudis.

No better example of this exists than the administration's response to efforts by Congress to pass a Saudi Arabia Accountability Act. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and supported by both Democrats and Republicans, aims to put the Saudi princes on notice that their role in funding terror, as well as anti-American, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian hate, has not gone unnoticed. The bill would impose serious sanctions on the Saudi regime unless it started to behave.

Confronting an Ally
At hearings this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Specter, Emerson and others will testify to the role of the Saudis in not only serving as the focus of international terror finance, but also subsidizing charities, schools and mosques that all help promote an Islamist culture of war against the West.

In response, the administration prefers quiet diplomacy, but backers of the Specter bill are entitled to ask how much that strategy has achieved since 9/11.

In their defense, it's difficult to imagine how even the most aggressive American stand on the issue could ever change the nature of the Saudi regime. As Emerson points out, the legitimacy of the family that runs that country rests precisely on its loyalty to Wahhabism, the most radical fundamentalist sect of Islam that used the Saud clan to seize control of the Arabian heartland in the 1920s.

But what Emerson also points out is that the one thing we should have noticed in the last few years is that there are now some voices of Arab dissent that are starting to be heard.

MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute (www. memri.org) has provided its readers with a stunning array of Arab opinion in recent years, including the surprising development of what Emerson rightly calls "courageous voices of Muslim self-criticism."

If Muslims around the world are being pushed toward extremism by Saudi money, then what is needed is a revolution from within, as well as pressure for democracy from the West.

As important as it is to hold the Saudis accountable, the Western counterattack against Islamism must incorporate the knowledge that this problem is bigger than just the bad behavior of some Saudi princes. Allowing enclaves of Islamism to fester without opposition has consequences as the French now realize.

The memories of 9/11, as well as the spectacle of other Islamist outrages, ought to concentrate our minds on the ongoing nature of the struggle. The time bombs of radicalism planted by Saudi money are still out there ticking. Saudi accountability is the start of the fight, not the end of it.

Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at: jtobin@jewishexponent.com.

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