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Troubling Silence Over Beheading In Arab Media

by Mamoun Fandy

Zarqawi's Role In Beheading Is Ominous Turn

(PNS) RIYADH -- Paul Johnson's beheading sent a shiver of disgust throughout the world. Except the Arab world, that is.

As I scan the Arab satellite channels and Arabic newspapers over the last 24 hours, I find a strange silence about the brutal act. A few columnists, such as the Saudi Abdul Rahman al-Rashed and the Kuwaiti Ahmed al-Rubai, condemned the killing. But most who were outraged by the murder are afraid to express their feelings for fear of being killed.

The beheading of the American contractor from New Jersey and the Saudi response to it point to a broad and dangerous trend: Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world are swimming in a sea of violent language that justifies terrorism and makes it acceptable, especially to the young. Terrorism will not be defeated before its justification in Arab newspapers and Arab TVs and mosques is eliminated. For example, when an Al-Jazeera anchor adopts the language of al Qaeda and refers to Saudi Arabia as "Jazeerat al-Arab" (the Arabian Island), as if the current Saudi state never existed, terrorism wins.

Terror starts in the mind, is expressed through language and then materializes in brutal acts such as the beheading of Mr. Johnson.

I recently traveled to Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In each of these places I noticed that al Qaeda and its ideas are no longer perceived as extreme. Indeed, they have become mainstream. Being a part of this movement has become "cool" in the eyes of young people. One Kuwaiti who graduated from a school in Pennsylvania told me, "Don't believe them when they say it is al Qaeda that is slaying Americans. It is Americans who are killing Americans to justify their presence in the Arab world and to control Arab oil." Such conspiracies are rampant among Arab youth.

An Egyptian student told me the Americans "deserve it for their support to Israel and their occupation of Iraq." Discuss the topic and you end up listening to a litany of excuses focusing on America as the source of Arab misery, from Palestine to Iraq. There are those who denounce such thinking, like the Imam of the grand mosque in Mecca, but he does so only when the government pressures him.

Many in the Arab world think that killing Americans does not carry a price. Unlike killing someone from a neighboring tribe, a situation in which revenge is expected, Americans seem not to exact revenge after the assassination of their citizens. Like most Arab regimes, the American state appears ill-equipped to deal with non-state actors.

Violent movements seem to overwhelm and confuse state leaders. One may look to Lebanon, where Hizbullah is much more important than the Lebanese state, and its sheikh Hassan Nasrallah more prominent than Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. In the occupied territories, Hamas has enveloped the PLO. Hamas leaders such as Maumoud al-Zahar are much more important than Yassir Arafat. In Sudan, Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi and his movement took over the state.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have not yet reached this point. But they could move in the same direction very soon.

America should help Saudi Arabia improve security in the kingdom. The Saudi regime has many problems. But Osama bin Laden's primary objective, before bringing down America, is the destruction of the Saudi ruling family. The Saudis and the United States have no choice but to support each other. When we criticize the kingdom the Saudi elite is put on the spot, and they respond by criticizing America, which leads to even more support for bin Laden among the people.

Security is not the whole story. We need to make it possible for Arabs to condemn this act of barbarism unequivocally. We need to tip the balance in favor of those who condemn terrorism, but so far have been afraid to do it publicly.

Arabs should stop deceiving themselves by confusing the suffering of Arabs in Iraq and the occupied territories in Israel with the slaying of innocent people broadcast on the Internet. Arab heads of state, Imams of mosques and community leaders must make it clear that such acts are unacceptable. Unless Arabs themselves muster the courage to speak out against these heinous acts and those who perpetrate them, they will be the next victims of the Islamic radicals.

Arabic newspapers, television and Internets sites should make it clear that they will not publish hate speech against Americans or non-Muslims. Thus far, Arab media are full of speech that anywhere else in the world would be considered libelous.

American media, likewise, should refrain from giving newspaper space and television airtime to these barbaric thugs, their pronouncements and their acts. They are not killing for Allah, but for publicity. These are the kind of men who should be confronted in their hiding places, ferreted out and captured without media coverage. Only then will the numbers of killings decrease.

Mamoun Fandy is a columnist for the two largest Arab-language dailies, Cairo-based Al Ahram and London-based Asharq Al-Awsat. A former professor of politics at Georgetown University, Dr. Fandy is senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

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Albion Monitor June 16, 2004 (

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