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What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

Holy war

(September 1, 1998)

Self-defence. That's the principle invoked by the Unites States to 
justify attacking "terrorist training camps" in Afghanistan and a 
pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. In an international system in which 
states are challenging the law of the jungle, the State Department 
needed a legal cover for the bombings on 20 August 1998 which violated 
the sovereignty of several states. So it invoked Article 51 of the 
United Nations Charter. But the article only provides for the use of
"self-defence" in the case of "an armed attack... until the Security 
Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and
security". Did the US really defend itself from "an armed attack" while 
waiting for the Security Council to take the "necessary measures"?

It seems not. Indeed, a number of American officials have pointed out 
that last month's raids marked a turning point in Washington's strategy:
the US no longer feels constrained to seek an international consensus or 
the backing of the United Nations. As one official remarked, "We're in 
the deterrence business... [and it] is not based on legal niceties or 
delay (1)". Forget international law. Did sheriffs ever ask permission 
to shoot bandits?

Anyway, international law was not much help when there was no sure proof
of Osama bin Laden's involvement in the criminal attacks on the US 
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But, while FBI chief Louis Freeh was 
telling the world that "We are still in a fairly preliminary stage" of 
the enquiry, and his most senior colleague in the field was admitting 
that the main suspect arrested had neither confessed nor implicated Mr 
Bin Laden (2), the Tomahawks were already on their way. Never mind that 
foreign technicians who worked in the bombed Khartoum factory dismissed 
the notion that it could be used to produce chemical weapons. And the 
United States' unwillingness to countenance a UN commission of enquiry 
said little for its good faith.

People in the Muslim world are getting tired of this arrogance. Some of 
them think President Clinton was trying to turn attention from the 
Lewinsky affair; others say "a terrorist reaction to a terrorist action 
is unacceptable (3)". The most moderate think a military response has 
its limitations. As an Egyptian editorial put it, "All the Pentagon's 
power may help in fighting terrorism, but it will never be fully 
effective as long as discontent and [the Islamic world's] will to resist
persist. A better approach would be policy shifts in favour of the 
oppressed, such as the Palestinians. (4)"

This is reminiscent of something said by Robert M. Gates, head of the 
CIA under the Bush administration: "We can pursue policies and 
strategies that in the long term weaken terrorism's roots. We can pursue
a peace in the Middle East that does not kowtow to Binyamin Netanyahu's 
obstructionism. (5)"

Terrorism is drawing strength from the mounting crises and frustrations 
in the Muslim world, from Iraq to Kashmir, Palestine to Sudan. Obviously,
the United States is not responsible for all the region's woes. But as
the world's only superpower, it is accountable for a good number of its 
dramas: the embargo which is harming the Iraqi people, sanctions against
Libya and Sudan, the suffering of the Palestinians, the continuing 
occupation of East Jerusalem and the Golan, and so on. You don't have to
be a Muslim "fanatic" to question Washington's role in each of these 
events, or to see how the West conveniently overlooks its declarations 
about democracy when it comes to Saudi and Indonesian dictatorships, or 
authoritarian rule in Egypt or Pakistan.

Osama bin Laden is now America's public enemy number one. Could the 
former "freedom fighter" have dreamed of a better role? Thousands of 
young Muslims will now find a reason for joining his "holy war". But 
others will be reduced to silence for fear of being accused of 
complicity with a power that helps perpetuate an unjust world order.

Willy-nilly, the United States is locking itself into a "war of 
civilisations" and helping to widen the fracture between the Muslim 
world and the West. But the old order is on its way out. In a few years 
time, the Middle East will have lost its main leaders. Yasser Arafat and
Kings Hussein and Fahd are ill, as is President Hafez al Assad. There is 
a particularly dangerous transition ahead, which may re-open the whole 
question of the borders and states that were put in place by the old 
colonial powers. Like anywhere else, the peoples of this region want 
peace, freedom, national independence, democracy. It is by responding to
those desires, not launching a holy war against "Islamic terror", that we
can guarantee an orderly transition.

(1) International Herald Tribune, Paris, 24 August 1998.

(2) "US Seeks Proof on Saudi's Role", International Herald Tribune, 22-
23 August 1998.

(3) Al Shark, Qatar, quoted by Mideast Mirror, London, 21 August 1998.

(4) Al Ahram Weekly, Cairo, 13-19 August 1998.

(5) "No Easy Remedies Against Anti-American Terrorism", International 
Herald Tribune, 18 August 1998.

Translated by Wendy Kristian