Dialogue is no longer enough: Muslims in the Arab world are despairing of the West's attitude to them, argues Robert Fisk

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The Independent Online
THE ONLY United States marine to see the Muslim suicide bomber who blew up the marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 remembered just one thing about the man who slaughtered 241 of his comrades: he was smiling. Not long ago, I asked the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, if he could explain to me why a Muslim would smile as he drove to his death.

'The best metaphor for a Westerner to try to understand this truth is to think of a person being in a sauna bath for a long time,' he replied to my astonishment. 'This person is very thirsty and tired and hot, and he is suffering from the effects of the high temperature. Then he is told that if he opens the door, he can go into a quiet, comfortable room, drink a nice cocktail and hear beautiful classical music. Then he will open the door and go through without hesitation, knowing that what he leaves behind is not a high price to pay - and that what awaits him is of much greater value.'

The sauna, the cocktail, classical music, these were the physical luxuries we might crave on earth. But the 'quiet, comfortable room' was clearly heaven. Just open the door. Was it with such abandon that the boy martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war drove their motor-scooters into Saddam's minefields? Or was it anger and frustration that motivated the young Lebanese who blew themselves up next to Israeli convoys in southern Lebanon? And if local conflicts can engender such ferocity, what are to be the consequences of the genocide of Muslims in Bosnia?

In Khartoum these past four days, Muslims - and several Christians - from 82 different countries have been asking this last question at a very unusual conference. Few came as official representatives of their governments. Jordanian Islamicists opposed to King Hussein, radicals from Algeria, Hizbollah delegates from Lebanon, 50 parliamentarians from Yemen, even that ancient Marxist Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine turned up to sit in Khartoum's ugly 'Friendship Palace' to debate the future of Islam and - to use the most oft-repeated phrase - the 'victory and jihad of Muslims'.

Needless to say, Sudan's 'Popular Arab and Islamic Conference' was going to be unpopular with both the West and the Arab regimes that support Washington. Even Saddam Hussein went no further than to dispatch his 'adviser for religious affairs' to Khartoum for the occasion.

The gathering revealed unhappy realities as well as understandable fears within the Islamic world. At the opening session, a Nigerian woman doctor asked delegates to remember that Muslim women deserved just treatment and equality of opportunity under Islam. 'Be fair to us,' she pleaded in her short and moving address. But when Dr Mustafa Ceric, the Imam of Sarajevo remarked that he hoped more women would speak at the conference, many of the Muslim delegates burst into laughter. Mr Ceric, who has consistently demanded equality for all under the shell-fire of Sarajevo, glowered angrily.

Nor were the Islamic movements in any mood to oblige Hassan Turabi, Sudan's ascetic spiritual 'guide', by giving Yasser Arafat a hearing in Khartoum. The moment Hamas, Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine, Hizbollah and Mr Hawatmeh heard of Mr Turabi's plan to freight Mr Arafat into Sudan for a reconciliation - or at least a 'brotherly' discussion - about the Gaza-Jericho accord, they threatened to walk out of the conference. Mr Arafat, once an ally of many of the men in the 'Friendship Palace', took the hint and stayed away.

For the Khartoum conference demonstrated once again the enormous reservoir of suspicion and distrust of the West which is growing among so many Arab nations. Inevitably dubbed a 'terrorists' conference' by the US press - which faithfully and with equal inevitability took its cue from the remark of an Israeli official - the gathering was one of dissidents rather than subversives, of men (few women, of course) who believe that the PLO- Israel accord is merely another chapter in the Muslim world's submission to the West.

Where else, after all, could such views find expression? Most Arab regimes suppress dissent, and Saudi Arabia's domination of the international Arab media has effectively deprived millions of Muslims of the opportunity for free debate. With only Egypt and Jordan allowing a modicum of free speech - and with the former's security services routinely torturing anyone suspected of involvement in armed opposition to the Mubarak regime - democracy is virtually non-existent in the Arab world.

In fairness, it should be said that there are Americans who prefer it this way. One prominent American journalist recently argued in the pages of a Washington journal that the Arab world should be obliged to observe human rights without being forced to adopt the basic principles of democracy. This pernicious idea - which denies that democracy is a human right - makes sense in the West. For if the Arab world were to allow its people free expression, how could it be relied upon to support the West and, by extension, peace with Israel?

Those Arab leaders who are allies of the West - President Mubarak, for example - have always urged their people to use the ballot box rather than the gun to change their governments. Yet when an Islamic party was about to win a second round of elections in Algeria two years ago, the government suspended the poll and outlawed the probable victors - who turned to violence to achieve their ends and are now, of course, referred to as 'terrorists'.

'How dare the United States lecture us on peace and democracy?' one of the more moderate Palestinian delegates in Khartoum asked angrily. 'How can they support regimes like Tunisia and Morocco and Algeria - and Egypt with all its human rights abuses - and all those feudal monarchies in the Gulf, and then accuse Sudan of being a 'terrorist' state that abuses human rights?' Repeatedly, the Muslims in Khartoum accepted the veracity of the so-called memorandum - an evident forgery - which is supposed to have been sent by Douglas Hurd to John Major and in which the Foreign Secretary purportedly opposed the creation of a Muslim state in Europe. This sham document, which circulates today in almost every Arab capital, is now given credibility in the Islamic world. In a clear reference to the forgery, General Mirza Alslam of Pakistan presented a paper to the conference in which he said 'recently released (sic) European documents reveal plans to annihilate the Muslims in Bosnia'.

Yet Arab Muslims may be forgiven for believing in this fabrication when international credibility - and in particular the authority of the United Nations - has become so eroded in the Islamic world. Offensive UN military action against armed Muslim groups in Somalia is acceptable to the West. Offensive military action against those who kill Muslims in Bosnia is unacceptable. Even when Arab nations have sent their own troops on peacekeeping missions to the Balkans, they have been constrained by the UN. There is no evidence that the Egyptian battalion in Sarajevo or the Jordanian battalion north of the Sava river have saved a single Muslim life.

But of greatest portent were those voices - sometimes incoherent, always rhetorical, invariably angry - which sought to define what could not be discussed elsewhere; the idea that Muslims must decide their own future without interference from the West or from Arab leaders friendly with the West. 'Don't you see that we can't say what we think if we are in our own countries and can't read what we think even if we buy a newspaper?' another Palestinian complained. 'We are told to be democratic in countries which aren't democratic. If we oppose American plans for the region or Arafat's submission to Israel, we are called 'enemies of peace'. And if we take up arms because we have no other means to express ourselves or if we die for our religion, we are called 'terrorists'.'

I suspect that Mr Ceric, the Imam of Bosnia, was thinking along the same lines when I came across him in the lobby of the Hilton hotel. Last summer, when we met under bombardment in Sarajevo, he had vouchsafed his belief that the Christian West despised the Muslims who lived peacefully among them but that Muslims and Christians must maintain a dialogue without mutual recrimination. Now, in Khartoum, his attitude was less patient. Dialogue was no longer enough, he said. Muslims had to assert their identity and force the West to listen. 'Our civilisations must talk to each other - but directly. We must be honest with each other. Up to now, we have tried to be nice and said to each other: 'Let's live together'. That was very pleasant. But now we must be very honest and speak straight out about our problems, not just as human beings but as Muslims.'

It was a statement; but it was also a warning.

'From Beirut to Bosnia', a three-part series that follows Robert Fisk in his reporting of the Muslim world for the Independent, starts at 9pm on Channel 4 tonight with 'The Martyr's Smile'. The series continues on December 14 and 21.

(Photographs omitted)