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PERSPECTIVE ON SHEIK ABDUL RAHMAN : N.Y. Bomb a Skirmish in Holy War : Muslim fundamentalists are willing to sacrifice innocent lives in their unrelenting campaign to overcome the evil West.

March 07, 1993|MARK JUERGENSMEYER | Mark Juergensmeyer is dean of the University of Hawaii School of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies and author of "The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State" (UC Press, 1993)

Why was the World Trade Center the target of an alleged Muslim attack? A recent statement by Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the radical Egyptian cleric who reportedly inspired Mohammed A. Salameh and other members of a New Jersey Islamic cell, provides a significant clue.

Abdul Rahman condemned Egypt's government as a "vestige of colonialism." He implied that the Western-style political organization of Egypt was alien to the traditional religious and social values of the country. Like many religious activists, he has imagined a worldwide conspiracy, led by America, to destroy traditional cultures and create mini-Americas throughout the globe.

Abdul Rahman is the spokesman for an ideological position that has gained a small but potent following in Egypt over the past 40 years. Like religious activists elsewhere in the Middle East and South Asia, these followers perceive the world as embroiled in a cosmic war between secular and religious forces, and see themselves as soldiers in a covert battle. They identify the secular economic institutions of America as one of the enemies, and regard the killings of which they have been accused as justified by the rules of war.

The list of killings attributed to the group, known primarily as Al-Jihad (the Holy War), is impressive for the importance of its targets: in 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; in 1984, Egypt's interior minister; in 1990, Egyptian Assembly Speaker Rifaat Mahgoub, then second in power to President Hosni Mubarak. Abdul Rahman was deported to Sudan in 1990, then entered the United States. At the end of that year, Abdul Rahman's group was accused of assassinating Israel's outspoken religious leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane, in mid-town Manhattan.

The most articulate expression of the Jihad ideology was composed by one of Abdul Rahman's colleagues, Abd Salam Faraj, who was the author of a pamphlet circulated in Cairo in the early 1980s. This pamphlet, "The Neglected Duty," urges war against the political enemies of Islam and grounds the activities of terrorists firmly in Islamic tradition. Faraj's pamphlet argues that the Koran and other holy writings are fundamentally about warfare. Faraj calls for "fighting, which means confrontation and blood."

Anyone who deviates from the moral and social requirements of Islamic law is a fit target for jihad, Faraj writes. He is especially incensed over Muslims who have adopted Western customs, and regards America as the great global enemy that has encouraged Muslims to lose their faith.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Faraj's thought is his conclusion that peaceful and legal means are inadequate for fighting apostasy. The true soldier for Islam is allowed to use virtually any means available to achieve a just goal. Deceit, trickery and violence are specifically mentioned as options available to the desperate soldier. Faraj sets some moral limits to the tactics that may be used--for example, innocent bystanders, women and children are to be avoided, whenever possible, in assassination attempts--but emphasizes that the duty to engage in such actions when necessary is incumbent on all true Muslims. The reward is nothing less than an honored place in paradise. Such a place was presumably earned by Faraj himself in 1982 after he was tried and executed for his part in the Anwar Sadat assassination.

Faraj and Abdul Rahman were influenced by the thought of Sayyid Qutb, an earlier Muslim writer in Egypt who also identified Western culture as the great enemy of Islam. Qutb wrote a series of pamphlets in Cairo in the 1950s and, like Faraj, was implicated in political assassinations and executed. Although he was not as explicit as Faraj in indicating acceptable techniques of terror, Qutb laid the groundwork for Faraj's understanding of jihad as an appropriate response to the advocates of Western culture and modern society. Specifically, Qutb railed against those who encouraged the cultural, political and economic domination of the Egyptian government by the West.

Qutb himself had spent several years in the United States, studying educational administration, but this experience only confirmed his impression that American society was essentially racist, and that American policy in the Middle East was dictated by Israel and what he regarded as the Jewish lobby in Washington. Alarmed at the degree to which the new government in Egypt was modeled after Western political institutions and influenced by Western values, Qutb wrote a widely circulated pamphlet, "This Religion of Islam," which advocated a radical return to Islamic values and Muslim law.

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