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Friday, September 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Beheading and condemnation: a Muslim-American perspective

By Parvez Ahmed
Special to The Times

Parvez Ahmed
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Another American is beheaded in Iraq. While we hope it is the last, our fear is that many more may follow. Not to say that the beheading is by itself not repulsive, but the accompanying image of hooded men standing in front of Islam's sacred text and chanting Islam's sacred creed, "God is great," makes the picture even more troublesome.

What could be worse than the taking of an innocent man's life? A life taken in the name of a merciful God and in the supposed cause of defending a religion.

Each round of beheading brings with it condemnations from Muslim groups, both in America and abroad. Muslim groups keep condemning the brutal acts of terror, partly because it is the right thing to do but also partly to protect their community from backlash.

Each condemnation from Muslim groups is inevitably preceded by bone-chilling hate mail from people who, like the terrorists, hide behind anonymity. It is almost mind-numbing to think that both groups believe God is on their side.

Islam does not teach such wanton violence no matter what the level of grievance is for the aggrieved. There is no doubt that Iraqis and Chechens have a lot to be angry about. They have not just paid in blood but in lost human dignity. But their legitimate grievances do not justify the illegitimate and barbaric acts of beheading innocent souls and planting bombs in schools.

The fact that many, if not most, Americans view Islam as the enemy is not surprising. This unfortunate view is perhaps a reaction to the actions of a deranged group of Muslims who kill indiscriminately, contrary to Islam's central message of sanctifying and purifying life.

But equally undeniable is the fact that current attitudes toward Islam are a result of generations of ignorance about a world religion, which the West has demonized for too long and thus finds itself ill-prepared to understand, much less deal with the legitimate aspirations of its many adherents.

This misunderstanding is also at the heart of repeated demands made to the American-Muslim community to condemn every gruesome act that takes place overseas. It is not enough that all major American-Muslim groups condemned the 9/11 terrorist attacks less than three hours after the planes hit the first tower. It is not enough that a major American-Muslim group took out an ad in The Washington Post condemning terror. It is not enough that each gruesome act that shocked Americans — from the murder of Daniel Pearl to the bombing of a seder party to the beheading of Nick Berg to the massacre in Beslan — has equally shocked Muslims and brought swift and unequivocal condemnations. It is not enough that an online petition, "Not in the Name of Islam," garnered over 700,000 signatories.

What do repeated condemnations achieve anyway? They have not satisfied our many detractors and more importantly they have failed to make any impression on the terrorists. Does someone legitimately believe that a faceless, stateless and mindless group of people will be swayed by intellectual appeals to reason?

If bone-chilling cries of a helpless and defenseless human being moves nothing in their souls, what meaning do words from sacred texts have for them? If thousands of American soldiers using sophisticated weaponry and backed by an equally impressive intelligence infrastructure cannot hunt down the terrorists, what chance does a community of Muslims in America have in influencing actions thousands of miles away?

At the heart of this dilemma today are the central questions: Who are they and why do they hate us? In "Imperial Hubris," a recent book by an anonymous U.S. intelligence agent, the author contends that terrorism is not rooted in any inherent hatred toward America's championing of freedom, liberty and democracy, but rather has everything to do with U.S. policies and actions in the Muslim world.

Among the root causes are perceptions that U.S. policy turns a blind eye to the legitimate aspirations of Muslims who desire to live in freedom — with dignity, and in control of their own destiny. Our continued support of brutal dictatorships, even as we toppled one, have a lot to do with the current rage.

Muslim societies also need to be introspective of their socio-political-religious structures and examine how the situation evolved to a point that life has lost all its meaning. Blaming America first is not going to absolve them of their own shortcomings.

Unless both sides hunker down into a meaningful dialogue, the current spate of incoherent policies will be followed by more acts of mindless terror, leading to harsher reprisals. The unending cycle of violence will send the world into a spiral of chaos, fear and confusion.

Parvez Ahmed is a board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, headquartered in Washington, D.C. CAIR is the country's largest Muslim civil-liberties advocacy group. E-mail: pahmed@cair-flor-ida.org

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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