CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- The fact that every day a new "armchair"
terrorism expert appears can be viewed as a welcome sign, for it shows that
there is growing alertness to the new challenge of our times. Terrorism
experts continue to argue over the best ways to confront unimaginable
threats, but frequently fail to separate the short- and long-term
dimensions. Talking too much about cutting off the hydra's heads pertains to
the former, while addressing the problem in a more comprehensive way
pertains to the latter.
In Southeast Asia -- a theater for terrorist activities -- many have
spoken of the need to destroy the terrorist leadership to prevent further
attacks. Yet this argument can be made two ways: positively, if the aim is
to extinguish the fires of the terrorist mindset; or negatively, if there is
a failure to recognize that each falling head may be replaced by a new and
potentially more destructive one.
The best course would be to move away from this endless discourse and
ponder a long-term solution that focuses on denying new recruits to
Proposals on how this can be accomplished come even from the Islamic
world, although they are sometimes drowned out by the vociferous chorus of
A few weeks ago a significant gathering was organized in Kuala Lumpur by
the authoritative Institute of Strategic and International Studies.
Addressing this venue, Malaysia's new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi -- the
personification of diplomatic ability, moderation and Islamic scholarship --
drew a line between true Quranic teachings and modern distortions, going as
far as to say that "terrorism is the mortal enemy of Islam, not its
ISIS Chairman Noordin Sopiee added: "Al-Qaeda is using terrorism to
achieve political objectives. They are trying to legitimize what they are
doing in the name of Islam and thereby damaging the image of Islam."
But it is when we move to the world of Islamic intelligentsia that we
find even more astonishing thoughts of wisdom and moderation. The late
Palestinian Dr. Ismail al Faruqi, an authority on Islam and comparative
religion, succinctly summarized man's relation to God: "Islam held as a
matter of principle that no man or being is one iota nearer to God than any
other. . . .
Pax Islamica never meant conversion to Islam, but entry into a peaceful
relationship wherein ideas are free to move and men are free to convince and
to be convinced."
Glimpses into the work of another Muslim thinker, Tunisian philosopher
and historian Mohamed Talbi, are inspiring. His motto is to be faithful to
one's roots and cultural heritage while maintaining a deep respect for the
ways of thinking of others as "all religions meet each other in Mysticism."
He wrote: "I am proud to be a Tunisian, but I am not the enemy of my
fellow human being, and I do not consider myself more worthy than him. . . .
We have to accept each other with our ways of thinking. We may fight but
with humility, modesty and friendship, so that our confrontation helps the
cause of truth. . . . Pluralism belongs to our future."
Talbi moved from theoretical heights to concrete problems of our times:
"In any European library one can find a plethora of our [Arab and Islamic]
manuscripts. There is no such case in any library of a Muslim country. As
long as there is absence of interest for the other, there will be no free
This last reference is of the outmost importance in the context of
present tensions. As long as there is no intellectual cross-fertilization,
there will be bitterness and a lack of mutual understanding. It is in such
troubled waters of ignorance that fanatics of all shades keep trying to
recruit new followers. It is here that we face the long-term dimension of
the calamity of terror: No matter how many heads are eliminated, as long as
there are vast reservoirs of new recruits the problem will be with us.
There are many similarly eloquent ideas and admonitions from scores of
other Muslim thinkers, a refreshing reminder that Islam has a moderate face.
The question is: Are these voices heard or silenced by the fury of the
As for the West: Is it trying hard enough to build and strengthen bridges
with these elements? How can the Islamic-Christian dialogue be invigorated,
especially as we bear in mind, along with Talbi, that this process goes back
centuries to the era of revelation?
The outlines of this article may be easily dismissed as too simplistic,
but I am afraid that we are now confronted with so much violence and
suffering precisely because we forget the very simplicity of our common