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Muslims bracing for a new 'Crusade' by the West

WASHINGTON — Not many Muslims, regardless of nationality, buy into President Bush's contention that war against Iraq may be needed as a self-defense measure against a potential aggressor.

Some Muslims are more vehement in their opposition than others.

Islamic scholars at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, for example, believe that no provocation can justify an American military presence on Arab soil.

The scholars, members of the university's Islamic Research Academy, argue that Islamic law holds that "if the enemy steps on Muslims' land, jihad becomes a duty on every male and female Muslim."

They believe the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf and the expected invasion of Iraq are part of a new "Crusade" by the West against Islam.

The Crusades were a series of wars fought more than 1,000 years ago as Christian armies traveled to the Holy Land to attack the armies of the Muslim sultans who then controlled Jerusalem.

Non-Muslims tend to view the Crusades as an aberration from a bygone past. Muslims, particularly fundamentalists, believe that little has changed since that period. They maintain the West's thirst for control of the region persists to this day, and they cite as evidence Bush's war on terrorism and the Persian Gulf troop buildup.

Among crusader theorists is Osama bin Laden, who sees the presence of "infidel" American troops on the "sacred" soil of Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, as evidence that the West is intent on subjugating Muslims.

According to U.S. counterterrorism officials, bin Laden's al-Qaida operatives plan to strike U.S. and allied forces if Bush orders an attack on Iraq.

Attempts by some Muslims to depict the West as colonizers in disguise frustrate those who see history in a far different light.

In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, for example, Middle East expert Barry Rubin wrote: "During the last half-century, in 11 of 12 major conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims, Muslims and secular forces, or Arabs and non-Arabs, the United States has sided with the former group."

The exception, of course, is the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which Washington's support for Israel has been a source of anguish for Muslims for decades.

Among episodes when the United States sided with Muslims against non-Muslims are the U.S.-led bombing campaigns of 1999 in Serbia and of 1995 in Bosnia. American troops intervened to help beleaguered Muslims in both areas.

Rubin accuses anti-American Arab radicals of "ignoring all the positive examples and focusing only on U.S. support for Israel."

But many Muslims disagree. European decolonization of Africa and Asia meant an end to the European presence but, as former intelligence analyst Keith Mines has noted, Westerners have stayed in the Middle East, "compelled by new political and economic interests in cheap oil, and a homeland for the Jewish people," among other factors.

All this has created a backlash among many Arabs, which is fed by media disinformation, none more glaring than the widely reported — and widely held — myth that 4,000 Jews who worked in the World Trade Center took a holiday on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Bush administration takes some comfort in the knowledge that, whatever reservations many Muslims may have about Bush's policy toward Iraq, there is common ground with some Muslims.

"It's not a question of us vs. Saddam Hussein," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday. "Nobody likes Saddam Hussein. Nobody believes that the region is better for having him there."

Whether that sentiment will diminish the terrorism threat if Saddam is ousted is open to question. One who believes use of force will have the opposite effect is Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who told a French newspaper: "The day America launches a war, it should expect the worst. . . . Terrorism risks becoming a general scourge."


George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.