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by Barry Rubin


This week in the Middle East, the cats have been escaping from the bags. That's an expression meaning that the truth has been coming out, with teeth bared and claws flashing to reveal the direction of an extremism far too mainstream in the region.

But first it is important to emphasize that the main problem in the area is not terrorism. Indeed, the concept of terrorism is starting to get in the way of understanding what is actually happening. Terrorism is merely a tactic, though one which is revealing about the nature and goals of movements which make it the centerpiece of their strategy.

The real problem is that of extremist revolutionary movements, without constraints on their behavior and with genocide as their goal, which are applauded by most regimes, media, and publicly vocal people of the Arab world and Iran. In short, an extremist minority sets the agenda for means and ends for a majority that accepts these things.

Most remarkable in this context is the statement of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Palestinian who is not only head of al-Qa'ida in Iraq but also leader of the insurgency there. Zarqawi's movement and its allies daily murder Iraqis--mostly Shia Muslims, sometimes foreigners or other Iraqis--in large numbers using car bombs and guns as well as decapitating those it has kidnapped. They have done so under the cover of a patriotic movement opposing American occupation of Iraq.

Now, however, Zarqawi has expressed the insurgency's true objective: the destruction of Iraq's Shia Muslim majority. It is not only an open call for ethnic civil war in Iraq but a battle cry that could blow up the entire Arab world. And what has been the response in the Arab world to Zarqawi's turning the supposed jihad against Christians and Jews into a crusade as well against fellow Muslims? Silence and no diminution of support for his cause.

According to Zarqawi, the Shia are behind Iraq's new government and are acting collectively as collaborators with the West. The fact that there are Sunni in the government and parliament or that Iraqis of all communities are trying to seek a fair system for co-existence is irrelevant for him, and to other Arab leaders as well.

Indeed, the main Sunni complaint has been that the country's new direction will lead toward Iraq splitting up into Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni states, with the last-mentioned lacking oil wealth. But Zarqawi's call for communal war is far more likely to bring about, not prevent, such an outcome.

It is important to stress here that the issue is not that all Sunni Iraqis support an anti-Shia war but that virtually all Sunni Arabs in other countries are applauding it while some--notably Syria officially and Saudi Arabia covertly--are aiding it.

Traditionally, the official line has been that Sunni-Shia differences in the Arab world are small or non-existent, a myth promoted by the Arabs' enemies. Now, however, the sword of inter-Muslim battle has been taken up in one place, and might it not spread to others? Will this statement persuade non-Iraqis that they should condemn, not support, an insurgency that is directed by such a doctrine?

Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip, it is increasingly clear to all who look at the facts that the Palestinian movement's goal remains Israel's complete destruction. Whatever average Palestinians or moderates among the leaders think, those setting the agenda--radical nationalists or Islamists--put total victory and revenge above raising their people's living standards or getting a state.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas may have good intentions but cannot even protect the neighborhood where he lives. Witness the slaying of Musa Arafat, formerly in charge of Gaza security for the Palestinian Authority in a massive shoot-out without Abbas's police even bothering to show up.

Abbas gives nice interviews to the Western media explaining how he will persuade militias to give up their guns and implement development programs for Gaza when it is obvious these things are never going to happen. Meanwhile, all the other factions--including the Islamist group Hamas and many in his own Fatah organization--openly refuse to obey him or stop attacking Israel.

Indeed, Abbas did not even dare attend the celebration of Israel's withdrawal that he organized. About ten times more people showed up for the Hamas-sponsored festivities than for his ceremony, which hardliners disrupted.

As the perfect example for what's going on consider the smallest extremist organization Abbas faces. In October 2003, this group killed three Americans working for the State Department in the Gaza Strip. They were finally put on trial for relatively minor offenses, and then allowed to escape. There is no sign Abbas and his security forces have made any attempt to catch them.

Now this group has killed Musa Arafat, one of the most powerful men in the Gaza Strip. It is now clear these same people are working for Usama bin Ladin's al-Qaeda. The lesson: if unstopped by people who are on the same side, extremism becomes stronger and worse. Even if it does not formally take over, the radicals who demand permanent struggle and use terrorism disrupt any chance for stability and shape public opinion in their target audience.

For all practical purposes, then, the much-glorified struggles of the Palestinians and Iraqis supposedly against foreign oppression come down to wiping out other local people. This does not bode well for compromise or diplomatic resolution. And if these are the Arab world's heroes it means that the choice--despite the horror and opposition of indigenous liberal reformers--is being made to maintain the ideas and strategies proven so disastrous over the last half-century.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His co-authored book, Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, (Oxford University Press) is now available in paperback. His latest book, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, will be published by Wiley in September. Prof. Rubin's columns can now be read online at Contact him hby emal at


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