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Arabs start to look within to find source of extremism

The rash of kidnappings, beheadings and explosions in Iraq, the killing of innocent children in Russia and car bombings in Turkey and Indonesia have sparked debate among Arab intellectuals on why the majority of terror acts have been committed by Muslims acting in the name of Islam.

Some blame the violence on an atmosphere of intolerance and extremism that has bred hatred of non-Muslims and urge honest soul-searching as a remedy; others insist the problem is with the West, particularly the United States and its unconditional support of Israel and its war on Iraq.

The debate in newspaper columns, letters from readers and TV talk shows may be low-key, intermittent and limited to the intellectual elite, but some Arabs believe it's a step toward breaking the taboo of speaking out against problems within the Muslim religious establishment and its clergy and reversing support for extremism.

"The debate is a very positive indicator," said Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir. "If it continues, it could pose the larger and more important question of how qualified are the Muslim religious establishment and clergy to lead a political platform?"

Speaking out against extremism is not new. Within a few months of the Sept. 11 attacks, carried out by 19 Arabs, dozens of columns and opinion pieces appeared in the region's newspapers, especially those in Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the hijackers, urging moderation.

But in the past few weeks, with the school siege in Russia that left more than 330 people dead and the resurgence of terror attacks in Iraq, where the victims of car bombs and beheadings are overwhelmingly Iraqis or Muslims, the debate has gained momentum.

Condemnation has come not only from intellectuals, but also from some of the Muslim world's most prominent scholars. Egypt's foremost religious leader, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, said, "Beheadings and (the) mutilation of bodies stand against Islam." And Lebanon's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, maintains Islam doesn't sanction the killing and abduction of foreigners who are working and feel secure in Muslim countries.

However, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many religious scholars say suicide bombings carried out by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are acceptable.

"The Palestinian resistance against Zionist terrorism is one that we demand, bless and sanction," said Abdul-Aziz al-Khayat, a Jordanian scholar and former minister of religious affairs.

But he said blowing up buildings in Iraq, Turkey or Afghanistan, the abductions in Iraq, and attacks on Western residential compounds in Saudi Arabia "cannot be sanctioned because they don't target an oppressive power."

Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a Saudi who's general manager of Al-Arabiya television, said the problem of extremism is an internal one and the solution must come from within Muslim societies.

Rashed wrote one of the most provocative pieces on the issue, saying in a column that followed the Russia school siege that Muslims must acknowledge the painful fact that they are the main perpetrators of terrorism.

In his column, published in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Rashed listed recent attacks by Islamic extremists _ in Russia, Iraq, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen _ many of which are influenced by the ideology of bin Laden, the Saudi-born al-Qaida leader.

"What a terrible record," he wrote. "Doesn't it say something about us, our societies, our cultures?"

Salama Ahmed Salama, an Egyptian columnist, said such self-blame "has been exaggerated."

He said that while it's true most terror attacks have been perpetrated by Muslims, Europe and Asia were no strangers to terrorism.

"The logic of terrorism is not new in international politics," he said. "It's not Arabs who invented it."

"We shouldn't be unfair to ourselves," he added. "But at the same time we should tell groups that have chosen jihad as a course that it's not the right one. The world has turned against Islam and Muslims because of the barbaric acts."