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Bin Laden's poisoning

Only when the Arab-Muslim world faces the fact that the September 11 attack was primarily about its own problems, not the West's, will we be able to destroy not only the hardware of terrorism, but also its software

Thomas Friedman


Over a cup of coffee here in the Gulf, not long ago, an Arab friend - a warm-hearted, liberal and reasonable man - revealed to me something that bothered him very much: "My 11-year-old son thinks Bin Laden is a good person."

For an American, Osama bin Laden is a mass murderer. But for many young Arabs the man, even in his defeat, is still Robin Hood. What attracts them to him is not his vision of the ideal Islamic society, which few would want to live in, but the very defiance towards everything that young Arabs and Muslims detest - their hypocritical rulers, Israel, American dominance and their economic backwardness. He is still the stuck finger in the eyes of the world, which so many weak and frustrated people here would long to stick.

The reason why it is important to eliminate bin Laden - beyond doing justice - is the same reason why it was necessary to eliminate the Taliban: as long as we pursue him, the discussion that the Arabs and Muslims should have about their future cannot be held honestly. Think of all the nonsense written in the press - mainly European and Arab - around the fear of "harming civilians" in Afghanistan. It turns out that many of those Afghan "citizens" prayed for another batch of B-52s that would free them from the Taliban, with or without casualties. Now that the Taliban are gone, Afghans can freely fight among themselves in the war of ideas over what kind of society they want.

My hope is that once Bin Laden is eliminated, Arabs and Muslims will want to do the same. That is, instead of expressing their anger at their oppressive and corrupt rulers or at the American policy, by supporting bin Laden - they will start making their voices heard. Only when the Arab-Muslim world sheds bin Laden's poison and faces the fact that the September 11 attack was primarily about his problems, not ours - only then will we succeed in destroying not only the hardware of terrorism, but also its software.

"We in the West cannot manage this debate for them, but we can help create the necessary conditions for its development," explains Middle East expert Steven Cohen. "America's role is to show the way to very gradual change, not immediate - not instant democracy or fantasies about an enlightened tyranny that will serve our interests. We cannot continue to see the Arab world as a huge gas station and remain indifferent to what is happening inside. Because the fuel is leaking now and all around people are throwing matches."

Every day I see evidence that this war of ideas is possible: this is the Arab journalist who angrily tells me about today's Arab world: "We are not even able to produce aspirin for our own headaches"; And this is Ahmed al-Baghdadi, the Kuwaiti professor, who recently published a very impressive article in the Kuwaiti newspaper "A-Anba" and the Egyptian "Akbar al-Yum", under the title "Sharon is a terrorist - and you?"

"Sharon was a terrorist from the moment the Zionist entity was born," Baghdadi wrote. But what about the Arab-Muslim rulers? "Persecuting intellectuals in the courts, prosecuting them for heresy... such things exist today only in the Muslim world. Is this not terrorism?... Iraq alone is a never-ending story of state terrorism against its citizens and neighbors. It was the Palestinians who invented the hijacking of the planes, isn't that terrorism? The Muslim Arabs have no competitors in this field. They are the artists of terror against their citizens, and sometimes their terror also reaches innocent people in the world, with the support of some religious sages... (our nation) is a nation whose ignorance makes the nations of the world laugh. The Islamic world and the Arab world are the only places where intellectuals, whose only crime is their writing, rot in prison. The Arabs and Muslims claim that their religion is a religion of tolerance, but they show no tolerance for those who oppose their views... Now it's time to pay the price... and the bill is long - longer than all the elders of all the members of the Taliban gang combined. The West's message to the Arab and Muslim world is clear: Buy your way, and if not..."

We must fight the war on the ground to damage bin Laden and his brutality, but Arabs and Muslims must fight the war of ideas, to uproot his software. The sooner we help them get to this war, the better. Ask the people in Kabul.

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