December 3, 2001

Sivan Assesses Radical Islam

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In his Friday talk titled “The Third Wave of Radical Islam,” Prof. Emmanuel Sivan of Hebrew University placed the events of Sept. 11 in the context of historical rises and retreats of radical Islamic movements in the Muslim world.

Sivan was introduced as a renowned Israeli scholar and political advisor on radical Islamic movements and the author of a widely used textbook on the subject.

At the lecture, he criticized media and politicians for associating radical Palestinian terrorist groups and Saddam Hussein’s anti-Americanism with organizations such as Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.

Sivan claimed that those in the first group are isolated and should be less feared by Americans, since they are focused on Israel specifically, or are embodied in Saddam Hussein and his personal cadre. These are essentially nationalist movements which only borrow some concepts from radical Islamic thought.

The latter, such as al-Qaeda, manifest a purer form of radical Islam, which attempt to reform Muslim societies themselves, rather than fight against a common foreign enemy.

Sivan referred to the three copies of an Arabic-language terrorist manual found in September which linked the hijackers to each other.

“It is about hitting at Western civilization, showing it that arrogant technology has its limits and can be hit. It has nothing to do with other conflicts — whether in Bosnia, Iraq, or Palestine,” Sivan said.

Sivan also challenged the myth that American foreign policy is to blame for propping up unpopular regimes and thus helping build tensions in Arab world, setting the stage for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Rather, he explained that radical Islam is a problem endemic to the governments and socioeconomic policies of Muslim states — areas over which the United States has virtually no control.

He suggested that U.S. strikes on Iraq or a stronger involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict would be fruitless as far as eliminating the potential sources of terror.

“You Americans think you have so much power. The foreign aid that the U.S. gives Egypt is $2 billion in a $75 billion GDP per year economy — and even that money is mostly in arms and military,” Sivan said.

He pointed to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s harsh control over radical organizations there and former Syrian President Hafez Assad’s obliteration of the radical stronghold in Hama as proof that, “the reason the regimes have stayed in power for so long is that they have become more and more effective at fighting ideas with ideas, and often fighting ideas with clubs and [by] much worse [means].”

The first two waves of radical Islam occurred solely in Muslim countries. Their highlights included deposing the shah of Iran in 1979, the assasination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and the 1997 terror attack on a tourist bus in Luxor, Egypt, which left 64 dead.

The third radical Islamic wave which has begun with the Sept. 11 attacks may be much harder to combat than previous waves because it is the first which organizes and recruits disenchanted Muslims in the Western diasporas.

“It’s that many of the second and third generation [of Muslim immigrants] suffer from cultural alienation, their disappearing culture, and from the faults of European countries [rife with xenophobia] plus the fact that beaten Islamic warriors sometimes can find refuge in [Western countries],” Sivan explained.

“This leaves thousands of potential Islamic fighters and, through a series of testing and whetting, you ultimately get a hard core of a few hundred fighters.” he added.

Sivan predicted that the third wave would be quashed by a combined effort of repressive crackdowns from authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes and a Western drive to eliminate regions where terrorist organizations can base their operations, such as Afghanistan.

Still, Sivan noted, the potential for resurgence of terrorism would continue as long as its sources remain.

“The [Middle Eastern] regimes don’t do enough about their most basic problem — a poor distribution of resources in a growing population … and a weak economy” Sivan said.

The lecture was sponsored by the Near Eastern Studies department, the Jewish Studies Program, the Comparative Muslim Societies Committee, the Peace Studies Program, and the Einaudi Center for International Studies.

Archived article by Yoni Levine