February 16, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Terrorism’s Victims

Actually, They're Mostly Muslims

It is a common misperception that most terrorism is directed against Jews and Christians. The fact is no group has suffered more than Muslims from radical Islamist violence. Especially at risk are those bold enough to speak out for such values as freedom, human rights and democracy.

In Beirut this week, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was killed by a powerful car bomb – apparently in reprisal for his opposition to Syria's continuing occupation of Lebanon.

In Iraq, scarcely a day goes by when innocent men, women and children are not murdered for such “crimes” as following the Shi'a tradition of Islam, joining the police force, exercising their right to vote or simply going to the marketplace when supporters of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden are in the mood to create carnage for the evening news.

Tunis, Casablanca and Istanbul are among the Muslim-majority cities that have been attacked. Terrorist groups have turned Palestinian communities into ghettoes where every mother must worry that one day a “militant leader” will fit her child for a suicide bomb vest. 

But it is in Algeria, with relatively little international attention, that the slaughter has been most extensive: Over the years, more than 100,000 Algerians have been murdered by Islamist terrorists.

Once a French colonial possession, Algeria fought a brutal, 8-year war for its independence. John F. Kennedy was among the many Americans who idealistically and publicly supported the Algerian struggle against France. 

But independence in 1962 did not bring freedom. Instead, Algeria's post-colonial leadership came to be dominated by authoritarian military officers who rotated not as a result not of ballots cast but of coups waged. Those who held liberal democratic views were either marginalized or maneuvered from positions of real power to the diplomatic service where their sophistication was useful to the regime.

The only place opposition could be organized was in the mosques where — with assistance from abroad — radicals soon seized control. As Yale Professor William J. Foltz has written, the extremist clerics “stirred up and armed gangs of young thugs, whose murderous violence” was often directed “against the small, internationally-minded intellectual elite, hated by the Islamic fundamentalists…”

Among those targeted was Ambassador Salah Fellah who on Dec. 7, 1993 was gunned down in front of his home in Algiers. Fellah, Prof. Foltz has pointed out, was despised by the Islamists “both for who he was” – an advocate of freedom, human rights and democracy – and for “what he did”: He was the diplomat who broke relations with Iran because of the ayatollahs' support for Algerian radical Islamists. Were the ayatollahs behind Ambassador's Fellah's assassination? His son, Zakaria Fellah, is convinced they were, and he is hardly alone. The Iranians, he said, have even placed their allies and “henchmen” in Algeria's political system. Algeria's current Minister of Foreign Minister, he points out, has been among the Iranian regime's most fervent supporters. 

Not long after his father's murder, Zakaria applied for political asylum in the United States. Had he returned to Algeria and espoused political views similar to his father's, he too would have found himself in the cross hairs. 

“Islamism is a form of Fascism,” he told me. “The mission of the Islamic fundamentalist terrorists is to eliminate all persons with differing opinions who may threaten their political and religious aspirations. They are the No.1 threat to democracy and civilization today. But too many Europeans, and too many Americans, do not realize the danger threatening their societies.” 

Two lessons to take away from all this: The Iranian ayatollahs are Shi'a Muslims, while the Algerian radicals are Sunni Muslims. For years, many in the U.S. diplomatic and intelligence communities have insisted that such collaboration was a “theoretical” impossibility and therefore not to be seriously considered, much less combated. (They have said the same about alliances between “secular” Baathists and Islamists.)

Second: One expression of the pathology of the broader Middle East is that often the choice is between ruthless authoritarianism on one side, and religious totalitarianism on the other. Paradoxically, it is in the interest of despots of both stripes to suppress advocates of liberal democracy, to make certain there is no third way.

In the past, this strategy has succeeded – which is why today the Middle East is dominated by dictators, dynasties and terror masters of various political and religious stripes. The changes occurring in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories — coupled with increasing American support for the dissidents and freedom fighters of the Muslim world – might change that. It's hard to imagine what else could.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.