Defining terrorism should be easy. Innocent people should not be made targets for political purposes. Otherwise, none of us are safe. Yet some individuals — and sadly, some governments — continue to accept that “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” That makes them complicit in the violence that inevitably follows. Last week, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) did just that. It condemned terrorism, but in the next breath encouraged extremists to continue the slaughter of innocents. In so doing, it undermined its credibility and made it even more difficult to find a solution to the Mideast crisis.
Representatives of 57 Islamic nations met in Malaysia to develop a common stand on terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. A united position could have had significant impact on international diplomacy, given the role those nations could play in the war on terrorism. The determination to unequivocally denounce the slaughter of innocents would mark an important shift in the antiterrorism struggle; it would have altered the environment in which those acts occur and, if followed up by action, could have provided momentum toward the establishment of a genuine peace in the Middle East. Prevarication would only encourage extremists. And the OIC prevaricated.
The group failed to agree on a common definition of terrorism, and threw the question back to the United Nations. According to the declaration released at the end of the meeting, the world body should convene an international conference “to formulate a joint organized response of the international community to terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.” In other words, they passed the buck.
The OIC members did stand firm on one subject, though: They denied any equation of the Palestinian fight with Israel with terrorism. Their declaration was explicit: “We reject any attempt to link terrorism to the struggle of the Palestinian people in the exercise of their inalienable right to establish their independent state with Al-Quds Al-Shrif (Jerusalem) as its capital.” In fact, at the outset of the meeting, the OIC countries signed a statement praising the Palestinians and their “blessed intifada.” At the same time, they condemned Israel for “state terrorism” against the Palestinian people. The final statement also ruled out support for unilateral action against any OIC member as part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
For the OIC, terrorism is different from the struggle and resistance of people under colonial or foreign occupation. It is a political distinction, but one that is only possible if the conscience is deadened and the hypocrisy of the position ignored. It requires a willingness to define “colonialism” or “occupation” with a rigor and certainty that is denied to the concept of terrorism.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the host of the meeting, was honest enough to point that out. Mr. Mahathir, a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause, said that any deliberate attack on civilians should be considered an act of terror. Targeting civilians, he said, could not be justified “irrespective of the nobility of the struggle.”
Of course, the prime minister has his own interests in mind: Malaysia is a genuine democracy with a large Muslim population. Mr. Mahathir’s government practices a moderate form of Islam, and he recognizes that that moderation could one day make him the target of Islamic extremism. Nevertheless, the prime minister’s willingness to draw lines is courageous and important to the Islamic world’s continuing relevance in international society. His distinction — targeting civilians — goes to the heart of the terrorism question.
Sadly, his colleagues could not be as forthright. Many of them were not even present at the meeting: The crisis in the Middle East obliged many members to keep their foreign ministers at home, both to deal with the situation and to avoid having to come to any real conclusion in Kuala Lumpur. Lower-level officials could never come to a decision on such important questions — a common-sense definition had to give way to politics.
That is a tragedy in many ways. It marginalizes the OIC, which speaks for virtually all of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. The conference was originally called to show that after the attacks of Sept. 11 and the subsequent comments of alleged mastermind Osama bin Laden, Islam and terrorism are not inextricably linked. The OIC’s failure to respect what it calls “the principles and true teachings of Islam” — prohibiting the killing of innocent people — made its members look like opportunists. The failure to speak more clearly will confirm the view that Islamic nations are not real partners in the fight against terrorism at a time when they have a vital role to play. It deepens the divide between Islam and the West, and will encourage the terrorists. It is a spectacular failure.