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September 21, 2001


Hama Rules

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Join a Discussion on Thomas L. Friedman's Columns

In February 1982 the secular Syrian government of President Hafez al-Assad faced a mortal threat from Islamic extremists, who sought to topple the Assad regime. How did it respond? President Assad identified the rebellion as emanating from Syria's fourth-largest city Hama and he literally leveled it, pounding the fundamentalist neighborhoods with artillery for days. Once the guns fell silent, he plowed up the rubble and bulldozed it flat, into vast parking lots. Amnesty International estimated that 10,000 to 25,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, were killed in the merciless crackdown. Syria has not had a Muslim extremist problem since.

I visited Hama a few months after it was leveled. The regime actually wanted Syrians to go see it, to contemplate Hama's silence and to reflect on its meaning. I wrote afterward, "The whole town looked as though a tornado had swept back and forth over it for a week but this was not the work of mother nature."

This was "Hama Rules" the real rules of Middle East politics and Hama Rules are no rules at all. I tell this story not to suggest this should be America's approach. We can't go around leveling cities. We need to be much more focused, selective and smart in uprooting the terrorists.

No, I tell this story because it's important that we understand that Syria, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia have all faced Islamist threats and crushed them without mercy or Miranda rights. Part of the problem America now faces is actually the fallout from these crackdowns. Three things happened:

First, once the fundamentalists were crushed by the Arab states they fled to the last wild, uncontrolled places in the region Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and Afghanistan or to the freedom of America and Europe.

Second, some Arab regimes, most of which are corrupt dictatorships afraid of their own people, made a devil's pact with the fundamentalists. They allowed the Islamists' domestic supporters to continue raising money, ostensibly for Muslim welfare groups, and to funnel it to the Osama bin Ladens on the condition that the Islamic extremists not attack these regimes. The Saudis in particular struck that bargain.

Third, these Arab regimes, feeling defensive about their Islamic crackdowns, allowed their own press and intellectuals total freedom to attack America and Israel, as a way of deflecting criticism from themselves.

As a result, a generation of Muslims and Arabs have been raised on such distorted views of America that despite the fact that America gives Egypt $2 billion a year, despite the fact that America fought for the freedom of Muslims in Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo, and despite the fact that Bill Clinton met with Yasir Arafat more than with any other foreign leader, America has been vilified as the biggest enemy of Islam. And that is one reason that many people in the Arab-Muslim world today have either applauded the attack on America or will tell you with a straight face that it was all a C.I.A.-Mossad plot to embarrass the Muslim world.

We need the moderate Arab states as our partners but we don't need only their intelligence. We need them to be intelligent. I don't expect them to order their press to say nice things about America or Israel. They are entitled to their views on both, and both at times deserve criticism. But what they have never encouraged at all is for anyone to consistently present an alternative, positive view of America even though they were sending their kids here to be educated. Anyone who did would be immediately branded a C.I.A. agent.

And while the Arab states have crushed their Islamic terrorists, they have never confronted them ideologically and delegitimized their behavior as un-Islamic. Arab and Muslim Americans are not part of this problem. But they could be an important part of the solution by engaging in the debate back in the Arab world, and presenting another vision of America.

So America's standing in the Arab-Muslim world is now very low partly because we have not told our story well, partly because of policies we have adopted and partly because inept, barely legitimate Arab leaders have deliberately deflected domestic criticism of themselves onto us. The result: We must now fight a war against terrorists who are crazy and evil but who, it grieves me to say, reflect the mood in their home countries more than we might think.

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