Siege prompts horror among Arabs
CNN      September 5, 2004

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Images of dead, wounded and traumatized Russian children being carried from the scene of a rebel school siege horrified Arabs, prompting forthright self-criticism and fresh concern about an international backlash against Islam and its followers.

Arab leaders, Muslim clerics and ordinary parents across the Middle East denounced the school siege that left more than 340 people dead, many of them children, as unjustifiable.

Some warned such actions damage Islam's image more than all its enemies could hope. Even some supporters of Islamic militancy condemned it, though at least one insisted Muslims were not behind it.

The hostage-takers were reportedly demanding the independence of the mostly Muslim Russian republic of Chechnya -- a cause embraced by Arab Islamists.

"Holy warriors" from the Middle East long have supported Chechen fighters, and Russian officials said nine or 10 Arabs were among militants killed when commandos stormed the Beslan school in southern Russia on Friday.

Middle East security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was too early to know the nationalities of the Arabs among the dead militants.

However, a prominent Arab journalist wrote that Muslims must acknowledge the painful fact that Muslims are the main perpetrators of terrorism.

"Our terrorist sons are an end-product of our corrupted culture," Abdulrahman al-Rashed, general manager of Al-Arabiya television, wrote in his daily column published in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. It ran under the headline, "The Painful Truth: All the World Terrorists are Muslims!"

Al-Rashed ran through a list of recent attacks by Islamic extremist groups -- in Russia, Iraq, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen -- many of which are influenced by the ideology of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of the al Qaeda terror network.

"Most perpetrators of suicide operations in buses, schools and residential buildings around the world for the past 10 years have been Muslims," he wrote. Muslims will be unable to cleanse their image unless "we admit the scandalous facts," rather than offer condemnations or justifications.

"The picture is humiliating, painful and harsh for all of us."

Arab TV stations repeatedly aired footage of terrified young survivors being carried from the school siege scene, while pictures of dead and wounded children ran on front pages of Saturday's newspapers in the region.

Ahmed Bahgat, an Egyptian Islamist and columnist for Egypt's leading pro-government newspaper, Al-Ahram, wrote that the images "showed Muslims as monsters who are fed by the blood of children and the pain of their families."

"If all the enemies of Islam united together and decided to harm it ... they wouldn't have ruined and harmed its image as much as the sons of Islam have done by their stupidity, miscalculations, and misunderstanding of the nature of this age," Bahgat wrote.

Other Islamists were more cautious in their criticism.

Mohammed Mahdi Akef, leader of Egypt's largest Islamic group, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, said the siege did not fit the Islamic concept of "jihad," or holy war, but took care not to characterize it as terrorism.

"What happened ... is not jihad because our Islam obligates us to respect the souls of human beings," Akef said. "Real jihad should target occupiers of our lands only like the Palestinian and Iraqi resistance."

Ali Abdullah, a Bahraini religious scholar who follows the ultraconservative Salafi stream of Islam, condemned the school attack as "un-Islamic" but insisted Muslims weren't behind it.

"I have no doubt in my mind that this is the work of the Israelis who want to tarnish the image of Muslims and are working alongside Russians who have their own agenda against the Muslims in Chechnya," said Abdullah.

Some contributors to Islamic Web sites known for their extremist content praised the separatists and predicted the Islamic fighters from Egypt would avenge the killings of Muslims elsewhere.

Syria condemned the hostage-taking "in the harshest terms," describing it as "a terrorist, cowardly action," the state-run SANA news agency said.

"As a father, I can tell you that all the fathers and mothers in Jordan pray humbly to God to stand by their counterparts in Russia in their grief," Jordan's King Abdullah II, whose wife is expecting their fourth child, said on state-run television.

Mona Khalil, a 48-year-old secretary in Amman, said her heart ached at the sight of the frightened children and their weeping relatives.

"What on earth were the kidnappers thinking about when they took the children hostage?" she asked. "These criminals don't fear God? They have no mercy in their hearts? They don't have children?"

Mohammed Saleh Ebrahim, a 31-year-old Bahraini who was back-to-school shopping in the Gulf island nation with his two daughters, described the hostage-takers as "worse than animals."

"It's because of these people Muslims and Arabs are getting a bad name around the world," he said.

Russia's bloody hostage crisis horrified Arabs, prompting self-criticism and fresh concern about an international backlash against Islam.