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Dr. Ellis Goldberg

Director, Middle East Center, University of Washington

On October 23, Dr. Ellis Goldberg addressed a PNNL audience on the connections between radical Islam and political extremism. Goldberg is a professor of the Jackson School of International Studies, and Director of the University of Washington's Middle East Center. His lecture was the second of a four-part series, sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Center for Global Security, examining the circumstances leading to the September 11th attacks on the United States.

"Al Qaeda is more of a cult than anything else," stated Goldberg. He began his presentation with an overview of the evolution of war from being conflict between rulers of states to gain wealth, to, increasingly, "violence to obtain political quiescence." In this context of ideological struggle, Goldberg compared Al Qaeda to radical political groups of the United States in the 1960s such as the Red Army Faction and Weatherman, stating that "violence has become a feature of life in the 19th and 20th century."

Goldberg attributed the emergence of Al Qaeda and the spread of the organization's popularity to social and economic conditions of the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. He described the regions as being fairly poor and having high illiteracy rates. Governments are undemocratic and strictly control information. The result is that there is a high degree of discontent, limited information on the outside world, and it is easy to foster hostility against foreigners.

Citing numerous military conflicts that have taken place in the regions, Goldberg suggested that the degree of bloodshed that has taken place in these regions has caused a numbness to war, created normalcy in private rebellion against state entities, and has made it easy to rejoice over the destruction wreaked on the United States by the September 11th attacks. The military struggles cited included the Arab-Israeli Wars, Tunisian War of Independence, Iran-Iraq War, and the civil wars of Lebanon, Sudan and Algeria.

Goldberg characterized the September 11th attacks as acts of war perpetrated by a group of private individuals against a state, and defined terrorism as "war deliberately fought against society through random acts of violence." He also cast doubt upon Al Qaeda members' interpretation of "jihad."

The more prevalent interpretation of "jihad" is the struggle of the individual to attain self-discipline. However, the interpretation espoused by Al Qaeda members is similar to that used during the early days of Islam, now the fastest growing religion in the world, when Muslims had to struggle to protect their way of life. However, even under such an interpretation, there are strict laws of war. These rules, from the Koran, include the requirement than an explicit warning be given before launching an attack on one's enemy. Noncombatants must be protected. And, certain methods of war, such as the poisoning of drinking water and the use of fire, are prohibited. Thus, orthodox Muslim clerics do not condone the violent actions of Al Qaeda, or the organization's interpretation of Islam.

While rejecting Al Qaeda's motivations for war, and supporting the United State's right to militarily engage the group, Dr. Goldberg warned that the United States should be careful to avoid causing instability in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. He also suggested that the United States should "choose its enemies as carefully and it chooses its friends," and seek to be fairer in the region in respect to human rights. Ending his presentation by alluding to issues like globalization, world trade and the international nature of daily life today, Goldberg said, "The September 11th assaults (sometimes) make us forget that much is at stake for others too."

Center for Global Security

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