The conference entitled "The Islamist movement after the events of September 11" was organized by lawyer Montasser Zayat, long known as the de facto spokesman of the Gamaa Islamiya, one of Egypt's largest militant organizations. Featured speakers included several prominent Islamist thinkers and analysts.
"September 11 affected different Islamist groups in different ways," explained Dia Rashwan, an analyst of political Islam with the state-run Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Many groups, such as the Gamaa Islamiya actually took the opportunity to renounce violence and attempt to become entirely political movements.
On the other hand, there remain in the Arab world tens of thousands of veterans from the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan who sympathize with bin Laden and have been angered by U.S. support for Israel as well as strikes against Afghanistan and threats to invade Iraq.
"Thousands around the world are going to see U.S. actions as a justification," said Rashwan. Attacks like the one against the synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia were by freelancers inspired by al Qaida and more of these cannot be ruled out.
Muhammad Salah, a journalist with the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat and a long time observer of extremist Islamic groups, seconded his opinions. He explained that al Qaida is really just a loose network of organizations with similar animosity towards the perceived "anti-Islamic" policies of the United States.
"American policy creates an atmosphere for the establishment of these groups," he said, adding that there has been heavy recruiting of new members in the Western countries themselves.
Several of the speakers warned against an upcoming conflict between the West and Islam. The actual events of Sept. 11 were ignored in favor of the subsequent US campaign in Afghanistan, threats against Iraq and continued support of Israel.
"The issue is no longer about bin Laden or the Taliban," said Mahfouz Azzam, an Islamist intellectual and relative of bin Laden lieutenant Ayman Zawahri. "It is about dismantling the Arab world."
He said the United States is trying to "change Islam from within" by pressuring governments to close Islamic charities and alter school curriculums.
Conference organizer Al Zayat stressed that the anger in the Arab world stemmed from American policies, not from any particular animosity towards Westerners in general.
"Americans should ask themselves why they were targeted, why there are feelings of anger by Muslims," he said. "Why aren't these feelings directed towards Europe as well? The answer is the policies of America."
On the other hand, Western revulsion over the attacks has allowed the government to pursue crackdowns on militant groups (as well as the Muslim Brotherhood) without fear of international condemnation. In the past year over 20 Islamists have been extradited to Egypt from around the world and hundreds have been imprisoned and put on trial.
The conference featured several participants from the liberal and leftist trends who disputed many of the opinions of the speakers. Newspaper editor Ibrahim Eissa dismissed the notion of a Western war against Islam or some clash of civilizations pointing out that it is Western human rights groups protesting the conditions of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He also pointed out that these same human rights groups have consistently publicized the plight imprisoned Islamists.
Eissa now works at a private satellite channel after having several of his newspapers closed by the government for being overly critical.
In response to questions from leftist critics, Al Zayat affirmed the commitment of the Islamist movement to the rotation of power and respect for other religions. "Democracy is a cornerstone of Islam," he said. He also called for formulating new ideas and new directions in the movement.
"If someone says 'death to America,' I understand the sentiments but slogans are not enough, we need to organize and create a vision," he said.
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