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World silence over slain Muslims

THE MIDDLE EAST "road map" is tearing apart, to the anguish of Washington and the world. But the Machakos peace talks to end Sudan's civil war are also in disarray, and they deal with a civil war that has claimed 2 million lives in the last 15 years. The response to this in Washington and the rest of the world is silence. This continues a pattern in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though its total of dead and injured are not in the top 10 of the world's current conflicts, receives more international attention than all the others combined.

One high official in the Palestinian Authority delegation to Washington this summer commended US intervention in Liberia, but added that the issue was minor compared to the Palestinian question. He may be right, but not obviously so. After all, more Liberians than Palestinians have been killed in the last decade, while several million have died in Congo.

If we consider only deaths in the Muslim world, the discrepancy in attention is staggering. Saddam Hussein may be the greatest killer of Muslims in history, but he was treated widely as a hero. The National Islamic Front in Sudan has killed largely Christians and animists, but also hundreds of thousands of Muslims, especially among the Beja, Fur, Massaleit, Tama, and Nuba peoples. Its militias have also taken Muslim slaves.

The Armed Islamic Group in Algeria has murdered more than 100,000 Muslims in the last decade. In Chechnya, another 100,000 people, one-10th of the population, has been killed and almost half the population is displaced. In Afghanistan, the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies killed thousands of Shia. In Mauritania, tens of thousand of Muslims are held as slaves. Tens of thousands more died in the Kashmir conflict and in the civil wars in Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone. Thousands more have died in Nigeria and Indonesia. The Burmese junta drove out more than a quarter million of its Rohingya Muslims in the early 1990s. In India last year some 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered in Gujarat, some disemboweled or burned alive while police stood by or joined in.

Yet these events are passed over in silence, even within much of the Muslim world. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of many of these atrocities sit in the UN condemning events in the West Bank.

Of course, conflicts are important for far more than humanitarian reasons. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is on our front pages because it involves major armies, oil states, and the specter of nuclear weapons. For Jews, and many others, the key is that there is only one Jewish state in the world, one place that, if they control it, they can be safe. For a minority of evangelicals, the conflict is central because it tracks biblical prophecy and brings signs of the apocalypse.

It is also easy to discern the cynical manipulation of the issue by authoritarian states, especially in the Arab world. These regimes use it as a safe outlet for their populations' political frustrations in order to deflect attention from their own repressive policies. Islamists are outraged because they believe that once a country has been under Islamic rule it can never be relinquished. This is why Osama bin Laden insists he wants Spain back. Israel is a far more recent example of non-Muslims governing an area once Muslim, and excites greater horror.

But why does this conflict draw multitudes of activists, who make it the defining issue of Middle Eastern, and even of world politics? Why the plethora of conferences, committees, demonstrations, boycotts, and disinvestment campaigns on a level that dwarfs any action protesting larger scale suffering?

Perhaps part of the answer is anti-Semitism, perhaps anti-Americanism. But, whatever the reason, it cannot be a primary concern for human rights since, while there is more than enough suffering in this conflict, there is much worse elsewhere.

The elevation of the Israel-Palestinian issue above all others has several deleterious effects. One is that it elevates vituperation against Israel. It also raises expectations among Palestinians that are unlikely to be met. Finally, it contributes to silence and evasion about the oppression of other Muslims as well as other people throughout the world. The net effect is that both Israel and the Muslim world suffer more.

Paul Marshall is senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.

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