WASHINGTON -- Saudi Arabian censors banned Wednesday's editions of the London-based newspaper al Hayat because it printed an open letter from 67 American intellectuals defending the U.S. campaign against terrorism and calling on Saudi intellectuals to denounce "militant jihadism" as un-Islamic.
U.S. experts on Saudi affairs said the censorship of the letter was the latest reflection of a debate over the morality of terrorism that has rippled through intellectual circles in many Muslim countries -- and caused consternation in some Arab governments -- since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
In an exchange of open letters that have won little attention in the United States but have been widely reported abroad, a group of American theologians, philosophers and political scientists has been arguing for eight months with their counterparts in Europe and the Middle East over the moral basis for the Bush administration's "war on terrorism."
Among the eminent figures on the U.S. side are Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard, Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of Syracuse University. Their first salvo, titled "What We're Fighting For," was signed by 60 scholars and appeared in February as U.S. troops entered Afghanistan.
"There are times when waging war is not only morally permitted, but morally necessary, as a response to calamitous acts of violence, hatred and injustice. This is one of those times," the Americans wrote.
A group of 103 German intellectuals responded in May. The Americans published a rebuttal in August, and the Germans wrote back in October, each time garnering heavy coverage in European newspapers.
"There are no universally valid values that allow one to justify one mass murder by another," the Germans wrote in their first missive. "The war of the 'alliance against terror' in Afghanistan is no 'just war' -- an ill-starred historical concept that we do not accept -- on the contrary, it flagrantly violates even the condition you cite, 'to protect the innocent from certain harm."'
Meanwhile, 153 Saudi intellectuals also wrote a response. The American letter was heavily debated, and generally attacked, in the Egyptian and Lebanese press. It was discussed several times on the Qatar-based television station Al Jazeera, which has a huge following in the Arab world, as well as on other radio and television stations across the Middle East.
"The depth of the reaction has been really surprising," said Hassan Mneimneh, a director of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard. "An intellectual who is not aware of this debate is hard to find anywhere in the Arab world, from Kuwait to Morocco and Yemen to Syria."
With few exceptions, the public responses to "What We're Fighting For" have been extremely negative. But just below the surface, said Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, Arab commentators have appeared "really rather flattered that here is a distinguished group of American intellectuals willing to put forward a case on level turf, to say 'This is what we believe and we want to discuss it with you."'
Arab governments have been another matter. "The Saudi government doesn't like this debate, particularly because the people who wrote the Saudi response are mostly Wahhabi conservatives and fundamentalists," said Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Saudi Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that promotes democracy and civil society in Saudi Arabia. "They don't want the dialogue, and I think the reason is, they don't want non-government elements to have a voice internationally."
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