By Joshua Muravchik
for The Los Angeles Times

The most shocking outcome of the recent U.N. summit was the failure, once again, of the world organization to take a definitive stand against terrorism. It was scarcely surprising that the 191 member-states could not come to agreement on adding members to the Security Council or on sweeping management reforms or on foreign aid, however disappointing these failures were to some. But a long-overdue declaration on terrorism had seemed well within reach.

That it was needed in the first place will surprise many. The sad fact is that the U.N. has never spoken clearly on this issue, thanks to the stubborn efforts of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, or OIC, made up of 56 states — nearly 30% of the U.N.’s membership.

After 9/11, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan took it upon himself to secure a blanket condemnation of terrorism, but it was beaten back by the OIC. Last year, after the attack that killed hundreds of schoolchildren in Beslan, Russia, Annan tried to get a resolution of this kind through the Security Council but was forced to settle for equivocal language in order to secure the votes of OIC members Pakistan and Algeria.

A proposed U.N. convention against terrorism has been stalled since 1997. The holdup? How to define terrorism. But this is nothing more than a semantic trick. The Islamic states insist that terrorism must be defined not by the nature of the act but by its purpose. Putting a bomb in a market or train or bus is not an act of terrorism, they say, if it is done for a righteous purpose; namely national liberation or resistance to occupation.

To say there is a problem of definition is to focus on a word. The real question is whether it is ever legitimate to target women, children and other noncombatants. For the Islamic states, the answer is yes.

Not only have they succeeded in blocking anti-terror resolutions, they have secured votes endorsing their approach. In 1970, the General Assembly adopted a resolution “reaffirm[ing] … the legitimacy of the struggle of the colonial peoples and peoples under alien domination to exercise their right to self-determination and independence by all the necessary means at their disposal.” This has been repeated several times by the General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights. Everyone understands that the last phrase is a euphemism for terrorism.

Still, it had seemed that in the aftermath of 9/11, the bombings in Bali, Madrid and London and the shootings in Beslan, not to mention the continuing carnage in Iraq and Israel, that the time had come to turn a new page. In 2004, the U.N.’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change proposed to cut the Gordian knot by having the U.N. embrace this common-sense language: “Any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”

This proposal apparently enjoyed the support of the panel’s two key Islamic representatives, Nafis Sadik of Pakistan and Amr Moussa of Egypt, who is the secretary-general of the Arab League. Annan embraced this language and included it in the proposals he sent to last week’s summit. With Annan and the U.S. representatives working together, supported by other Western diplomats, and with Moussa having already signed on, it looked as if the new language would sail through.

But then Islamic states again dug in their heels, and these words were stripped out of the final document. In its place was a ringing denunciation of terrorism, which, however, leaves Islamic leaders free to insist, as leading Sunni theologian Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi did recently, that bombings of civilians in places such as Israel and Iraq carried out to “resist occupation” are not covered by this resolution because they do not amount to terrorism.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns claimed victory nonetheless because we had at least blocked an explicit reiteration of the U.N.’s support for terrorism. “Sometimes in diplomacy, defeating negative measures is a very important achievement,” he said.

If blocking yet another pro-terror resolution is an achievement by U.N. standards, then the institution’s moral corruption may prove harder to cure than the material corruption so much at the center of attention.