September 11th seemed to pit Islam against the West. But the main fight is taking place within the Muslim world, argues Peter David
“THE next war, they say.” That was the headline printed at the top of this page the last time The Economist published a survey of Islam, in August 1994. We concluded that conflict between Islam and the West was by no means impossible. But the writer of our survey was not convinced that it was inevitable. Another possibility was that the anger and disillusionment that seemed to be sweeping through the world of Islam in the 1990s might turn in a more benign direction. Was it not similar to the disillusionment that began to sweep through Christendom in the 16th century, which led via the Reformation to the development of modern democracy?
To some, the felling of the twin towers two years ago this week offers dramatic evidence that the bleaker forecasts of the 1990s were right. What was this attack if not the start of a new war between the civilisations? Many Muslims do not like the label “Islamic terrorism” attached to the mass murders perpetrated by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organisation. Islam, they say, is a religion of peace, at peace, which has no more connection to the terrorism of Mr bin Laden than Christianity had to the 1970s terrorism of, say, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany or the Red Brigades in Italy. Just call it terrorism, they say: keep Islam out of it. That is not quite possible. When people are trying to kill you, especially when they are good at it, it is prudent to listen to the reasons they give. And Mr bin Laden launched his “war” explicitly in Islam's name. Indeed, three years before the twin towers, he went to the trouble of issuing a lengthy “Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders”, stating that “to kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is the individual duty of every Muslim who is able, until the Aqsa mosque [in Jerusalem] and the Haram mosque [in Mecca] are freed from their grip, and until their armies, shattered and broken-winged, depart from all the lands of Islam.”
It may be objected that any bunch of psychopaths bent on mayhem is free to say whatever it likes about its motives. Just because al-Qaeda's people kill in the name of Islam does not mean that conflict with the West is an essential part of the faith. A Marxist terrorist may say that he is killing for the sake of the working class, and that he possesses a whole body of theory to justify this activity, and that this theory is subscribed to by many people. Does that mean that it is somehow in the essence of the working class to wage war on capitalism? No. But it does suggest that societies trying to deal with Marxist terrorism need to look at Marxist ideas, and gauge the extent to which they are believed.
By the same token, the problem for those who want to believe that Islam has nothing to do with Islamic terrorism is not only that the terrorists themselves say otherwise. It is also the existence of a whole body of theory that is called upon to justify this activity, and which has zealous adherents. Admittedly, much of this theory is modern, as political as it is religious, with origins in the late 20th century. It is described variously as “fundamentalism”, “Islamism” or “political Islam” (though these terms and definitions will need closer inspection later). But some of it also has, or claims to have, connections with some of the fundamental ideas and practices of the religion itself.
Allah or ignorance
A good place to start to understand the theory is with the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, a literary critic in the 1930s and 1940s and later an activist in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood before being executed in 1966. In the late 1940s, Qutb spent two years living in America, an experience he hated and which appears to have turned him against what most people in the West would call modernity but which he saw as something much worse.
On returning to Egypt, Qutb wrote a series of books, many from prison, denouncing jahiliyya (ignorance), a state of affairs he categorised as the domination of man over man, or rather subservience to man rather than to Allah. Such a state of affairs, he said, had existed in the past, existed in the present and threatened to continue in the future. It was the sworn enemy of Islam. “In any time and place human beings face that clear-cut choice: either to observe the law of Allah in its entirety, or to apply laws laid down by man of one sort or another. That is the choice: Islam or jahiliyya. Modern-style jahiliyya in the industrialised societies of Europe and America is essentially similar to the old-time jahiliyya in pagan and nomadic Arabia. For in both systems, man is under the dominion of man rather than Allah.”
Qutb was not the first Muslim intellectual to look at the world this way. He was influenced by a contemporary, Maulana Maudoodi in India, who was also repelled by modernity and saw it as barbarism. Both men drew on earlier episodes and thinkers. One such was a medieval theologian, Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya, a sort of Muslim Luther who in reaction to the Mongol onslaught of the 13th century preached a return to the essentials of the faith, which the ulema (clerics) of the time had forsaken. Another, in the 18th century, was Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who advocated purging Islam of modern accretions and relying strictly on the Koran and hadith (the record of the prophet's words and deeds). But it is Qutb's story that offers the more interesting insight into the way Islamic terrorists think today.
One reason is that Qutb is a link with the present. The Muslim Brothers continue to operate in Egypt and elsewhere. Mr bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are former Brothers. More than this, the forces that Qutb believed to be undermining Islam in the 1950s and 1960s—capitalism, individualism, promiscuity, decadence—are still seen as potent threats (more potent, with “globalisation”) by Muslims today.
Qutb lost faith in the pan-Arab nationalism that was the prevailing ideology of the Arab world in his own time. In a letter from prison he said that the homeland a Muslim should cherish was not a piece of land but the whole Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam). Any land that hampered the practice of Islam or failed to apply sharia law “becomes ipso facto part of Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War). It should be combated even if one's own kith and kin, national group, capital and commerce are to be found there.”
A straight line connects Qutb's letter from prison to the ideas of Mr bin Laden and his followers in al-Qaeda. Like Qutb, al-Qaeda's followers perceive Islam to be under a double attack: not just military attack from a hostile West (in Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya and so forth) but also from within, where western values spread by impious regimes are undermining what it means to be a Muslim. This double attack, in the al-Qaeda world view, is to be resisted by jihad in both of the two meanings this notion has in Islam: personal striving for a more perfect submission to the faith, and armed struggle against Islam's enemies. These enemies include both the far enemy (America, Israel) and the near enemy (the impious or even apostate regimes of the Muslim world). For Mr bin Laden, the Saudi regime is now as much his enemy as is the United States.
How representative are such views? Around one in four of the people in the world are Muslims. Only a small fraction of these 1.5 billion Muslims will have heard of, let alone subscribe to, the ideas of theorists such as Qutb. No more than a few thousand people are involved in the violent activities of al-Qaeda and like-minded jihadi organisations. After September 11th, moreover, Muslim clerics and intellectuals joined ordinary Muslims throughout the world in denouncing the atrocity al-Qaeda had perpetrated in their name. By no means all of these were “moderates”. One was Sheikh Fadlallah, the Beirut-based ayatollah often described as the spiritual guide of Hizbullah, the Iranian-inspired “party of God”. He issued a fatwa condemning the attack. Another condemnation came from Yusuf Qaradawi, a Qatar-based Egyptian television cleric with some fiery views and a following of millions.
All that is heartening. The trouble is that small groups can produce big consequences. Only 19 young men took part in the attacks of September 11th. But the 19 changed history. Their action led within two years to an American-led invasion and military occupation of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. This in turn has damaged Muslim perceptions of the United States, and perhaps by extension of the West at large.
A survey last June by the Pew Global Attitudes Project reported that negative views of America among Muslims had spread beyond the Middle East to Indonesia—the world's most populous Muslim country—and Nigeria. In many Muslim states a majority thought that America might become a military threat to their own country. Solid majorities of Palestinians and Indonesians—and nearly half of those in Morocco and Pakistan—said they had at least some confidence in Osama bin Laden to “do the right thing regarding world affairs”. Seven out of ten Palestinians said they had confidence in Mr bin Laden in this regard.
Besides, it is not necessary for many Muslims to have heard directly of people such as Qutb or Maudoodi or Abd al-Wahhab in order for the world-view of such men to spread. Some of the ideas of Abd al-Wahhab, for example, have been embraced for generations by the Saudi Arabian state and, more recently, disseminated to mosques far and wide on the back of Saudi petrodollars. Wahhabism is a puritanical and often anti-western Sunni doctrine, but the smaller Shia branch of Islam is also exposed to extreme anti-western ideas, such as those pumped out every Friday by mosques in Iran.
Where does all this leave the relationship between Islam and Islamic terrorism? For the average Muslim Islam is merely a religion, a way of organising life in accordance with God's will. Is it a religion of peace or of violence? Like other religions, it possesses holy texts that can be invoked to support either, depending on the circumstances. Like the Bible, the Koran (which differs from the Bible in that Muslims take all of it to be the word of God dictated directly to Muhammad, his prophet) and the hadith contain injunctions both fiery and pacific. Muslims are enjoined to show charity and compassion. Yes, Islam has a concept of jihad (holy war), which some Muslims think should be added to the five more familiar pillars of faith: the oath of belief, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. But the Koran also insists that there should be no compulsion in religion.
Islam and Christendom have clashed for centuries. But if there is something in the essence of Islam that predisposes its adherents to violent conflict with the West, it is hard to say what it might be. The search for the something might anyway be an exercise in futility, given that the essentials of the faith are so hotly contested. Islam has no pope or equivalent central authority (though some Shias aspire to one). This means, as Oxford University's James Piscatori has argued, that the religious authorities and the official ulema find themselves in competition with unofficial or popular religious leaders and preachers, Sufi movements, Islamist groups and lay intellectuals. “All of these and others claim direct access to scripture, purport to interpret its contemporary meaning, and thus effectively question whether any one individual or group has a monopoly on the sacred—even as they appropriate that right for themselves.”
The articles that follow are not chiefly about religion. They are chiefly about the use politics makes of religion. They are an attempt to find out why it can seem as if the world inhabited largely by Muslims has now come into conflict with the world inhabited largely by non-Muslims. Islam the faith is not the answer to this question. But the history, sociology and politics of Islam are undoubtedly part of it.
A ROTTEN IDEOLOGY, MENACE TO SECULARISM AND WORLD PEACE, IS ENFORCED AND ENTRENCHED THROUGH INDOCTRINATION FROM BIRTH ONWARDS, OR WHEN ENFORCED BY POWER.
...........(ISLAM AND NAZISM respectively)