Religious terrorism and beyond
A deadly terrorism epidemic has spread all over the world beyond Pakistan, Afghanistan and West Asia. The recent Paris attack is a chain reaction of what was started by Israel’s state terrorism in Palestine many decades ago. The worst was when the world powers together with Pakistan converted political Islam into combative Islam in Afghanistan in the late 70s and the 80s to dislodge the Socialist government supported by the Soviet Union.
The US congressmen Charlie Wilson took pride that they had created techno-guerrillas to fight the Soviets. The insurgents were named and eulogized as ‘Mujahideen’ and given the undue credit for demolishing a superpower – the Soviet Union. Once the war was over in Afghanistan these techno-guerrillas suffered a delusion, created by the propaganda of the West, that they really did the job single-handedly. They believed that as Islamic revolution vanguards they were now destined to create the promised Islamic Khilafat all over the world. As this was not possible with a broad consensus of the Muslims, these trained Mujahideen/terrorists are all out to spread the Khilafat through the barrel of the gun.
The greatest blunder of the west was that religious fervour was whipped up to declare insurgency in Afghanistan, a Jihad. Pan-Islamic militant movement was created by opening doors for starry-eyed Jihadists of the world in general and Arab countries in particular.
The “Great Terrorist University’ created by Taliban and their worthy ‘Al Qaeda’ friends has played havoc not only in western countries (who they consider infidel) but in Muslim countries also. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the worst sufferers.
Osama is dead but the spectre of his ideology lives and is haunting the world. His objective was that an Islamic Khilafat can only be established if the Muslim countries’ pro-west governments are toppled. Technically he believed in the permanent Islamic revolution to capture power through the barrel of a gun, till a true Islamic Khilafat takes over the world as predicted by many Islamic scholars. Osama is thus the Trotsky of the Islamist polemics.
West Asian terrorism is the product of religious extremism. A person or a group of people believe that only they are the true followers and all others are infidel, they do not believe in a pluralistic society which guarantees all religions equal rights, and where believers of one faith cannot run down other religions or sects. This ideology has given the extremists enough space to wage a war for establishing the “Islamic State” and Sharia-based public and private laws.
Religious extremism is on the rise in all leading religions. The difference in Muslim countries is that it manifests itself brutally and violently than most other societies. Only administrative and military actions would not reduce extremism in the society, we need to counter the ideologies that breed extremism at all fronts.
It is wrong to think that religious extremism is a peculiar problem of only Muslims. In Christianity there are some small violent groups in Assam and the US. A Christian extremist killed 151 people in Norway. Ireland suffered a long sectarian war. In Hinduism the extremists are working under the banner of Hindutva and RSS, which takes part in anti-Muslim and anti-Christian riots. Among the Buddhists we have violent extremists who killed many Rohingya just a couple of months back. Israel was set up as a Jew homeland. It is also facing religious extremism because the religious extremists want the law in accordance with ‘halakha’ (Judaism equivalent to Shari’a). Islam like Judaism maintains that they offer the complete code of life, hence there is a constant struggle between the extremists who want all laws in accordance with the true letter and spirit of the religion, while the modernists believe in the evolution of laws and regard to social conditions. But the dialectics of religious nationalism gives more leeway to the extremists, instead of modernists.
Among the major external factors that have fuelled terrorism in West Asia are: one, the festering wound of the people of Palestine. It was against the state terrorism of Israel that repressed Palestinians who in turn resorted to terrorist activities in that region in the 50s. But did it help in getting them their due rights? No, it didn’t. Two, the perfidious role of the US in the Middle East has created a fertile ground to harvest young recruits for terrorist groups. The US and oil-rich kingdoms’ biggest blunder was to fund and arm religious militant groups in Libya and Syria to bring down the secular dictators. In Iraq the US shamelessly entered on the pretext of weapons of mass destruction, when no weapons were found instead of apologizing to the world Washington then wanted to remove Saddam and establish a democracy. Nonsense. Democracy cannot be implanted through aerial bombing and Marines.
Instead US invasion further fueled the Shia-Sunni conflict, which was already bleeding the Muslim societies. This conflict has sharpened in the region with establishment of the first Shia theocracy in the Islamic history. Fearing that the Sunni population of the Gulf kingdoms is taking inspiration from theocratic revolution in Iran, the rulers started financing Sunni militants. Iran was also on the same path and to secure itself financed and armed militants in the region. Terrorism couldn’t have had a more fertile breeding ground. Bruce Hoffman has also pointed out in Rand Corporation report: “… religious imperative for terrorism is the most defining characteristic of terrorist activity today. The revolution that transformed Iran into an Islamic republic in 1979 played a crucial role in the modern advent of religious terrorism, but it has not been confined to Iran, to the Middle East. Or to Islam. Since the 1980s, this resurgence has involved elements of the entire world’s major religion as well as some smaller sets of cults.”
But is it an exaggeration that religious extremism is spreading and strengthening? No. People may appear more religious but they are not attracted to extremism. The extremist use violence to be heard because they cannot win the support of the majority in a democratic dispensation. The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has rightly pointed out in his book ‘Identity and Violence’, that “Islamic terrorism is a muddled vocabulary of contemporary global politics.” He has observed that “to focus just on the grand religious classification is not only to miss other significant concerns and ideas that move people; it also has the effect of generally magnifying the idea voice of religious authority. The Muslim clerics, for example, are then treated as ex-officio spokesman for the so-called Islamic world, even though great many people who happen to be Muslim by religion have profound differences with what is proposed by one mullah or another.”
The Islamist militants want to establish their cherished ‘Islamic Khilafat’ through Jihad against the governments which are ‘siding with the infidel Americans’. They draw their inspiration from the teachings of Ibn Taimiyya, Farraj and Qutb that Ulema have failed to rise and call for Jihad against the government declaring the rulers as infidel lackeys of the west.
One of the major reasons for the revival of religious extremism and terrorism is that in each religion there are puritans who want to keep a cultural and religious status quo and resist any change particularly when it appears to be foreign. Many scholars have used the term “Islamists’ for the extremists. Humeira Iqtidar in her paper ‘Secularism Beyond the State: The ‘State’ and the ‘Market’ explained “Islamists are defined as those among Muslim revivalists who focus on taking over the state – they certainly seem to take the state, both as an idea and as a material object, very seriously.”
They are asking for ‘more’ Islamic laws and a lifestance in accordance to the Islamic code as practiced in the 7th century. According Charles S. Liebman, Religious extremism in all religions is the natural outcome of the fact that “religion claims absolute truth about ultimate reality. It knows the route one must follow to live one’s life in accordance with that which is ultimately right and ultimately just…The search for stricter or harsher interpretation of the law is consistent with the desire to assure one’s self and others that one is indeed living in accordance with what one is commanded to do rather than simply in accordance with what one would like to do.”
That explains why the Islamists are afraid of change and are fighting the proverbial ‘windmill’ like Don Quixote. The world, as Thomas Friedman stated, is now flat because of the information flow, thanks to digital technology and optic fibre. In each country, foreign ideas, culture and political debates are beamed in the sitting rooms of the people. Internet has broken all barriers. Knowledge is being democratized. All this is scary for the retrogressive conservative forces. They are fighting back, declaring that globalisation of culture is a threat to religion and religious tradition. Even some of the leftists and liberal activists in Pakistan are resisting the change and instead of moving on with the changing times they want to remain attached to the antiquated theories and systems. Olivier Roy explained that Muslim ‘neofundamentalism’ “looks at globalisation as a good opportunity to rebuild the Muslim ummah on a purely religious basis, not in the sense that religion is separated from culture and politics, but to the extent religion discards and even ignores other fields of symbolic practices. Neofundamentalism promotes the decontextualisation of religious practices.” We have seen that along with the petro-dollars of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf kingdoms the cultural and religious influences are also coming to the country, decontextualising the local culture. Saudi-funded Mullahs and even some educated people are influenced by the Wahabi thinking and they denigrate local cultural practices because they are not practices in Arabia.
A question is often raised then: When there are extremist strands in all religions why are Muslims extremists profiled as terrorists? One of the major reasons is that Muslim terrorists are more in number, they are spread all over the world, are more organised, are more violent and above all Al Qaeda and now IS has given them a global agenda. Unlike others who have local issues, the Muslim extremists have the Al Qaeda and IS manifesto to establish Islamic supremacy over the world. There is a debate among the Muslims as to whether the Salafi explanation about the permanent Jihad by the individual is correct or Jihad has to be a collective action declared by an Islamic state. Olivier Roy maintains that [w]hatever the complexity of the debate among scholars since the time of the Prophet, two points are clear: jihad is not one of the five pillars of Islam (profession of faith, prayer, fasting, alm-giving [zakat] and pilgrimage [Haj]) and it is therefore a collective duty. (fard kifaya) under given circumstances. But the radicals, since Sayyid Qutb and Mohammad Farrag, explicitly consider jihad a permanent and individual duty (fard ayn).”
The Arab countries in West Asia fall into two categories: one, ruled by tribal kingdoms; and two, the countries which are in the eye of the storm i.e. Iraq, Syria and Libya. The common thing in the Arab kingdoms and these three countries is that all had dictatorship their people but denied their political rights. The oil rich Gulf kingdoms led by Saudi Arabia have tried to appease its people by doling out a small amount of oil income. But the growing inequality in these kingdoms and the accumulation of oil wealth in the hands of a few members of the ruling elite, that of lack of human rights, social repression in the decision-making has led to widespread discontent and anger among the people. This anger is manifested in the occasional terrorist acts within the countries and has led many disgruntled youth to join the terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and IS.
This brings us to the crucial question asked frequently about how long terrorism will continue. The French Scholar Maxime Rodinson was of the view: “Islamic fundamentalism is a temporary, transitory movement, but could last another 30 or 50 years — I don’t know how long. Where fundamentalism isn’t in power it will be an ideal, [but] as long as the basic frustration and discontent persists that leads people to take extreme positions. You need long experience with clericalism to finally get fed up with it — look how much time it took in Europe!”
The writer can be reached and at email@example.com, he is author of ‘What’s wrong with Pakistan?’