Whither Radical Islam After Afghanistan

by Naseem Jamali

February 11, 2002

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Religious activism in most Muslim countries ranges from teaching and preaching a narrow and angry interpretation of the faith, to charitable work, community services, street demonstrations, agitation and terrorism. Sometimes this activism has manifested itself in radical application of specific political and social solutions to problems facing the population, not uncommonly by force and violence. With the defeat of Taliban in Afghanistan and impending demise of Osama bin Laden, one would think that radical Islam, having suffered a serious loss of face and following, would inevitably retreat and be poised to accept modernity. This is highly unlikely, since radical Islam's main goals are social and political justice, deeply rooted in history going back to the Prophet and the hadith -- his documented sayings and practices. The Quran as well stresses social, economic and political justice on this Earth and is less elaborate on redemption in the life hereafter, popular impressions in the West notwithstanding. Consequently, agitation and anger by Muslims is primarily directed against their own rulers, the hatred of the West is tangential and a recent phenomenon, simmering since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Subsequent humiliation that Muslim societies have suffered when colonial powers occupied them and divided them into artificial states, are weapons constantly wielded by scholars or ulema of various shades to rally and arouse the faithful. The death of hundreds of "martyrs" in Afghanistan, imprisonment of thousands and yet another government that will be perceived as imposed by the West, is bound to reinforce that sentiment of humiliation and ensuing anger. News accounts by Western media, often cursory and self-congratulatory, still reveal sentiments amongst ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis, two countries directly affected, that the allies have unjustly punished them and have brought no real benefits.

Like clockwork, anti-Americanism in the Middle East seems to be on the rise, according to Tom Friedman of New York Times as, he reports, the heads of governments have privately communicated to George Bush. True, this is in the context of Sharon's blank check from the U.S. to go on a brutal attack on Palestinians. But the Palestine issue remains a constant cause for Muslims of all shades to unify and deepen their sense of humiliation, anger and injustice by the West.

If Iraq can become a cause célèbre for many Muslims after its defeat in the Gulf War despite the fact that many Arab and Muslim governments joined the campaign against Saddam Hussein, then a dead Osama bin Laden combined with a second attack on Iraq or another Muslim country is going to inspire legions to avenge Islam even more. This will not happen overnight of course, but resentments will percolate until another leader or group finds right conditions to rally the faithful in attack on the West.

To be sure, there is moderate Islam which stands in opposition to radical activism, and is subscribed to by people who consider religion as a matter of personal faith and not a political and social ideology. Moderate Islam is mostly prevalent in educated and economically well-to-do segments of Muslim societies, but by its very nature does not wage an active struggle against radicalism. Moderate Muslim are further hampered in their opposition to extremists and radicals, because they can easily be branded as siding with the West or foreigners, often a former colonial power. Even in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance and Hamid Karzai have led an effort to discredit Al Qaeeda and Taliban as an effort against foreigners or tools of foreigners, never mind that these same Arabs played a pivotal role in the defeat of the Soviets. Educated and usually not faced with economic hardships, moderate Muslims constitute a relatively comfortable economic class. Even though many leaders of radical Islam are drawn from educated middle and upper classes, illiterate and poor masses provide the base of the movement as well as its foot soldiers.

Within the total of 1.2 billion, a typical Muslim is a peasant, worker, student or a housewife with no or little education and his or her world view is limited to that filtered via Islam. Bankers, doctors, engineers, educators and middle class are a tiny minority. With no pope or a church to set guidelines, religious leaders who often have a job and a profession aside from religious leadership, help shape the world view that has invariably been anti-establishment since Islam became hyperactive during the anti-colonial period. Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Wahabism in Saudi Arabia, Deoband movement that started in India and later migrated to Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Islamic movement in Iran, all had as their primary objective the removal of the rulers in order to institute historically idealized justice and equality. More recently, radicals have discovered that the West, especially Americans, associated with domestic ruling classes, are more vulnerable for criticism and easy targets for physical attack. But hostility to the West remains a means to an end -- ending current domestic rule and establishing a just society according to Islamic principles. Terrorism has become an "issue" and perhaps a defining characteristic of Muslims by the West only when Americans have come under attack. In the Muslim world itself according to some estimates nearly 200,000 people have died in the last decade from terrorism, yet terrorism is not viewed as the main issue, food and shelter are.

There are two possible ways that the more virulent aspects of radical Islam are likely to diminish. First, ironically, there be periods of Islamic rule, so that the populations realize that governments run on archaic Islamic principles cannot deliver economic and social justice in modern times. In varying degrees this kind of disillusionment has happened in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan. Saudi Arabia is an exception; because of oil revenues, the government has been able to provide necessities of modern life. Second, economic prosperity becomes widely distributed so that Islam is perceived as a personal matter of faith and not as a social and political ideology. This outlook is prevalent in middle classes within impoverished Muslim societies as well as in relatively well-off Muslim societies such as Malaysia. But the chances of Muslim societies shaking off brutal feudalism combined with rabid capitalism with attendant poverty and oppression are only in the distant future. The struggle for the basics of life must and will go on. It will utilize either the tools of Muslim ideology or that of free markets linked with the West, but not both at the same time. So it should be no surprise if hostility and terrorism against the West arises on the ashes of Al Qaeeda training camps or terrorist cells elsewhere in the next seesaw process. Surprisingly, President Bush gave radical Islam a big boost when he declared a worldwide war following September 11 attack. The ideologues and ulema have long argued that the West is hostile to Islam and is waging a war against it. When Bush formally declared war, never mind that it was against terrorism, in their eyes he confirmed their contention. This view has already gained some currency in the Muslim world. Invitations to Muslims by the White House, visits by Bush to mosques and other gestures are going to be forgotten once the U.S. enlarges its campaign against terrorism, which will undoubtedly be directed against another Muslim country or an alleged terrorist group with a Muslim name. Out of the 186 organizations and individuals listed by the State Department as terrorists between September 23 and January 9, only 11 are non Muslims, and actions have been taken or are being planned exclusively against Muslim organizations. Though official profiling may be unstated, in the popular mind in the West a terrorist is a Muslim. The polarization between the Muslim world and the West is only going to increase. Easy times ahead will be short lived.


       Naseem Jamali is President of Books & Research Inc., a research and book supply company in Hastings on Hudson, NY. Born in Pakistan, Jalami was U.N. correspondent (1972-74) for Jang, the largest Pakistani daily. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from New York University in 1976 and a Masters in Public Health from Columbia University in 1988. He has taught philosophy, including islamic philosophy at Hunter College, NY, New York Institute of Technology, Adelphi University, NY, and Essex Community College, NJ, among others. He also gave a course on intercultural management in a MBA program at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, NY, in 2000 and 2001. This is Naseem Jamali's first column on Swans.


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Published February 11, 2002
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