Politics in the name of the Prophet

The following article appeared in the French magazine Le Monde diplomatique, in the November 2001 edition, and has been reposted here. You can see the original article at http://mondediplo.com/2001/11/09prophet1

Politics in the name of the Prophet
November 2001
Translated by Luke Sandford

The West, in ignorance and suspicion, has confused and simplified the many kinds of political Islam, and presumed a false link between terrorism and the religion of Islam.

Western leaders' calls to distinguish between Islam and terrorism may not be enough to check the spectre of racism. The real risk is that racist sentiment, conscious or not, will grow among ordinary people who are frightened and bewildered. The general feeling is that the West and the "civilised" democracies are waging a war (if not a crusade) against totalitarian and fanatical Muslims. Terrorist calls for jihad against "infidel crusaders" determined to subjugate Muslims have made that feeling more plausible. These worrying parallels have carved a dangerous gulf between two civilisations and two worlds, setting the well-to-do against the powerless and their pent-up frustrations and resentments.

With some notable exceptions, Western leaders and media luminaries are feeding this polarisation in two ways: they downplay the terrorists' political motivations and instead emphasise their religious identity, drawing on the muddled terminology they profess to avoid. The indiscriminate use of terms such as Islam, fanaticism, terrorism, fundamentalism, Islamism – as if they were interchangeable – leads at best to confusion and may even serve to exacerbate anti-Muslim racism. According to a survey conducted by the polling firm IFOP, 50% of the French public admit equating fanaticism with Islam (1).

Dangerous misunderstandings are inevitable when people talk about "fundamentalism" – something foreign to Islam – or even when they refer to "Islamism", which some Islamic scholars have adopted for want of a better term, although more cautious observers talk of "political Islam". Generalisations about Islamist movements and parties cause similar confusion and absence of distinction. Islamist political parties are, in fact, quite dissimilar: often they have nothing in common but their references to the Prophet and Islam, which they interpret in a number of conflicting or contradictory ways, and they span the political spectrum from left to far right.

Iran provides a prime insight into such inter-Islamist conflicts. The strongest opposition that Ayatollah Khomeini faced after his rise to power in 1979 came not from secular parties but from Islamist groups. Some of these groups were liberal (supported by the leading ayatollahs), while others were inspired by social democratic or Marxist beliefs. Following the elimination of those who opposed Khomeini's line the conflict has, in recent years, crystallised into two tendencies: the totalitarianism of the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the minority; and the majority democratic, secularist faction led by President Mohammad Khatami (2). Reflecting the divisions within broader society, the Iranian clergy are also deeply split between conservatives and reformers, with both camps relying on contradictory readings of religious texts.

In Turkey, another non-Arab Muslim nation, the Islamist movement has been politically active in various guises for half a century. Respectful of the legal system established by Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish Islamists accept the secular state but condemn the government for not observing religious neutrality, as is the practice in France and the US. Turkey's "Islamic democrats", as they are sometimes known, drawing on the European Christian democratic analogy, are widely represented in Turkey's parliament and municipal councils, and their historic leader, Necmettin Erbakan, served as prime minister in a coalition cabinet in 1996-97 before his civil rights were suspended. The "Islamic democrats" see themselves as victims of discrimination: paradoxically, they are leading the fight for Turkish human rights and democracy in the hope that Turkey will be admitted to the European Union.

Egypt has several Islamist organisations with divergent viewpoints and objectives. With only one or two exceptions, these groups advocate non-violent reforms. The oldest and largest of these is the Muslim Brotherhood, which condemns violence, whether it is the Islamist "dictatorship" in Sudan or the "crimes" committed by Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Some of the Brotherhood's younger members left the movement, however, regarding it as too conservative, to form the Wasat party (the "middle way"), which advocates political pluralism and human rights (3). Al-Wasat has a woman and a Christian on its central committee, setting it apart from other Islamic groups. In contrast to the moderation of these groups, the militant Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, joined Osama bin Laden's terrorist organisation.

There are plenty of other examples of the diversity of political Islam in the Arab and Muslim countries, from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the Islamic movement has undergone various notable transformations from the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, which grew into a huge mass movement and, in its heyday, expanded throughout the region. The routing of the Arab armies during the Six-Day war in June 1967 was a defining moment, leading, as it did, to the collapse of a number of nationalist and socialist groups that were blamed for the catastrophic loss. To ease the distress and humiliation, local populations turned to their religious faith out of desperation. Forced by most regimes to meet clandestinely, the Islamists used the mosques as a political forum; and their charitable and corporate organisations provided the bearers of the Islamist message.

An outlet for protest and action

Whether out of conviction or opportunism, the Islamists shaped their political discourse to match that of their vanquished rivals. Islamic rhetoric became an instrument of mobilisation, serving as a cover for nationalist and anti-imperialist objectives. But it also had a social component, and included denunciations of the injustices, corruption, and tyranny that characterised the reigning oligarchies. Political Islam thus became one of the few outlets for protest and action. Ayatollah Khomeini's pronouncements, minus their theological references, were virtually indistinguishable from statements from Third World leaders such as the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The leader of the Iranian revolution thus came to occupy that part of the political spectrum that the Shah of Iran bequeathed to him after having overseen the destruction of the democratic opposition parties of both the left and the right.

Although demagogic in nature, the Islamists' political and social programme gained more favour with the public than their religious message, which was primarily reactionary, misogynistic and morally repressive. This is the sole explanation for the Islamists' success following, and not before, their transformation into militant nationalists. They undoubtedly benefited from wide-ranging assistance (especially financial) from states that claimed Islamic roots, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which sought to strengthen their own bases after the fall of regimes hostile to their interests. It later became clear that this support was not reciprocal, since these governments did not realise that political Islam, as a brand-new phenomenon, was not necessarily sympathetic to their interests.

Faced with this threat, the Arab regimes tried to neutralise the Islamists, either by pursuing them with extraordinary brutality or by integrating them within state institutions, retaining the ability to co-opt them. The Islamists were successfully co-opted in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait and Yemen, where they have representation in parliament, and in some cases in government. By contrast, the Islamists suffered appalling massacres in Syria and ruthless repression in Tunisia and Iraq. In Algeria, those who seek to stamp out the Islamists have only succeeded in prolonging a particularly bloody conflict.

It would be wrong to conclude that clashes between the established regimes and the Islamists pit supporters of secularism against its opponents. Some states opposed to political Islam have constitutions and legislation that conform to the teachings of the sacred texts. Other states fight so passionately to become more Islamic than their opponents that they have come to resemble them.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are both examples of this phenomenon. With rare exceptions, their governments have at times colluded with the Islamists in the fight against even more fearsome rivals. Former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat protected them in the 1970s to neutralise the left-leaning Nasserists and the communists; ironically, Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist in 1981. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, stopped pursuing the Islamists after they signed up for the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, yet Mubarak himself became the target of an assassination attempt in 1995. Jordan's King Hussein often relied on Islamist support in combating opponents of his reign. Yemen's President Abdallah Saleh won over the Islamists in clashes with Marxists in South Yemen. Sudan's former president Gaafar Numeiri took similar steps to win over political parties opposed to absolute rule and to help him overcome separatist, Christian and animist rebels in the south of Sudan.

The case of Israel is virtually identical. Successive Israeli governments discreetly supported the Muslim Brotherhood in the Occupied Territories while the Brotherhood was exclusively attacking Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which it viewed as a gang of nationalists and Marxists, all traitors to Islam. The Israeli leadership realised its short-sightedness during the first intifada, begun in 1987, when the Brotherhood gave birth to Hamas, dedicated to the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle and terrorism.

Good versus evil

United States policies have been no different from those of Israel and the Arab states. Washington has always viewed the Islamists as natural partners, implacably opposed to "communist atheists" and strongly supportive of market economics. Washington believed the Islamists would eventually take their place within the free world. The US alliance with Saudi Arabia, home to rigid Wahhabism, has continued since the second world war. In the 1950s and 1960s Muslim countries and Islamist movements fought alongside the US against Nasserism and the evil Soviet empire. It was a struggle of good versus evil, version one.

The Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, the Gulf war and the collapse of the Soviet empire changed the picture radically and brought about a new sort of Islamism, which grew in the mountains of Afghanistan. The mujahedin did not see themselves as mere back-up troops for the US; they believed, along with Osama bin Laden and his future supporters, that they had liberated Islamic land through valour, sacrifice and, in many cases, martyrdom. Their disappointment in the aftermath of victory was commensurate with their self-styled role. They had no jobs or resources, nor did they receive gratitude, compensation or inclusion in any future plans for the country.

The US, grateful nonetheless, did exert discreet pressure on reluctant governments, urging them to repatriate fighters who would go on to devote themselves to violence in Algeria, Kashmir, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, then Bosnia and Chechnya. When Egypt repeatedly refused to welcome back Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was implicated in President Sadat's assassination, the US granted him a visa in 1990, followed by permanent resident status. In 1993 the sheikh masterminded the first attack on the World Trade Centre and was given a life sentence.

The 1990-91 Gulf war sparked demonstrations and protests throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, not out of sympathy with Saddam Hussein as some claimed, but in protest at Washington's bias and double standards. Indignant nationalist and Islamist media asked why only Iraq faced sanctions for its invasion of Kuwait when Israel had occupied Arab territories for decades with impunity. And in the wake of the Gulf war, why did the US set up bases in several Gulf countries, most notably in the holy land of Saudi Arabia, if not to protect various unpopular and/or unstable regimes? The world's sole superpower became the favourite target of Islamists of all persuasions, including those who went on to adopt the Bin Laden label.

Is this a case of knee-jerk anti-Americanism? Hostility toward US foreign policy is not an intrinsically Arab or Muslim phenomenon, as some observers imply; in fact, there is now worldwide resentment in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe, within Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike. But anti-American sentiment is not irreversible; indeed, the US has been highly popular among Arab peoples at various points in recent history. Witness President Wilson's calls for the emancipation of all colonised peoples following the first world war. In 1945 President Roosevelt, together with Saudi Arabia's King Ibn Saud, sought to resolve the Palestinian problem with the cooperation of the Arab states; after the second world war the US was thought to be opposed to British and French colonialism. And during the 1956 Suez crisis, President Eisenhower called on the United Kingdom, France and Israel to end their military action against Egypt and withdraw their troops forthwith. At such moments, a Bin Laden would have had no grounds for existence.

A new historical phenomenon

Is terrorist activity inextricably linked with Islam? Terrorism is actually a worldwide scourge that has reared its head under diverse conditions and in countries as dissimilar as Germany, Japan, Italy, Argentina and Greece. Before it assumed its recent "Islamic" form, it was successively or simultaneously Palestinian, Israeli, Egyptian, Yemeni. It was also endemic, occasional, individual, nationalist or governmental in nature, and it primarily targeted local populations.

Founded by Osama bin Laden at the end of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, the al-Qaida brand of terrorism is an entirely new historical phenomenon, quite different in its make-up. Targeting US interests almost exclusively, it is transnational in its recruitment and identity since it claims to act on behalf of the umma, the Muslim nation, which is spread over five continents. This is a global phenomenon insofar as al-Qaida operates on a worldwide scale – in more than 50 countries according to the US State Department – and makes use of practices and technology made possible by globalisation.

Often influenced by Western culture, al-Qaida's members are recruited among the middle classes and work in small semi-autonomous cells even when inspired by directives from the "centre". This nebulous organisation is not the direct tool of any state; for financial and logistical support, it relies on private collaborators, charitable associations and wealthy backers. Unlike the previous generation of terrorists, who acted on behalf of organisations that also (simultaneously) engaged in non-violent political activities, Bin Laden's disciples apparently do not have any structured popular support. They are in some ways marginalised, yet they claim to speak and act on behalf of some 1bn Muslims of all religious persuasions.

Islam's highest authorities, both Sunni and Shia, condemned – almost unanimously – the suicide attacks of 11 September, although their denunciations did not receive widespread coverage in the Western media. In solemn declarations from their pulpits, they have made clear that the murder of innocents is contrary to the letter and the spirit of the holy books, as were the actions of the suicide pilots (suicide is expressly forbidden by all three monotheistic religions). What value can be ascribed to the fatwas of Bin Laden and his jihad-hungry cohorts, whose religious authority is dubious, if not non-existent?

With some exceptions, the Islamist movements of the Arab world have spoken out as well. For example, al-Nahda, the clandestine Tunisian party of Rashed Ghannoushi, issued a communiqué stating that it "unreservedly condemns the terrorism … behind these unjustifiable barbarous acts, which cannot be attributed to Muslims". Less explicit but equally categorical, other Islamist organisations have repudiated "all forms of violence, whatever their source".

Rather than focusing on Islam and its alleged relationship with fanaticism and terrorism, it may be wiser to question the sanity of the killers of 11 September, as well as Bin Laden's emerging cult of death, which parallels various infamous sects in Europe and the US. Indeed we may do well to contemplate the morbid sense of jubilation exhibited by the perpetrators of the suicide attacks.

Branded a heretic and repudiated by Islamists and Muslim leaders alike, Bin Laden appears to have earned the indulgence and sympathy of many people, both Muslim and non-Muslim. This is not as paradoxical as it may seem. In their quest for justice and recognition, the victims of globalisation also see themselves as suffering at the hands of arrogant US hegemony. Even though they show little tolerance for overbearing theologians or al-Qaida's unspeakable methods, these people have proven receptive to Bin Laden's political message. Having chosen to ignore this reality, those waging the Enduring Freedom military campaign risk lending credence to the notion of a religious war.

(1) Le Monde, 5 October 2001.

(2) See Éric Rouleau, "Islam confronts Islam in Iran", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, June 1999.

(3) See Wendy Kristianasen, "Islam on message for modernity", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, April 2000.

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