Islam may mean peace, as the oft repeated slogan goes, but the bombings in Riyadh show that some Muslims want war. There is no point denying the fact that there exists in our midst, misguided men who, for whatever cause, seem willing to transgress even the limits set by our Prophet Muhammad.
Likewise, there is no point denying the abject failure of the Wests attempts to eradicate terror by simply bombing some countries, imprisoning some people, and threatening violent regime change throughout the Middle East.
A military war against terror can never be prosecuted to success because terrorism is only a method. It is a reactionary response born out of the idea that the ends can justify the means; that a just cause can be furthered by an unjust means.
The nature of ideas, particularly religious ideas, is that they cannot be fought physically. Paradoxically, extremist ideologies prosper and spread most effectively when the object of the extremism is acting aggressively. Using violence to suppress extremist tendencies, or using military or police action to deter the extremists themselves only gives legitimacy and strength to the ideology and serves to rally popular support behind it.
Most manifestations of extremist thought appear in environments that are politically or economically unstable, and it gains currency amongst those who lack knowledge of their religion. Extremist though, and the terrorist behaviour that flows from it, is a reaction to external factors and not a proactive impulse.
The crucible of extremism is the belief that something is wrong – whether in reality or in perception. The Muslim world is today plagued with a variety of social, economic and political ills: despotism, corruption, intellectual stagnation and economic mismanagement. When a person finds himself confronted by a situation they cannot possibly accept, they unconsciously seek to resolve that situation by reacting in opposition to it. As the driving forces become stronger, so the reaction becomes stronger. If the opposing force is strong enough, or escalates far enough, then the reaction may become one of radicalism and violence.
It is therefore not surprising that the most contemporary Islamic extremist movements have their origins in the jails of Gamal Abdel Nasser. When the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian religious organization, began making progress politically in their calls for reform, they began to pose a threat to Nasser’s Arab Nationalist governance. He responded by imprisoning and torturing the Muslim Brotherhood members and their families en masse. When they were released from prison, often after having witness atrocities committed on the female members of their family, many became violent. That violence was initially directed at the police who had been their torturers and imprisoners. These people went on to reject the method of peaceful socio-political reform favoured by the Muslim Brotherhood; instead breaking away and resorting to violent means of ‘reform’.
As the government cracked down further on the movements, the circle of legitimate targets widened to include anyone who worked for the Egyptian government, including school teachers and nurses. Finally, the violence escalated to a horrific crescendo witnessed in the 1990s with the murder of the tourists at Luxor. The attack was intended to cause a fall in tourism that would in turn hurt the government. Ayman al-Zawahiri, right-hand mind of Osama bin Laden and widely regarded as the principle ideologue behind September 11, is an alumni of this movement.
Muslims do not need Islam to radicalize them; the political conditions radicalize them. If Muslims were of a different faith and that religious community was subject to the same levels of oppression, then some members of that faith would also become extremists.
For this reason, a real war on terror must include the ending of support for repressive regimes in the Muslim world, as well as promoting political pluralism in Muslim societies. All competing ideas, including extremist ideas, must enter into a dialogue; including those of the Islamic movements who are invariably the most credible grassroots reform blocs in the Muslim world.
However, the efforts of the Muslim world to find extremism have been obstructed and hindered by a Western discourse that equates fundamentalism with extremism, and sees legitimate struggles for self-determination as the enemy when coloured with a fundamentalist hue.
Regardless of what some may think of their religious practices, Muslim fundamentalists have been amongst the most vocal opponents of extremist thought. Almost every scholar of repute in the fundamentalist world, from the Mufti of Saudi Arabia to the leaders of the Islamic resistance movement in Kashmir, has condemned September 11 and the idea that such attacks are permissible under Islamic law. Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, recently freed after almost a decade of imprisoned for opposition to Saudi involvement in the first Gulf War, has condemned terrorism and extremist thought and called for a dialogue between the West and the Islamic world.
Every ostensibly fundamentalist Muslim is seen as being an extremist and, implicitly, a potential terrorist – including those Islamic movements struggling for independence and self-determination in places such as Chechnya. As a result, a number of institutions and individuals have come under attack in the naïve belief that because they articulate an essentially fundamentalist vision of Islam, they are implicitly supportive of anti-Western terrorist attacks. Amongst them have been groups such as al-Haramain Foundation – one of the largest Islamic charities in the world – charged with being connected to al-Qaeda because employees of its Bosnia and Somalian branches may have met with individuals connected with al-Qaeda. It is a high stakes version of three degrees of separation that ignores the numerous examples of the charities’ own opposition to terrorism and its efforts over many years to spread a moderate view of Islam throughout the world. It also ignores the fact that whereas al-Haramain enjoys a good relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia and is headed by a Saudi minister, Bin Laden’s avowed objective has been overthrowing the same government.
Caught in the broad definition of ‘enemy’ in the war on terror are Muslim resistance groups. Yet, it should be remembered that when Muslims fight they are not fighting at their borders to expand the Muslim world. Almost all instances of violence or insurrection involving Muslims, regardless of the legitimacy or morality of their methods, are battles for self-determination. The Chechens are not interested in violently expanding their borders to encompass Russia; the Moro people of the Philippines are not interested in expanding their borders to incorporate the rest of the country; and the Muslims fighting the reconstituted former communists ruling central Asia are not fighting for anything more than the right to choose their political destiny in fair elections.
A policy based upon the notion that the Islamic revival is inherently anti-Western and thus must be suppressed is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A non-hostile relationship with the grassroots of the Islamic world is vastly more beneficial to the West’s national security interests than friendly relationships with regimes that are useful in the short term for their complacence but that are doomed by their autocratic domestic behaviour.
As Graham Fuller, former Vice-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council of the CIA, noted in a recent Foreign Policy article:
“Americans brought up to venerate the separation of church and state may wonder whether a movement with an explicit religious vision can ever create a democratic, tolerant and pluralistic polity.
But, if Christian Democrats can do it, there is no reason in principle why Islamists cannot. Non-Muslims should understand that democratic values are latent in Islamic though if one wants to look for them, and that it would be more natural and organic for the Muslim world to derive contemporary liberal practices from its own sources than to import them wholesale from foreign cultures. The key question is whether it will actually do so.
The war against terror is really a war of ideas: of moderation versus extremism. In attempting to address the problems of religious extremism, the West has taken it upon itself to be the sole arbiters of what is and what is not moderate Islam; applying some secular humanist litmus test to Islamic theology. In doing so, it gives legitimacy and credibility to the accusation of the terrorists that the West is an imperialistic force
determined to wipe out Islam and destroy the Muslims.
For this reason, the fight against extremism must also be fought by Muslims, particularly Muslim scholars, who understand both the forces that drive a Muslim to such acts, as well as the ideological underpinnings for extremist thought. In order for extremist ideas to be refuted, they must be allowed to be spoken. This requires reform in the Muslim societies that view any kind of dissent – extremist or otherwise – as a threat to their power.
Securing a peaceful future requires the work of both the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Muslims must take responsibility for promoting moderation and fighting the ideological underpinnings of extremism. Non-Muslim governments must end their support for repressive governments in the Muslim world, and work to encourage a genuine pluralism and dialogue. It must stop viewing all Islamic movements as the enemy; for in doing so it is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The goal of all must be not to create enemies, but to build credibility, alliances and achieve world stability instead of chaos.
Amir Butler is Executive Director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC) and a writer for ATrueWord.com, an internet-based journal of social and political comment. He converted to Islam in the mid 1990s, and remains a passionate advocate of Islamic causes.