Thursday, February 09, 2006

Origins of Islamic Terrorism

Hide your children and farm animals. This could get even uglier. offers nearly 300 titles devoted to Islamic terrorism while the press and Internet have been deluged with news reports, commentary and analysis. Much of it is misguided.

The teachings and practices of Islam have not changed in any significant way for centuries. So called "radical" or "fundamentalist" Islam is a myth as is "moderate" Islam. The only notable change in Islam over the last 1,000 years was a 13th century ruling of the Hanbali school of Muslim jurisprudence that allowed polytheists and idolators to become dhimmis (protected subject peoples) instead of being killed or enslaved. Islam today is no different from the Islam of 500 or more years ago. The difference between a peaceful Muslim and a Muslim terrorist is not one of religious doctrine. They do not interpet the Koran differently. They do not interpret the Hadith differently. They do not belong to different Islamic sects. It is the duty of every Muslim to make jihad against infidels until all infidels have been converted, killed, enslaved or subjugated. While Muslims may disagree on strategy and tactics they are in complete agreement on the desired outcome.

By the end of the 18th century it became clear to the rulers of the Ottoman Empire that they didn't have the means to successfully engage in warfare against European infidels. Islam was in retreat by the end of the 19th century and the subject peoples of Europe free from Muslim rule. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WWI the last foreign provinces of the Muslim Turkish empire were subordinated to the rule of Britain and France. Muslims almost everywhere were ruled by Christians. Nevertheless, Muslims in the main did not revolt against colonial rule nor did they engage in acts of terrorism against infidels. Muslims worldwide were a despairing, weak, ignorant, helpless, impoverished people and recognized themselves as such. That all changed with the dismantling of British and French colonial empires in the aftermath of WWII.

The Muslim intelligentsia everywhere embraced nationalism and socialism as the panaceas that would lead them to wealth, power and modernity and their new national leaders as those who would clear the way. In every case they were betrayed by the corrupt, authoritarian regimes that became the norm in the Muslim world. Instead of catching up with the West, the nations of Islam fell ever further behind. Those Muslim nations with oil wealth could at least purchase abroad some of the amenities of modern civilization and in so doing create the appearance of modernity without it substance. The rest could look forward to endless squalor and permanent inferiority to the much more advanced nations of the West. Nevertheless, Muslims did not conduct jihad against the infidels they so greatly envied and profoundly resented. The utter failure of Muslim secular institutions was a source of great shame and hopelessness. This common feeling was nowhere more intense and insufferable than amongst the Arabs who in time would be thoroughly trounced by tiny Israel in four different wars.

Against this backdrop a number of important events would shape the perceptions of Muslims in general and Arabs in particular. Among them were the defeat of the French during the Algerian War of Liberation and in Indochina. To this we must add the American defeat in Vietnam and its poor showing in Lebanon and in dealing with American diplomatic personnel taken hostage during the Iranian revolution. The finishing touch was the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The once mighty had been brought low time and time again by relatively small and dedicated groups through unconventional warfare. This perception was reinforced by the success of Palestinian organizations that had successfully increased their power, political legitimacy and foreign revenues while conducting terrorist attacks on foreign infidel targets. Muslims once weak and powerless in the face of infidel military might now had a proven means for defeating it. Means alone were insufficient for Muslims to regain their long lost power and glory. They required a common purpose and for some that entailed looking no further than their religious faith.

The person primarily responsible for the creation of what is thought of as political Islam was Sayyid Qutb. He did not in any way reinterpret the Koran or Hadith. Instead he argued for the complete rejection of all infidel practices and institutional models that Muslims at various time and places had in some measure attempted to emulate. His critique of infidel practices and institutions was thorough, detailed and completely consistent with the teachings of Islam. He argued for the restoration of traditional Islamic society not because it would improve the material well-being of Muslims but because Allah created man to do his bidding on Earth. Sharia law is Allah's bidding and there is no other legitimate source of law.

Muslims who had lost faith in secular institutions copied from the West were provided a moral argument for rejecting them altogether. It was not Muslims who had failed at achieving modernity. Modernity itself was a revolting failure. This message was welcome to Muslims ashamed of the hopeless backwardness and squalor in which they and others like them lived. It was most welcome of all to Muslims with direct personal experience of the infidel West. Raphael Patai in his "The Arab Mind" writes eloquently and at length about the conflicting feelings of attraction and repulsion and envy and shame and superiority and inferiority that many if not most Muslim Arabs suffer when they directly compare the way infidel Westerners live and how their compatriots live. Qutb offers a path leading to a restored sense of honor and superiority to those traumatized by their experience of the West.

Once all Muslims were governed by Sharia law virtue and justice would prevail. While Qutb rejected Socialism his notions of political economy appear to be collectivist. He realized that one needs leadership and administration as well as laws to govern but makes no clear statement of how this combination might work in his perfect Islamic society. While advocating jihad he recognizes that where violence is impractical peaceful means must be found to advance the cause of Islam. The promotion of Islam must be both relentless and adaptable to circumstances. Qutb was not a terrorist. He was, instead, an idealistic Muslim apologist and revivalist. He was to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt what Marx is to communism.

Due to a lavishly funded effort by Saudi Arabia to spread its very traditional and orthodox form of Islam there was no shortage of fire-breathing, infidel-hating Muslim clerics in Muslim lands. Qutb provided the purpose while successful experience had shown the means. All that was left for Islamic international terrorism to flourish was funding and organization. Saudi and Iranian financing supplemented by Muslim charities abroad would provide the former. Osama bin Laden, an admirer of Qutb, would with the aid of others provide the latter.

For Islamism to flourish it was necessary for Muslim secular institutions to fail and they repeatedly and dismally did so to the shame and despair of many Muslims. For this, if for no other reason, America's attempt to create an Iraqi Muslim society with successful secular institutions is necessary. What much of the Muslim world lacks is an attractive, proven alternative to Islamism. Hope and a credible path to modernity that is consistent with Islam are the most powerful weapons we can use in the war against Islamism. If that doesn't work, we are faced with war without end.

For more information on Qutb during his 1949 sojourn in America go here. For a brief overview of his life and work go here. A long, scholarly dissertion on his life and works can be found here.


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