If Islam is a religion of peace, how do you explain the acts of Muslim terrorists, which are done in the name of Islam?
It is a fact that the overwhelming majority of observant Muslims live peacefully with the west and are as appalled by terrorism against the west as, say, a Southern Baptist. It is also true that the terrorists use Islam as a major recruitment tool. However, this is not as paradoxical as many seem to think. Islamic terrorists found their actions upon a relatively new interpretation of Islam, which is radically different from the interpretation which most Muslims grow up with. These differences - and the reasons for the emergence and growth of the terrorist creed - are the subject of this writeup.
Terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism
The terrorists' version of Islam is often confused with 'fundamentalist Islam'. There are reasons for the confusion. Both fundamentalists and terrorists agree that modern society is rotting at the core, and that the cause of this rot is that man has turned away from God. The cause of this is the divorce between the secular and the religious, which characterises modern society and leads to the elevation of mere reason over life illuminated by the divine spark. The only lasting, sustainable solution is turning to the word of God in its purest form - the Qur'an and Sunna. Both also agree that much of mediaeval Muslim tradition is corrupt, and cannot be used - Muslims must turn to the original core texts and interpret them in a way that makes them relevant to the needs of today.
However, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism are in fact very different phenomena. This is clearest in the methods they advocate. Fundamentalists believe that the goal can be reached by peacefully infiltrating education, the media, civil society and political institutions to introduce and invite the masses to true Islam, and simultaneously pressuring the regimes to implement shari'a. Violence under such conditions is not sanctioned by the Quran.
The terrorists disagree. They hold that the perversions of the modern world have become deeply institutionalised. Islam and Muslims are being attacked, both directly and indirectly. The only means of resistance given the pervasiveness of these factors is violence.
Early Islamic Revivalism
The roots of both Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism lie in the revival movements that began in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Arab and Muslim intellectuals of the period who compared the condition of the Muslim world to that of Europe were faced with several questions. Why had Islam, which had for centuries been a light to the world, seemingly lost its vigour? What were the secrets behind the West's ascendancy and Islam's decline? And how could the Muslim world be revived?
An early response to these questions came from Muslims such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Sir Khan said that Islam's problems were caused by the superstitious beliefs and local practices that had entered it in mediaeval times. It must modernise, embrace western-style scientific education, and reacquire the scientific temper and commitment to social progress which it had introduced to the west. The road to doing so lay in completely abandoning the accumulated layers of mediaeval jurisprudence (fiqh), and instead emphasising Islam's universal and assimilative character. To do this, Muslims must disconnect worldly and religious matters, and confine the domain of religion to religious matters. He argued for reviving the notion of ijtihad, or progressive reinterpretation of religious texts in the light of changing circumstances.
Not all intellectuals were prepared to go so far. Al Afghani and his followers argued that the problem could be redressed by returning to the spirit of early Islam, and the pure ways of early Muslim fathers, al-salaf al-salih (hence the term salafi movement), as reinterpreted through ijtihad. Because mediaeval tradition could not be relied upon, Muslims were free to draw inspiration from Western thought. For instance, the Quranic notion of shura, a form of mandatory consulatation by the ruler of his subjects, could be seen as presaging democracy, and used as the basis to structure new democratic polities that were wholly compatible with Islam. Al Afghani and his immediate successor, Muhammad Abduh, emphasised the primacy of individual reason (burhan) in this process as opposed to following the opinions of scholars (taqlid). Reason properly exercised, he said, could not possibly conflict with divine revelation. These ideas became very popular, and inspired, at least in part, the Ottoman Empire's Tanzimat reforms, the Young Turks, as well as the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906.
The growth of conservativism
A more conservative minority began to emerge in the early decades of the twentieth century. It was becoming increasingly obvious that Europe - and particularly European imperialistic ambitions - did not adhere to the ideals that the early intellectuals had admired. In Al Afghani's own time, the Anglo-British agreement of 1882, and rapacious European colonialism had caused considerable disturbance amongst Muslims. The only got worse after the first world war, when the western powers carved up of the Ottoman empire into semi-colonial states under the Sykes-Picot agreement. This caused even leading rationalists such as Rashid Rida to move from guarded admiration of the West to contempt for its hypocrisy to calling for open rebellion.
Muslim intellectuals were also troubled by the popularity of the newly-emergent Bahá'í faith at the end of the nineteenth century amongst secular and reformist Muslims, and the radical secularisation of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (inspired by the rational-secular ideas of Zia Gokalp), both of which to them seemed to effectively be apostasy. As a result, reformers and revivalist movements started becoming more conservative, opposing the westernisation and secularisation of their societies, and calling for re-Islamisation and the total rejection of foreign currents.
Early conservativism is epitomised in the work of Sir Muhammad Iqbal. Iqbal rejected the idea that Islam could learn anything from the West. Modern Europe had attempted to produce idealistic systems based on pure reason. But these attempts were doomed to fail because they lacked the spark of living conviction that only revelation had. Islam should, therefore, strive to create an ideal society based on the Qur'anic principles of rational, scientific inquiry and social justice. The way to do this was by shifting power from the ulama to an assembly that would embody the consensus of the people (ijma),and would use ijtihad to formulate the rules and laws of a modern society, guided by the light of the Quran.
Later conservatives such as Hasan Al-Banna of Egypt (who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928) and Maulana Maudoodi of Pakistan (who founded the Jamat-i-Islami in 1941) were more radical. Current societies were not just misguided. They had degenerated so much that they were little better than jahiliya (the primitive barbarism that had prevailed in the Arab world before Islam civilised it). Maudoodi argued that Muslims were dutybound to work for an ideological Islamic state, in which the absolute sovreignty of Allah (hakimiyya) prevailed in every walk of life. Such a state would show the world the way out of the crisis brought about by secular atheistic materialism, and restore man to his true potentiality. However, Maudoodi himself eschewed violence. His organisation, too, initially adopted socio-religious ways to further its goals, and eventually evolved into a mainstream political party in Pakistan.
The birth of a terrorist ideology
After the end of Second World War, nationalist struggles against foreign rule began in many parts of the Muslim world, particularly in Egypt, Algeria, and Pakistan. Simultaneously, as Middle-Eastern oil became more important, Western countries became more persistent in pursuing their national self-interest in the region - witness the Baghdad Pact, the western-backed unseating of Dr. Mossadegh in Iran, and the general support given by the West to unpopular regimes in the region. In addition, the creation of Israel and the plight of Palestinian refugees had caused widespread anger in the Muslim world. In this mood, nationalist and pan-Arabist groups began resorting to violence against those they believed were oppressing them. This was believed to be legitimate self-defence, which was sanctioned by the Qur'an.
In the late 1940s, some Muslims associated with the Muslim Brotherhood began to take part in the violent campaign against the British presence in Egypt, seen as an occupation (which is what it really was, given the terms of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty). The Egyptian government responded by cracking down heavily on the Brotherhood. Al-Banna was assassinated by the army in 1949, and many leading figures were imprisoned. The situtation did not improve after the nationalist coup in 1952. The secular, pan-arabist government of Nasser was nervous about the radically Islamist agenda of the Brotherhood. They were blamed for a failed assassination attempt against Nasser, and cracked down even harder upon. Jailed leaders were often tortured and executed. The response to these circumstances came from Sayyid Qutb. In his multi-volume tasfir on the Qur'an, titled "Fi Zilal al Qur'an" (which roughly translates to "In the Shade of the Quran") and, albeit to a much lesser extent, in the book for which he is much better known in the west, Signposts on the Road (also titled Milestones), Qutb gave a voice and ideology to the growing anger and frustration.
At the core of Qutb's ideology is his radical redefinition of several key Quranic notions, notably takfir (the declaration that a self-professed Muslim is not one), tawhid (the unity of Allah) and jihad, which draws upon the work of the mediaeval scholar ibn Taymiyya. Qutb argues that all societies in the world today, including those that are ostensibly Muslim, have fallen into jahiliya. He points to the general lack of purpose and unhappiness that he claims pervades human society today, and contrasts it with the intelligence, inspiration, inquiry, rationality, morality, and justice that characterised the early Islamic world. The Muslims, he says, lost this because they fell away from the message of the Qur'an, whilst the West, despite the enlightenment, has not been able to realise such a society despite its scientific and economic advancement because it separates the secular from the religious. This "foul schizophrenia" is being spread through the world by the west, causing "endless suffering" to every peoples in the world.
Qutb then goes on to call for the establishment of a true Islamic society, based entirely on the Quran and Shari'a, "where every man is an embodiment of the shahada". Qutb argues powerfully that in such a society alone can man be truly free. Each individual will only submit to Allah, and to his authority and law, and not to the authority of any man. This, to Qutb, was the ultimate freedom of conscience and belief that man could have, for men would have the choice to obey Allah alone. Striving to establish this perfection, Qutb declares, is every Muslim's duty.
Islam had the right to take the initiative to establish this ordering of society, Qutb said, and the means to do so was jihad. In his tasfir, Qutb refuted the idea offered by Muslim apologists and modernists that jihad was primarily an internal struggle, and thereafter a solely defensive war. Jihad was not, however, to be used to convert unbelievers, who were to be given full freedom of religion in the Islamic state. Jihad, instead, was Islam's tool to exercise its divinely-ordered right to "step forward and establish political authority on earth". Islam had the right to "attack and destroy all obstacles in the form of institutions and traditions" if it was required to "release mankind from their pernicious influence", and to engage in jihad for this purpose.
Unlike the old jahiliya, the "modern jahiliya's" power against Islam is not confined to armies. Instead, nearly every institution of our society is structured in ways that prevent a truly Islamic state from being formed. Qutb points to the secularisation of law, the entrenchment of liberal and / or socialist philosophies throught the world, and the pressure on all peoples to "modernise" their ways of life as examples of this oppression. Jihad against this jahiliya must therefore take the form of destroying these institutions, and Muslims must form a vanguard to take whatever steps are required for this purpose.
The growth of Qutbist ideology
Qutb's views alarmed the government, and he was tried and executed for treason in 1966. His books were produced as evidence in his trial. To his followers, this made him a martyr, and gave him much wider popularity than he would otherwise have got. Every Islamic terrorist movement today is based on Qutb's views.
Qutb's main concern was with removing the institutional bars within Muslim societies to the establishment of an Islamic state. However, modern terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda argue that this cannot be done while western power lasts, because the West sustains regimes in the Muslim world which it likes, and removes regimes which it dislikes, and because the West is continuing to spread its brand of economic and social ordering to the rest of the world. The ability of the west to exercise power over the Muslim world must, therefore, be eliminated first before institutions within the Muslim world can be remade. Violence against the west for this purpose is justified, under Qutb's extended notion of jihad.
The history of Islamic revivalism shows that given the current condition of Muslim states, the Islamists' triumphant proclamation of the superiority of Islamic doctrine over the western way of life and its affirmation of spiritual purpose amidst the moral emptiness of modern secularism make it very attractive. However, it is not their desire to see shari'a implemented that attracts people to terrorism. The overwhelming majority who want to realise this goal become fundamentalists, and pursue their path socially, academically and politically. Turning to terrorism requires something else. It requires the terrorist to go to the extreme of demonising the people who are the "enemy" so totally that they lose their humanity and become objects or targets, whose death is at worst a cause to rejoice, and at best collateral damage on the road to victory, and whose destruction is so important that one's own death is immaterial. This is true not just of Islamic terrorism, but of any violent movement anywhere in the world, whether terrorism, ethnic cleansing, a riot against a particular community, or attacks against the police during demonstrations. People tend to do this most if that "enemy" is seen as threatening something which is basic to their identity, existence, or way of life. What is different with Islamic terrorism is that Qutibist doctrine provides a channel through which this demonisation can be directed to a specific, well defined religious goal, which has a place in an overall philosophy of life, and which extolls martyrdom for the faith. This is what distinguishes Islamic terrorist groups from other movements throughout the world (including some in the Middle East) which use terrorism for non-religious goals.
As a result of the historical and continuing pursuit of national self-interest in the Middle East, a significant number of Muslims today see the west as being ready to toss morality and justice aside if it would further their national self-interest. They are angered by the west's apparent blindness to what Muslims see as a savage suppression by Israel of the Palestinians. Finally, the west's willingness to prop up unpopular regimes which serve its interest is seen as acquiescence in the crushing of popular movements by these regimes. Taken against the backdrop of the dominant message of Qutbist ideology - that Islam has a system better than the west, which the west is conspiring to supress - and the ingredients for demonisation are all there.
The number of Muslims that actually take the step to demonisation and terrorism is exceedingly small. Surveys in the wake of the attacks on 11 September 2001 showed that even in the most radical Islamic institutions, the overwhelming majority felt that the attacks violated basic tenets of Islam. Less than a quarter of those surveyed felt that the attacks could be reconciled with Islam. More recent surveys show that this number has not increased (this is to be distinguished from Palestinian suicide attacks in occupied territories, for which support is much higher. This is because the Muslim world almost universally believes them to be in self-defence which all agree is justified by the Qur'an, and because conditons there are so extreme that demonisation of one side by the other is all too easy).
This is all very nice history and theory, but does it make a difference?
It does. It is all too common for people to view Islamic terrorism as a religious phenomenon, caused by a deep-running thread of fundamentalism in Islam. The history of its rise shows that this is plainly not true. The so-called Islamic terrorism is only "Islamic" because its proponents are Muslims who believe the west is oppressing their co-religionists and their way of life, and therefore feel a social and religious obligation to defend them. For allowing such a state of things to come to pass, the west's relentless pursuit in the past of unilateralist policies and its national self interest is as much to blame as anything else.
If the west is truly serious about combatting terrorism, it must realise that mere removal of a few regimes and the destruction of one organisation is unlikely to eliminate the problem so long as the feelings of anger and frustration so accurately diagnosed and depicted by Qutb continue to have force. To truly end Islamic terrorism, its underlying ideas and philosophy must be combatted, and doing this requires accepting and undoing past wrongs. It is necessary now to show the Muslim world that they are wrong, i.e., that there is no reason to hate the west. The west shares the same goals as the Muslim world and all other civilisations - creating a society where people live in peace, free from oppression and servitude. Early thinkers such as Rashid Rida realised this - however serious their disagreement with the actions of western powers, the humanity of the west's philosophers was always the standard by which they judged the west. The world can still return to that state of things if the nations that have power are willing to correct the harm which their policies caused in the past, renounce similar policies for the future, and show thereby that they are commited to creating a world order based on the essential equality and brotherhood of all nations.
This material for this writeup is drawn both from reading and from personal experiences and conversations. It is NOT a node your homework writeup. I feel quite able to defend its contents, so I'd encourage anyone who disagrees with it to discuss their concerns with me.
I should also clarify that I am not a Muslim.