Islam's internal conflict


After the World Trade Center terrorism, 11th September 2001, many Americans have demanded vengeance. The main target of their anger is the Muslims in the Middle East. During the conversation that followed in the aftermath, I expressed my hope that the Islamic moderates would gain control of the faith. Then someone, I’m sorry I forget who, reminded me that the moderates do have control worldwide. It is the extremists who get the press coverage. Therefore I would like to write a short piece on the internal conflict in Islam. The battle of the moderates vrs the extremists.

Background to Islam in the Middle East

Muhammad gave birth to Islam many centuries ago. Like Christianity, he supported the idea of one god, Allah. It was supposed to be a relatively peaceful religion - there are no "sermons" where he indicates that killing is good. However he could not live forever. Over time, his words were manipulated and deliberately misinterpreteded by some. My father spent many years in the Middle East, mainly the safer states in the south. However he has stories about the mullahs there, who would threaten Muslims with beatings who weren't in a mosque, when they were all called to prayer, regardless of the situation that they were in.

This might sounds irrelevant to most people but I think I should mention it. My father said that amongst the countless times he saw mullahs, there was not a single one that ever smiled.

At the centre of these problems lies the meaning of jihad. People take jihad to be a holy war. However Muhammad only said that in certain circumstances, people could resist. There are non-violent means of resisting, such as demonstration. So it strikes you as odd that a peace-loving man like Muhammad would justify violence. Whether it was because of a lack of wisdom, a great deal of anger, or a calculated attempt to have a method of fear at their disposal, members of the Islamic clergy at one point decided to reinvent the Koran to suit themselves. The Middle East was not always as violent as it was now. The fabled "Arabia" that has been the subject of many films and books, was a period of relative peace and civilisation. Arabs were peaceful traders rather than hostile fundamentalists.


Perhaps the worst instance of Islam being used as a means of repression is in Afghanistan. It was mainly the fault of the Russians. During the period of the Soviet Union, Soviet troops invaded in an attempt to expend their territory and power. A fierce fight broke out, as the Americans funded the Afghan rebels. Eventually the Russians had to withdraw, Afghanistan having turned into their own Vietnam. In the aftermath, with no form of civilian government or infrastructure left, the Taleban took over after a period of civil war and unstable government.

The Taleban was what emerged from the old guerrilla groups that had fought the Russians. Though the group as a whole did not exist during the war, its members were devote followers of Islam and had much respect from the Afghan community due to their bravery during the war. However their brand of Islam was heavily extreme. With the help of the conservative clergy, who encouraged Afghans to support the Taleban, they created a strong dictatorship. Their belief was so devout that they perceived any other religion or interpretation to be evil. Therefore they had to save Afghans from themselves. Though they brought order to Afghanistan, it was rather harsh and unforgiving.

The Taleban had a firm grip on Afghanistan, with help from Pakistan and support from many of the clergy. Their control was in part due to their regulations on women. They could not work, they had to wear veils and drab clothing. They could not be educated and had few rights. In restricting the lives of women, the Taleban automatically suppressed half the population. Very useful in maintaining a corrupt, undemocratic government.

The Taleban never had total control, however. In the north-eastern corner of the nation, General Masood opposed the Taleban for many years. He once fought the Soviets and then in the 1990s even received the backing of Russia. He enforced strict discipline amongst his troops, in contrast to some of the cruel and extreme Taleban soldiers. In early 2001 he was poised to recapture the town of Taloqan. Later in 2001 there was a suicide attack on him and he was killed. Out of all the opposition generals, he was the most liberal and his death removed one of the men best able to help govern Afghanistan.

It should also be noted that a fair number of Taleban soldiers were not actually Afghani, but Pakestani and from other Muslim nations. In some cases, Afghanis felt annoyed at these people because they feel that they hijacked their nation in fighting a war that they do not want to fight (eg. against their own people).

With the fall of the Taleban, Afghanistan is free from religious dictatorship. As an indication that religious extremists do not have a monopoly on the Islamic clergy, when the Taleban fled from the north, the local mullahs were replaced. These new mullahs may well help to reverse a breeding of hatred against other countries, though the West will have to support such attempts by helping to rebuild Afghanistan. After the interim government of Hamid Karzai was formed, there was a greater degree of stability. Every day it struggles on, but every day it survives, every battle won keeps the hope of a better Afghanistan alive.


Next door to Afghanistan and also devoutly Muslim, lies Iran. Iran is not as poor as its neighbour and there is a better infrastructure in place. However the fundamentalists still have control of the faith and country as a whole. The Ayotollah Khamenei is the absolute leader of Iran. He has control of the armed forces, Police and judiciary. He can overule any legislation the democratically elected government passes. He can arrest and execute anyone who opposes him. He is very opposed to any reform that diminishes his power or increases the civil rights of Iranians. The conservative clerics back him, many fearing that they might be brought to trial if they lost control over the country, for acts of brutality some have commited.

There is a democratically elected government, however. Despite attacks by the clerics and interference by the Ayatollah, President Khatami has been repeatedly re-elected. He has support from many Iranians who are tired of the restrictions on their daily lives. The conservative clerics would like to end the "democracy" but fear a backlash that could topple them if they did. There is also a sizeable niche of moderate Muslim clerics, who can see that Islam should not directly control people's lives and should not be used as a form of oppression. Every time Khatami wins an election, they feel more determined to regain control of the faith in Iran. Though they are careful in not exposing themselves too publicly, they are there.

In June of 2003, student protests in Tehran were quashed by militas and government forces. They were a sign of the anger amongst the younger generation with the current ruling elite - high unemployment and irritation at not being allowed to do simple things like hold a girl's hand in public.

This is perhaps the main point about theocracy. It normally removes personal freedoms that we take for granted. The main objective is to control on a moral level, holding on to power through destroying personal identity. They claim it is about morality - in truth it is about forcing their ideals on everyone.

What will happen next?

The internal conflict in Islam could well escalate. There are already two defined camps in Islam - the Sunnis and Shiites. Though the differences between Sunnis and Shiites may not directly cause a conflict, a schism could split Islam in a similar way.

Currently the moderates are resisting peacefully. It is unclear what would happen if the moderate clerics asked their flocks to rise up against the fundamentalists. This is unlikely at the moment but if the Ayatollah tried to erradicate them, it is likely that they would rise up. Such an internal jihad could suck in Muslims from other Middle Eastern countries and perhaps even from the West and Asia.

Ayatollah Khamenei is currently shrewd enough not to overeact to constant pushes by the democrats to increase their power. However he has proved that he will not tolerate such reforms before. If he were to crack down too heavily, anything could happen. He was playing with fire when he cracked down on the June 2003 demonstrations. After decades of persecution, the moderate clerics could well decide that they have had enough. It is my hope that they will regain control peacefully, else we will be witness to perhaps the most violent and bloody conflict in our world's history.

As an additional point, I'd like to apologise if I offend any Muslims. I'm just considering the other part of the equation when it comes to Islam. Some people will agree and others will not, that's inevitable. There are a lot of "if"s and "could"s in the above writeup - I'm not saying this is likely to happen.

One point about the Crusades. Though it was a silly and pointless conflict, it wasn't as simple as Christians versus Muslims. Some Muslim tribes and factions allied themselves with some of the Crusader States from time to time. Islam as it is now, was factionalised then and Muslims fought each other if they thought they could gain something from it. Such conflict between Muslims could be seen after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, in 2003.