Based on my reading of the first chapter of The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy by Jason Burke. . . .
The turning point was in October, 1981, argues Jason Burke. Prior to the 1980s the most well-known terrorists were Leila Khaled and Carlos the Jackal. Religious agendas were very rarely found in the mix of ethnic, nationalist, separatist and secular revolutionary agendas.
The terrorist act that changed all this was the assassination of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in Cairo in October 1981. Sadat’s killers were very different from most of the terrorists of the decade before. (p. 24)
An ideological movement had taken root in the broader Muslim world — “a generalised rediscovery of religious observance and identity, coupled with a distrust of Western powers and culture.”
The historical matrix
History is necessary to enable us to understand. Burke points to the century between 1830 and 1930. These years saw the Russians, the Han Chinese and especially the Europeans invade and subjugate the Muslim regions from Morocco to Java, from the central Asian steppes to sub-Saharan Africa.
Almost all the invasions provoked a violent reaction among many local people. Resistance took many forms but, naturally enough in a deeply devout age, religion played a central role. Islam provided a rallying point for local communities more used to internecine struggle than campaigns against external enemies. (p. 25)
European armies and their local auxiliaries fought rebels whose motivations ranged widely but who all shared
a profound belief that they were acting in defence not only of their livelihoods, traditions and homes but of their faith.
The superior technology of the foreign powers guaranteed the defeat of the rebels but these defeats were interpreted by the devout as evidence that they had neglected to please God and lost his favour.
Though by the twentieth century most movements had withered away a few remained active: British India’s North-West Frontier, Italian Libya, Palestine. The Afghans were not ruled by foreigners but in the 1920s they did throw out their king who had attempted to introduce foreign ways into his country.
Others chose withdrawal to open revolt, and to isolate themselves from the corrupting influences of alien cultures: e.g. the Deobandi school of India.
Some, however, fully embraced Western ideas in a spirit of rivalry. They sought to out-do their invaders: e.g. the University of Aligarh.
“I liked Grandpa. Most of all, I used to delight in watching him slowly tie his turban, wrapping his head with a long piece of cloth, as befitted a humble Muslim, though he also seemed like a Mogul monarch. (Muslim scholars and kings both wore the turban in veneration of the Prophet Mohammed.) Whenever Grandpa visited Britain to teach Muslims about spirituality, my father accompanied him to as many places as he was able. My father believed that spiritual seekers did not gain knowledge from books alone, but learnt from what he called suhbah, or companionship. True mastery of spirituality required being at the service, or at least in the presence, of a noble guide. Grandpa was one such guide. . . .
“He often read aloud in Urdu, and explained his points in intricate Bengali, engaging the minds of others while I looked on bewildered. As they compared notes on abstract subjects in impenetrable languages, I buried myself in Inspector Morse or a Judy Blume. I heard names such as ‘Mawdudi’ being severely criticized, an organization named Jamat-e-Islami being refuted and invalidated on theological grounds. All of it was beyond me.” (The Islamist, p. 10, my bolding)
What interests us, however, are those who took the middle road. The first was the work of Abd Ala’a Maududi [Abul Ala Maududi/Maudoodi/Mawdudi]:
In India, a political organisation called Jamaat Islami was founded in 1926. It sought religious and cultural renewal through non-violent social activism to mobilise the subcontinent’s Muslims to gain power. This approach involved embracing Western technology and selectively borrowing from Western political ideologies, while rejecting anything seen as inappropriate or immoral. (p. 26)
Like the South Asian Jamaat Islami, it combined a conservative, religious social vision with a contemporary political one. For its followers, the state was to be appropriated, not dismantled, in order to create a perfect Islamic society. This approach was later dubbed Islamism.
There were others across the Muslim world who rejected the compromise and non-violence of Jamaat Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood as the means to achieving their common goals.
By the early 1960s European powers had for most part withdrawn from the Muslim world leaving behind new regimes that had adopted Western ways and ideas: witness the new states founded in varying degrees of secularism and socialism. And of course there was Israel:
The establishment of the state of Israel, now recognized by the international community after a bloody war and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from lands they had worked or owned for generations, acted as a new focus for diverse grievances among Arab and Muslim communities. Anti-Semitism had long existed in the Islamic world but, fused with anti-Zionism, gained a new and poisonous intensity. Defeat in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 deepened a sense of hurt, loss and humiliation. (p. 27)
Something more important was happening within the newly independent nations themselves: “immense demographic change”.
- Population explosions
- Urban population mushroomed and rural populations relatively declined
- Urban areas of poverty and unhealthy conditions proliferated — inadequate electricity, sanitation, education, health services, policing
- Food in short supply and expensive
- Previous decades had produced many university graduates whose future expectations were now dashed
- Traditional communities were being shattered: new shanty towns and apartment blocks meant that extended families were broken up, village communities were vanishing, traditional leaders lost their authority
- “For the older people there was loss. For those young enough not to know anything of the former rural life, there was disorientation.“
Egypt’s President Sadat represented to many the worst of these changes. Sadat was opening up Egypt to the new capitalism and foreign investment that accelerated the extremes of the rich-poor divide. Middle incomes declined dramatically.
Worse still, a growing economic gap between rich and poor was accompanied by a growing cultural gap. During the riots in Cairo in 1977, favourite targets for arson and vandalism were nightclubs — of which more than three hundred opened during the decade — and luxury US made cars — of which imports had gone up fourteen times. Both were symbols of the lifestyle of an elite that was enjoying greater connection with the rest of the world, and particularly the West, but which was increasingly detached from the majority of Egyptian population. By the end of the decade, more than 30 percent of prime-time television programming was from the US, with episodes of Dallas repeated ad infinitum. Inequality was combined with a sense of cultural invasion. It was an explosive mix. (p. 28 – my bolding in all quotations)
Amidst those swayed by Western influence nationalist and socialist commitments were those who turned to their religion in various ways, some withdrawing into mysticism, for example, others looking for wider change. Islamism was spreading through the universities and professional bodies.
Islamism promised to re-establish confidence and pride and to provide a solution to the many pressing challenges now faced by tens of millions of people. (p. 28)
Jason Burke identifies this moment for the birth of the militant Islam so prominent today:
If the roots of modern Islamic militancy lie anywhere it is here: in the resurgence of Muslim faith identities and the activism of the 1970s. Throughout this crucial decade, Islamists gained support. Alongside them was the minority who called for violence to bring about revolutionary change and usher in a new, just order. (p. 28)
(See above in the side-bar Ed Husain’s childhood memories of first hearing of this movement. Note that Islamism was a relatively narrow political movement that, while growing and influencing many, did not represent the mainstream Muslim religion itself.)
Profile of those advocating violence
Those with the same goals as the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood but who believed in the necessity for violence:
- 27 years of age on average
- rural or small town backgrounds
- had come to Cairo to further their education, mixed with other students
- the first in their families to have the opportunity to earn a university degree
- most had fathers who were middle-ranking government employees
- most achieved very high grades
- came from stable families
- those working were in the professions: pharmacists, doctors, teachers, engineers, army officers
- better off than those in the slums
- insulated from the worst of the soaring prices
But as so often in history, those who turned to revolution
had much greater ambitions, both personally and for their country, and a keen sense of injustice. . . . they represented the ‘raw nerve’ of Egyptian society. (p. 29)
Islamism — both its nonviolent and violent forms — was spread beyond Egypt and India and could be found “from Morocco to Malaysia”, always with the same profiles, the same characteristics, the same goals and grievances.
Jason Burke portrays how it manifested itself in Iran following remarkably similar demographic and economic patterns and culminating in violence. In place of Sadat was the Shah. Saudi Arabia likewise experienced major changes and dislocations and King Faisal even made moves to open education to women. The violent would-be revolutionaries in that state did differ in their profiles from those elsewhere (their leader Juhaiman al-Utaiba was not from the urban middle class) “but their vision was similar.”
|Change is continuous, but the stresses it generates tend to accumulate, lying below the surface until eventually the earthquake comes. The broad-ranging religious revival was an explosion of social and economic tensions building up over decades. The catalyst for the explosion was a series of events: military defeats, oil-price hikes, political choices by men like President Sadat of Egypt and Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. Equally important, though, were the ideologues who formulated and promoted the new extremist thinking. Two thinkers in particular were hugely influential, and remain so today. (p. 31)|
Two revolutionary ideologues
Qutb’s book Milestones has been repeatedly cited as the foundational text for the entire movement of contemporary Islamic militancy.
Abdel Salam Farraj Attiya [Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj]
Author of The Neglected Obligation (link is to pdf version; variously translated The Neglected/Absent Duty/Obligation; the neglected duty was jihad in the politically violent sense and he added it as a sixth to the existing five pillars of Islam; see Islamopedia article for further details). Farraj had hoped the work would be widely read but initially his circle plotting the assassination of Sadat feared the attention it would attract from the authorities and restricted it to their narrow membership. Outside that circle the first copy was discovered by the police after the assassination of Sadat in 1981. It took Qutb’s book to the next step of enjoining the fight against other Muslims who stood in the way of restoring the ideal Islamic state.
Fawaz Gerges notes that The Neglected Obligation was the “operational manual for jihadis” in the 1980s and first half of the 1990s. (p. 254)
Qutb was hanged in 1966 and Farraj was hanged alongside Sadat’s assassins in 1982. Both their works continue to circulate widely:
in mosque bookshops in London, as PDF files on the Internet, in the libraries of religious schools in Pakistan, passed from hand to hand in militants’ dormitories in Syria and, of course, still read in the authors’ homeland. (p. 31)
Compare Ed Husain’s discoveries of Western influence on the radical thought of Islamists who had misleadingly boasted that their ideas were “pure”, free from Western influence (The Islamist, pp. 160ff.).
He found instead that the arguments derived from Hegel (the state as the instrument of God), Rousseau (criticisms of democracy), and others. Hegel, of course, also influenced Marx and Hitler is often seen as the inheritor of the thought begun with Rousseau.
“I was not, I had discovered, a believer in any distinct ‘Islamic’ political system. [The] ideas were not innovatory Muslim thinking but wholly derived from European political thought. In and of itself this was not a negative development. My objection was, and remains, the deception . . . in claiming that it was ‘pure in thought’, not influenced by kufr.” (p. 162, The Islamist)
Burke comments on the “striking influence of left-wing ideologies” on Qutb’s and Farraj’s thought. Compare the following passage from Milestones with Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto:
After annihilating the tyrannical force, whether it be in a political or a racial form, or in the form of class distinctions within the same race, Islam establishes a new social, economic and political system, in which the concept of the freedom of man is applied in practice. (p. 70 of Milestones)
These works are far from being theological treatises.
They are revolutionary tracts, ideological handbooks for a new wave of militants. Both Qutb and Farraj saw a world divided between belief and unbelief, light and darkness, peace and war, justice and tyranny, virtue and vice, corruption and purity. These divisions were stark. There was no middle ground and no room for compromise. The imperative for men on earth was to work towards the triumph of righteousness over evil and wrongdoing. (p. 32)
Qutb and Farraj were not following in the footsteps of spiritually minded imams and scholars of Islam’s past. Their ideas, their inspiration, was certainly not “a spiritual calling”. Notice what their inspiration actually was:
It was not a deep attraction to the principles of the Muslim faith, nor even a deep understanding of the injunctions contained within the holy texts of Islam. Instead, it was a historical example: the achievements of the Prophet Mohammed and of the first generation of his followers, the so-called Salaf. This is as true for today’s militants as it was for Qutb, Farraj and their associates in the 1960s and 70s. (p. 32)
The political circumstances of their own day along with the social and economic stresses were interpreted through the acts of Mohammed, or rather, the history of Muhammad was interpreted through the political contingencies and aspirations of these authors.
My own reflection on Burke’s analysis here leads me to compare, at least partially, the way certain fundamentalist Christians interpret the gospels and life of Jesus to justify their own love of, say, capitalism: compare the prosperity gospel. It certainly helps to clarify even further why Islamism has failed to appeal to the overwhelming majority of (more religiously minded) Muslims today. (Compare Ed Husain’s recollections of his grandfather’s Muslim religion in the first side-box above.)
In Muhammad’s early years the Arabs were divided; Mecca was a centre of commerce and idolatry. Muhammad was forced to flee to Medina when he confronted the faithlessness and consumerism of his fellows. In exile he gathered and trained followers before returning to overthrow the rulers of Mecca and to unite the Arabs in the true religion.
[This story’s] echoes in the present were hardly lost on the new wave of extremist thinkers who drew on it heavily, secure in the knowledge that it could be cited as incontrovertible historical evidence of the righteousness of their cause, particularly when contrasted with the abject failures of their current leaders.
Qutb . . . explicitly invoked the example of seventh-century Arabia when describing the Egypt of his day as plunged in jahiliyya, the chaotic, violent, tyrannical ‘ignorance’ that prevailed before the time of Mohammed . . . (p. 33)
Burke points out, furthermore, that Qutb wrote in the everyday language of the commoner and not in the abstruse style of the Islamic scholars.
Qutb called for a “return” to the original purity of the first Muslims:
If Islam is again to play the role of the leader of mankind, then it is necessary that the Muslim community be restored to its original form. It is necessary, to revive that Muslim community which is buried under the debris of the man-made traditions of several generations, and which it crushed under the weight of those false laws and customs which are not even remotely related to the Islamic teachings. . . . .
How is it possible to start the task of reviving Islam? It is necessary that there should be a vanguard which sets out with this determination and then keeps walking on the path, marching through the vast ocean of Jahiliyyahh which has encompassed the entire world. (pp. 25, 27 of Milestones)
Islam has no authoritative priesthood or equivalent of a papal authority but it does have long tradition of scholars who have been especially trained in their texts and who are widely respected as having the wisdom to guide Muslims in how to adapt their practices to their changing world. Qutb and Farraj had no such religious training and they rejected the privileged status of these scholars.
This rejection of the authority of the scholars so many of whom had been carefully co-opted by state authorities, was genuinely revolutionary. If an individual had no responsibility to obey those who traditionally held power over a community, activism of a very new kind became legitimate. (p. 34)
Where to start?
Shukri Mustafa chose to follow Muhammad’s example by withdrawing to a cave in the desert with a following of hundreds. His efforts came to an end in a confrontation with government forces after his group kidnapped a government minister.
Others chose to follow Muhammad’s later example and attempt to directly overthrow the Egyptian government in a coup. Though the 1974 attempt failed the leaders, Burke notes, were encouraged knowing that their efforts would nonetheless inspire others to follow. And they did — with the assassination of Sadat in 1981.
Why the West?
We heard often in the news in the 70s and 80s of terrorists and aircraft hijackers attacking targets affecting the West, including the Olympics, but the groups who are the subject of this post were not nationalists and were not interested in targeting the West. They were focused on a restoration of an ideal Islamic state. Sadat was not assassinated so much because of his initiative to make peace with Israel: his assassins instead likened him to the pagan and tyrannical Pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
Burke sees the initial focus on the West coming to fruition with the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini outdid the appeal of left-wing ideologies in mobilizing the urban poor.
He did this partly by articulating many Iranian’s fear of Western cultural invasion with a savage brilliance. His success in instigating revolution in 1979 lent powerful credibility to his arguments, and rapidly the stock phrases of his newly triumphant Iranian Islamists — terms like the ‘Great Satan’, ‘Westoxification’ and the ‘Crusader-Zionist alliance’ — entered everyday vocabulary across the Islamic world. (p. 35)
Then came Iran’s war with Iraq and no further leadership came from Iran in directing wider animosities against the West.
About the same time Russia invaded Afghanistan and a new theatre for the mujahideen opened. Afghanistan proved to be the crucible of Islamist extremists who turned their attention from “the near enemy” to “the far enemy”. And that’s where the stories of today begin.
The father of global jihad
This brings us to the next chapter in Jason Burke’s study. In brief, the Afghan war pitted Muslims against a great atheist power and the call went out for Muslims from everywhere to come to assist. Here another key person enters the stage: Abdullah Azzam, the “father of global jihad”.
Where Qutb and Farraj set their sights on combating “the near enemy” in their homelands, the charismatic orator Azzam spoke of two forms of jihad, both violent (unlike other meanings of jihad in the Koran). His written argument went by the unwieldy title of Defending the lands of the Muslims is each man’s most important duty (truncated in the online text.) For Azzam there was offensive jihad, a requirement to attack enemies even though they post no immediate threat to Muslims; and defensive jihad, the requirement to attack all power threatening or occupying Muslim territory.
The former (offensive) jihad was the responsibility of the state; the latter (defensive) was the obligation of every Muslim regardless of any state orders.
Muslims flocked to the call of “defensive jihad” from not only the Middle East, but from west Africa, China and east Asia. They flocked first to Peshawar in Pakistan where they supposedly prepared for war and exchanged ideas. In fact, however, only a small fraction would actually go into the battle zones. Most remained in Peshawar doing humanitarian support work. What was more empowering for future movements than the limited battle experience of the mujahideen was the myth that followed in their wake: the myth that thousands of Muslims had answered the call to defend Muslims against a great Satanic power, had fought that power and won! They were also, and this was another action of special significance for the future, building networks through personal relationships. Muslims unable to go to Pakistan/Afghanistan were also captured by the idea of supporting a great atheist power against a Muslim land. One question that might have been raised was “After Afghanistan, then . . . ?” Azzam’s inspired the idea that defensive jihad was the responsibility of all Muslims to free all lands that had ever once been Muslim.
Azzam’s argument at the time of the Afghan war would transform the entire extremist movement. The global community of Muslims he envisaged would be one where all fought for each other, across the planet. It was a call to arms that resonated throughout the Muslim world. (p. 39)
Yet to be added . . . .
the background to Osama bin Laden’s view of jihad; and especially the role of Saudi Arabia in promoting a certain strand of Islam. . ..