When this is required reading for all “coalition of the willing” political leaders and no-one in power can make a public statement or foreign policy decision without having passed a test on their comprehension of it we will at last begin to see the beginnings of rationality and humanity in our dealings with the Middle East. I bought this after reading a piece by Chomsky in which he said this was probably the best book written on terrorism. Burke knows his subject well and gives a clear ground-eye view of who the terrorists are and how they operate. Burke demonstrates that there is no such thing as a Dr Evil type monster out there, but the real danger is our inability to see how our western leaders have so humiliated and raped and despoiled and oppressed (by proxy or directly) the democratic and human rights aspirations of Arabs and how there are literally as a result thousands of would-be suicide terrorists incognito and freelance the world over. I can just add to Burke’s book the comment that it’s not a problem with Islam — otherwise we would have seen this sort of terrorism non-stop ever since the west has encountered islam. The 9/11 plotters and Bin Laden made their aims and motivations very plain (why do so many in the west still remain ignorant — why do our leaders continue to deny it in public?) and the US conceded on their major demand (withdrawal from Saudi Arabia) after establishing new bases in Iraq. And Australia fully supported and backed the US proxy occupation and oppressoin of Moslem holy lands and peoples — hence Bali. No prizes for guessing the motivations of the new wave of terrorist activities since then.
Search Results for: Jason Burke
by Neil Godfrey
by Neil Godfrey
Filed under: Terrorism
Well it was a mere five hours from the time of my previous post before I was proven wrong. The name of the attacker was released shortly after I went to bed. If I had my wits about me I would have added a question mark at the end of the title and been more careful to couch my theme as a tentative hope.
The first post discusses the re-emerging threat of Al Qaeda as Islamic State suffers battlefield reversals.
Jihadis are using vehicles to commit atrocities as military defeats degrade their ability to mount anything more ambitious
. . . . . .
The veteran rival of Isis – al-Qaida – has long backed such actions and has also repeatedly targeted London. In 2005 the group commissioned and trained the leader of the 7/7 plotters who went on to kill 52 on the London Underground.
When such attacks became logistically difficult, al-Qaida sought to execute or inspire smaller scale operations, although its leaders rejected a suggestion that blades be attached to a tractor which would be driven through a crowd. However, al-Qaida publications did encourage strikes using vehicles.
Britain’s only Islamist-related terrorist casualty since 2005 was Lee Rigby, an off-duty soldier who was killed in south-east London in 2013 when he was run down by a car driven by two Islamic militants and then stabbed to death.
The threat has increased “exponentially” since 2011, security officials have said. As Isis disintegrates, al-Qaida remains resilient and while the Islamist extremist ideology continues to attract new followers the threat will not decline substantially in the near future.
The second article I found interesting for its analysis of the wording used by Islamic State and what it reveals about the weakness of the movement.
A vast proportion of attacks over the 16 years since 9/11 have involved local volunteers attacking local targets
The news that the London attacker was born in Britain and inspired by extremist Islamist ideology was entirely predictable, as was his criminal record.
The standout detail from the sketchy profile we have of Khalid Masood is his age: 52, nearly twice that of most contemporary attackers.
The attack was claimed on Thursday by Islamic State. The group has been selective with such statements, which are credible, and careful in its vocabulary.
Significantly, Isis described a “soldier” who responded to its “call”, indicating the group probably did not have prior contact with Masood before the killings.
. . . . .
Other words tend to be used to describe attackers like those who made up the network responsible for attacks in Paris and Brussels last year. They, for the most part, were trained, commissioned and dispatched by Isis planners after spending time in Syria.
One aim of Isis is to give the impression of global reach.
. . . . .
Finally, the nature of terrorist trends gives a false impression. On Thursday a man was arrested for trying to drive a car into a crowd in Antwerp. He had a shotgun and bladed weapons. Tactics spread quickly across international frontiers. A global plot? Or simply the copycat effect? The latter is almost certainly the case.
The reality is that contemporary Islamic extremist violence has never been as international as often imagined by the terrorists or their victims. The 11 September 2001 attacks involved hijackers who flew thousands of miles from homes in the Middle East and lived in the US for months before striking. But this was an anomaly, though one that distorted thinking about the nature of the threat for a decade.
. . . . .
There are exceptions. The Berlin attack before Christmas involved a transient Tunisian. A handful of the Paris attackers were from the Middle East.
Many of these men had previous involvement in serious and petty crime. For those already living on the margins of society and the law, the step towards violent activism is smaller than it might otherwise be. Prison is a key site of exposure to radical ideologies and people. Criminal contacts can provide essential – if often inadvertent – logistical help.
The significance of Masood’s age will later become clear. For the moment it simply underlines the variety of extremist profiles, and the unpredictability of the threat. Most Islamic militants have been between the ages of 18 and 35, with the average age declining in recent years. Some analysts see their attraction to radicalism as partly a generational rebellion. Violent rightwing militants tend to be much older. Thomas Mair, who killed MP Jo Cox last year, was 52.
Every case is, of course, unique. And the reality is that, much as all politics is essentially local, so is terrorism. Islamic extremist strategists have wrestled with this challenge to their global vision for years, and have yet to evolve an adequate response. Western experts argue interminably over whether the motives of individuals are 10% ideology and 90% local context or vice versa.
But the sad reality is that, though it may be reassuring to blame bad guys, or bad ideas, from a long way away for violence at home, no one should be surprised that the man who attacked one of Britain’s most symbolically charged locations was born in the UK.
Finally, an important article from a year ago explaining the reality behind the image of “the lone wolf”:
Terrorism is a social activity and the militants we encounter are often a product of a much broader environment – repeating the same tired tropes of jihadi thinking
by Neil Godfrey
Filed under: Uncategorized
Yes, time for me to finish blogging on what the research has shown about how radicalisation works, how people are recruited into terrorist organisations, religious cults, . . . even extreme sports . . . As Jason Burke (whose works I have blogged about here, most recently on “the new threat“) points out: it’s all the same mechanics.
Now to complete those posts on Friction, How Radicalization Happens to Them and to Us
by Neil Godfrey
This post is the third in my notes from Inside Muslim Minds by Riaz Hassan.
The second response among Muslims to their experience of colonialism and its aftermath is salafism.
Response 2: Salafism
Whereas apologetics was a direct response to colonial rule, salafism emerged out of apologetics but in the post-colonial era. When independent nations experienced the failure of their ruling elites to bring about the reforms and better life — “jobs, economic development, welfare for citizens and equality of citizenship” — that they had promised.
Building on apologetic thought the salafists concluded that this failure was the consequence of using secular laws instead of the laws of God.
Like the apologists these early salafists believed that the Islamic religion was entirely compatible with modernism. Recall that the apologists argued that modern western ideals like democracy, constitutional governments, socialism etc were all to be found in early Islam. What was required of modern Muslims was to interpret their sacred texts in the context and according to the needs of adapting to the modern world. Moreover, there was no single interpretation that could demand a monopoly on “the correct interpretation”.
Salafism as it originally developed maintained that, on all issues, Muslims ought to return to the original textual sources of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet and interpret them in the light of modern needs and demands without being slavishly bound by the interpretive precedents of earlier Muslim generations. In this respect, it was a distinctive intellectual project. Salafism advocated a kind of interpretive community in which anyone was qualified to return to the divine texts and interpret their messages. . . . [I]t was not hostile to competing Islamic juristic traditions, Sufism or mysticism. (p. 43)
Further, read more »
by Neil Godfrey
Such violent, repulsive and publicly visible acts could be interpreted as the by-product of social malignancies that have festered for a long time. Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl—an eminent Islamic jurist . . . . —provides a succinct description of how historical and social conditions interact to form a particular mentality . . . .
[W]hen we speak about the meaning of Islam today, we are really talking about the product of cumulative enterprises that have generated communities of interpretation through a long span of history. (p. 37)
The shocking injustices and brutality in the Muslim world that we hear about far too often are not isolated acts of a few troubled psychopaths. They are systemic and carried out with considerable (though fortunately not always unanimous) popular support.
Such acts take place because of social dynamics that have desensitized and deconstructed a society’s sense of moral virtue and ethics. Theological constructs and social responses that tolerate the commission of acts of cruelty are the product of a long process of indoctrination and acculturation. Indoctrination facilitates their commission; acculturation mutes or mitigates the sense of outrage over the offensive behaviour. (p. 37)
Boiling the frog
Each act of barbarism becomes a historical precedent for further similar acts and for increasingly easier public acceptance. (As for indoctrination, we are also looking at how that works first hand.) Each act becomes another topic of community discussion; explanations and interpretations that emerge become part of the social group’s identity and moral foundations. Theological perspectives of these same events are meanwhile being transmitted through generations of families, communities and institutions. The point is that community interpretations and practices adapt, evolve, change emphases and focus over time and that’s true of most societies throughout history. So the question that arises is, What historical changes have been emerging in “recent” history in the Muslim world? And when we say “recent” we are reaching back to the eighteenth century when European powers made their first takeovers of large numbers of Muslim populations (e.g. India, Egypt).
Three responses to Western colonialism
To make sense of the incidents described, we need first to analyze three streams of Islamic consciousness that developed under the historical conditions faced by Muslim societies over the previous few centuries. Under the conditions of economic underdevelopment, technological backwardness and powerlessness prevailing today in the Muslim world, elements of these three streams have somehow fused to give rise to a new hybrid Islamic consciousness: salafabism . . . . (p. 38, my formatting and highlighting in all quotations)
As we saw in Jason Burke’s historical narrative Saudi Arabia used its windfall from rising oil prices in the 1970s to propagate its vicious brand of wahhabist Islam. In addition to wahhibism Fadl points his finger at two other strands of Islamic thought, the first being apologetics. Let’s take them in order.
Response 1: Apologetics
A common feature of most Muslim societies is a shared history of colonialism under European dominance. This sociopolitical experience was accompanied by a culture of orientalism: an assumption of Western superiority combined with a condescending trivialization of Islamic cultural achievements. The onslaught of these processes led not only to loss of power by political and religious elites in the lands of Islam, but also to the devaluation and deprecation of Islamic beliefs and institutions. The dominant intellectual response of Muslims to this challenge from around the mid-eighteenth century came from the apologetics. (p. 39)
Conquered peoples typically find ways to resist their conquerors even if only by symbolic means. Recall the way some Jewish leaders responded to the conquest of Judea by the Greco-Romans who justifiably took great pride in their cultural achievements. “Plato is so wonderful?” some Jews (and subsequently some Christians) challenged. “Ha! Plato filched all of his ideas from Moses!”
Among the conquered and humiliated Muslims were those who responded in a similar way to their Western overlords. Anything of value that the Europeans had produced was thought by Muslim apologists to have owed its origins to Islamic science or philosophy or political ideas.
According to apologists, Islam
- liberated women,
- created democracy,
- endorsed pluralism,
- protected human rights
- and introduced social welfare
long before these institutions ever existed in the West. One implication of this orientation was that, since Islam had invented most modern institutions, there was no incentive to engage in any further thinking or analysis, except on very marginal issues. (p. 40)
So it was that Western orientalists (those who looked down upon oriental culture, ways and beliefs with a certain contempt) found themselves mirrored by Muslim apologists who in turn looked down upon Westerners with the same disdain. That’s one time-honoured way of a defeated people holding on to their self-worth and dignity.
But that kind of response has a serious down-side: it ossifies one’s religion.
Religion is no longer an evolving and adapting system that is constantly being critically studied and subject to adaptation in the face of new circumstances. An idealized construct is created, and this is sanctified and set in stone as a foundational golden age. Anything that falls short of that ideal is the fault of the enemy. Trying to cope with the humiliation that came with European conquest and hegemony some Muslims found refuge in a conviction that their ancient texts, ways, beliefs had from the beginning of time been superior and well in advance of anything associated with their new rulers.
So for Muslim apologists the superiority of Islam became a mirror reaction to their European masters’ presumptions of superiority. As cultural arrogance made it impossible for Europeans to bend and adapt so the same arrogance of apologists made it impossible for them to analyse and adapt their own traditions and belief systems.
Apologists treated the Islamic tradition as if it had fossilized at the time of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Companions (the four Caliphs who succeeded Muhammad).
And if there is nothing to reflect upon except to bask in the superiority of one’s beliefs then anyone can become an authority. The true Muslim intellectuals are marginalized into irrelevancy. The door is open to anyone becoming “the voice” of “truth”. The solutions become easy. If the Muslim peoples are under the boot of the aliens, unable to match the Westerners in political and military might and so liberate themselves, it is because Muslims are not faithful and devout enough.
The way to liberation and self-respect, apologists believed, was to become more fervently dedicated to the myth of the old ways. And those old ways proved to have even preceded the best the West had to offer such as democracies and human rights.
Islamic apologists were ultimately motivated by nationalistic aspirations for political, social and cultural independence from the West.
Islam thus came to be seen as a kind of anti-colonialist resistance ideology capable of restoring Muslim pride and political power. Political liberation anchored itself in a religious orientation that was puritanical, supremacist and opportunistic. (p. 41)
That was one response. The other two I’ll cover in another post. We also need to examine the empirical evidence of how these different types of responses took hold in varying degrees in different regions of Muslim peoples and fused into an ugly ideology. We will see that those differences can be correlated with respective historical experiences with the West.
by Neil Godfrey
Historian Tom Holland has made a public confession that when it comes to his morals and ethics he is “thoroughly and proudly Christian”. (Tom Holland is a very talented writer and historian whose study of the rise of the Arab empire and birth of Islam I have discussed here. I was also fascinated by another work of his, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom — a period of history I specialized in when studying history as an undergrad.)
Now Christian blogs are crowing that the renowned historian has “come out” in defence of Christianity. The Enlightenment philosophes got the Church all wrong, he implies.
Dr. Platypus, Darrell J. Pursiful’s Bible and Faith Blog, posts Tom Holland Was Wrong about Christianity and Michael Bird on Euangelion posts Tom Holland: Why I Was Wrong about Christianity. I imagine there will be many more to follow. The excitement is over Tom Holland’s article just published in New Statesman, also titled Tom Holland: Why I Was Wrong about Christianity.
Holland tells us of his younger fascination with the great empires and generals of ancient history (an interest he says morphed out of his boyhood love of dinosaurs) and how they made the Bible’s heroes looked so anemic in comparison.
He had long embraced the view of history bequeathed us by the Enlightenment era (via Gibbon, Voltaire, etc) that Christianity ushered in an age of intolerance, superstition and ignorance. One had to look further back to the ancient “classical era” to find values more worthy of humanist ideals.
His epiphany dawned over time as he reflected upon the barbarism of Sparta and Rome:
The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.
For once I can say something I have never written before and never imagined myself saying. A historian from outside the guild of biblical studies can learn something from a Professor of New Testament; in this instance the professor is Gregory J. Riley. (There are surely many others; but as an outside amateur I think of Riley as the most well known scholar addressing the contribution of ancient “classical” values to Christianity.)
Christianity was not born mysteriously out of a womb unrelated to the body of which it was a part. Every human creation is a product of a human environment. It would be unique, unnatural even, if Christianity emerged from a virgin birth.
By way of explanation I think the titles of two of the following posts on Gregory Riley’s works should tell the story, though the titles are also hyperlinked to their original content:
- Christianity won over paganism by epitomizing pagan ideals (2010, August)
- Jesus, the ideal Greek-Roman hero? (No embarrassment criterion here) (2006, December)
See also Peter Kirby’s page: Historical Jesus Theories: Gregory Riley
Then there are the scholarly works addressing Paul’s debt to classical ethics with nary a word of credit to Jesus. I mention just a handful that I can identify quickly from my own collection:
- Engberg-Pedersen, T. (2000). Paul and the Stoics. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.
- Engberg-Pedersen, T. (2006). Paul’s Stoicizing Politics in Romans 12-13: The Role of 13.1-10 in the Argument. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 29(2), 163–172. http://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06072836
- Lee, M. V. (2009). Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Malherbe, A. J. (1989). Paul and the popular philosophers. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
- Rasimus, T. (2010). Stoicism in early Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.
- Thorsteinsson, R. M. (2006). Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 and Contemporary Stoic Ethics. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 29(2), 139–161. http://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06072835
Julius Caesar and Leonidas were not the only figures to speak for ancient values. Seneca was ordered by Nero to commit suicide, if my memory serves.
And as for the utter callousness of Caesar’s treatment of the Gauls and Sparta’s legendary treatment of helots, yes, it would be soul-destroying to think humanity has made no progress in two thousand years. Yet we do ourselves a serious injustice if we fail to recognize that our Christian nations have on the whole fully approved the extermination of entire cities of innocents for what they believe was the purpose of saving the lives of their own soldiers, and continue to approve of the slaughter of innocents in order to achieve specific national and strategic goals.
Tom Holland might be advised to turn his attention to historians of modern realities (his compatriot Jason Burke comes to mind) and learn that enormous strides in propaganda and hypocrisy have possibly exceeded advances in morality. No, that’s not quite fair or true. It really is a lot harder today for national leaders to do what they want without regard for public opinion and I have little doubt that leaders today really do have consciences more refined than those of their ancient counterparts (except for the psychopaths, of course). But, but…. it does pay sometimes to look behind the headlines.
by Neil Godfrey
Filed under: Islam
- Apocalypse in Islam (2011) by Jean-Pierre Filiu (translated by M. B. DeBevoise)
- Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden (2005) by Timothy R. Furnish.
Filiu’s work is by far to be preferred for anyone wanting a more complete overview. The 2005 publication has its strengths — I was fascinated by the historical accounts of the various Mahdist movements, in particular the nineteenth century Mahdi of the Sudan of Gordon of Khartoum fame — but it does lose some credibility with its clearly failed analysis of modern extremist Islamist movements, in particular with respect to the questions it was raising in relation to Osama bin Laden. Furnish is determined to focus on Sunni Muslim movements in order to “balance” the much vaster literature on Mahdism among the Shia Muslims. (The Shia dominate Iran but are also significant forces in Lebanon-Syria and parts of Iraq.) That’s a key reason Filiu’s book is to be preferred by anyone interested in Muslim end times teachings more generally.
A reassuring message that comes through is just how unimportant are teachings about last days and end time apocalypse in the political and everyday thinking of Muslims generally. As among Christians (and my impression is that even more-so than among North American Christians) the overwhelming majority of Islamic teachers and general body of believers tend to look down upon minorities in their midst who get too carried away with apocalyptic speculations. Both books were published before Islamic State burst on the scene in 2014 but little that I have read about IS changes this overall balance of interest.
Of interest to me were the sources of the various apocalyptic beliefs. Comparable Christian beliefs are taken from canonical sources like the books of Revelation and Daniel. These are generally interpreted through the dispensationalist concepts originating with the Scofield Reference Bible. Add a touch of Hal Lindsay and maybe a little Nostradamus for the most extreme and that’s basically it. Islamic apocalypticism is more eclectic by spades. Much of it even draws upon the Christian sources just mentioned! There are Islamic texts, certain hadiths, that do form the basis of Muslim apocalyptic but they are relatively light on with respect to details and narrative flow.
As for dates, 1979 was a turning point for the Islamic world.
- the seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca by a group of messianic extremists,
- the invasion of Muslim Afghanistan by the Soviets
- and the Iranian revolution.
For the significance of 1979 compare Jason Burke’s analysis of the rise of global Islamic militancy. Two Vridar posts discussing Burke’s explanation:
- The Origins of Islamic Militancy and
- So why did militants turn to attack the West? — The Saudi Arabia driver
The triple shocks of 1979 were a turning point although various clear ideas of what to make of these events did not coalesce overnight. This period was the beginning of the fifteenth Muslim century and nothing eschatalogical had been foretold of this period so it took a little while to reinterpret and understand anew various prophecies. Afghanistan and Iran may look remote to Christians but they are the centre of Khurasan, a “mythical land” long associated with Afghanistan and where the Messiah’s appearance was foretold.
I could not fail to be interested in various prophetic views of Jesus. They vary from Jesus returning to condemn everyone who failed to convert to Islam to Jesus inspiring a special tolerance and place for Christians. Another reminder that the Muslim religion is anything but a monolith.
Some of the predictions involving Jesus
First comes the Antichrist to the land of Sham, or Syria. Other prophecies locate him in Khurasan. read more »
by Neil Godfrey
|By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.
— Sylvia Plath, quoted by Charles Camerson in So: How Does It Feel at World’s End?, an exploration into the eschatological lure of ISIS.
Charles Cameron is blogging about a book of his that is hopefully will be published soon: Jihad and the Passion of ISIS: Making Sense of Religious Violence. The first of these blog posts is On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 1: its sheer intensity.
Cameron builds on a number of works that I have posted about here on Vridar, so I am looking forward to his own contribution. He writes:
Vridar posts —
- Stern and Berger, Another study of ISIS
- Jason Burke, Origins of Islamic Militancy & Why attack West?
- Weiss & Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
- Will McCants, In Religious Thrill; Revolutionary Terror; Convinced to Kill; & Seeking Status and Adventure.
We now have, I believe, a strong understanding of the Islamic State and its origins in such books as Stern & Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror, Jason Burke, The New Threat, Joby Warrick, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, and Weiss & Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Delving directly into the key issue that interests me personally, the eschatology of the Islamic State, we have Will McCants‘ definitive The ISIS Apocalypse. My own contribution will hopefully supplement these riches, and McCants’ book in particular, with a comparative overview of religious violence across continents and centuries, and a particular focus on the passions engendered in both religious and secular movements when the definitive transformation of the world seems close at hand.
What follows is the first section of a four-part exploration of the horrors of apocalyptic war.
Cameron draws upon a dramatically colourful Winston Churchill account to convey the power of the Mahdi on the imaginations of followers in his day.
In his second post On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 2: to spark a messianic fire he encapsulates the sense of apoclyptic fervour in a passage from another book on my “to-read list”, Richard Landes’ Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience:
For people who have entered apocalyptic time, everything quickens, enlivens, coheres. They become semiotically aroused — everything has meaning, patterns. The smallest incident can have immense importance and open the way to an entirely new vision of the world, one in which forces unseen by other mortals operate. If the warrior lives with death at his shoulder, then apocalyptic warriors live with cosmic salvation before them, just beyond their grasp.
I’m looking forward to the remainder of Charles Cameron’s series.
by Neil Godfrey
This post follows on from The Origins of Islamic Militancy. This time I change pace and copy a small section from pages 92 to 94 of Jason Burke’s book, The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy (2015). I have a lot of time for Burke’s books on this topic. He is one of the few to get out into the field, sometimes at risk to his own life, to talk with terrorists and their associates. Formatting and bolding are mine.
So why did militants turn to attack the West? One important reason is to be found in Saudi Arabia.
As a state, Saudi Arabia owed its foundation to the alliance of the battle-hardened latter-day followers of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who had preached an austere, puritanical interpretation of Islam in the Arabian peninsula since the late eighteenth century, and an ambitious, capable tribal leader called Abdulaziz ibn Saud.
In 1979 came three events that shook the Saudi monarchy:
- the seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca by a group of local extremists,
- the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets
- and the Iranian revolution.
Each involved a different enemy — violent local militants who branded their rulers apostates, atheist Communists and Shia Islamists — but each revealed a new and potentially deadly threat to the reign of the house of Saud.
One response of the kingdom’s rulers was to use a substantial amount of the vast wealth generated by their oil revenues to expand the proselytisation of the Wahhabi creed, one of the most rigorous, intolerant and conservative existing in Islam, throughout the Sunni Muslim world. This had been a policy for some time but now the effort was massively expanded in an updated though much more far-reaching version of the original strategy that had brought them to power sixty years before. The aim was to reinforce their own religious credentials at home while increasing their influence overseas, allowing them to reassert their claim to both religious and political leadership in the Islamic world.
Over the ensuing decades,
- tens of thousands of religious schools, mosques, Islamic universities and religious centres were built worldwide.
- Hundreds of thousands of scholarships to Saudi universities were offered and stipends paid to preachers.
- Tens of millions of copies of holy texts and, more importantly, deeply conservative interpretations of them, were published and distributed.
This strategic choice was to have a huge impact on the Muslim world, fundamentally altering faith, observance and religious identity for hundreds of millions of people. It also contributed, as intended, to a shift of cultural influence from Egypt, once the unchallenged intellectual centre of the Arab world, to Saudi Arabia, its religious centre.
read more »
by Neil Godfrey
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: read more »
by Neil Godfrey
Palestinian suicide bombing operations are now (hopefully) history. The last one was five years ago. It is still good (even if painful) to understand them, however. (I have certainly found much of the reading preparation for this post to be painful; sometimes I could not bring myself to repeat certain details of what I learned.)
Having said that, let me say now that I am vain enough to think that Vridar readers are in some respects like me and share an interest in learning facts about terrorism and suicide bombings (along with any related role of Islam) from investigative journalists and in particular from scholarly researchers who specialize in the relevant fields: anthropology, sociology, political science, Islamist studies among them. To this end my reading list to date consists of Amin Saikal, Ghassan Hage, Jason Burke, Robert Pape, John Esposito, Riaz Hassan, Greg Barton, Scott Atran, Mohammed Hafez, Zaki Chehab, Lily Zubaidah Rahim, Amin Saikal, Tariq Ali and Tom Holland.
I am interested in studying the data these researchers gather in support of their conclusions. That’s what these posts have been attempting to do ever since November 2006: to present some sound and verifiable research data and tried and tested explanatory models of human behaviour to counter the pop polemics from public figures (think Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne) who clearly have no more specialist understanding or knowledge of this area than a twelve year old madrassah pupil has about evolutionary biology or neurology.
It is also disturbing to learn through some of the rhetoric of critics of these posts (and the writings of Harris, Dawkins and Coyne) how very little they know about the “facts on the ground” and the history of the Middle East. I am dismayed that one such figure, Sam Harris, even publicly ridicules and blatantly misrepresents the findings of one of the most prominent and politically influential anthropologists who has risked his life to learn first-hand, in field research, how terrorists think.
In what other area would a public intellectual think to ridicule his intellectual peers while at the same time promoting the popular prejudices and CNN sound-bytes and Fox News stories as reliable and responsible datasets and founts of wisdom?
So far I have posted thoughts and research from publications by
- Ghassan Hage — anthropologist with interesting insights, though some of his views relating to suicide terrorist motivations have been superseded by subsequent researchers
- Jason Burke — investigative reporter on Al Qaeda
- Robert Pape — political scientist responsible for a landmark study of all suicide terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2003.
- John Esposito — professor of religion and Islamist studies; draws upon Gallup polling
- Riaz Hassan — sociologist drawing upon a Flinders University Database 0f terrorist actions as well as other polling studies
- Scott Atran — anthropologist who has been advisor and confidante to many governments and government bodies. (Have also posted on another book of his on the evolutionary basis of religion, “In Gods We Trust”.)
- Mohammed Hafez — political scientist specializing in studies of Muslim societies in Middle East
- Tom Holland — historian who has raised controversial questions about the origins of Islam
- Lily Zubaidah Rahim — researcher of South East Asian politics and Islam
- Naim Ateek — a Palestinian Christian and theologian
- Marc Sageman — expert on terrorism and counter-terrorism
- Abdel Bari Atwan — Arab journalist and editor
And yes, I’ve also read Sam Harris (two books), Chris Hitchens (four books), Richard Dawkins (six or seven books plus interviews), Daniel Dennett (one book) and even Jerry Coyne (one book and lots of blog posts) and what they have had to pontificate against their perceptions of Islam.
For the benefit of newer readers who have been upset by my posts on this theme, note that these posts began in the first month of the creation of this blog. This is not some new-found interest of mine. The by-line of this blog from the beginning has been, Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science. Only this year have some readers seen fit to complain that they do not think that these posts meet Vridar standards of presenting reliable scholarly research and sound argument.
I have since had an opportunity to read two more books by Mohammed Hafez: one exploring the phenomenon of suicide attacks in Iraq (up to 2006) and the other Palestinian suicide bombers from 1993 to 2005.
I was prompted to obtain a copy of Hafez’s study of the terrorist attacks in Iraq after hearing of yet one more horrific spate of bombings that once again killed dozens of Iraqis. (Why are they targeting fellow Muslims? Especially now that the U.S. has left? It turns out that there is a strong motivation among a good number of people to maintain Iraq as a failed state.)
This post primarily addresses Hafez’s findings about the motives of individual Palestinian suicide bombers. I conclude with a few related explanations from Scott Atran. (Sorry, that was my intention when I began this post, but the post turned out way much longer than I anticipated. More on Scott Atran’s views later.)
A popular Western view is that the Muslim world has a fatal enchantment with martyrdom. Religious fanaticism is one of the most common explanations of why individuals volunteer to become human bombs. (Suicide Bombers in Iraq, p. 218)
In his earlier book, Manufacturing Human Bombs, Hafez singled out several problems with this explanation: read more »
by Neil Godfrey
Continuation of notes from Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror by Jason Burke.
Why do the misconceptions about Al-Qaeda persist?
Reason 1: It is convenient and reassuring to think of al-Qaeda as a traditional terrorist group. It promises an sure victory once the organization is defeated.
Reason 2: Repressive governments can avoid international criticism by labelling their opponents as having links with al-Qaeda. Jason Burke notes that in the autumn of 2001 previously undetected al-Qaeda cells were “discovered” in scores of countries:
- Uzbekistan (Tashenk suddenly branded U’s local Islamic Movement as ‘al-Qaeda’)
- China (the longstanding independence movement among the Uighar Moslems was branded an ‘al-Qaeda’ branch)
- Thailand (bomb blasts in the south of Thailand by groups for many years in turf war between police and military over smuggling and racketing, and in which local Islamic gropus were sometimes involved, were now blamed on ‘al-Qaeda’)
- Macedonia (8 illegal economic immigrants shot dead at a border were accused of being ‘al-Qaeda’)
- Tunisia (left-wing opponents of the Tunisian government were re-labelled as ‘al-Qaeda’)
- Philippines (The Abu Sayyaf group, a local independence movement many decades old, that has largely abandoned militant Islam in preference for crime, especially kidnapping western tourists, has been branded ‘al-Qaeda’)
- Kashmir (As tensions mount between Pakistan and India over Kashmir claims of bin-Laden hiding there always arise.)
Reason 3: “Intelligence services lie, cheat and deceive. Propaganda is one of their primary functions.” (p.19) — e.g. the British intelligence dossier of 4 October 2001 claimed substantial bin-Laden links with the drug trade. Fact: everyone involved in the drug trade from Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere, including UN experts monitoring drugs production, deny bin-Laden’s involvement. The lie was akin to propaganda about German atrocities in World War 1. Similar false stories circulated about Saddam’s links with al-Qaeda.
Reason 4: The media knows what sells. Ironically information from security services is widely seen as having greater veracity and is exempt from normal journalistic scrutiny. A story containing bin-Laden will sell easily.
Reason 5: Bin Laden is happy to encourage myths about his power. He rarely confirms or denies his involement in any operation.
“Myth breeds more myth” (p.21)
I would add another here — that a few groups may well want to proclaim a link with al-Qaeda to provoke more fear than their real clout warrants. Such may be the case of the group claiming responsibility for recent bombing in Algeria (if indeed they did claim this and that news was not concocted by the Algerian government).
by Neil Godfrey
Continuation of notes from Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror by Jason Burke.
3rd element: the idea, the worldview, ideology of ‘al-Qaeda’ and those who subscribe to it.
Bin Laden does not have power to issue orders that are instantly obeyed.
Bin Laden does not kidnap young men and brainwash them. People voluntarily travelled to the Afghan ‘al-Qaeda’ run military and terrorist training camps (1996-2001) and none was kept there against their will.
Bin Laden’s associates spent much of their time selecting which of the myriad requests for assistance they would grant. These requests were for help with bombings, assassinations and murder on large scale. (Burke, p.17)
These people share the same worldview as bin Laden and the ‘al-Qaeda hardcore’. They may or may not belong to any radical group. What unites them is the ‘way of thinking about the world, a way of understanding events, of interpreting and behaving’. (p.17)
by Neil Godfrey
Continuation of notes from Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror by Jason Burke.
2nd element: “a network of networks” — a wider circle consisting of other militant groups linking with al-Qaeda
What these links are not:
- They are not a vast international network of groups answerable to bin Laden or the al-Qaeda inner hardcore.
There are in fact scores of militant groups around the world, each separate with local goals and acting independently. They may see bin Laden as an inspirational figure or a symbol of their collective struggle, but reject his or his inner circle’s leadership and goals. (Compare the many groups in the West who demonstrate with pictures of Che Guevera.)
What these links are:
- Some members of some militant groups who trained in al-Qaeda camps since 1996;
- Some leaders of some militant groups who have had contact with senior figures in the al-Qaeda hardcore;
- Or received funds;
- Or training;
- Or other help from bin Laden himself or from his associates
- Such links are not unique with al-Qaeda. All Islamic militant groups have similar links with others.
- These links are always tenuous and compete with other sources of training, expertise and funding.
- The groups and individuals involved generally have multiple associations and lines of support.
- Their interests are often deeply parochial and they will not subordinate their leadership to any outside leader or organisation, including al-Qaeda. — e.g. Lebanese Asbat ul Ansar & Islamic movement of Uzbekistan
- Many have long been openly hostile to the tactics and goals of al-Qaeda. As many are in rivalry with al-Qaeda as are allied with al-Qaeda.
- At various times some groups – or some individuals within different groups – will cooperate with bin Laden if they feel it suits their purpose.
Within individual movements different factions can have different relations with ‘al-Qaeda’
One example: The Ansar ul Islam is one movement but with 3 differ relations to ‘al-Qaeda’:
- Ansar ul Islam group in Kurdish Northern Iraq in northern Iraq emerged autumn 2001 with 3 different factions. 2 of these factions went to Afghanistan to meet senior al-Qaeda leaders spring 2001;
- the 3rd faction rejected dealing with bin Laden or those around him;
- By the end of 2001: Arab fighters fleeing US invasion of Afghanistan – some of these had been close to bin Laden.
In addition to the above there is also a 4th relationship. Ansar ul Islam consisted of others not interested in any broader agenda beyond Kurdistan. (1 failed suicide bomber told the author, Jason Burke, that he did not want to go to Afghanistan simply because he was not interested in travel and was focused only in affairs of his own country.) – these people did not care for bin Laden or his vision of an international struggle.
Others have rebuffed bin Laden’s advances:
- Algerian GIA in early 1990’s rejected bin Laden because his agenda was very different from theirs.
- GSPC (a GIA splinter group) refused to meet bin Laden emissaries summer 2002
- The leader of the Indonesian Lashkar Jihad group refused to ally with bin Laden because that would significantly impinge on autonomy
- At least one Palestinian Islamic group has rebuffed his advances concerned about such a link to its image at home and overseas.
Like the anti-globalisation movement – some groups aims and methods coincide, often they do not.
3rd element: to be continued………..