January issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

On Christmas Eve last year, a feature in The New York Times dwelt on Muhammad Fawaz, “a very serious college junior with a stern gaze and a reluctant smile that barely cloaks suppressed anger.” The 20-year-old had longed for a scholarship to study abroad, but did not have the right connections. “So Mr Fawaz decided to rebel,” wrote Michael Slackman. “He adopted the serene, disciplined demeanour of an Islamic activist.”

“In his sophomore year he was accepted into the student group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood … Now he works to recruit other students to the cause …”

“Across the Middle East, young people like Mr Fawaz, angry, alienated and deprived of opportunity, have accepted Islam as an agent of change and rebellion. It is their rock‘n’roll, their long hair and love beads. Through Islam, they defy the status quo and challenge governments seen as corrupt and incompetent.”

“These young people — 60 per cent of those in the region are under 25 — are propelling a worldwide Islamic revival, driven by a thirst for political change and social justice. That fervour has popularised a more conservative interpretation of the faith.”

That’s not an uncommon view among the liberal western intelligentsia, nor is it particularly inaccurate. The phenomenon is a relatively recent one, however. For much of the 20th century, radical Islamic movements were generally restricted to the fringes of Muslim societies. In some cases — as in Nasser’s Egypt — they were considered a sufficient threat as long ago as the 1950s to attract state repression, which invariably backfired.

Back in that period and well into the 1980s, the United States harboured the impression that it could use such groups as a counterweight against communism and left-wing nationalism. It disbursed funds and advice with abandon. This tendency reached its apotheosis in the so-called jihad against Soviet forces and their Afghan allies, the consequences of which have resonated far and wide ever since. The events of 9/11 stand out on account of where they occurred, but a great many more lives have been lost elsewhere — not least in Algeria during the 1990s — partly through the courtesy of veterans of the Afghan crusade.

Algeria is an interesting case in point, because it spiralled out of control after the armed forces refused to recognise an irrefutable electoral victory by the Islamic Salvation Front. The decision led to years of civil war, during which both sides resorted to unspeakable atrocities. Since the 1990s, the West has been allergic to the prospect of Islamist administrations — although even during that decade it was happy to facilitate the passage of jihadis to Bosnia and Kosovo.

The contradiction between this allergy and its supposed preference for democracy perhaps took its starkest form in the Palestinian territories after Hamas — an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that in its formative stages was propped up by Israel as a means of weakening the relatively secular Fatah — secured an electoral victory. The US and most of its allies refused to engage with the Hamas leadership in the absence of its explicit recognition of Israel, thereby reinforcing the impression that notwithstanding all the clamour about democracy, popular verdicts count for nothing unless they produce results that meet Washington’s approval.

Double standards of this variety have long fed into the lack of respect that US foreign policy inspires through much of the Muslim world — a tendency that was sharply exacerbated by the war in Iraq. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the US confronts the irony of being cast in the role it had once chosen for the USSR: propping up a government of restricted appeal in Kabul while combating the combined forces of conservative nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, the latter supplemented by foreign recruits.

The historically lopsided American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its role in bolstering unpopular and invariably undemocratic regimes throughout the Middle East are often cited as crucial explanations for the antagonism it attracts, not least from Islamists of the violent variety. This analysis is by no means mistaken, but it is incomplete. It cannot suffice as an explanation for a phenomenon that has been witnessed in recent years across and beyond the Muslim world: a drift towards increasingly rigid interpretations of Islam that most of the faithful would previously have considered anathema.

It is often pointed out that the vast majority of Muslims across the world are moderates, while attention is generally focused on the relatively small groups that advocate violent jihad and sometimes are determined to practice what they preach. A common riposte is: Why, in that case, is the moderate majority so reticent about confronting and denouncing the extremists? The implication here is that Muslim moderation is a contradiction in terms, and that the near silence of the majority makes it complicit in the murderous outrages of the few.

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. In the same way as followers of other monotheistic religions, Muslims are an amorphous bunch, and there is little danger of this cultural and even theological diversity being obliterated in a relentless march towards Wahhabism or Salafism. There is no good reason to suspect that most adherents of the faith oppose peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims, or harbour absurd visions of some kind of caliphate extending across vast swathes of the planet.

At the same time, however, it would be unrealistic to deny that there has in recent decades been a drift towards fundamentalism across the Muslim world as well as elsewhere, wherever Muslims are settled in large numbers. The alarming increase in conspicuous piety does not in itself point towards a matching rise in support for terrorism. Many perfectly pious Muslims are more than comfortable with the tenet that there should be no compulsion in religion and will have no truck with confessional violence, be it inter-faith or intra-faith.

Yet there is cause to fear a steady increase in the numbers of those whose attitude bears comparison with that of the more virulent evangelical Christians. The latter are chiefly an American phenomenon, and although they may not personally be prone to violence, they have little objection if it is committed on their behalf. Their selective and literal interpretation of the scriptures has even led them to blindly support Israel on the grounds that the latter’s obduracy is likely to turn it into the battlefield for Armageddon. (On the utter lunatic fringe of this special interest group are those who believe Barack Obama is the Antichrist and that his ascendancy is a sign that the end is nigh).

The Muslim equivalent of this tendency includes at least tacit support for acts of violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, and can extend to support networks and other forms of sustenance for the terrorists. Those thus inclined are often affiliated, formally or otherwise, with the likes of Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Pakistan, Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Such networks are fond of emphasising their role as welfare organisations — and more often than not, this is not a spurious claim. In many countries such bodies are more effective than state agencies. It’s disingenuous to pretend, however, that this is their only, or even their primary, function.

The drift towards extremism in the Muslim world is invariably attributed to repressive regimes and economic disarray: the same sort of factors that once upon a time powered left-wing movements. This can, however, only be a partial explanation for the phenomenon. After all, recent history offers no examples of purportedly Islamic regimes — be it the Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia, the mullahs in Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan — that have been anything other than repressive. Nor has Islam’s theoretical preference for an equitable distribution of wealth ever been coherently manifested in a national setting.

Another explanation points towards a siege mentality based on the impression that the rest of the world is determined to disempower, if not decimate, Muslims. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, this fear was based on the fact that Muslims were the beleaguered party in most of the world’s hotspots, be it Palestine, Bosnia, Kashmir or Chechnya. A common counter-argument in this respect is the at least equally pertinent claim that when a conflict, no matter how ugly, involves Muslims killing other Muslims, the ummah is strangely unaffected. To cite the most obvious instance, how many protests have there been throughout the Muslim world against the genocide in Darfur?

Among Muslims in the West, the siege mentality is compounded by alienation within the societies in which they have grown up. The first generation of Muslim immigrants in Britain, for instance, faced with relative equanimity the hostile environment in which they found themselves. They did not abandon their cultures, but it was widely assumed that subsequent generations would be increasingly better assimilated. It happened in some cases, but in others the drift has been towards an Islamic identity. Taken to an extreme, the latter tendency can lead to violent consequences. You can blame it on racism. You can blame it on Iraq and Afghanistan.

But these can, at best, be regarded as contributory factors rather than a satisfactory explanation. It’s as if a switch has been pulled in the Muslim psyche. It’s hard to say whether something has been switched on or something else has been switched off. This urge to indiscriminately take the lives of others is, naturally enough, considered unacceptable outside the fold of Islam (although the means deployed to countermand it all too often produce the opposite effect). What’s alarming is that some Muslims don’t consider it unacceptable. And those who do, often lack the ability or the courage to make themselves heard.

Sometimes it seems as if a veil has descended between Muslim minds and common sense. This does not affect only those who have never been afforded the opportunity to consider a worldview that might contradict what they are taught in their madrassas. It also extends to those who have been exposed to an enlightened education. The inclination to see a particular interpretation of religion as the only solution is what makes religion a problem.

Whatever your faith, there is something seriously amiss if your confessional identity supersedes your status as a member of the human race. This is a concern for all faiths: so many of the world’s conflicts would lose their raison d’etre if only Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and all the rest, without exception, could attach primacy to each other’s common humanity.

It sounds like a pipe dream, but it may well turn out to be only long-term guarantee of coexistence. Other religions, have passed through the kind of phase that Islam seems to be going through. In the case of Christianity, it took a thorough reformation to transcend the nonsense associated with the Inquisition and so on. Islam appears to be headed in the opposite direction, but that could change. About the only kind of jihad that could be justified under the present circumstances would be a struggle within Islam aimed at banishing the baser concepts that prop up obscurantism.

A few months ago, a report in the British press related how it had taken a fatwa from the Muslim Law (Shariah) Council UK to enable a blind Muslim student, Mahomed-Abraar Khatri, to enter a Leicester mosque with his guide dog. The Guide Dogs Association called it “a massive step forward for other blind and partially-sighted Muslims.” It almost made one wish a similar fatwa could offer deliverance to those Muslims who doggedly refuse to see the light.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.