Posing secular questions for certain zealots

Jihad - Jihad - The Shade of Swords - Inside Al-Qaeda - The Clash of Fundamentalisms
August 16, 2002

Oil, by fuelling western industry, transport and homes, energises Islam. A lot of highly saleable black stuff was found in the soil of lands mostly inhabited by Muslims. That geological chance combines with their proud memory of the might of Islam's several great historical empires to give many Muslims the idea that they, as a civilisation, are cut out for first-class power - economic, political, military.

Christianity no doubt has its memory of secular glory. Yet modern westerners, for the most part, invest little emotion in the history of Christendom in its political and military manifestations. To sideline religion in politics and to ensure freedom to criticise the dominant faith - to secularise, in short - has proved nearly impossible in Islamic societies. Far more than Christians today, Muslims see political ambitions in terms of their religion.

Political ambitions pursued by means of war, in the name of Islam: that is what the books reviewed here are mostly about. Tariq Ali's background as a Marxist ideologue, born in Pakistan, lends unusual sophistication to his reflections on Islamic history and the role of politicised religion, Hindu and Christian as well as Muslim. Yet his book has a major flaw: its analysis of the significance of the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11 2001. Ali condemns the act itself as an atrocity; but he also sees in it a rebellion, however misguided, against real oppression. "Propaganda of the deed" is his term for it. Under the current stranglehold of US-led capitalism, where the laws favour the rich, "The propaganda of the deed... is the response of atomised individuals... to politicians who have become interchangeable, to corporations one-eyed in the search for profits... This is the existential misery that breeds insecurity and fosters deadly hatred." The moral? The pundit and the politician must acknowledge, intones Ali, that "slaves and peasants do not always obey".

All very impressive until you look at the details. If Ali had merely said the events of September 11 were an extreme form of Muslim protest at US policies, it would have been fair enough. To suggest a dimension of pro-egalitarian social protest in the deed - why else speak of slaves and peasants? - is surreal. It is difficult to see slaves getting much of a chance under any regime Osama bin Laden has in mind. Until a few decades ago, many in the opulent Saudi Arabian ruling class from which Bin Laden springs owned slaves legally. It was pressure from those hateful oppressors, the westerners, that helped to abolish the practice, at least formally. True, Bin Laden now denounces the Saudi regime, but only for failing to live up fully to its own Dark Age-style ethos.

And what was that about laws favouring the rich? As Rohan Gunaratna's book on Al Qaida points out, although Bin Laden did not inherit hundreds of millions of dollars, as is often believed, it was still a tidy $30 million (£20 million)or so, which has since grown steadily from shrewd investments.

The hit squad on September 11 was composed of young men well enough off to be able to study in the West. Al Qaida's rank and file are carefully chosen adventurers from many lands in pursuit of a priest-ruled, highly stratified social order; one has only to look at the record of Bin Laden's comrades to understand that he does not represent egalitarian values in any form, however twisted. In his book, Ali himself firmly underscores the particularly retrograde social values of Saudi-influenced Islamic "radicalism" of the Bin Laden variety.

Fortunately, Ali is more intelligent than his simplistic assessment of September 11. From the age of 12, he says, he has been an atheist. Yet he identifies himself as a Muslim, culturally: "I was brought up in that culture and it has enriched my life. It is perfectly possible to be part of a culture without being a believer." He describes proudly the intellectual and cultural achievements of the Islamic world in the centuries of Arab and Turkish empire.

But one question haunts his book: why did Islamic civilisation petrify intellectually? Why did Muslim societies never attain the possibility of free criticism of the dominant religion's dogmas? Islamic civilisation, of course, has known many courageous defenders of free thought who have fought orthodoxy, however unavailingly. Ali reflects lovingly on unorthodox thinkers such as Ibn Hazm, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Rawandi. But for all that, Ali never comes up with a convincing reason for Islamic societies' failure to achieve freedom of thought.

His analysis of the "kingdom of corruption", Saudi Arabia - which functions simultaneously as America's cosseted oil darling and as the real fountainhead of extremist Islamist ideology - is scathing. Pakistan's cruel predicament, caught in a morass of Islamism, corruption and an incurably politicised military, is described with the benefit of Ali's first-hand knowledge of many leading Pakistani political figures. How Iranian leftwingers cooperated with murderous clerics in the hope of transforming Iran from the shah's monarchical tyranny into a socialist state is sardonically recounted. His prescription for a better future for the Muslim world pulls no punches: uncompromising secularism and freedom of thought.

The Shade of Swords , M. J. Akbar's book, is best at evoking sympathetically the religious emotion that drives Muslim holy wars. In terms of that fervour, he describes the clash for worldly power between Islam and Christianity, which he sees - very questionably, for today's West is not simply "Christian" - as extending to the present day. September 11, according to Akbar, is merely the latest spectacular episode.

Not that he endorses Islamic radicals' barbaric excesses. In fact, he starts by clarifying what the Islamic idea of holy war, jihad , does not allow. It does not justify indiscriminate Muslim aggression against those of non-Islamic faith, as is often assumed, but is a defensive concept. His book is a succession of vivid accounts of Muslims who fought Christians, Hindus and Jews. A wide, entrancing stretch of history: Mohammed, the early Muslim caliphs, Arab Spain, Saladin and the Crusades, the Turkish sultans, the various modern Arab dictators, right down to Bin Laden. Akbar has a taste for flamboyant characters and lively anecdotes not always backed by historical verification. "There is a story that..." is a favourite opening.

But when it comes to the basic causes of events, Akbar lacks curiosity. He highlights the dramatic shortfall in democracy in Muslim lands: "...no Muslim country from the old [Muslim] empires has an honest and sustained democracy. Where it is honest, as in Bangladesh, it is not sustained. The uniform of the army looms over even liberal Turkey." And he deplores the way mass religious fervour can so easily be used by Muslim leaders to maintain despotic regimes. But this merely begs the question: why is secularisation so difficult in these lands?

Afire with his task of conveying the pride of Muslim faith wars, Akbar has no time for that sobering question. Although he complains bitterly about self-interested western interventions in the modern Middle East, he does not see that the failure of major Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq to sustain democratic and open societies has been a crucial factor; the West would have intervened less, had it not been so nervous about Middle Eastern political instability.

Before September 11, the threat of Islamic militancy in former Soviet Central Asia - Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Khirgizstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan - received little international attention. Curbing it is now all too obviously central to ensuring political stability in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Ahmed Rashid's valuable study is based on extensive first-hand observation. He sees the growing popularity of extremist Muslim groups in the area as due to desperate economic conditions combined with post-Communist leaders' penchant for dictatorship. Moreover, these regimes tend to crack down in a paranoid manner on even non-political Muslim observance, driving believers into the hands of extremists.

In a mineral-rich region, governments have failed to create conditions for tapping natural wealth. Where oil exports have developed, the proceeds have mostly gone to a tiny elite, fuelling popular anger. Also, Russia, the US and Pakistan meddle ruthlessly in the region's politics. Hustle the regimes toward democracy, Rashid urges the US in particular: it could help drain support for Islamic militancy. Such a policy, though, calls for vision and energy in the Bush administration, which it is optimistic to expect.

What now of Al Qaida? Gunaratna, a noted expert on terrorist movements, provides a very able analysis of the terrorist organisation. He draws on the media, western intelligence assessments, and many interviews he has conducted with Islamic radicals. Many of his points are interesting. Al Qaida has an ideologically pragmatic side: Sunni in professed ideology, it has set aside the Sunni-Shia enmity that afflicts other Islamist tendencies in the interests of operational effectiveness. Despite the loss of its Afghan base, Gunaratna believes Al Qaida's global network is still largely intact because it has a decentralised structure. The group's attacks have not even cost much to mount. Gunaratna's explorations of Al Qaida's thinking make it very clear that such "social protest" as it might stand for is anger that the world has got beyond medieval barbarism. Bin Laden's paradoxical achievement is his devising an organisation of great resilience that in ultra-modern ways wreaks mayhem on behalf of an antediluvian philosophy.

In tireless detail, Gunaratna explores the organisation's astonishingly wide-ranging activities. Not just the Middle East or the West, but also Russia, East Africa, India and the Philippines are all lethally affected by its machinations. The author is too much in awe of the Al Qaida operatives'

supposed fearlessness and efficiency. For example, Omar Sheikh, recently sentenced to death in Pakistan for the killing of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, is described in a tone implying he is a formidable fellow. In fact, all he has achieved are a couple of badly organised kidnappings. Nor, for all its boasts of fearlessness, did Al Qaida put up much of a fight in Afghanistan when the US began using B52 bombers. The Vietnamese stood up to B52s for years.

Gunaratna urges western action to redress Muslim grievances on Palestine and Kashmir to weaken support for groups like Bin Laden's. The problem is that this would send Islamic radicals, and people everywhere, one message: to get the great powers to view your grievances favourably, resort to ruthless violence. That could actually multiply terrorism.

Ali, Akbar, Rashid and Gunaratna share the view that political extremism in the name of Islam is a rising force. Gilles Kepel does not. His book is a mine of information on the modern Islamist movement, and provides formidably intricate, subtle analyses of its successes and failures. Kepel studies the movement where it has held state power, as in Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and where it has been involved in storms of violence, as in Algeria, Egypt and Palestine. Totally contrary to the received wisdom, Kepel believes the movement is in steep decline. He emphasises that mass-based political movements, to obtain lasting power, need in the modern world to deliver real social benefits to the populace that supports them: jobs, healthcare, schools, housing. The masses do not support radical Islam from religious enthusiasm alone, but out of disgust with flagrantly elitist and corrupt rulers.

Kepel looks at the social foundations of Islamic militancy carefully. He concludes that wherever it has become a mass phenomenon, an Islamist intelligentsia has mobilised a social coalition, comprising the "pious middle class" (urban middle-class people who have retained traditional Muslim lifestyles and who are alienated by the much more westernised lifestyles of dominant urban elites); the urban poor; and a large number of traditional Muslim clerics, the ulema .

But such coalitions easily fall apart, argues Kepel. The established order can buy off the pious middle class by offering economic opportunities through free-market reforms and by meeting their cultural discontents through Islamisation measures in the media, education and in social behaviour, such as promoting "modest" dress codes for women. The economic hopes of the urban poor get nowhere. In Iran and Sudan, where Islamic radicalism has ruled the state, it has presided over high-unemployment economies. In Algeria and Egypt, the movement's resort to massive terrorist violence has alienated the devout middle class. No wonder many erstwhile supporters conclude that there is no Muslim utopia on offer.

Thus the September 11 feat, for Kepel, was a desperate lunge by a political tendency very much on the retreat. This optimism is only persuasive up to a point. Islamism may now be unlikely to seize power through the kind of mass upsurge that overthrew the shah. Yet Kepel himself notes how much of the Islamist social programme has been adopted by established governments themselves. Asserting unorthodox views tends to get harder all the time. The kind of freedoms sought by Tariq Ali are very difficult to see as feasible in any near future. Even Kepel, cautiously optimistic about the long-term prospects of democratic evolution in the Muslim lands, speaks in terms of "Muslim democracy", whatever that means. It would be rash to write off Islamic radicalism as a failure. It has hugely changed the climate of ideas in the Muslim world.

The greatest puzzle remains: why are Muslim societies so hard to secularise? It is not addressed by any of these five books. The difficulty is not merely a Muslim one. Hindu India and Jewish Israel increasingly prove resistant to secularisation. Could it be that Islam, Hinduism and Judaism, which share a penchant for minute religious regulation of daily life, notions of ritual pollution and strict food taboos, lead to cultures that are particularly prone to religiosity? The much greater ease with which Christian and Confucian societies secularise is, by contrast, striking and of great historical significance.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia

Author - Ahmed Rashid
ISBN - 0 300 09345 4
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 281

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