It is one-sided to blame Muslims for extremism in contemporary times as many Western scholars and leaders continue to suffer from a Crusader complex
S IFTIKHAR MURSHED
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he nineteenth century reformer, Jamal ad-Din Afghani (1838-1897), wrote, “Every Muslim is sick, and his only remedy is the Quran.” But to some writers in the west, notably the Irish politician, historian and academic Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008), “the sickness gets worse the more the remedy is taken…Muslim society looks profoundly repulsive…It looks repulsive because it is repulsive…A Westerner who claims to admire Muslim society, while still adhering to Western values, is either a hypocrite or an ignoramus or a bit of both.” On his death he was acclaimed by The Guardian as “probably the most pugnacious Irish intellectual since George Bernard Shaw.”
Such perceptions about Muslims have been reinforced after 9/11 and the continuous wave of terrorist violence perpetrated mostly by a radicalized minority who profess Islam. As a consequence, the Quran’s doctrinaire insistence on non-aggression has been obscured and strengthened the erroneous belief that it encourages violence. The sense of victimization and real or imagined threat perceptions are probably the two most important reasons for the recurring acts of terrorism.But it is also one-sided to only blame Muslims for extremism in the contemporary era.
Victoria Clark, in her 2005 book, Holy Fire, writes that “Christian Zionists believe the escalating violence in the Middle East an ordained prelude to the Great Battle of Armageddon that will herald the end of the world as it is, Christ’s reappearance on the Mount of Olives and the start of his glorious thousand-year reign.”
They reject the May 2003 ‘road map’ peace plan envisaging the creation of a Palestinian state because God promised Abraham and his descendants, the Israelites, a homeland stretching from the “great river of Egypt” to the Euphrates in Iraq.The Likud party’s dream of a ‘Greater Israel’ is shared by a significant number of the Christian right in the US.
The controversial televangelist Jerry Falwell declared, “To stand against Israel is to stand against God. We believe that history and scripture prove that God deals with nations in relation to how they deal with Israel.” In October 2002 Falwell ranted during CBS’s primetime 60 Minutes, “Moses and Jesus preached love but Muhammad (peace be upon him) set an opposite example.”
The tensions between the Islamic world and the west are rooted in history and particularly when Muslims had become a formidable, united global power that posed an intellectual, ideological and political challenge to Europe. Despite the Quran’s stress on nonaggression and peaceful coexistence, Islam spread rapidly within a hundred years of the Holy Prophet’s death in 632.Arab armies established a vast empire stretching from Spain, across North Africa to the banks of the Indus. The inspiration was, however, political and had more to do with territorial aggrandizement than religious zeal. In fact proselytizing was actually discouraged in the early years of Muslim ascendancy. Although the establishment of the Islamic empire was the outcome of unprovoked aggression, Muslims constantly refer to the hatred of their religion as the recurrent theme of history. They feel that the political and military violence against them did not end with the crusades.Scholars in Muslim countries believe that the ‘crusader’ attitude towards Islam has continued to prevail in the west. On entering Jerusalem in 1917, General Allenby boasted that “the crusades had been completed.”
Even in the 21st century some western leaders have claimed a divine provenance for their decisions. The knee-jerk American reaction to 9/11 was a commitment to launch a ‘crusade’ against terrorism. During a meeting in the autumn of 2005 with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, President Bush is reported to have said: “I am driven with a mission from God. God tells me ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God tells me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.”
To Muslims, the Crusades signified outright aggression against Islam which also found expression in the colonization of their territories in a later period of history. In the near half-century that the cold war lasted from 1945 till the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the US-led west was selective in its approach to the Islamic world. It supported those countries that could promote its objectives but was, at best, indifferent to those it did not need to defeat communism.
The arms race between the cold war superpower rivals sapped the Soviet Union of its economic lifeblood and presaged the collapse of communism. The decisive battle of the cold war was fought and won for the west in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan from the frontiers of Pakistan. Muslim men were indoctrinated in madrassas (seminaries), trained, armed and given financial assistance by the west and the so-called ‘moderate’ Islamic countries, notably Saudi Arabia.
The Soviet retreat from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of what Reagan once described as the “evil empire” dealt an irreversible blow to the communist ideal. Fanciful theories, besides Huntington’s clash of civilizations concept, emerged. Francis Fukuyama interpreted the defeat of communism as “an abashed victory of economic and political liberalism” which signified “the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Closer to the truth was the emergence of a new threat to global peace and security in the form of religion-motivated terrorist violence emanating almost exclusively from unstable countries of the Muslim world. The same extremists who had been indoctrinated in the madressahs of Pakistan believed they were fighting a holy war against the godless communists. With the defeat of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan these fighters now had a freehand to pursue an agenda of their own.
In Egypt the rise of extremism in the guise of religion was again a reaction to an oppressive Muslim dictatorship. Fundamentalist Muslim thinkers of the 20th century, the most influential of whom was probably Sayyid Qutub of Egypt (1906-1966), saw modernity and western concepts as the enemies of Islam. The world was accordingly divided into the Dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) and anything beyond it was the Dar al-Harb or the abode of war. Qutub, however, added a new dimension to this by proclaiming that the enemy was also within Islamic societies that were led by secular dictators.
But Qutub was not originally an extremist. He spent two years in the US and was disillusioned by some of the more stark aspects of secular societies. Karen Armstrong in Islam: A Short History wrote, “Even after he joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953 he had been a reformer, hoping to give Western democracy an Islamic dimension that would avoid the excesses of a wholly secularist ideology.”
It was only after his imprisonment in 1956 by President Gamal Abdel Nasser for membership of the Brotherhood that he espoused extremist violence to which he remained committed till his execution in 1966. Nasser’s violent secularism that involved the torture and brutal repression of dissidents convinced Qutub that Islam was under attack from within Muslim societies. It is this worldview that is endorsed by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. They believe that jihad has to be waged against both secular rulers within Islamic societies as well as the perceived external enemies of the religion.
Muslims need to wake up from their slumber of centuries and re-establish the fundamental tenets of their religion so that the erroneous interpretation of the Quran used by obscurantist and extremist ideologues can be defeated. No less important is the need for the international community to stop stereotyping Muslims and understand Islam’s doctrinal emphasis on peaceful co-existence. The foremost contemporary threat to global peace and security is terrorism. This provides sufficient reason for the Islamic and the non-Islamic worlds to cooperate in the fight against terror. Both have been its victims.
All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan. This originally appeared in The News International