Friday, July 29, 2005

Islamic Terrorism or Islamist Terrorism?

Political correctness must be dead after all.

Phillip Blond and Adrian Pabst have written a provocative article on "The roots of Islamic terrorism" in the July 28th issue of the International Herald Tribune. Here's how the article begins:

Most commentators argue that Islamic terrorism is a fanatical perversion of Islam which deviates from its true teachings. They call for a Western-style modernization of the Muslim world, hoping thereby that radical Islam will be tamed.

This analysis misses the point. The nature of the terrorist threat is unambiguously Islamic and is not so much a deviation from Muslim tradition as an appeal to it.

Not so long ago, the IHT would not have printed such a boldly 'unorthodox' current of thought, but I suppose that it's now flowing in the mainstream.

But what do Blond and Pabst mean by stating that the "nature of the terrorist threat . . . is not so much a deviation from Muslim tradition as an appeal to it"? Couldn't it both deviate from and appeal to Islam?

Unclear to me from their article is whether or not they consider terrorism to be rooted in the nature of Islam itself. They state:

When extremists say they are killing in the name of Islam, they are in part appealing to Islamic traditions of long standing.

Well, yes they are, but did those traditions themselves advocate terrorist attacks? Blond and Pabst do not clarify this point.

I know some of the texts that they might be thinking about:

Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers, for that they joined companions with Allah, for which He had sent no authority: their abode will be the Fire: And evil is the home of the wrong-doers! (Qur'an 3:151)

Let not the unbelievers think that they can get the better (of the godly): they will never frustrate (them). Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. (Qur'an 8:59–60)

Here in the official Yusuf Ali translation, we find the word "terror," and the means of terror include but are not limited to war. And there's also a hadith from Bukhari:

Allah's Apostle said, ". . . I have been made victorious with terror." (Sahih Bukhari: Volume 4, Book 52, Number 220)

I think that we can clearly infer from these sources that Islam has no scruples about terrorizing its enemies, but this does not necessarily imply that Islam encourages terrorism. Note that although the Qur'anic verses do speak of terrorizing the enemy, e.g., during military jihad, they say nothing explicitly about terrorist action, and the hadith from Bukhari provides no clarifying context at all. These sources may mean nothing more than that Allah Himself brings the enemy into a state of terror.

Thus, it would take enormous hermeneutic effort for such sources as these to justify the large-scale terrorism of our technological age, since for seventh-century Arabia, terror accomplished by slamming commercial airliners into skyscrapers or by bombing train stations in the heart of a city was thoroughly unimaginable.

But I'm not sure that Blond and Pabst mean quite this anyway. They note that modern Islamist terrorism like that of Al Qaeda "draws on two traditions to legitimize itself: one classical, the other modern."

For the classical tradition, they point to the prophet himself:

The Prophet died a successful military leader who created a single Islamic polity that expanded -- through warfare -- all over the known world. The caliphate combined the double logic of a religious community and an imperial state.

For the modern tradition, they point to such Muslim thinkers as the 18th century Arabian figure Muhammad Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, the Indian Muslim Abu Ala Maududi (1903-1979), and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). These last two appear to be the intellectual progenitors of current Islamist terrorism:

Like Maududi, Qutb fused the history of Mohammed's travails with a revolutionary vanguard-type ideology that removed medieval limits on warfare by championing a modern death cult in the quest for a revivified caliphate.

The crucial point here is that these two "removed medieval limits on warfare" -- though I'd be very interested in knowing just what these limits were.

Blond and Pabst also note that:

Al Qaeda sympathizers avidly read European fascist literature and pursue religious ends via atheist methods.

This remark is interesting because it suggests that the inspiration for Islamist terrorism might come from a non-Islamic source, assuming that I'm reading correctly what they mean by "atheist methods," i.e., terrorism?

Yet, they also say:

The essentially Islamic nature of this terror demands nothing less than a reformation in the name of an alternative Islam.

This assumes that the Islamist terrorism is an essential part of Islam. So, we're still left wondering: Is Islam itself the problem?


At 2:34 PM, Blogger choclosteve said...

Is Islam the problem? I would concede that it is part of the problem, but the more important contributer is the sence of victimhood of a largely ignorant people who feel increasingly powerless in a rapidly changing world, who see salvation in striking out at their suposed enemies instead of working on themselves and addopting to changing times. Add to the above a rigid, sexist belief in the use of force and violence to order famillies and society and they will remain losers. If one reads fatwas, you will get instructions on the Islamic rules for beating ones wife and when it is permissable, etc. Go to the Aljaseera english language homepage and along the left hand side click on the Islamic sight and you can read an article on how the United States is struggling with the big problem of a decreasing population and read fatwas about the Islamic way to beat your wife and what is an Islamic reason to do so.

At 3:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Choclosteve, thanks for the comment.

A lot of what you say makes sense. Ignorance and a sense of victimhood provide a large supply of potential terrorists.

The greater danger, however, comes from the wealthier, educated Muslims with a sense of grievance against the West, especially America, and with the will and means to act upon their grievance.

We've seen that some of these radical types of Muslims were not particularly pious but turned to piety and ever more rigid, ideologically violent forms of Islam as they steeped themselves in the practice of their religion.

In this, they were assisted by well-developed Islamist conspiracy theories that promise all the answers and urge violence against infidels as the price for those answers.

Traditional Islam contributes to this with its division of the world into the House of Islam (Muslims) and the House of War (Infidels) and its ultimate aim at world domination through jihad, if necessary.

Yet, suicidal terrorism seems to me to be an innovation in Islam.

Incidentally, the U.S. population is increasing, not decreasing, so the Aljazeera site is wrong on that point. It's Europe that has the population problem -- a decreasing native European population and an increasing Muslim population.

At 11:17 PM, Blogger choclosteve said...

Thanks for your responce to my comments. Of course our US population is increasing- I did not think it was necessary to point that out. My point was meant to be that in going to an educated sight (Aljezeera), one finds such obvious ignorance pretending to be informed about the world and its problems. Like almost anything, Islamic terrorism stems from a number of causes, including specific texts, but I believe that cultural values are very important here, and that the tone of the Koran is very literal, which encourages an emphasis on learning rules at the expence of critical thinking. Also missing in the Koran is much emphasis on forgiveness (it has a more Old Testament tone to it than a New Testament one). When one focusses on veangeance, energy is diverted from improving ones own advancement. Forgiveness allows one to move on and work on ones own problems. Win-win works better than win-lose. This terrorism will not do anything to improve Moslems situation. It brings us all down. In 1964 I spent about 3 months hitch-hiking around Turkey, Syria, and Jordan. During this trip I asked everyone I met if they would kill their sister if she had pre-marital sex, and was told by more than 80% that they would, and I was only questioning educated english speakers. Clearly love of familly took second place to "honor". I think culture has more to do with this than the Koran.

At 11:35 PM, Blogger choclosteve said...

You mentioned conspiracy theories. My 1964 travels took place soon after JFK's assasination. After his death, everyone, including the Arabs I met, thought he was on their side. Every Arab I met (almost all of whom were Palistinian), believed JFK was killed by a Zionist plot and knew Jack Ruby by the name of Rubenstein. The only hole I could make in their argument was to ask if Arabs would dedicate their lives to avenging an assination of Nasser, who was at his peak of popularity then, and then asking if perhaps Ruby was simularly motivated. My argument was only marginaly succesful. This story also illustrates the cultural importance of vengeance.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It's interesting to hear that conspiracy theories were rife in the Middle East already in the early 1960s. I suspect a direct relation between conspiracy theories and political powerlessness.

I thought that you probably knew that the American population is increasing, but I just wanted to make sure -- and to clarify it here online, in case anybody were unaware.

Critical thinking is never very easy, but it has become a cultural tradition in the West. I suppose that it can be traced all the way to the Greeks, but it has certainly received an added impetus through the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the 18th-century Enlightenment -- along with educational reform stemming from the late 19th century.

I'd argue that Medieval Scholasticism and the Early Modern Reformation played a role, too, but that's a more complex issue.


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