Locating Islamic extremism - Januar 2015

By the end of the 1990ies Western experts have forcast the decline of political islam. Obviously, they were wrong. The „war on terrorism“ which was waged after the terror attack of  September 11th, 2001, not only did not bring the phenomen to an end. On the contrary,  religious violance since  has spread to most parts of the „Islamic world“, and even penetrated muslim segments of Western societies. By 2014, a terrorist organisation called „Islamic State“ managed to set up a jihadi state on parts of the territories of Iraq and Syria  headed by a self-declared „caliph“. Waging war against everybody not being seen as a truely sunni believer, it is supported by a bunch of considerably numerous fellow travelors from many parts even of Europe including the Western Balkan countries. So, when dealing with the movement, one has to understand, where are its roots and what were the reasons why it so „successfully“ withstood the efforts of the international community to come to grips with ist.

Six observations may be put forward:

1. The phenomenon of political Islam is deeply rooted in the ideological and political history not only of the Middle East and the Islamic world at large, but of Europe as well. The 20th century in Europe has been called the „century of ideologies“ referring primarily to fascism, national socialism and communism. In fact, it has an equivalent in the Middle East: islamism (to frame it from a European perception). When the First World War ended, the traditional  order legitimized throughout history had been destroyed; new legitimizing frameworks for political orders had to be found. In Europe, nationalism and communism seemed to be most appropriate to give the people a new sense of orientation and the state its legitimacy. While „fascism“ and „national socialism“ (in its German perversion)  more appealed to emotions and feelings referring to a vague notion such as „nation“, Karl Marx had managed to give „socialism“ a more scientific appearance. The way towards classless society was marked by a road map according to which one could measure, at which point a respective society would have arrived. Lenin went a step further introducing the notion of the „avantgarde“; belonging to the avantgarde meant to have the „correct consciousness“. Those who belonged to the avantgarde were legitimized to take action in order to transform the society into its final stage, the classless society. To use violance in order to achieve this was not only legitimate, but necessary in case resistance had to be overcome on this way. The bloody history of Marxism-Leninism from the very first day in Sankt Peterburg (1917) until the death of Stalin (1953) illustrates what it has meant.

The elites in the Middle East and beyond in the Islamic world were not radical to such an extent. Nationalism became a guiding force with respect to the new post-Ottoman order; but the German – racist - version of nationalism has never attracted a great number of followers. When the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 (four years after the caliphate had been abolished by the Turkish Republic) this could be understood as an indication that Islam sooner or later would be considered a resource to be instrumentalized as a core element in redefining peoples’ identity and the state’s legitimacy.

Two names stand out as those who, eventually, managed to transform islam as a religion into a forceful political power: Seyyid Abu l-A’la Moudoodi (1903-1979), an Indo-Pakistani journalist and thinker and Seyyid Qutb (1906-1966) who was of a similar profession as Moudoodi. Among his numerous works „Ma’alim fi-t-tariq“ („Milestones“)  is outstanding when one looks for a Muslim parallel to Lenin in terms of ideological consistency and mobilizing force.  While using a completely different terminology, the way from ousting an illegitimate government and fighting a sinful (as apostate) society to make it abide by the sovereignty of Allah while guided by a religious avantgarde, very much resembles the way from a bourgeois to the classless society guided by the Communist Party. The „correct counciousness“ in reading historical processes is substituted by the „correct reading of Coran“. This is meant to read the Coran in a way which enables the believer to change the society in order to establish „hakimiyyat Allah“, god’s sovereignty. Those who achieve this reading belong to the Islamic Avantgard, the „Party of god“, hizb Allah.

Thus, Qutb succeeded in turning islamic religion into an ideology. Different from Lenin, however, he never experienced the revolutionary political and societal changes he had anticipated. Instead, innumerous followers „refined“ Qutb’s general framework into an agenda of revolutionizing their respective societies. The notion of „jihad“ was at its center, not only allowing, but making killing of those compulsory, who would stand in the way of rendering societies truely „islamic“. From the beginning, there were different interpretations of „true“ Islam; this meant that the movement never has been a homogenious one, but split into numerous groups. That was the reason why they not only fought the „infidels“ within their own societies or in the West, but equally each other. Nevertheless, the stringent logic of the ideological framework provided a solid basis for their activities as long as the preconditions prevailed to which they could apply their „revolutionary“ interpretation. On the other hand, as an agenda it was flexible enough to refer to such different realities existing in the Middle East, North and Subsaharan Africa, Indonesia, Central Asia, the Balkans and, during the last years, even in the Muslim communities within Western countries.

2) In fact, over time the phenomenon has adopted a global dimension. This indicates that there is a widespread perception among numerous Muslim societies that the conditions under which they are living are lacking basic requirements of a societal, political and economic order in accordance with their belief. As in every society the majority of citizens tries to come to grips  through peaceful chanels, but a minority resorts to an ideology which in extremis permits militant struggle. Referring to the first observation above, Islam is being made a resource of change.

Once being asked what the reason is for the upsurge of violance in the Islamic world, former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami answered that it is he feeling of inferiority. Single acts of violance were perpetrated in the 70ies in Egypt by an organisazion called itself „at-takfir wa-l-higra“; rapidly violance spread out to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 80ies and to Algeria and Egypt in the 90ies.  During this decade it could equally be observed in the Balkans during the Bosnian war and in Chechnya. After September 11th, and in the course of the „war on terrorism“ it spread to Southeast Asia and again to North Africa, to Subsaharan countries and Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. Since the Arab uprising one sees it in former secular Syria and Iraq and of late in Europe. The caliphate of the „Islamic State“ which was established in 2014 constitutes the first State being established by an jihadist movement attracting Muslim militants from many parts of the globe, among them the Balkans.

Analyzing the rootcauses of the movement presents a very complex and far from homogenious picture. Domestic as well external factors must be drawn into consideration. An uneasy feeling of Western superiority is a very strong motive. The Muslim world is perceived as being subject to the domination by outside powers which execute their domination according to their own political or economic interests. This may happen directly through the projection of military power as in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Or it may happen indirectly by instrumentalizing the ruling elites as puppets to serve the interests of outside powers. Economically, the widening gap between various social strata and widespread poverty exacerbates the feeling of living in an unjust society. Finally, double standards in policial practices seem to confirm that the West sets rules and value systems exclusively to achieve its own purposes. From the policy of Israel to the nuclear issue, there are innumerable cases which are complained about in this respect.

Accordingly, jihadi action is executed in two directions: Against the West, first and foremost the USA as being charged of masterminding the conspiracy against the Muslim world. And against the ruling circles in many of Muslim societies as, alledgedly, they have turned away from Islam. In order to restore legitimacy, true Islam has to be reinjected into the societies. As there seems to be no other way, it has to be done by violance. The various jihadi organisations differ over the priorities of the struggle. But looking back over the last decades one easily sees that the frontline is running more within Muslim societies themselves than between the West and the Muslim world. This is also confirmed by the most recent examples of Syria and Iraq.

3) Western policy has been instrumental in letting militant Islamic ideology grow to its present strength. Not only in the sense of applieing double standards quoted above. But again and again the West (in its widest geographical extension) has instrumentalized Islamic militants for its own political purposes. It probably started in the context of the East-West-conflict. The case of the war in Afghanistan has been mentioned already. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, a notorious ally of the USA, has financed many sorts of islamic political organisations - officially and unofficially – and thus has contributed to radicalizing believers misusing the mosques and spreading radical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and, eventually supplieing them with money to arm themselves. Other „western“ countries have been supportive to radical Islamic organisations: In the late 1960ies Israel supported Hamas against the PLO and after the conflict in Syria had escalated with Bashar al-Asad remaining in power, Turkey for a while has colluded with Islamic militants in order to accelerate the fall of the regime in Damascus.     

On the other side, few efforts were made to resort to diplomacy and try to engage those, who were regarded as radicals, in a political manner. Military action onesidedly prevailed. The West not only has not been ready to talk to „terrorists“ or those who are supposed to support such groups. But it missed tremendous chances to engage Islamist states and organisations to bring about political solutions. To give only two examples: After 9/11, in fall 2001, Iran supported the Northern alliance in Afghanistan to fight the Taleban; thus, they were on the same side with the USA and lending indirect support to American troups to drive the Taleban out of Kabul. To the tremendous surprise of the Iranian leadership, by the end of January 2002, in President George W. Bush’s „State of the Union“ message they found themselves being put on the „axis of evil“. This made it impossible for President Mohammed Khatami, to continue his course of political liberalization against the resistance of the hardliner fraction within in the religious system of the Islamic Republik. So, the ground was prepared for the takeover of a more radical president who sought legitimacy by confronting the West; the more so, as in the following Iran was exclusively dealt with in the framework of the nuclear issue.

The secong example is no less telling for he onesided agenda setting by the West with regard to dealing with „terrorist“ organisations. In January 2006, elections were held to the Palestinian National Councel, which were clearly won by Hamas. Therefor, the way was open to establish a broad coalition government which would have had every legitimacy to resume negotiations with Israel to solve the Palestinian question on the basis of a two-states concept. Unfortunately, the international community, pressured by the conservative Israeli government under the leadership of Ariel Sharon did not recognize the result of the elections. The argument was that Hamas be a „terrorist organization“ and not a political party, which could be accepted as a democratic political actor. As a result, Hamas became more radical and grabbed power in  Gaza by 2007 with the consequence of a series of crises and wars since then. The West was not only blamed for disregarding the result of an election; but for monopolizing the principles of democracy to make them serving its own purposes.

As a result of  Western domination over the Middle East since the end of World War I, many people in the Middle East tend to see what is happening in the framework of conspiracy theory. Up to present, Western policy has been doing a lot to keep this perception alive. The entire episode of getting rid of Saddam Husain is a telling story in this respect. The bunch of lies on which the military operation in 2003 was grounded has contributed a lot to the conviction that „Muslims“ are considered pawns of Western interests in the Middle East. This has been refueled by recent developments in Iraq and Syria (fall 2014). Since the inception of the revolt in Syria Western powers have undertaken close to nothing to make the regime in Damascus feel that it means its decision to no longer consider Bashar al-Asad the legitimate ruler of the country. More than 200.000 people have been killed; half of the population is displaced either in Syria herself or abroad. As to the use of chemical weapons, president Obama had warned against transgressing the „red line“. But when it happened in August 2013, the American president abstained from taking action; instead he let himself being manoeuvred by Russian president Putin to a side track. When, however,  a few Westerners – cruel as it has been – were decapitated by the „Islamic State“ in front of running cameras, he started waging air strikes against the terrorist organization. People in the Middle East had good reason to again raise the question about the American (Western) agenda vis à vis what is going on in the region.

Finally, in November/December 2014 methods of brutal torture applied by the American secret service against prisoners in the framework of  the „war on terrorism“ have been disclosed. In the eyes of many people in the Muslim world (and not only there), these crimes only confirmed what previously already have been made public since 2003 in the case of Abu Ghoraib prison. Credibility of the West with regard to „values“ of human fights, dignity of man, habeas corpus etc., thus, has further been undermined. In the eyes of Muslims leaning toward an extremist interpretation of Islam, fighting the West (and its „proxies“ in the Muslim world) just means to encounter it with its own methods.


4)  While the relationship between the West and large parts of the Muslim world is deeply shattered, Islamic militants remain a small minority. The overwhelming majority refuses Islamist ideology and militant strategies not to talk about terrorism in the name of Islam. This dramatically became obvious in the framework of the Arab Revolt which started end of 2010/beginning 2011 in many places in the Arab world. At the beginning of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere, militant Islamic groups have been completely absent. The basis of the spontaneous uprisings rooted in the solidarity of the people especially in the middle and lower classes. It was only when the process of change stagnated that Islamic militants came into the picture. Islamic political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood committed many mistakes trieing to take over the state and claiming the legitimacy of their power after having won elections. This again instigated the militants to try on their part to take over and rule by force. In fact, brutal force in the name of enforcing shari’a upon the people became the only way to demonstrate „legitimacy“ of the „Islamic State“ over „western“ forms of governance such as constitutions, elections, pluralism and freedom of the individual.

In addition, outside interference contributed to the chaos developing anyhow. Saudi-Arabia, some of the Gulf States, and Iran supported their respective clients, some of them still in power (the Asad regime supported by Iran) or back to power (the military in Egypt supported by Saudi-Arabia and some Gulf States). What started in the beginning as power politics has adopted to some extent a confessional character. Thus, the Shi’a – Sunna divide has become more acute than at any time during the 20th century. Within the Sunni branch of Islam the Muslim brotherhood plays an ambiguous role: While it is fought by Saudi-Arabia and some Gulf states, it is supported by Turkey and Qatar. And Islamic radicals not only destroyed Sufi holy shrines, but Christian churches and sanctuaries of the Yazidis alike.


5) Nothing is more successful than success. This self-evident wisdom can be applied to Islamic radicalism, too. With the Asad regime leaving parts of Syria outside the controll by the state, Islamic radicals have managed to fill the gap. From Syria the movement radiated back into Iraq. Finally, in 2014 an Islamic caliphate was established on territorries of both countries. It was not only political military success which made the movement attractive; but it managed to get access to a variety of financial sources which permitted it to buy the hardware for waging war, attracting volonteers to join the ranks of the jihadis and, to some extent, laying rudimentary bases for administrating their „state“.

In addition to its nature as a stringent ideology talked about at the beginning and to frustration over Western policy, the importance of the material aspect should not be underrated.  In large parts of the Muslim world, young people are suffering from poverty, unemploymement and social marginalization. Joining jihad, they earn some money while, at the same time, fighting for the valuable ideal of a State in which pure and genuine Islam is to be practiced. As to the Western Balkans militant jihadi elements became active already in the context of the war in  Bosnia in the 1990ies. With the war in Syria and Iraq and the founding of the „Islamic State“, an opportunity seems to have reopened to synthesize Islamic „idealism“ with material needs which would not have been he case when simply sitting in economically poor places such as Bosnia, Kossowo, Albania etc.

The „success“ of the Islamic project is spread by professionally making use of the media and the internet. From this point of view, the jihadi groups operate in an absolutely modern way. The intensive presence in the internet is one of the strongest incentives for the decision to join jihad in Syria or elsewhere. The sense of „success“ is instilled into the mindset of potentially jihadi youngsters by applieing extremely brutal sanctions when dealing with the „enemy“. Decapitation to be made public in the internet is definitely the most brutal, but precisely therefor, the most efficient demonstration of resoluteness to win victory over the „enemies“. The youngsters who had gone lost within their own societies have got the illusion that they found a political and spiritual „order“  which would provide them with guidance.

As a consequence, attempts to explain the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism in Western societies, have to address the societies themselves, from which jihadis originate. In the West, the value system currently is dominated by a materialistic agenda. Many youths have got a problem to cope with it; a feeling of being lost and frustrated prevails. Neither the political class nor the „christian“ churches seem to offer an alternative. In such a situation even for non-Muslim youngsters Islam in its most „legalistic“ and, for that matter, radical appearance seems to offer an alternative and a way out. Young Muslims who have a poblem of acceptance in Western societies anyhow, but – nota bene – non-Muslims as well, commit themselves to the principles of a religious strand which offers them guidance. By the way, this not only applies to males, but to females as well.  Having taken the decision to opt out of the society into which they have been born, they even accept the role of a bride of a guy, who votes to fight in the way of Allah, which means for the founding of an alternate „just“, as grounded on relgious rules, society. Serving him is considered to be her specifically female contribution to this warfare.

6) The multi-dimensional complexity of the issue makes it difficult to find an appropriate answer. The regimes in the Islamic world and in the West have refused to look behind the facade and express self-criticism when dealing with it, but have confined themselves to an reaction mostly built on security measures. Muslim violance was seen in the military dimension, which, as has been shown, does not reflect the entire complexity. To meet the challenge and to find a way back to peacefully living together within Muslim societies and between Muslim societies and the West will be a long process which needs action on various levels.

a) Definitely, as parts of the movement go violent themselves, the use of military means to confront them, is requested. But military measures must be clearly defined and transparent. The use of indiscriminate strategies and measures in terms of weapon systems and targets to be hit must be avoided. In the past, the use of drones f.e. has created as many new enemies as it has struck real fighters.

Fighting back by mililtary means, however, must not be seen as an exclusive task to be shouldered by Western powers. The challenge is to the people in the Islamic world themselves. As it has shown, it is them who suffer most; therefor the task to defend themselves has to be accepted by the Muslim societies themselves. Western military may give a cover, support and training. But they have to refrain from operating themselves on the ground.

b) The elites in the West and in the Muslim world have to put their relationship on a completely new basis. A broad alliance of people of good will (and this still is a majority in every society) has to stand together against extremism of every kind everywhere. To achieve this, the mindset has to be changed in Western societies, turning from an exclusive to an inclusive perception of the Islamic neighbourhood. This applies first and foremost to Europe. For many decades, in the West, Islam and Muslims have been seen as „the other“, as more or less alien to modern values. In the future, in Europe one has to realize that the quality of Europe’s place in the international system in the 21st century, to a large degree, depends on the quality of its relations with its Muslim neighbourhood. This implies a variety of political, economic and cultural strategies not to be discussed at this place. As to the Muslim societies themselves, theologians (as religion plays such an overwhelming role in individual and public life) have to make greater efforts to re-interprete Islam  in the light of modern values and realities. From this point of view and in terms of intercultural dialogue, Shi’ite ulama seem to be somewhat ahead of their Sunni homologues.

c) Western policy has to give up an attitude of just selective respect of international law and human rights. Examples which demonstrate its behaviour according to double standards abound. The recent scandal of the use of torture by American security forces in the context of „war on terorirsm“  points into this direction. And instead of working together with authoritarian regimes, who constantly violate the principles of human and civic rights, in the name of  „stability and security“, it has to support those strands in the societies who struggle for pluralism and the rule of law. And the West’s tolerating constant violations of human rights and international law by Israel is a case in point which since long undermines the West’s credibility particularly vis à vis the Arab world.

Finally, in the West – and this applies to European societies mostly - one has to accept that societies are in a process of deep changes. Islam has become part of Europe. Obviously, this reality seems to be difficult to accept to large portions of people on the old continent. The challenge of integration is on the political, social and cultural agenda. If Europe fails organizing peacefull living side by side between non-Muslim majorities and Muslim minorities, radicals and fundamentalists in the Muslim world will take every opportunity to blame „the West“ of waging another crusade against Muslims and will feel justified to respond violantly.