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The Islamist terrorist and the Islamic apologist

The Islamist terrorist and the Islamic apologist

Author: Mahfuzur Rahman
Publication: The Daily Star
Date: July 31, 2005

The terror of September 11, 2001 has produced a great deal of anger against Islam in the western world; it has also produced a crop of apologists, both among Muslims everywhere and in the west. The latter group includes political leaders keen to be seen as friends of Muslims, especially the Muslim electorate. It is easy to understand western politicians standing up for mainstream Islam. It is difficult to understand Muslim apologists at a time when the primary need in Muslim societies is for critical inquiry and self examination.

In the popular writings that have emerged since September eleven, those of Asghar Ali Engineer stand out, not least in the frequency at which they appear. Their author is also a good example of a Muslim apologist. The following paragraphs are aimed primarily at his latest article, written after the London bombings of July 7, 2005 and printed in The Daily Star, July 21, 2005, and which is fairly representative of the apologist genre of thinking.

In Mr. Engineer's world view, the recent terrorist attacks are essentially hit and run tactics of some desperate youths against the vastly superior military might of the west. While the problem under discussion is bombings by terrorists who claim to be Islamists, the focus shifts to the destructive might of the west. About the latter, Mr. Engineer thinks it necessary to remind us -- lest we forget -- that "modern weapons are highly destructive and can kill hundreds or thousands at a time. America dropped (sic) atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killed more than 2000,000 at a time." One is hard put to understand what the point of the reminder is. If it is only to stress that the destruction of human life that has been committed by the west has been on a vaster scale than what small bands of Islamist terrorists are capable of, he has indeed used what appears to be a very large red herring. To top it, and in the same vein, he also points out that the means of destruction used by the terrorists are all manufactured by the west.

More important, he does not think that the terrorists are religious fanatics. In other words, there is no religious dimension to the recent acts of terrorism. "No psychologist will agree with such oversimplification [that these acts of terrorism are products of religious fanaticism]," he asserts. We shall ask at the end whether he has an explanation or a remedy that is not an oversimplification. Let us first see whether an Islamic connection of recent terrorism is a mere figment of the imagination.

To start with the London bombings, it is unlikely that Mr. Engineer has not heard of fanatic clerics like al-Masri or Omar Bakri. For years these clerics and others have been relentlessly spreading venom against the infidels. This they had been doing openly in forums of the mosque. Al-Masri was seen haranguing with a sword in hand. The clerics did not mince words; even capturing 10 Downing Street some day in the name of Islam was openly fantasised. Some of these clerics eulogised the September 11 hijackers, or refused to condemn them, calling them martyrs of Islam. One wonders whether anything more is needed to see the "Islamic" nature of the pronouncements of these clerics. Tellingly, in recent days Muslim leaders such as President Musharraf of Pakistan and Saudi government ministers have taken the British government to task for failing to stop the propaganda offensive of these clerics in British mosques. What they are really saying is that fanatic clerics are profoundly influencing unsuspecting Muslim minds and the connection between fanatical preaching and the making of bombers is more potent than is often realised. I do not think there can be any stronger indictment of these terrorists as Islamist fanatics than this.

Madrasas are often, and rightly, considered the breeding ground of religious extremism and hatred of the infidel. But the potential influence of the preachers should not be underestimated. While much of the preaching in mosque sermons centres around piety, tirades against infidels are by no means uncommon. There are numerous, though lesser, al- Masris and Bakris. And one does not have to be a madrasa student to listen to them in a mosque. The point sometimes made -- and Mr. Engineer does so -- that many of the terrorists who struck in the US in September 2001, and all the London bombers, were products of non-madrasa education, becomes meaningless in this context.

Mr.Engineer considers the London bombers not fanatics but "angry young men boiling with anger at these western countries destroying their countries and killing and raining death and destruction." The use of "their countries" is rather puzzling. The bombers were all British. Could he be implying that even though Britain was their adopted home, their real allegiance lay abroad, perhaps based on some concept of Islamic ummah? If that is the case, the "Islamic" nature of their violence becomes all the more evident.

Talk of violence and Islam, the theme of Mr. Engineer's apologia, and one has to talk of present-day Iraq. Mr. Engineer is in no doubt that the violence there is simply a product of rage against occupation of the country by infidels. Such rage, in must be granted, is very much present in the country. It must also be conceded that much of the terrorist rage is directed against the infidels and not at home-bred autocratic regimes, or for that matter against an occupier when it happens to be another Arab country. After all, there was no such rage when Iraq occupied Kuwait one and a half decades ago. But the point about the rage being anti-infidel, and not anti-autocracy, only reinforces the argument that much of the terrorist acts in Iraq today is "Islamic" in nature, at least by the terrorists' definition of Islam.

And if one needs further proof of the nature of the violence, one needs only to point to the assassinations, abductions, and beheadings that have taken place in Iraq over the past year. Beheading has been the insurgents' method of choice for killing innocent hostages. This is being done, and loudly proclaimed, in front of television or video cameras, in the name of Allah. Al-Zarqawi and his henchmen have become notorious for such ritual killings in the name of Allah, but they are not alone.

One must also talk about violence against the Shias in Iraq. The mainly Sunni insurgency has been brutal towards the Sunni population, which for the first time in centuries is on the threshold of political power that is rightfully theirs. They have, in consequence, suffered terrible retribution. Hundreds of Shias, have been murdered by Sunni terrorists in suicide bombings and assassinations. What justifies the massacre of fellow Muslims in their place of worship? If this is not religious fanaticism, one wonders what is. It is true that the rage against the Shias has been a terrible proxy for the rage against the infidel occupying forces. But this does not make the rage less fanatical. On the contrary, combined with the centuries-old hatred of the Sunnis against what they consider a renegade faction of Islam, this makes it more so.

Terrorist action that we see around the world and perpetrated in the name of Islam is not mere hit and run tactics against western powers, as Mr. Engineer thinks. The scores of militant groups that exist throughout the Islamic world, from Algeria to Indonesia, are not freedom fighters. Their objective is to establish Islamic states in the image of their version of Islam, and impose their will on the rest of us. What a fundamentalist regime will do is clear from what they did in Afghanistan and what they have accomplished in Iran. The Islamic apologists are only fooling themselves if they think the terrorists are fighting for freedom and liberty.

Finally, Mr.Engineer calls the "religious fanaticism" explanation of terrorism "oversimplification." While terrorist actions can be motivated by a complex set of factors, I have argued above that religious fanaticism is foremost among them. But which approach does Mr. Engineer suggest we take to combat terrorism that is not an oversimplification? He seems to be suggesting that we wait for a Gandhi in our midst. This is certainly a noble thought. But not many of us will find comfort in it.

Mahfuzur Rahman, former United Nations economist, is currently researching in religious fundamentalism.

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