Islam and Global Conflict
The following article is the second part of an independent study intended to examine and deconstruct some of the major biases towards the practices and ideologies within the Islamic tradition. The first part discussed the role of women in Islam, which from a uninformed Western perspective appears to be one of lower status and oppression, but upon closer examination takes on an entirely different character. In similar fashion, this article aims to examine how Islam as a religion gives license – if it does so at all – to the many violent activities that have taken place in its name. This is a question that burned in every Westerner’s mind after the tragic events in the United States on September 11th, 2001, and then became even more urgent in the wake of other terrorist attacks around the world. Muslim apologists all around the world answered the call, and stepped forward to defend their religion against hatred, prejudice, misinformation, as well as against those “within” who would misrepresent it to the world.
In that Islam as a blanket term accounts for the religion, politics, philosophy, moral values, lifestyles, and practices of 1.2 billion people, it would be plain absurd to assume that the actions of a violent few represented the entire global community. If it represented even a tenth, the world would be a far more hostile place.
However, even in accepting the apologists’ arguments, that Islam was essentially a peaceful religion, and it was only through a myopic and agenda-driven misinterpretation of the holy texts that the “Islamist” perspective emerged, there was still a problem. It seemed to me that all around the world, where there were “insurgencies” or other forms of violent conflict, at least one side was Muslim. The separatists in Chechnya, the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, the Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group in Spain, and last but not least, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda – active in multiple places.
If Islam is a peaceful religion, I asked myself, then how are so many violent excursions perpetrated by Muslims? A very obvious rebuttal would be that for every such crime not committed by Muslim terrorists, they may have in turn been committed by Christian terrorists, being as though Christians constitute the religious majority worldwide. This possibility suggests many things. One scenario is that due to the sheer number of Muslims worldwide, that these so-called insurgents are Muslim is just a matter of probability. If 1 in 5 people in the world are Muslim, and the insurgents represent far less than even a thousandth of one percent, there is a good chance that they would fall under the umbrella of Islam.
A second possibility is that where these kinds of crimes are perpetrated by Christians, they do not seem to cite their religion as any sort of reason for their actions – at least not in the same way as Muslim terrorists, who would call their actions a military jihad – which in Islam refers to a struggle against those who would persecute, oppress, or destroy the religion. Finally, a third possibility is that if the mass media is guided mostly by Jewish and Christian interests, then the role of Islam in various terrorist or separatist acts may be overplayed. Since virtually no one will accept the idea that Islam’s role in terrorism is a matter of mere probability, I will examine the latter two scenarios in order to come to a satisfactory conclusion.
First we must gain a greater understanding of this term “jihad”, which seems to be at the center of Islamist rhetoric and the rhetoric of an increasingly anti-Islamic Western media. Second we will examine three specific cases of where Islam appears to have played a role in the actions of separatists and terrorists worldwide, and to what extent it was involved as a motivational factor for these actions.
Perhaps we will find that much like with violent antagonists who happen to be Christian, the religion of the so-called Islamists is merely a general fact of their existence, not actually relevant to their actions. And where this is the case, perhaps we will also find that the Western media has completely distorted and misrepresented the facts, in order to play off of a growing enmity towards Islam for the sake of sensationalism or anti-Islamic political agendas.
On the other hand, we may find that for all the image advocacy of Muslim apologists, there is indeed a violent character to the religion, one that most Muslims – fortunately – ignore or re-interpret into a place of lesser prominence. So to begin, what is this thing called jihad? From Arabic to English it is often translated as “striving” or “struggle”.
Jihad and Qur’anic Interpretation
Unlike what the Western media would have us believe, the word Jihad in no way means or even implies a “holy war”. Before we go any further, there is a certain understanding that must be gained with regards to how we look at Islam, or more specifically its most sacred text, the Qur’an. For this we will turn to a beautiful analogy given by David Dakake in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition (henceforth “Betrayal”):
If we were to use an image to illustrate the Qur’anic revelation, it would be that of an individual standing upon a mountain at night as lightning flashes on him and in a valley below. As this individual looks out upon the landscape shrouded in darkness, he would see…sudden illuminations of different portions of the mountain and the valley, but there would not appear to be any immediate relationship between these different illuminated regions… [A] relationship does exist…but that relationship is not explicit. It is hidden amid the darkness.
The idea here is that unlike the Bible, there is no chronological continuity within the Qur’an. Its different passages appear to have been transcribed in the order that Mohammed received revelations from God, which were specific to the different situations that he and his followers encountered in the early years of the religion. More importantly, this lack of continuity means that to the untrained or willfully ignorant eye, the various passages can be read completely outside of the context within which they were written. This combined with a certain disparity in meaning between the original Arabic and the English translation can be plain disastrous for someone not trained properly in the reading of the holy text. These poorly versed ideologues include both the Islamists and the Western observers who have already made up their mind that Islam is a violent religion, and seek confirmation in the Qur’an, which inevitably becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy.
An example of this is presented in Betrayal where a Qur’anic passage states that Christians and Jews should not be taken as awliya’. The Arabic word here is often translated as “friend”, which is accurate within certain contexts. In this case, such a translation would confer upon the passage a hostile or at least uncivil meaning. Yet even if we accept this meaning, a mandate not to befriend someone is not also automatically a justification for making an enemy out of them. Such an interpretation would negate the whole range of neutral relationships that exist between friends and enemies. Therefore this passage provides no Qur’anic support for terrorism, nor does it give the detractors of Islam their “proof” that it is a violent religion. However, in the specific context of this passage, awliya’ does not mean “friend” at all.
At the time this passage was written, the early Muslims – under Mohammed – were being persecuted by the pagans of Mecca, who regarded them as a threat. Since the Muslim community was small and far weaker militarily than the Meccans, they were inclined to turn to the Christian and Jewish tribes in Medina for protection. As it happens, awliya’ can also mean – and in this passage does mean “guardians”. The intention here, as it is most commonly interpreted by Muslim scholars, was to get the young Muslim community to rely upon its own strength, and faith in God and the Prophet to guide them through these difficult times. To turn to Christians or Jews was to compromise the strength or rightness of Islam, and therefore it was not allowed. Those who turned to Christians or Jews, it was said, were no longer Muslim, but Christians or Jews instead. But as it states nowhere in the Qur’an that Christians or Jews are to be holistically regarded as enemies – and on the contrary there are passages specifically obligating Muslims to protect the “People of the Book” and their institutions – the aforementioned passage becomes even less useful as justification for violence.
Now that we understand a little better how easy it can be to misinterpret the Qur’an, either by improper translation or contextualization, we can turn back to the concept of jihad. The more prominent, more important, and as it is called “greater” jihad in Islam – yet which is never mentioned within popular journalism – refers to an internal struggle. It is the same kind of struggle that the Christians refer to as resisting sin, i.e. fighting temptation, doubt, disbelief, or detraction. The greater jihad is about holding fast against any ideas and practices that run contrary to the Prophet’s revelations and teachings (Qur’an and Hadith) and the examples set by how he lived his life (Sunnah). This concept of jihad has absolutely zero manifestation in the physical world, meaning that it has nothing to do with military action.
However, there is also the “lesser jihad”, which does indeed refer to taking offensive action against certain others. These others, however – unlike Islamic separatists and Western propagandizers would have us believe – are not merely non-Muslims, but those who threaten Muslims physically (e.g. through invasion or conquest), and those who would prevent Muslims from practicing their religion and lifestyles freely or try to lead them away from their faith. Still, even in this lesser jihad, the first counter-offensive is said to be ideological – or the enemy “fought with the tongue”. In other words, lesser jihad, while under certain circumstances giving license for military action, still mandates an attempt at diplomacy. In any case, the offensive must be initiated by the other, and so jihad is then a defensive action.
The only justification for Muslims to attack when they are not themselves directly provoked, is when other Muslims – considered part of the ummah or global community – are threatened. It is for this reason that groups like Al Qaeda are able to recruit and send so-called mujahideen to other locations – under the pretext of fighting for the rights or freedoms of Muslims there. However, for reasons that will be discussed later, these initiatives are far from the proper execution of lesser jihad. So here we have a word – jihad – which is rich with meaning, either as a spiritual battle within the self, or a verbal or physical battle with external forces in order to preserve the integrity of Islam and the security of its adherents. For a word so rich, to make it interchangeable with a blatantly violent term like “holy war” is reckless, irresponsible, and rife with prejudices or hidden agendas. Now let us look beneath the surface of some of these agendas to determine if jihad does indeed apply, and for that matter, what role Islam as a religion plays in the given conflicts.
The first case we shall examine is that of the Chechen separatists in the Northern Caucasus Mountains – a territory officially controlled by the Russian government. During the time of the Soviet Union, that which was recognized as one entity was actually an alliance of several republics with a somewhat shared ideology. For reasons varying from ethnic distributions to quasi-nationalist identity, soft borders were drawn within the collective to distinguish the disparate groups within this collective. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, these borders became widely accepted as the lines of demarcation between 15 new independently sovereign nation states.
The Chechen Republic, however, was not one of these 15, which led to two wars of independence – one in 1994, and the other in 1999. The first ended in a cease-fire, which led to Chechnya’s establishment as an independent republic – albeit not globally recognized – and in an ironic twist, the second was lost, resulting in it being reincorporated as a subject of Russia. As of today there is still some unrest between the Russians and the Chechens, but upon the establishment of a pro-Moscow regime, most of the insurgency has died down.
Now what role did Islam play in this conflict? At a glance it would seem to have been almost irrelevant. The Chechens desired independence not on the basis of any Muslim identity in opposition to the Russian Orthodox, but on the basis of self-identification as a separate ethnic and linguistic group which manifested as nationalism even where there wasn’t a recognized state. As is the case in many political conflicts, different principles and aspects of a religion are taken to justify the cause of one side or the other.
This does not mean that the religion itself necessarily advocates the cause itself, the struggle, or the methods employed. As Anatol Lieven says in his book Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, Muslim identity for the Chechens was just a fact of life, an integrated aspect of their culture like any other. Its role in the conflict against the Russians was far less significant than the aforementioned spirit of nationalism. Yet at the same time it did become just something else for the Chechens to use to distinguish themselves from the Russians, and for that matter, from all non- Chechens.
Islam is held to as something that makes the Chechens different from the Russians, and – in so far as they are convinced that they are better Muslims than any of the other supposedly Muslim peoples of the Caucasus – superior to their other neighbors. (Lieven 355)
So if Islam is secondary to Chechen nationalism as far as a motivating force behind their rebellion, and their Muslim identity does not exist in any clearly manifest opposition to the Russian Orthodox, why is the fact of their Muslim identity so well-publicized in discussions of the conflict?
The answer seems to be that upon the launch of the global “war on terrorism” – spearheaded by the United States – a media frenzy ensued which sought to characterize the perceived enemies on the basis of some common trait, to categorize them in a way that placed them in some clear opposition to America and its allies. This common trait, due to many – but hardly all – of the perceived enemies claiming it for themselves, became Islam. The problem with categories, though, is that they form the basis for sweeping generalizations, and how individuals and particular groups fit within them is often not examined.
Perhaps for the Russians – who even prior to 9/11 had initiated a propaganda campaign against the Chechen separatists – the Americans’ crusade against “radical Islam” gave them a reason to dump the Chechens into the Islamist classification simply because of their opposition and the mere fact of their identity as Muslims. Whether or not the Chechens subscribed to the ideologies of more insidious extremists – which they appear not to – was hardly the point.
The intention [of branding the Chechen separatists as “Muslim fundamentalists”] has generally been threefold: to appeal to Western audiences with the line that the war has been a sort of Western crusade against a common Islamic enemy; to argue that the Chechens are too ‘primitive’ to have developed a modern nationalism and sense of national identity, and to suggest that as a simple, primitive people, they have been misled by religious propaganda into acting contrary to their own best interests. (Lieven 357)
Yet, in spite of this, it should be noted that the Chechens mere identification as Muslims became just cause for many would-be mujahideen to mobilize in the name of jihad and fight in the Chechen wars. The Chechens of course were not likely to turn down the help, but at the same time, this does not mean that they allied with Islamist terrorists on any other front. After all, their fight was strictly with the Russians, and on the basis of national sovereignty, not any opposition between Islam and the “West” or any other conceivable faction.
The second case to be examined is that of the separatists in the Philippines, namely the Islamist groups the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). From the start, just in identifying these two groups, we discover a distinct separation with regards to their motives, and methods – and even an ideological opposition between them. This immediately makes any sweeping classification such as “Muslim fundamentalists” subject to examination.
Between the two groups, the ASG is better identified as an Islamist group, based on their stated goals and the means by which they seek to achieve them. While their stated objective is the formation of an independent Islamic state in Mindanao – much like the MILF – except with the added intention of making that state exclusivist. Towards that end, their particular spin on Islam involves violent attacks against Filipino Christians in the region. Furthermore, they see their objective as only one part of a global initiative to establish Islam as the world’s dominant religion – something that in their view can only be achieved through armed conflict. As such, they have claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks, quite disproportionate to their rather small membership. Their perspective and excessive aggression actually puts them on the extreme fringe even amongst other militant Islamist groups. If their objectives and methods were not enough to place them in the same camp as Osama bin Laden and other such radicals, there is the fact of a direct connection between the two.
The founder of the ASG, Ustadz Abdurajak Janjalani, met bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was recruited for the purpose of creating a staging point for Al Qaeda in the Philippines, as an alternative to bin Laden’s base of operations in Afghanistan, which was starting to feel pressure from the outside. Still, even this connection does not help in drawing a line between Islam and terrorist activity, because much like with bin Laden’s own relationship to the rest of the “Muslim World”, the views of Abu Sayyaf do not correspond to the majority of people in Mindanao. Furthermore, as evidence has shown, the goals of the ASG are becoming less and less about Islam – if it ever had anything to do with it – and more about the potential gains of the individuals involved.
For the past three years the ASG has been effectively devoid of any unified command structure, essentially operating as a loose collection of bandits and warlords motivated less by ideology and self-defined religious piousness than pure financial gain and greed. (Lumbard, et. al 21)
As stated earlier, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – another group labeled as radical Islamists – are not allied with the ASG or on the whole aligned with their objectives. The MILF, similar to the ASG, wish to establish an independent Muslim state – but not as part of any agenda to establish Islamic global dominance or to destroy other religious groups. More than anything, the members of MILF wish to succeed on the basis of their identity as Moros – an ethnic group separate from the Filipino majority.
While Islam is certainly a characteristic of that identity, it does not exist in any true opposition to the Christianity of the Filipino majority. For this reason the MILF’s desired state does not necessitate religious exclusivism, nor do the MILF engage in any sort of attacks due to their opponents being Christian. Much like the Chechens, the fact of the Moros being Muslim and that they are involved in armed conflict against the Western- allied Philippines government, merely gives license to them being classified as Islamists. However, at the very least, in their opposition to the terrorist methods of groups like Abu Sayyaf, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front should be given separate consideration. More importantly, their objectives on behalf of their identity as Moros should be separated from their identity as Muslims.
Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda
The final case – and of course there can hardly be an essay discussing Islamist terrorism without mentioning him – will examine the motives of Osama bin Laden and the members of his Al-Qaeda network. When bin Laden’s name is mentioned, the most likely terms you will hear associated with him are “terrorist”, “Islamic fundamentalist”, and “anti-Western”. His name was known amongst political commentators and military strategists for his role in the Afghan war against the Soviets, and perhaps there was a slight buzz in the public consciousness after the embassy bombing in Somalia.
However, it was not until he claimed responsibility for the attacks against the United States on September 11th, 2001 that he became a household name all across the globe. Yet, for all of his notoriety, how much do we – the general public – really even know about bin Laden? What are his ultimate objectives? What in his ideology places him at in such vehement opposition to the United States and its allies? And what does Islam have to do with any of it?
According to interviews and video recordings, Osama bin Laden sees himself as an executor of God’s will. Yet this only seems to work in cases where God’s will is as believed by bin Laden himself and his fellow ideologues. At the risk of blatant apostasy, he cannot claim to be receiving any true transmission from Allah, as that would make him a prophet, and central to Islamic belief is that Mohammed was the seal, and that no other prophets would follow him. Therefore, “God’s will” becomes a mere mechanism through which bin Laden appeals to other Muslims, who like he does, have some reason for mobilizing for armed struggle.
What needs to be recognized, however, is that these reasons have less to do with Islam as an ideology and practice – indeed as a religion – than it does with political objectives. So as not to misrepresent the issues here, it should be noted that Islam has and does create a sort of ideological gap between itself and many aspects of so-called Western culture, much as it does between itself and Far Eastern culture, or any other culture removed from its sphere of influence. The separate roles of men and women in society and the relationship between religion and government are just a few examples. This gap, however, does not in any way necessitate violence between Muslims and any other group of people.
As we have seen in the other scenarios, conflicts between Muslims and others are often founded upon situations that have little to do with religion and more to do with nationalism, ethnocentrism, or desires for independence. These isms are not in any way specific to Muslims or really at all related to Islam as a religion. Of course, for Muslims, there is no distinct separation between Islam and culture – the former often the backbone of the latter – and so can appear to be the basis for opposition. Osama bin Laden understands this relationship between Islam and culture, and exploits it to great effect.
The disparate ethnic groups and nationalities from which bin Laden draws his support sometimes have as little in common as their self-identification as Muslims and some grievance against a perceived “Western” enemy. Under different circumstances, some of these groups may even have been in opposition to one another for different reasons. But if bin Laden knows anything, it’s rhetoric, and it is his clever manipulation of words that brings people together under the auspices of a unified cause, regardless of individual reasons for participation.
He (Allah) said “Stand by your brother be he oppressor or oppressed.” When asked how were they to stand by him if he were the oppressor, He answered them, saying “by giving him guidance and counsel.” They should all unite in the fight against polytheism and they should pool all their resources and their energy to fight the Americans and the Zionists and those with them. They should, however, avoid side fronts and rise over the small problems for these are less detrimental. Their fight should be directed against unbelief and unbelievers (bin Laden in 1998 interview)
In the above quote we see an example of how bin Laden shifts to the back burner any ideological splits between Muslims for the purpose of uniting against a perceived common enemy – in this case Jewish people and Americans. He cites decontextualized Qur’anic verses and speaks in broad terms, as being any more specific would better reveal the clear split between mainstream Islamic ideals of peace and bin Laden’s own agenda of violent aggression.
As far as bin Laden’s objectives are concerned, there seems to be no all-encompassing “end game”. He has several different objectives, all of which involve an oppositional relationship with the “West”, but they are as disparate as the people from whom he draws his support. In order to understand these objectives it helps to understand a bit of bin Laden’s background – most significantly the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of its chief ideologues, Sayid Qutb.
Qutb, after a visit to the United States, felt as though American ideals and American values were in direct moral opposition to his understanding of Islam, and thereby, how societies should operate. This opposition became a more pressing issue for Qutb – an Egyptian – as he saw the increasing influence this culture was having on his country by way of its pro-Western and secularist government. The connection between bin Laden and Qutb came by way of the latter’s brother, Mohammed Qutb, another member of the brotherhood who felt the same crisis of consciousness between his world and the West.
Osama bin Laden, by way of the same ideology, appears to want nothing less than the complete elimination of American/Western influence on the Middle East, whether by ideological transmission or physical presence in the region. However, as massive and complex entities as culture and ideology are not so simple to “purify”, bin Laden’s objectives appear to place him in the midst of a battle with no foreseeable conclusion. The conflict between “Islam” – here signifying regions and peoples with a Muslim majority – and the “West”, apart from the ideological dichotomy, is mostly an extension of European colonialism. Although most of the Europeans’ physical presence has been withdrawn, many of their ideals and the systems they put in place remain.
By way of this residual influence, the stain of colonialism has created a lingering resentment in the hearts and minds of Arabs, Persians, and others in the region. This resentment only becomes more pronounced in places and situations where Western powers strong-arm Muslims in their own territories, as in the case in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the current U.S.-led war in Iraq. It is not so difficult for bin Laden, then, to use this resentment, and the actuality of a Western offensive against Muslim people, to rally support against this common enemy.
However, in spite of the language of rhetoricians on both sides, none of these conflicts is the eighth crusade, and therefore it is also not a conflict between Islam and Christianity, or Islam and any other belief system. Islam is merely a characteristic of the people involved in a struggle that is quintessentially political.
A Curiously Western Slant
Lastly, in examining how Islam has been misrepresented as a violent religion, we need to be aware of how Western media contributes to this image. We have to be careful of slanted misinformation, espoused to promote an agenda, as in the book Endgame by two former U.S. military generals, Thomas McInerney and Paul Vallely. On the one hand, the book states that the vast majority of Muslims are “peaceable people”, which would appear to align it with the defense of Muslim apologists. Yet in the same chapter, the authors state the following:
Militant Islam has often been at war with the West – from the time of Mohammed, when Islam conquered Christian North Africa, to the end of the seventeenth century… Radical Islam is seeking to breathe new life into the history of Islamic jihad – a history of warfare against all nonbelievers. (McInerney and Vallely 164)
A pan-Islamic state [the goal of Radical Islam] would…lead to the restoration of a great Islamic empire – creating that time when the Prophet and his successors swept through the world. (ibid 165)
So here we have a sentence – no, a word – that suggests that Islam is a benign religion, while in the same breath the authors attribute “radical Islam” to the Prophet Mohammed himself and broadly to over a thousand years of Islamic history. In this blatant contradiction, where do we see the strongest push? Will readers even remember that the authors said the majority of Muslims are “peaceable”? Or will they remember this completely fallacious assertion that Islam throughout its long history has been inherently violent and intent on the destruction, conversion, or suppression of the “West” and all “infidels”?
The idea of Muslims as peaceable here seems only to be present to deflect the inevitable accusations of anti-Islamic prejudice. It is exactly this kind of literary trickery that allows the biases against Islam to perpetuate. Just as that peaceable Muslim majority is relegated a place of little significance in the authors’ broader perspective, so too are they mostly ignored when the United States wages its “War on Terrorism”. This fictitious war, although it has named many targets, has invariably taken place on the soil of Muslim countries, where most of the people killed have been this peaceable majority.
The role of Islam in violent conflict worldwide is not universal. For some people in some situations it becomes a way of distinguishing them from their enemy. For others it becomes the mantle for a fight against injustice, but no different than the use of Christian or Buddhist or Jewish principles for the same reason. For yet others it becomes a veneer – a façade – for agendas that are political in nature, but that just so happen to involve Muslim people.
In most cases, the fact that people are Muslim is just that – a fact, a characteristic – one that has little to do with their goals or methods. Therefore we can say with certainty that there is no particularly violent character to Islam as a religion, but that like any other broad ideology and practice, it can be used as a tool by which to justify action – violent or non-violent, social or political, religious or secular.