Theological pamphleteering, no doubt well meaning and sincere, is of no consequence to the peddlers of violence and death. The latter's taunting tone is already discernible over the babble vacuous politically correct discourse
At last week’s Counter-Terrorism Conference, organised by India Foundation and themed around the rising tide of global jihad, speaker after speaker waxed eloquent on well-known basics without addressing the core issue: The ideology of hate and how to deal with it. Theological pamphleteering, no doubt well meaning and sincere, is of no consequence to the peddlers of hate, death and destruction. I doubt if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State, and Abubakar Shekau, who heads Boko Haram, are remotely impressed by counter-scholarship. That would be equally true of the mullahs of Taliban and the foot soldiers of jihad.
To ignore the ideology that drives Islamism and its resultant violence would be to ignore the real reason behind the continuing surge in transnational terrorism. The barbarians may not be at our gate as yet, but the unstoppable march of zealots, whom George W Bush described as ‘Islamofascists’, as the civilised world retreats, conceding ground with each passing day, should not go unnoticed. To turn a blind eye, to be indifferent, or worse, to be politically correct and tolerate the intolerable would be to our peril. For let there be no mistake, the taunting tone of those who believe in the inevitability of a homogenous ummah replacing the diverse world we know is already discernible over the babble of ill-informed and vacuous politically correct discourse.
Soon after the ghastly London bombings when Islamists blew themselves up with deadly effect, Ed Husain’s book The Islamist was published, recording his disillusionment with radicals who use faith as a cover for their murderous deeds. A particular passage in that book remains indelibly printed on my mind: “Teacher, I want to go London next month. I want bomb, big bomb in London, again. I want make jihad!” “What?” I exclaimed. Another student raised both hands and shouted: “Me too! Me too!” Other students applauded those who had just articulated what many of them were thinking...
That’s how Ed Husain records his experience in the Saudi Arabian school where he had taken up a teaching assignment after embracing radical Islam. It was the day after the 7/7 suicide bombings in London that killed 52 commuters. Ed Husain, his faith in radical Islam by then dwindling rapidly after experiencing life in Saudi Arabia, was hoping to hear his students denounce the senseless killings. Instead, he heard a ringing endorsement of jihad and senseless slaughter in the name of Islam. Ed Husain returned to London and penned his revealing account in The Islamist Why I Joined
Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left. Debunking the Left-liberal intelligentsia’s explanation that deprivation, frustration and alienation among immigrant Muslims in Britain are responsible for the surge in jihadi fervour, Ed Husain wrote: “Many Muslims enjoyed a better lifestyle in non-Muslim Britain than they did in Muslim Saudi Arabia... All my talk of ummah seemed so juvenile now. It was only in the comfort of Britain that Islamists could come out with such radical utopian slogans as one Government, one ever expanding country, for one Muslim nation. The racist reality of the Arab psyche would never accept black and white people as equal... I was appalled by the imposition of Wahhabism in the public realm, something I had implicitly sought as an Islamist...”
So, what does an Islamist seek? The reams of rubbish churned out by bogus activists and windbag columnists desperately seeking to rationalise crimes committed in the name of Islam, ranging from the ethnic cleansing of the Kashmir valley to the Mumbai massacre, from the attack on Parliament House in New Delhi to the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, from the horrific assault on human dignity by the Taliban in Afghanistan to the nauseating anti-Semitism of the regime in Iran, and from the unspeakable crimes of the Islamic State in the Levant to the limitless horrors of Boko Haram in Nigeria, cannot explain either the core idea of Islamism or what motivates Islamists. For that, we have to go through the teachings of Hasan al-Banna, the original Islamist and progenitor of the Muslim Brotherhood which now wields power in Egypt, the land of the birth of radical Islam.
Hasan al-Banna’s articulation of Islamism in the 1930s, distilled from complex theological interpretations of Islam, was at once simple enough for even illiterate Muslims to understand and sinister in its implications when seen in the context of what we are witnessing today: “The Quran is our Constitution. Jihad is our way. Martyrdom is our desire.” Imagined grievances and manufactured rage came decades later, as faux justification for adopting this three-sentence injunction that erases the line separating the spiritual from the temporal and giving Islam a political dimension in the modern world, thus expanding the theatre of conflict beyond the sterile sands of Arabia.
Hasan al-Banna died a nasty death when he was murdered in 1949, apparently in retaliation of the assassination of Egypt’s then Prime Minister, Mahmud Fahmi Naqrashi, but the seed he had planted in his lifetime was to grow into a giant poison tree, watered and nourished by Sayyid Qutub (whose tract, Ma’alim fi-l-Tariq, was interpreted as treasonous, fetching him the death sentence in 1966) which over the years has spread its roots and branches, first across Arabia and then to Muslim majority countries; so potent is that tree’s life force, its seeds, carried by the blistering desert wind that blows from the Mashreq, have now begun to sprout in countries as disparate as Denmark and India, Turkey and Malaysia, changing demographic profiles and unsettling societies.
The world chose to ignore subsequent events and, like those who clamour for a gentler, accommodative approach to Islamism today by pushing for compromise over conflict, ‘enlightened’ scholars and public affairs commentators rationalised Anwar Sadat’s assassination by Islamists on October 6, 1981. Even Egypt erred in setting free scores of conspirators, including a certain Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
Similarly, the ‘Islamic Revolution’ in Iran with its blood-soaked consequences was hailed as a “people’s victory” over Shah Reza Pehalvi’s dictatorial regime. For Europe, long dubbed Eurabia, it was business as usual Iran’s oil swamped out rational analyses. If any country had the foresight to sense the danger signals, it was, and ironically so, Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak who remained wary of Iran, not least because of its export of rabid Islamism. Tragically, the new rulers in Cairo are not riled by Tehran naming a street after Sadat’s assassin, Khalid Islambouli.
It was in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that Islamism acquired a new dimension and a vicious edge when it was coupled with Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s severely austere version of Sunni Islam. Arab nationalism, which was unencumbered by Islamism till then, became an expression of faith in radical Islamism. In what passes for Palestinian territories, the intifada was born and reborn, and while the popularity of Yasser Arafat’s largely secular PLO began to decline, Hamas, led by its paraplegic spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, began its murderous march which has culminated with Gaza Strip being declared ‘Hamastan’. Yassin was killed by the Israelis for inspiring young Palestinians to blow themselves up in buses, restaurants and markets, but that has neither shaken Hamas nor weakened its faith in what Hasan al-Banna preached. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah is now facing competition from Fatah-al Islam in Palestinian refugee camps and Syrian dissidents who equally believe ‘Islam is the solution’. In Britain, Hizb ut-Tahrir is seducing young Muslims like Ed Husain with its acid message of intolerance and bigotry. In India, we have the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat. The Deobandis are not to be scoffed at.
To neutralise the three-sentence injunction of Hasan al-Banna, we need more than a ‘War on Terror’. We need to launch an assault on the idea that motivates radical Islamists. There is no scope for accommodation, nor is there any reason to capitulate or strike a compromise. We still have time to mount a counter-assault. But to do that, and do so successfully, we must first acknowledge and debate the Idea of Islamism.
(The writer is a current affairs analyst based in NCR)