Political context provoking Islamic extremism

Dhaka,  Wed,  23 August 2017
Published : 19 Jun 2017, 20:30:56

Political context provoking Islamic extremism

Born embattled, Islam remains embroiled. Its inherited context may be partly why. What terrorism means to the perpetrator is far more of a softened version of what it means to others elsewhere because of this inherited context. It is unlikely to be extinguished by bombs or externally induced pacification, writes Imtiaz A. Hussain in the third of a six-part series assessing the origins, on-goings, and outcomes of Islamic extremism
Such political causes of Islamic extremism as authoritarian Muslim governments, their intimate relationship with a trouble-seeking United States, alienated Muslim immigrants/refugees in western countries, and political division along reformist-radical Islamic lines (described in the last Scopus article), operate within a context also directly facilitating the twist towards extremism. Two facets of that context beg attention here: the bloody borders of Muslim countries, and a Damoclean inheritance that has predicted nothing less.

Samuel P. Huntington of the Clash of Civilizations fame popularised the 'bloody Muslim borders' notion. It fits reality: very few Muslim borders can claim to be peaceful; and, in fact, too many of them  saw, still see, and will continue to see bitter conflicts, a fate not just shortening any meaningful future shadows of peace and prosperity, which are the building blocks of modernity. They instead elevate the Hobbesian "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" state-of-nature predicament that predicts fighting for the sake of fighting (and with it, death for the sake of dying for any cause, something both genuinely and spuriously related to the scriptural jihadi-driven martyrdom reference).

The 1897 Durand Line (between Afghanistan and Pakistan), 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, 1917 Balfour Declaration (between Palestinians and Jews), the 1947 Radcliffe Line and Kashmiri Line of Control (between India and Pakistan, the former allegedly permitting India to keep contiguous connections with Kashmir), and others belonging to this dubious family of inheritance, illustrate many of the most vicious of those 'bloody border', and encapsulate the heartland of Islamic extremism: almost all Muslim terrorists were born in this vast swathe, were influenced directly by ideas springing from within this region, or were off-springs of migrants escaping the very conflicts they themselves would like to chip in to somehow now.

Prescribing one of the most classless of a religious future, Islam has been stumped by related features: women have been shunned to society's shadows, in itself thwarting meaningful democracy, thus ensuring whatever form of governance to prevail must also defend this unequal status quo, oftentimes militarily, thereby enhancing fundamentalism over reform; and blood-thirsty intra-Islamic fights as old as the religion itself, beginning with the Shi'ite-Sunni schism.

To be fair to Muslims, Islam is not the only conflict-scarred religion. Christianity boasted a history almost as violent, until the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, generally speaking. Though Westphalia ended the specific Thirty-Years War between various Christian factions, it broadly settled the Hundred-Years War that dates back to Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses pronunciation in 1517. To this date, Muslims have not sought their own Westphalian compromise, nor even taken the road to that outcome.

What the Westphalia Treaty did was to elevate secularity over Christian allegiance, fixed borders over nationalistic claims rather than floating ones over faith, and simply rational mindsets over faith-based forced conversions, oftentimes barbarically, as across South America, by Spanish and Portuguese conquerors. It took three centuries for these features to eventually triumph, precisely when Islamic borders began unraveling.

The same cannot be expected as precisely with Islam. Whereas Christianity believed in the Doctrine of Two Swords (Caesar and the Church, to wit, monarchy pitted alongside faith), Islam does not: here politics/government/military must have to function as subsets/instruments of faith.

Since a huge part of that political unraveling disorder incorporates the independence drives against the Ottoman Turkish Empire, as well as the British and French empires in the 'Islamic Arc' from South Asia to the Atlantic Ocean tip of the Mediterranean Sea, Islam faced a Damoclean predicament once its brightest lights (Safavid, Mughal, Abbasid, Ummayids, and Ottoman empires) were extinguished. The European crusades from the 11th Century played a huge role in breeding what Cemil Aydin calls 'the Muslim mind', in a thought-provoking recent publication, The Idea of the Muslim World. He simply argues that mind did not evolve from 'theological requirements' but a dialectic pitting the European 'imperial racialisation of Muslimness' against 'Muslim resistance to this racialised identity'. Its seeds were sown through the ups and downs of the Muslim conquest of Spain and their eviction seven centuries later, the eight/nine Christian crusades between the 11th and 14th centuries, another Middle East-Europe collision between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs, before the European imperial conquests of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Born fragile, this mindset has historically been driven into the corner against disrupted visions of glory, whether in Egypt, Persia, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. In only three of those countries did a reform-minded autocrat break that disrupted inheritance of glory: Kamal Pasha Attaturk, Mohammed Reza Shah, and Gamal Abdel Nasser. Turkey lasted the longest in that reform mode, until Recep Tayyip Erdogan began rescinding it stealthily from the early 21st Century; Egypt still struggles so much so that the last revivalism under a popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamad Morsi, was itself uprooted by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; while Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini began a theocracy facing intense pressures from the reformer that it remains most vulnerable to more tectonic shifts.

Only Saudi Arabia has weathered the historical storms, meaning that the old order established in the late 18th Century remains intact. Were he still alive, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab would be unable to describe his own country: having witnessed its creation, he also noted how his observations, dubbed Wahhabi'ism, was being diluted by the House of Saud right before his very eyes in his sunset years. What he proposed was only to rely less on hadith interpretations of the Holy Scripture, and more on the original testimonies and affirmations of the Holy Prophet. What followed has been just the opposite: more hadiths, therefore, possibly more spurious Quranic interpretations than the fundamentalist preaching of the Prophet. Ironically, what is circulating today under the name of fundamentalism is mostly hadith hearsay, as the 72-virgins reference of 9/11 terrorists indicate, and especially in the treatment of women (for whom the Prophet had enormous respect), who face more restrictions today than they probably faced in the Prophet's time. He always gave them a second-chance over adultery, for example, whereas automatic modern-day stoning for adultery in certain communities, in the name of the scripture, flies in the face of faith.

Born embattled, Islam remains embroiled. Its inherited context may be partly why. What terrorism means to the perpetrator is far more of a softened version of what it means to others elsewhere because of this inherited context. It is unlikely to be extinguished by bombs or externally induced pacification.

It is more likely to run into other non-political, non-contextual complications. It represents a tension that must first be resolved domestically before tackling the external setting. Economic resources, for example, could easily serve as an instrument in both regards: alleviating domestic asymmetries, and formulating an external modus operandi. It is a subject so important, the next article in this series elaborates its many faces.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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