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 The roots of Islamic terrorism

LONDON — Fundamentalism and fascism

Most commentators argue that Islamic terrorism is a fanatical perversion of Islam which deviates from its true teachings. They call for a Western-style modernization of the Muslim world, hoping thereby that radical Islam will be tamed.

This analysis misses the point. The nature of the terrorist threat is unambiguously Islamic and is not so much a deviation from Muslim tradition as an appeal to it. Al Qaeda`s ideology draws on two traditions to legitimize itself: one classical, the other modern.

Regarding classical Islam, the oft-quoted remark that Islam is a religion of peace is false. It is historically illiterate to claim that war is foreign to Islam and it is theologically uninformed to argue that jihad is merely a personal inner struggle with no external military correlate.

On the contrary, Islam is linked from the beginning with the practice of divinely sanctioned warfare and lethal injunctions against apostates and unbelievers. Islam experienced no period of wandering and exclusion; from its inception, Islam formed a unitary state bent on military conquest.

The Prophet died a successful military leader who created a single Islamic polity that expanded - through warfare - all over the known world. The caliphate combined the double logic of a religious community and an imperial state.

This dual identity explains how Islam can be simultaneously peaceful and warlike. While the Koran enjoins that there shall be "no compulsion in religion," Islam still regards it as a holy duty to extend militarily the borders of the House of Islam against the demonic world of unbelievers: "He who dies without having taken part in a campaign dies in a kind of unbelief."

Coupled with this irreconcilability between Islam and its enemies is an extreme territorial sense of the sacred. Hence bin Laden`s principal demand for the departure of all infidels from holy Muslim lands. When extremists say they are killing in the name of Islam, they are in part appealing to Islamic traditions of long standing. Al Qaeda`s modern origins go back to Wahhabism, named after the revivalist movement founded by Muhammad Ibn`Abd al-Wahhab in 1744. Wahhab called for a return to a pure and unadulterated form of Islam closer to the ideals of the Prophet.

Faced with a decadent society, Wahhabism (not unlike some radical Protestant sects) reducedIslam to a scriptural literalism, an absolutism utterly hostile to other more medieval traditions. In this sense of direct rule by God,Wahhabism is a truly modern theology. Not unlike Descartes and Kant, it argues for the unmediated and total knowledge of its object.

Al Qaeda then blended this theology with fascism. The Indian Muslim Abu Ala Maududi (1903-1979) condemned the degraded nature of all contemporary Muslim communities. He characterized Muslim governments that did not implement stringent Islamic law as apostate and commanded true believers to wage jihad against them.

Maududi was a decisive influence on Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood. Like Maududi, Qutb fused the history of Mohammed`s travails with a revolutionary vanguard-type ideology that removed medieval limits on warfare by championing a modern death cult in the quest for a revivified caliphate.

The ideology instigated by these two figures is fuelled by dreams of a prior Islamic golden age. Al Qaeda sympathizers avidly read European fascist literature and pursue religious ends via atheist methods. Recruits to the cause are not the excluded uneducated poor, they are intellectuals with a radical critique of Western society and its impact on Islam.

Neither the "war on terror" nor political negotiations will overcome Islam`s totalitarian turn. Western repression is everywhere fuelling the ranks of radical Islam. Equally, there can be no accommodation with an ideology that seeks to fashion the whole world in its own image. The essentially Islamic nature of this terror demands nothing less than a reformation in the name of an alternative Islam.

Islam, with good reason, will never embrace Western secularization. But it could begin to develop a critique of its history by recovering some of its aborted traditions. Islam must place true religious conversion (like that of Sufism) over territorial conquest.

Islam needs to restore the legislative authority of communal consensus to allow Muslims to develop along with, rather than against, the future.