NEWS

Islam and the Islamic militancy

Last week’s tragic events in the United States that saw thousands of innocent civilians slain in suicide terrorist attacks not only brought an entire nation face to face with terrorism, but also resurrected an issue which belongs to the past as much as the future – Islamic militancy. As the United States and the rest of the world comes to terms with the horrific events of September 11 – with some people having already turned into vigilantes and attacking Muslims in the USA and abroad – and as Washington vows to launch a war against terrorism globally, it is important to clearly define Islam, the faith of over a billion people around the world, and Islamic militancy. Just as the Koran has 99 names for God, Islam – and Islamic militancy in particular – occurs in many varieties, as distinct from country to country as Catholicism is in France, Italy, Brazil, and America, writes Judith Miller in her book God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting From a Militant Middle East. Miller, a correspondent for the New York Times for over 20 years in the Middle East, was Cairo Bureau Chief from 1983 to 1986 and later the Times’ special correspondent for the Gulf War. Her book, published in 1996, offers a unique historical account of the birth of Islamic militancy, covering as many as 10 countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Iran. Although she had been covering the region as a correspondent for the NYT since 1977, she notes that it was only after she witnessed the execution of a 76-year-old man in Sudan who had been convicted of sedition and apostasy, abandoning Islam, that she was formally introduced to Islam. The importance of 1979 Miller traces the birth of Islamic militancy back to 1979 when Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the glum Muslim puritan from Islam’s minority wing, Shiism, ousted the Shah of Iran in a popular revolution. She notes that while Iranians are Shiites, the smaller of the two great branches of Islam, the Islamic revival, sparked by the ayatollahs’ revolution, soon took hold in Sunni Muslim lands as well. Now, in almost every Arab capital, would-be Khomeinis promise a more ‘authentic’ and ‘virtuous’ government, and in almost every Arab state there is a struggle for power between the autocratic rulers and the Islamic militants who claim to represent millions of the unhappily ruled, the educated-but-unemployable, futureless young, the poor, the dispossessed – those whom Islamists call ‘the disinherited’ and whom they recruit in tens of thousands. But Miller, contradicting prevailing perceptions in the West, notes what is a well-known fact for Muslims around the world – that there is no one Islam. From Egypt, the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed and hence of Islam itself, to the militant Sudan of Sunni Arabs, to Algeria and its vicious war between its secular government and Islamic radicals, to the once Christian-dominated Lebanon which has now a solidly Muslim majority, to Syria and its efforts to preclude sectarian warfare by murderous repression of its own Islamists, to Jordan’s openness to Islamists, the world of Islam is no more united than divided. Miller, after two decades in the region, says these divisions within the Islamic religion in the Muslim world leaves no room for conspiracies (contrary to what some Western analysts say) at least between Muslim nations. Just as I found no single Islam, I found no Islamic Cominterm, or ‘Khomeinterm,’ no vast conspiracy led by Iran and Sudan, no Islamic International issuing orders, guidance, and money to Islamists throughout the Middle East. But I did find a growing interaction – exchange of ideas, technological expertise, experience and cooperation – particularly among militants in the Islamic diaspora, especially in Western democracies where Islamist critics of the West can meet, talk, and work openly without being killed, imprisoned, or spied upon. US support for militants Miller does not stop at a historical account of the birth of Islamic militancy. She emphasizes that the United States was one of the main supporters, both politically and financially, in the early years of the militant movement. The United States has also contributed to militant Islam. During the Cold War, America and its allies mainly saw Islamic groups as insurance against communist encroachment… As we have seen, even Israel authorized the Islamic group that became Hamas as a counter to the nationalist PLO. Starting in 1980, President Carter began sending tens of millions of dollars a year to the mujahedin who were resisting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. By the late 1980s, combined American and Saudi aid to these Afghans came to about $1 billion a year, not counting some $5 billion in weapons sent to the holy warriors between 1986 and 1990 and at least $5.7 billion worth of arms sent to Kabul, a total greater than Iran’s arms imports during the same period. But it was these same groups that later would turn to bite the hand that had fed them, and launch a war of terror against the United States. Much of this support went to the faction favored by the Saudis, Hizb-i Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most radical of the original Afghan Islamists (who also sided with Saddam Hussein), who then shared these funds with many of the militants whom the United States and Arab countries now accuse of terrorism… Among the Islamic heroes of this last battle of the Cold War were some of the immigrants from six Arab countries who detonated the massive truck bomb at the World Trade Center in February 1993, killing six Americans, injuring a thousand, and causing more than half a billion dollars’ worth of damage. Eight years later, on Tuesday, September 11, up to 19 terrorists – believed to belong to several of these militant groups – finished the work by leveling the World Trade Center, killing thousands of civilians, and causing extensive damage to, and more casualties at, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.