Understanding ‘Islamic terrorism’


By Izeth Hussain

Many Muslims may find the above title objectionable on the ground that the term "Islamic terrorism" is completely meaningless. At the core of terrorism is the killing of innocent people and Islam is most emphatically against that, so that "Islamic terrorism" amounts to a contradiction in terms. Furthermore, many Muslims would point out that non-Muslims who use the term Islamic terrorism are doing so hypocritically because they never spoke of Catholic terrorism when the IRA and the Basques perpetrated terrorist acts. There we have the crux of the problem. The IRA and the Basques never claimed that they were perpetrating terrorism to further Catholicism. On the other hand the IS and the Boko Haram have engaged in terrorism avowedly to inaugurate the Islamic millennium. So it is arguably legitimate to talk of Islamic terrorism provided it is borne in mind that we are talking of an aberrant form of Islam.

To understand Islamic terrorism we must first of all understand Islamic fundamentalism, because that was the matrix from which Islamic terrorism emerged. I must now contextualize Islamic fundamentalism. From the second half of the nineteenth century, perhaps even earlier, it came to be realized that there were two ways in which traditional societies could cope with the challenge of modernity. At that time Western imperialism was at its .apogee, and therefore it was an aggressive modernity that had to be countered. One way was a forward-looking reform movement in which Islam was adapted to modernity. That was the movement begun by Jamaldin el-Afghani in the late nineteenth century, a movement that counted among its luminaries the great poet Iqbal and received its classic statement in Ameer Ali’s The Spirit of Islam. I believe that that led to the liberal form of Islam that prevails in the greater part of the Islamic world today. The other way is through a return to the sources which has resulted in several forms of what might be broadly called fundamentalism. Ostensibly fundamentalism is regressive, but it too is arguably forward-looking because it wants to reinvigorate Islam by returning to its pure pristine form. That, for the fundamentalist, would be the best way of countering modernity.

In the late ‘seventies of the last century, suddenly and unexpectedly and rather mysteriously, fundamentalism entered a new phase. Karen Armstrong began her book Battle for God (2000) with the following sentence: "One of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as ‘fundamentalism’". She wrote that only a small number of them engage in acts of terror but even the most peaceful and law-abiding of them are perplexing "because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, free speech or the separation of Church and State." Caroline Fourest and Fiametta Venner in their book Tir Croises (2003) noted that the fundamentalists of the three monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, had asserted themselves powerfully in the late ‘seventies within an astonishingly short period of time.

I will now quote what the Pope said about fundamentalism during his recent African tour. He called it "a disease of all religions. …. Fundamentalism is always a tragedy. It is not religious, it lacks God, it is idolatrous." I wish that he had expanded on that very interesting statement. He said that Islam was not the only religion to suffer from violent extremists, such as those involved in the Paris attacks. "We Catholics, we have a few, even many fundamentalists. They believe they know absolute truth and corrupt others".

I must now veer away from my main narrative and set down one of the main reasons why I have quoted the Pope. This is a time of spreading Islamophobia, both abroad and within Sri Lanka. We all know of the significant role played by Buddhist Islamophobia, as exemplified by the BBS, in bringing down the Rajapakse Government. The BBS has continued to be active in spreading Islamophobia at the grass roots level – a fact that is for some reason excluded from the mainstream media. On Tamil Islamophobia, which seems to be much more intense than that of the Sinhalese, I have already written a two-part article. But I am told by one of my best-informed Muslim contacts that Christian Islamophobia in Sri Lanka is the worst of all. He had in mind particularly what he called Zionist Christians, a segment of Christians who for religious and other reasons have a peculiarly intense devotion to Israel. It was they, he believes, who instigated the BBS, whose main backers are believed to be in Christian Norway. I must add that I am sometimes sent material from Islamophobic web-sites, possibly run by Christian groups, material that is mind-boggling for its ignorance and silliness about Islam. Anyway I have quoted the Pope hoping his fair-minded comments could serve as an antidote to Christian Islamophobic idiocy.

I now return to my main narrative. Since the late ‘seventies, fundamentalism has become a significant factor in all the main world religions. What is the explanation? It is a complex and difficult question, but it seems to me that the following quotation from Karen Armstrong’s Battle for God gets at the root of the matter: "Throughout this book we shall see that the modernization process can induce great anxiety. As their world changes, people feel themselves disoriented and lost. Living in media res, they cannot see the direction their society is taking,, but experience its slow transformation in incoherent ways. As the old mythology that gave structure and orientation to their lives crumble under the impact of change, they can experience a numbing loss of identity and a paralyzing despair. The most common emotions, as we shall see, are helplessness and a fear of annihilation that can, in extreme circumstances, erupt in violence. We see something of this in Luther. During his early life he was prey to agonizing depression. ……. To escape his depression, Luther plunged into a frenzy of activity determined to do what good he could in the world, but consumed also by hatred. Luther’s rage against the Pope, the Turks, Jews, women, and rebellious peasants – would be typical of other reformers in our own day, who have struggled with the pain of the new world and who have also evolved a new religion in which the love of God is often balanced by a hatred of other human beings".

It seems to me that Karen Armstrong shows remarkable insight in noting that paradoxical combination of devotion to the transcendental with hatred towards other human beings, which seems to be common to fundamentalist movements cutting across all religious divides. As a Sri Lankan Muslim I believe that it has become extremely important to find an explanation for fundamentalism in order to be able to cope with it, as the Wahabi version of fundamentalism has been spreading here to an alarming extent. I must confess that Champika Ranawaka has been more insightful about it than I have been. Saudi financing can provide only a part, and only a superficial part, of the explanation. However, my main concern in this article is not so much to find an explanation for fundamentalism as to find an explanation for something else: Why is it that Islamic fundamentalism seems to be far more prone to violence than any other? For that explanation I have to depend on the brilliant theorizing of Emmanuel Todd in his book After Empire. (To be continued).



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