The shift in focus in the debate between freedom fighters and terrorists, has been caused largely by the two Afghan wars. During Afghan war I, for the first time, a united Islamic agenda, jehadi in nature, received the combined support of the West and its allies, notably the US, to send the USSR into oblivion. The war gave a new hero to the Islamic world, Osama Bin Laden who was quick to proclaim that the success in the war against USSR was the result of combined jehadi fervour. The slogans of jehad in the war were Islam versus Communism and Muslims versus the atheists.
The themes of these slogans were to change during Afghan war II. Now Bin Laden himself was the target and the Al Qaeda that he had set up the hunted. 9/11 had changed the scenario dramati-cally. The new slogans handed down by Bin Laden were Muslims versus the Jews and their supporters, Muslims versus the infidels and Islam versus Western values. The struggle was given a new twist and the battle structure re-organised. In 1998 an International Islamic Front (IIF) was created by Bin Laden which, much on the lines on which an International Communist Front had operated in the hey days of communism, affiliated most of the Islamist terrorist groups operating worldwide like Abu Sayyaf of Southern Phillipines, Al Qaeda and Taliban from Afghanistan, five from Pakistan, two from Central Asian Republics and three from Egypt.
The quantity of botulinium in the dot of “i” is enough to kill ten persons. 100 gms of anthrax spore are adequate to decimate a medium size city. 500 gms can cause more destruction to human life than a medium sized hydrogen bomb.
All the Arab Afghans (Arabs who fought in Afghan war I) who had scattered across the globe after the end of the war became potential or actual cells of support under this strategy. A new vision and a new mission pervaded this grouping under Bin Laden, aimed at emulating the Islamic Caliphate, which at the peak of its power in the middle centuries spread from Spain to the Indian shores. Emphasising that all Islamic people were part of one Ummah, viz one polity, this new concept sought to weave together in one mosaic all the struggles of Muslims in different parts of the world for a jehad against one easily identified enemy, the Westernised world led by the US and its values. US was specifically accused of occupying holy lands of Arabia, inflicting destruction on Iraqi people and supporting Israel in their occupation of Jerusalem and killing Palestinians. Bin Laden expected this jehad also to succeed, through unity, common purpose and commitment like the earlier jehad against the Soviets.
The new approach produced a surge in Islamic fundamentalism with consequent rise in terrorism. The true objective of a fundamentalist is political power. He will use any method, including twisting principles of religion, to pursue his aims. Islamic fundamentalism is not a new phenomenon. Since the early part of last century, it has existed in the Arab countries, seeking establishment of regimes, which will rule by the principles of Sharia. The struggle was carried out with exhortations to all Arabs to treat themselves as one nation with no frontiers among themselves.
The political objectives of the struggle failed because of brutal repression of the regimes in power in Arab lands and also because the people could not execute the concept of being Muslims first and Arabs later. Political failure, however, did not mean that the idea of a common Islamic identity did not take deep roots. It was to this constituency Bin Laden made his appeals when he set up the IIF. The response demonstrated that in the Islamic peoples’ consciousness the struggle had been elevated from the regional to the international dimension.
The new slogans had succeeded in breathing a new life into the movement and providing Bin Laden a striking operational capability. Terrorist incidents were recorded from Tunisia to Indonesia and Western countries like the US, UK, Spain, Italy, Russia and France also got scorched. Bin Laden has become a much more sinister version of Carlos who had in the 60s and the 70s succeeded in welding into one network various terrorist organisations to present a united front against Zionism. The Ummah has indeed been galvanised as well as polarised against their own rulers, collaborating with West, and the West. This was reflected in the resonance in the Islamic world to 9/11, proving that the Salafi brand of extremist Islam had captured much cultural ground in these lands. Only a microscopic minority disapproved of 9/11. A vast majority rationalised it.
Misuse of Islam
How Islam can be metamorphosed to suit fundamentalist purposes is best demonstrated by taking a look at Pakistani extremist Islam. Originally targeted at Kashmir but nurtured by the experience in Afghanistan, exponents of the Pakistani version hold that a Muslim, as a member of the frontier less Ummah, can go anywhere to fight for his cause, owes his first loyalty not to his territorial nation but to his religious creed, and may use any means including weapons of mass destruction to secure his religious and political objectives. Setting up an Islamic Caliphate in South Asia is the dream of people in Pakistan who think on these lines. Clearly such people, by subverting the principles of Islam, are seeking to set up a clash of religions through acts of terrorism, fuelled by a misguided religious zeal.
9/11 was a major act in a drama, which is still being played out. Its most significant message was what a few committed can achieve in a devastating manner against the mightiest power on earth.
But the scenario in the world in no way resembles a clash of civilisations, feared by Samuel Huntington. Islamic Ummah is neither a single nation nor does it command an army to be able to set up a clash as surmised by Huntington. The tenets of Islam also do not decree such a clash. That said, it has to be admitted that some of these tenets can be misinterpreted to support terrorism.
Some of these precepts are rock like pillars, which no one dares dislodge on account of the reprisals that are bound to follow. Salman Rushdie attempted to do that and was punished with a fatwa of a death sentence. Almost the entire Islamic world lauded the fatwa. Yet, reform movements are not unknown to Islam. The very principle of Ijtihad, enshrined in Islam, gives the right to each Muslim to reflect and decide what Islam should mean to him. Some interpretations of Islam have also kept step with the spirit of contemporaneous times. Can the need to control terrorism be cited as a reason to seek new harmonisation of such tenets? This is a very difficult subject to ponder over. Most communities the world over determine their basic identity by a reference to their religion. An effort, which can be mistaken as an attempt to quiver this identity, will meet determined and stout opposition. The Mullahs and Maulvis would ensure such a fate.