The violence of Islamism has emerged as a subject of anxious concern throughout the world, especially the Muslim world. In the United States, the Islamic resistance to Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan and such incidents as the alleged plot to blow up the International Trade Center in New York City, have aided the media and other propagandists’ politically motivated campaign to demonize Muslims and Islam as a threat to western interests and civilization itself.
The violence of Islamism has emerged as a subject of anxious concern throughout the world, especially the Muslim world. In the United States, the Islamic resistance to Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan and such incidents as the alleged plot to blow up the International Trade Center in New York City, have aided the media and other propagandists’ politically motivated campaign to demonize Muslims and Islam as a threat to western interests and civilization itself. Their motivation is suspect as it condones Israel’s U.S. aided violence on an enormously larger scale while condemning Arab resistance it. It is suspect also because, as we shall presently discuss, the United States and Europe have played a historic part in spawning the violence of groups and individuals they now denounce, rather brazenly, as “Islamic fundamentalist”. The U.S. and European countries largely withdrew from the enterprise after their interests had been served, while the native peoples among whom they promoted the violent ideological enterprise are continuing to pay the heavy price of it.
Countries, such as Algeria and Egypt, are virtually in a state of civil war between the Islamists of differing hues and secular regrettably authoritarian governments. Among these countries, Pakistan is distinguished in several ways: One, it is the original staging ground of Jihad as an international movement. Two, unlike Algeria and Egypt it has had a parliamentary system of government with four elections since 1988 in which the voters’ percentage of Islamic parties has been declining. Three, unlike Algeria and Egypt where Sunni majorities pre-dominate, Pakistan is a multi-denominational country where non-Sunni constitute an estimated quarter of the population. Furthermore, even the Sunni are divided by theological disputes – the one between the Barelvis and Deopbandis is the primary example – which have tended to turn violent. Hence, there is a proliferation here of violence. So far we have witnessed the mutual terror of Sunni and Shi’a, the of Sunni group against Christians and Ahmedis, and killings across the Barelvi-Deobandi divide. The potential is enormous. Four, Pakistan remains Islamism’s “front-line state,” so to speak. The war in Afghanistan continues and, in multiple ways which I discuss later on, impacts on the internal developments in this country. Finally, Pakistan’s is an ideologically ambiguous polity; here, political paeans to Islam have served as the compensatory mechanism for the ruling elite’s corruption, consumerism and cow-towing to the west. As a consequence, the ideologically fervent Islamist minority keeps an ideological grip on the morally insecure and ill-formed power elite. It is this phenomenon that explains the continued political clout of the extremist religious minority even as it has been all but repudiated by the electorate. Yet, horrors escalate by the day, and neither their original sponsors, nor the victims are doing much about it.
Pakistan is a prime example of the mayhem, and official failure to address it. From the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad to the recent massacre in Lahore’s Mominpura Cemetery, this country is strewn with innocent victims of Islamist extremism. Yet, these tragedies have barely caused any reflection in this country, and others whose policies sowed the seeds of the so-called “Islamic terror.” The bare truth is that as a world-wide movement Jihad International Inc. is a recent phenomenon, a modern, multi-national conglomerate whose founders include the governments of USA, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. It was the American sponsored anti-communist crusade in Afghanistan that revitalized in the last quarter of the twentieth century the notion of Jihad as the armed struggle of believers. Israel’s invasions and occupation of Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan continue to invest it with moral meaning and give it added impetus.
Never before in this century had Jihad as violence assumed so pronounced an “Islamic” and international character. The twentieth was a century of secular Muslim struggles. The Ottomans fought their last wars in essentially temporal terms — in defense of a tottering empire and, at least in the Middle East, against predominantly Muslim foes. From the rise of Saad Zaghlul to the demise of Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian national movement remained secular and explicitly Arab and Egyptian. This was equally true of the Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese national struggles. The Turks attained their liberation under the banner of intemperate secularism. Iranian nationalists fought and forged a Belgium-like constitution at the start of this century. In India, Muslim nationalism — opposed by an overwhelming majority of Indian Ulema – defined the demand and achievement of Pakistan. All these movements had some resonance among other Muslim peoples who were similarly engaged in anti-colonial struggles but none had an explicit pan-Islamic context.
Jihad — noun = struggle, from the Arabic root verb J.D.= to strive – was nevertheless a favored word among Muslims in their struggle of liberation from colonial rule. When my brother was expelled from school after raising the nationalist flag, he was welcomed in our village as a mujahid = one who struggles. In the Maghrib, Algerian nationalist cadres who engaged France in an armed struggle for seven grueling years were called Mujahideen, and their news organ was named El-Moudjahid. This newspaper was edited for a time by Franz Fanon, a non-Muslim, and the struggle was led by a secular organization — Front du Liberation National (FLN). In Tunisia, the national struggle was led by Habib Bourguiba, a dye-hard and Cartesian secularist who enjoyed nevertheless the title of Mujahidul-Akbar. The word Jihad did occasionally appear as a mobilizing slogan of the 1978 Iranian revolution but Enghelab – revolution — actually dominated as the symbol of the uprising against the Shah. After seizing power Iran’s revolutionary government adopted Jihad-i-Sazindazi – jihad for reconstruction — as its mobilizing symbol. Without a significant exception, Jihad was used during the twentieth century in a national, secular, and political context until, that is, the advent of the anti-soviet war in Afghanistan.
For the first time in this century the standard bearers of a Muslim peoples struggle for liberation were Islamic parties opposed to “godless communism”, committed to its violent overthrow, and dedicated to the establishment of an “Islamic state” in Afghanistan. Theirs was a Jihad in the classical, strictly theological sense of the word. Ironically, they had the support of western powers as no liberation movement ever did. The United States and its allies supplied to the Mujahideen an estimated ten billion dollars worth of arms and aid. They also invested in this Jihad the legitimacy of their enormous power, and the luster of their media made glory. On one especially memorable occasion when Afghanistan’s hard line Islamist visited the White House, President Ronald Reagan described them as the Muslim world’s “moral equivalent of our founding fathers.” Similarly, the American and European media played up the war in Afghanistan as the greatest story of the eighties. Foreign correspondents combed the Hindu Kush for stories of “Mooj” heroism. Competition for Jihad narrative was so great that in one instance a major network, CBS, paid handsomely to film a staged battle between Islam and Communism. As the western media carries great importance and authority in the third world, its Afghanistan war coverage made an enormous impact especially on Muslim youth.
Within a year of the Soviet intervention, Afghanistan’s was on its way to becoming a pan-Islamic Jihad. Hundreds, eventually thousands, of young Muslims from places as far apart as Algeria and the Philippines, Sudan and Sinkiang traveled to Peshawar and Torkham, received training in the use of arms, and under the strict guidance of various Islamic parties became ideologically ripe and tasted more or less of the Jihad-in-the-path-of-God. The United States government and its vaunted intelligence agency saw in this process a cold war opportunity to pit militant Islam against communism. Had the Soviet Union not collapsed unexpectedly, it is likely that the United States shall still be benefiting from this historic mobilization of jihad.
We knew of the violent pan-Islamic character which the Afghan war was assuming with American sponsorship. But no country — not Algeria, not Egypt — protested the participation of their nationals in a distant war. Pakistan was hospitable to a fault while all watched casually, then looked the other way until, that is, the chickens of Afghan insurgency returned home to roost. I found in 1986, for example, that Egyptian intelligence had an effective presence in Peshawar and excellent information on the demography of Jihad. They were merely keeping an eye. America after all was an ally and benefactor; they could not interfere with its agenda. The demands for extradition started to reach Pakistan from Algiers and Cairo only after the U.S. had cashed in its investments in Afghanistan, and the gates of all hell had broken loose in Algeria and Egypt. But whom can Pakistanis request to rid their country of the thousands of armed zealots their government has nurtured, and continues to nurture?
The Jihad’s pan-Islamic dimension was a historic new phenomenon. Since the great crusades in the Middle Ages Jihad had not crossed cultural, ethnic, and territorial boundaries. Pan-Islamism did emerge briefly as a movement in the nineteenth century, its banner having been raised by such ideologues as Jamal al-Din Afghani and warriors such as Syed Ahmed Shaheed. At the climax of this pan-Islamic drive, India’s Muslims launched into the Khilafat Movement to save the Ottoman Caliphate. Khilafat’s leaders, the Ali brothers, did often describe their movement as a Jihad. But this was a non-violent agitation supported by such non-Muslim pacifists as M. K. Gandhi and frowned upon by Mohammed Ali Jinnah who later founded Pakistan. More to the point, it had negligible pan-Islamic resonance. Arabs, Iranians, and Turks alike viewed it as an eccentric, uniquely Indian phenomenon.
Pan-Islamism survived only as an abstract agenda of a microscopic minority of Muslim intellectuals. Its influence showed in the works of some modern writers and poets including Mohammed Iqbal. The generalized sentiment of muslim affinity on which pan-Islamism relied was real nevertheless and from time to time manifested itself in people’s expressions of solidarity with co-religionists in Palestine, Bosnia etc. Yet, the national struggles of muslim peoples remained national, and pan-Islamism endured only as an inchoate sentiment of solidarity.
By contrast, with the Afghanistan war pan-Islamism grew on a significant scale as a financial, cultural, political and military phenomenon with a world wide network of exchange and collaboration. Myriads of institutions — madaaris, Islamic universities, training camps and conference centers — came into being in Pakistan and other places. Sensing its enormous opportunity, traders in guns and drugs became linked to the phenomenon creating an informal but extraordinary cartel of vested interests in gun, gold and god.
Transnational involvement in the Jihad not only reinforced links among Islamic groupings, it also militarized the conventional religious parties. Pakistan’s Jamaat-I-Islami is an example. Until their involvement in Afghanistan it was a conventional party, cadre- based, intellectually oriented, and prone to debate and agitation rather than armed militancy. Today it commands, outside Pakistan’s army and rangers, perhaps the largest number of battle hardened and armed veterans. In 1948-49, its chief ideologue, Maulana Abul Ala Maududi had rejected, on theological grounds, the notion of Jihad in Kashmir. Today, his party openly boasts of its militant involvement there. In effect, while the U.S. government and media blamed Iran as the source of organized Muslim rage, armed Islamic radicalism was actually nurtured in Ziaul Haq’s Pakistan with American funding and CIA’s help. In recent years, other conventional Islamic parties – the Jamiat-e-Ulama-I-Islam and Jamiat-e-Ulama- e-Pakistan – have also been militarizing, thanks to their linkages with the Taliban, thanks also to their involvement in Kashmir. In addition, other armed sectarian groupings – the Sipahe Sahaba, Lashkare Jhangvi, Harakatul Ansar, Sipahe Mohammed, Lashkare Tayba, Anjumane Sarfaroshane Islam – have emerged to menace society no less than the state. They are all sectarian formations, apparently a far cry from Islamism as expounded by the older religious parties such as the Jamaat-I-Islami and JUI. Yet the fact remains that their antecedents lie with these parties, and they draw sustenance from the neighboring wars which are cast in Islamic terms.
The birth of Jihad International coincided with another development which has had a particularly unwholesome effect on Pakistan. Following the prolonged hostage crisis during which Iranian radicals held American diplomats captive in Teheran, a contest began between two versions of political Islam, one conservative and the other radical. One was sponsored by Saudi Arabia and, until 1988, Iraq; the other was supported by Iran. While the United States was involved in this development its logic was essentially regional. Iran’s revolutionary Islamists were quite uncompromising in opposing the U.S. as an imperial power, and in their rejection of monarchy as an un-Islamic form of government. As a pro-U.S. conservative kingdom, Saudi Arabia felt threatened by Iran. Riyadh was quick to counter Iran’s proselytizing zeal and was supported in this mission by such Gulf sheikhdoms as Kuwait. With the start of the Iraq-Iraq war in 1981, Saddam Hussein’s secular government joined in the theocratically cast campaign against Iran. Islamic organizations all over the Muslim world became beholden to one or the other side of this divide. In countries with mixed Sunni-Shia population such as Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan, this development had the greatest impact as sectarian groups and individuals found new incentive to arouse old hatreds. Neither the Americans, nor Saudis and Iraqis may have intended to arouse anti-Shia feelings. They were merely interested in promoting their brand of conservative Islam to counter Iran’s growing appeal. But in local terms anti -Iran was easily translated into anti-Shia. The Sipahe Sahaba is one such product of this process in Pakistan. It was first funded by Saudis; later Iraq stepped in. The terror and counter-terror which followed have involved murders of Iranian diplomats and trainees, American technicians, and ordinary folks in mosques, imambarahs and, most recently a cemetery. Battles for soul often degenerate into a hankering after body counts.
Citizens, keep watch! The chickens of “jihads” once sponsored by imperialism and the state have been coming home to roost. Afghanistan threatens to become a metaphor for the future.
1 This article was originally published in the Pakistani news daily Dawn, February 14, 1998
2 Eqbal Ahmad was an early and prominent critic of the US war against Vietnam. Ahmad, along with the Berrigan brothers and four Catholic pacifists, were arrested on a bogus charge of having planned to kidnap Hank Kissinger. They were freed when a jury declared a mistrial. In the early ’60s, Ahmad joined the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in the struggle against French colonialism. Ahmad was an indefatigable opponent of imperialism in all its guises, an independent socialist in the best tradition, an eloquent defender of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and dispossession, a genuine voice for peace in India, Pakistan and Kashmir . . . indeed a passionate voice for the world’s downtrodden. As a man of action, Eqbal did not leave behind much in the way of books, though his numerous articles appeared worldwide in some of the most prominent journals. Eqbal taught politics and history at Hampshire College in Mass. from 1982-1997, dividing his time between Pakistan and New England. He died in Islamabad, Pakistan in May 1999 of heart failure after surgery for colon cancer. Last year South End Press put out Confronting Empire (South End Press, 2000), a wonderful collection of interviews with Eqbal conducted by David Barsamian.