Terror Has No Religion, But It Sure Has a Geography Now
It is, of course, politically correct to say that terror has no religion. But the Counter-Terrorism Conference in Jaipur earlier this week (2-3 February) came close to a rethink on this statement. It sought to ask whether the current wave of terror being unleashed by the likes of Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban – not to speak of our own dear Lashkar-e-Toibas and Jaish-e-Muhammeds – had theological underpinnings. If the answer was yes, it would be tantamount to admitting that terrorism does have a religious undertone even if Islam does not specifically sanction it.
The official topic was The Caliphate, Al Qaeda, Global jihad and Its Theological Underpinnings, and the speakers were MJ Akbar, MP and BJP national spokesperson, Dr Daniel Pipes, President of the Middle East Forum, USA, Lt.Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, former head of the Indian Army’s 15 Corps, Dr Alexander Evans, acting High Commissioner of Britain, and Sultan Shahin, founder and editor of New Age Islam.
Barring the bold Sultan Shahin, none of the speakers drew a direct causal connection between Islam’s theology and today’s jihadi terrorism, but at least two speakers had some kind of coherent explanation on what was driving terrorism and Muslim angst: the dream of establishing a Caliphate.
First of the block was Akbar, who did not address the issue head-on, but gave an explanation for the current anger among global Muslims, and why India may be where jihadi thinking might meet its nemesis. Elsewhere, Muslims largely live under despotic governments.
According to Akbar, in the 60 years between 1857 and the period after the First World War, two major Islamic empires ended: The Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire. If today the average Muslim is disgruntled with where the community stands in terms of global prestige, it is because “the sense of loss is deeper when there is a memory of power.” After the First World War, Muslims discovered that almost all of them were living under colonial powers, and the overall Muslim mood today was about “bringing back Muslim political power.”
If this explains why the Muslim world has been muted in its response to terror in the name of Islam, Akbar hinted at another explanation for the rise of Islamic State: jihad can only be declared by a state and not by individuals. Hence, the need to hold territory. After the establishment of Mullah Omar’s Taliban in Afghanistan (now gone after the US war on terror), and the carving out of a tentative state from parts of Syria and Iraq, Muslims now have a state under them to declare jihad.
As Akbar observed, “terror now has a geography.”
Akbar also emphasised that religion cannot be the basis of any nationalism, as it has become clear in the Indian sub-continent. Nor has the institution of the Caliphate been without controversy. Three of the four caliphs after the passing away of the Prophet were murdered.
Daniel Pipes, the second speaker, had clearer answers to what radical Islamists wanted: more territory where Muslims were not in power, and the application of sharia where Muslims were. The end-goal was a Caliphate – a single leader and ruler for the whole world. “Jihadis seek a world dominated by Muslims.”
Pipes pointed out that historically Islam had caliphs with real power from the time after the death of the prophet till around 945 CE. After that, the post of Caliph was less powerful, and more ornamental, till it was finally abolished in 1924 after the Turkish national revolution under Kemal Ataturk.
Do Muslims in general want a Caliph? Pipes suggested that the Islamic State, which has announced a Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has prestige is the Islamic world, but it can’t last as it has made enemies out of every one. However, one can’t rule out the rise of a caliphate in other places, including Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan. “The caliphate is no longer a fantasy.”
Pipes also warned that terrorism and brutality of the IS kind will not end easily for several radical Islamist groups are now competing for power and prestige.
Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain did not get into the whole caliphate argument, and sought to differentiate between fundamentalism and radicalism. He said he believed in the fundamentals of Islam, and hence was a fundamentalist, but trying to take the faith back to the seventh century was a different matter.
Hasnain said four factors gave a fillip to radical Islamism in 1978-79: First, General Zia-ul-Haq came to power in Pakistan and his goal was retribution against India and for this he sought the Islamisation of his country; then the Iranian revolution happened, creating a Shi-ite Islamic republic; but the most traumatic event occurred in 1979 November, when some Muslim radicals took control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and demanded the overthrow of the Saudi rulers for not being Islamic enough. The insurgents were ousted only after bloody counter-terror operations that lasted several days and killed hundreds, but the net result was a stricter enforcement of Islamic codes in Saudi Arabia after that. The fourth event was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which brought the US on the side of Islamic insurgents, and ended with the rise of the Taliban in that country. The Soviet invasion helped create a large fighting force of jihadists that continued to grow in strength.
Like Pipes, Hasnain felt that Islamic State will meet its end soon due to its sheer brutality and for uniting the world against it; but Al Qaeda may still rise. His logic: it has been too quiet, and may be planning something big, a big bang,
Alexander Evans from the British High Commission focused on why the current terrorist challenge is greater than anything in the past. He mentioned four transformative changes in global terrorism.
One is the level of technology deployed and available to terrorists. There has been a generational change in terrorism, and the new recruits are adept at using networks and communications technology. Islamic State, for example, creates radicals through social media and internet propaganda. Second, terrorism is now more transnational, with recruits now available even from small nations like Maldives, Finland and even Chile. Third, terror also has multi-national capability. The different nationalities that took part in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan could not converse among themselves as they spoke different languages. But the Islamic State has translators for recruits from various nationalities. It has broken the language barrier to create a true terror MNC. Fourth, terrorists have become more innovative. Earlier, there was a fair amount of incompetence in their terrorist acts; now terrorists not only have better technology, but they are also learning from mistakes and from one another, improvising both tactics and strategy.
Sultan Shahin was the bluntest of them all in acknowledging that Islamism was a supremacist ideology which sought global domination and confrontation with the kafir (non-believer). Islamists now practice the ideology of separation and self-segregation, where even Sufi ideas are not considered Islamic enough. Muslims were being bombarded everywhere with calls for jihad. Akbar had also referred to the “doctrine of distance” being practised by Islamists, where they sought to deliberately seek differentiation with the cultures they were part of earlier.
Shahin said that extremism has been endemic in Islam, and there was no antidote to some of the dangerous verses in the holy book.
The key takeout one was left with after hearing the discussions at the Counter-Terror Conference was simple: terrorists are drawing sustenance from both the sense of loss among Muslims following the end of Islamic power from the mid-1900s to now, and the actual hadiths and verses from the Koran.
Terror may have no religion, but terror sure has found Islam hospitable for their nefarious purposes.
(This report does not purport to be a complete version of the discussions and presentations at the Counter-Terrorism Conference in Jaipur. The views of the participants have also bee paraphrased to make them shorter, without losing the essence)
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