A question of context


In spite of the sensitivities stirred by Western accusations against Islam following the events of 11 September, many of us have not been able to escape the question: Why is it that some of us have produced jihad (holy war) inspired violence over the past half century and then attempted to “export” this form of terrorism to the West, and the US in particular?

In the West, such a question is one way of couching the contention that Islam is organically given to violence and that the Muslim people are less civilised. The Arabs are naturally offended by such allegations and have painstakingly sought to demonstrate that they are a peace loving people who advocate dialogue, not conflict, even if circumstances have sometimes militated against this. Such demonstrations notwithstanding, we have failed to address the question: Why does “Islamic violence” exist and why have Bin Laden and the Taliban become almost the only voice of “protest Islam” capable of affecting the US.

For some time now, our approach to the discussion of Arab-Islamic culture has been to treat it as an exception, a collection of properties not shared by other cultural entities, as though it existed on an entirely different planet. This exceptionalism has extended to the Islamist phenomenon, which many of us perceive to move and function, to flow and ebb, in accordance with a dynamic entirely divorced from its social and political environment, as though the movement was a projection of other movements that existed in another epoch, separated from us chronologically by hundreds of years, culturally and technologically by thousands.

It is difficult to distinguish between some Western explanations of “Islamic violence” and the world-apart approach that we sometimes adopt when explaining Arab-Islamic realities. US-Western attacks against Islam following the terrorist strikes against New York and Washington were equally informed by an exceptionalist perception, albeit an entirely negative one that views Islam and Islamic culture as inherently inimical to democracy, oppressive of women, antagonistic to human rights and hostile to the Western “other.”

The Bin Laden phenomenon is a restatement, in blatantly racist terms, of earlier explanations for the rise of transcontinental religious violence: a result of the dilemma of ideology versus realism, of text versus context.

The cultural-religious question perforce impacts most forcefully in any consideration of the Bin Laden phenomenon and the rise of Arab jihad organisations — we are compelled to ask why groups that espouse violence in the Arab world have assumed a religious mould and adopted a rhetoric that they believe emanates from a correct understanding of religious scripture? Why have these groups not assumed other revolutionary forms? Why has Islamist culture produced the suicidal terrorist? Why, when such suicidal acts occur, do Arabs and Muslims always assume the perpetrators are radical Islamic fundamentalists, even before investigations are initiated?

Yet the social and political contexts within which groups have adopted a suicidal modus operandi are completely different to those pertaining during earlier periods when a radical Islam was pitted against Western cultural and colonial invasion: think only of the 20th century reform movements of Rifa’a El-Tahtawi, Mohamed Abdou and Rashid Reda, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Current socio-political realities may be capable of fuelling religious violence while simultaneously marginalising it as a departure from the religious text, or criminalising it as anathema to any text to the extent that it has become possible for jihad groups to surface in the Arab and Islamic world while remaining firmly on the fringes of the regional and international socio-political arena. It is not possible, though, within this cultural-religious construct, to account for the political and religious mobilisation of such groups and then construe their actions against the US as imposing new mechanisms for international conflict.

One reason behind the rise of such forms of religious militancy, and their transition from localised to globalised jihad, resides in new pressures exerted by the US-led global order on all national and cultural entities, pressures that have contributed to redirecting the attention of these groups from the enemy at home, ruling elites in the Arab and Islamic world, to the enemy abroad, the agents of western hegemony in front of which domestic authorities frequently appear powerless. Washington’s repression of all forms of peaceful or legitimate protest in many parts of the Arab Islamic world served simply to underscore the trend towards violence. Iran, for example, is governed through institutions keen to establish democratic principles at home while formulating a rational foreign policy abroad, in the face of a new economic global order. Yet the US continues to treat it as a terrorist state, even though it is Washington that should apologise to Tehran for the terrorist acts inflicted on the Iranian people under the Shah.

The same logic applies to Washington’s handling of the Palestinian cause, a sorry litany of constantly demeaning the struggle, sometimes through violence, of an entire people for independence prefaced on the patently unsustainable claim that the Palestinian struggle for self-determination is a matter of “mutual violence” between parties possessing equal strength and rights. By persisting in this stance, the US has blocked the hopes not only of the Palestinian people, but of the wider Arab and Muslim population, for whom a legitimate struggle for independence, or peaceful protests against aspects of the new global order, now appear futile. Compounding a situation in which peoples are suppressed, their appeals rebuffed by the largest power in the world, is the fact that Washington appears to be on such friendly terms with a number of Arab regimes, regimes that, to their citizens, appear all too willing to give in to US blackmail, even if they sometimes utter feeble protests against US policy.

As a result of all this over the past decade the Arab-Islamic world has had to contend with two modes of crisis, one emanating from Washington’s disregard for and suppression of politically or morally legitimate forms of Arab and Islamic protest, the second embodied in the policies of regimes that bend to America’s will or else are incapable of forwarding coherent and effective criticism of US policy.

The West in general, and the US in particular, approached the Arab liberation projects of the fifties and sixties with much brutality and little wisdom. Those liberation movements, inspired by a modern political and moral outlook, sought to create a more just world order founded upon the principle of equality between peoples. The struggle for Palestinian liberation during the mid-20th century, if it adopted misguided methods in its confrontation with a racist Zionist ideology that sanctioned the murder of others and the plundering of their rights, still had as its goal the creation of a secular state in which Muslims, Christians and Jews would enjoy equal rights under the law. And it was the defeat of that secularist enterprise that was instrumental in the rise of religious organisations in Palestine and the Arab world that espouse violence and reject any formula for coexistence with the Jews.

Arab and Muslim peoples, then, embarked on the third millennium bereft of any models of anti-American protest apart from those of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the terrorist organisations. And although these models are very different from one another they all express the overwhelming frustration that has beset the Arab-Islamic world as a result of both the suppression of legitimate forms of protest and the lack of legitimacy of Arab- Islamic regimes. The Bin Laden-Qa’eda phenomenon is no exception to this process: the socio-political context is as instrumental in its rise as a particular interpretation of the religious text is to its existence.

The defeat of the Taliban and Al-Qa’eda represents the defeat of an ideological text divorced from its socio-cultural context. The US succeeded in orchestrating events so that the Afghanis themselves would end up killing Arabs who had originally come to champion their faith against the Soviet invasion, but who ended up confronting fellow Muslims rather than heretics and crusaders they had imagined. The US also succeeded, through various forms of economic and political pressure, in imposing a fait accompli upon Pakistan, containing Islamic protests, and in building an international coalition that even those Arab governments that have been the most vociferously critical of US policy could not object to.

The US may well have succeeded in rallying its military, economic and political clout to defeat a bastion of Islamist terrorism. What it has overlooked, though, and perhaps deliberately so, is its own role in creating that terrorism. Any examination of the causes and motives behind the emergence of this particular brand of violence would entail the kind of introspection for which, at the moment, the US has no stomach.

The writer is an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.