Muslim Redicalism, Western Concerns

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Tanvir Ahmad Khan [*]

(Religious extremism as a source of violence has a long history and the three great monotheistic religions have grappled with issues of just wars and illegitimate use of force for centuries. Islam has clear
injunctions on the concept of a just war and abhors coercion and
violence outside their ambit. Yet, since 9/11, western discourse has
tended to argue that violence is intrinsic to Islam. A far more
profitable approach is to contextualise current events in the Muslim
world in historical situations of external aggression, occupation and
national humiliation. There is also an urgent need to recognise that
movement of labour from the South to North is an inevitable consequence of globalisation. Creative solutions have to be found for tensions generated by the growing number of expatriate communities in western societies. Author)

There is widespread concern in the West about the problems of Islamic radicalisation in Pakistan and the region in which it occupies a sensitive geopolitical location. It is often argued that global peace and stability depend in no small a measure on the outcome of the so-called war on terror now being waged by a US-led coalition of nations in this particular theatre. Apart from the fairly large contingent of American troops battling the resistance since the invasion of 2001, soldiers of some European NATO member states are in harm’s way in Afghanistan. The war they are embroiled in has divided European opinion as few issues in contemporary history have done. According to NATO officials, the future of their military alliance – easily the most powerful in modern history – hinges on victory in that war-torn land. This rather startling assessment is made against the backdrop of pervasive opposition to this conflict seen in European parliaments and in the larger battles of public opinion.

By now the struggle in Afghanistan has become indistinguishable from its spill-over into Pakistan. There is, indeed, a three-decade old nexus between Muslim activism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The hope that Pakistan could somehow ward off the inter-connectedness of events in the two neighbouring countries —- what in the semantics of our times is often called a “blowback” — has turned out to be illusory and nearly one hundred thousand Pakistani troops are stretched along a 2,500 kilometre border to contain what has been described as a “twilight struggle against a network of non-state actors” waging a holy war.

The region also includes Iran where one of the great revolutions of the 20th century overturned an existing internal and regional order. This revolution which established the term ‘political Islam’ in contemporary discourse has not run its full course; nor has it found a modus vivendi especially with powerful states that have been seeking its reversal for twenty eight years. A state of siege is still a cause for rekindling the fires of the Iranian revolution as, indeed, for the Iranian quest for defensive space around the heartland of the revolution. In much of Central Asia, the successor states of the Soviet Union have not been able to accommodate even mild Muslim revivalism and have thus contributed to its radicalisation. Since 1989, Muslim militants have challenged Indian control of Kashmir. In fact, in the entire region a legacy of anti-colonialism fuses with a more particular Muslim resentment against what is widely perceived as a resurgence of imperial attitudes, a virtual western re-conquest of the greater Middle East.

Before one turns to the question whether Muslim activism in a country like Pakistan has become part of a seamless global Islamic war against the West and if so to what extent and why, it is salutary to recall briefly the dynamics of Muslim revival in South Asia. There was a long period of decline before Great Britain delivered the coup de grace and destroyed Muslim power from one end of the sub-continent to the other. Initially, the Muslims bore the brunt of British reprisals against the forces that tried to drive them out of India in 1857. As they recovered from the initial shock, their responses to the tragedy of their fall varied significantly. There was the refuge offered by a quietist Sufi interpretation of Islam that side–stepped questions of resistance. Some of the Ulema sought to evade strife by declaring that British colonial rule in India did not interfere with the observance of Islam and was not manifestly unjust; India, therefore, was Darul Aman (abode of peace) and did not need armed resistance. A different tradition exemplified by Shah Waliullah, Shah Ismail and Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly emphasised the concept of a just war (Jihad) to save the Muslims of the sub-continent from the emerging Sikh and Marhatta warlords as well as from a creeping annexation of Muslim lands by the East India Company. Sensing a danger from evangelical proselytising Christian missions, the Muslims turned some of the madrassas like the famous Deoband into fortresses for the defence of faith and doctrine. The revolt of 1857 was a watershed. A section of the community concluded their introspection on the decline of Muslim power by seeking a creative encounter with the New Age. Led by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, a group of Muslim notables saw amelioration of the plight of Muslims in modern western education rather than in reversion to orthodoxy and armed struggle. A fundamental difference in strategies advocated to secure the future of Islam in South Asia thus initiated an unfinished dialectical tussle between tradition and modernity.

The controversial address of Pope Benedict XVI delivered at the University of   Regensburg on 12 September 2007 differentiated between Islam and Christianity on the grounds that the Judeo-Christian civilisation had created a synthesis of Faith and Reason through an interaction with Greek philosophy. For the reformists in the Indian sub-continent and in many other Muslim countries which were reacting to the colonial dominance with a robust intellectual revival, Islam has had its Hellenic moment long before the Christian world. They now sought reconstruction of Islamic thought by reviving that lost renaissance in the dominant Islamic discourse. The Islamic modernists in India attributed the Muslim decline to the Ulema clinging to ‘an atrophied and skeletal tradition’ that caused stagnation.  By abandoning critical thought and innovation, they had left Islam ‘devoid of its erstwhile depth, diversity, and critical apertures.[1] They argued that there was no contradiction between Revelation and Reason. They went back to the Quran to substantiate their view that ‘revelation emanated from a divine and transcendent source within history and is understood by the human mind.[2] As his editor put it, the Pakistani Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman had ‘attempted to provide a complex theory of revelation that linked philosophical and psychological arguments with a sociology and anthropology of history. The flux of time demanded that Muslims discover once again the ability to grasp the kinesis at work in a dynamic tradition.  “(The) process of questioning and changing a tradition – in the interest of preserving or restoring its normative quality in the case of its normative elements,” maintained Fazlur Rahman, “can continue indefinitely and that there is no fixed or privileged point at which the predetermining effective history is immune from such questioning and being consciously confirmed or consciously changed.”[3] Though scholars like Fazalur Rahman were unpopular with the conservative Ulema, they were developing their radical interpretation of Islam — the word radical being used in an entirely different sense from the current usage that conflates it with militancy and violence—-not so much in an apologetic response to western orientalists but by way of reconnecting with a lost tradition within the Islamic canon. It is important to recall their seminal work because of a tendency, particularly since the catastrophic events of 9/11 to bury Islam under utterly untenable allegations against its very essence. At the practical level, the modernists played an important role in reconstituting Muslim societies and empowering them in a manner that enabled them to accelerate decolonisation and lead to the emergence of independent Muslim nation states, including Pakistan.

It is often said that Islam is a religion of laws. This is meant to be a derogatory perception of the last of the three great monotheistic religions; it is designed to underline the preoccupation with Sharia on the part of the extremist movements that threaten to supplant the modernists in many Muslim states and communities. This perception, however, is fallacious. Islam’s pristine emphasis is on justice (adal) and compassion (ihsan). The distinctive feature of Islam is the yearning for an egalitarian, equitable and democratic social order; the denial of such an order has been the cause of much strife within Islam. The poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal who envisioned an independent Muslim state in post-colonial South Asia was not a revolutionary in the usual 20th century sense but when it came to the new and strange gods of his times – Capitalism, Fascism and Communism – he was an iconoclast. As a matter of fact when lights were going out one after the other all over Europe, the main independence movements in the colonised world were guided largely by democratic forces.

In fact, a major fountainhead of Muslim rage that has spawned the other kind of radicalisation that leads to much conflict now is a pervasive sense of injustice. This sense of injustice and the contingent outrage are directed as much towards the Muslim rulers as towards major powers. The modernist movements helped usher the era of freedom from direct alien rule but failed to deliver progress and security for all partly because of intrinsic factors and partly because of continued foreign interventions. Palestine, Kashmir, the CIA’s successful operation to bring down Mossadegh and the invasion of Egypt by Israel, France and the United Kingdom became symbols of perpetual injustice and a perennial source of a sense of victimhood amongst the Muslims to which the modernists and reformers of Muslim thought had no easy answer. Over a period of time, localised grievances became a global narrative of rejection and denial by a predatory West.

Huntingdon’s clash of civilisation thesis owes its central motif to the prolific “orientalist” Bernard Lewis. In much of the Muslim world Bernard Lewis is synonymous with long standing plans to fragment the world of Islam into small ethnically-based  and compliant states. Huntingdon is retrospectively seen as having written not an academic dissertation but a manifesto, a virtual scheme that the neoconservatives were to implement as soon as they seized power in the United States. It was a scheme for an aggressive return of western armies to the broader Middle East. It went far beyond the control of the energy resources and the establishment of military bases to fill the gaps in a global deployment of strategic forces for the new century. In the Muslim perception, every piece fitted into a giant jigsaw puzzle. Iraq’s 7000-year old cultural heritage was ravaged and almost 3.5 millions Iraqis displaced internally and externally to demonstrate that the only history that mattered was that of the West. The world, it was argued, was being returned to the era when it was divided between central, metropolitan people and the peripheral people bound to them by tributary relations.

What turned these apprehensions into a spiral of mindless violence by Iraqi resistance and terrifying reprisals by western armies— Fallujha epitomising the gory drama for history— was partly the result of the ever shifting grounds for invading Iraq. By the time the rationale for the invasion of Iraq crystallised into a declaration of intent to reconfigure and reconstitute the broader Middle East, it had revived layers of fears accumulated over centuries. Islam has a long and proud history of its own and nothing could have been more provocative than to apply the 18th century concept of a civilising mission in proclaiming liberty and freedom as the purpose of a massive military intervention. The menu offered to the region was not only democracy but also a transformation of its dominant faith. In his 1988 book Islamic Liberalism, Leonard Binder made the following trenchant observation to make the point that the world of Islam believes that it can progress without paying such a heavy cultural price : “From the time of the Napoleonic invasion, from the time of the massacre of the Janissaries, from the time of the Sepoy mutiny, at least the West has been trying to tell Islam what must be the price of progress in the coin of the tradition which is to be surrendered.”  In 1992, after witnessing murder and mayhem in Bosnia Herzegovina, the western-educated Arab intellectual, Rana Kabbani, wrote: “How are we to tackle our problems rationally; handicapped as we are by an overpowering sense of grievance? Both towards a West that has long colonised, manipulated and despised us, and towards our own governments, which are shamefully silent, corrupt and castrated. We have yet to earn our independence as Muslims: the rich nations amongst us are mere vassals, the poor ones, full victims.”

Given the Quranic injunctions on a just war, the Muslim mind should have no difficulty in differentiating between jihad and martyrdom on the one hand and terrorism on the other. If this distinction has got blurred today, then there is something gravely wrong with the Muslim imagination and the forces that are trying to bend it to their will. The difference is so clearly embedded in the historical memory of Islam that a true Muslim instinctively knows when there is resort to illegitimate and impermissible violence in the name of Islam. There is the haunting memory of Ibn Muljam assassinating the fourth pious Caliph, Hazrat Ali. Here is the immutable difference between the terrorist and the martyr. Then there is the awesome moment of the grandson of the Prophet of Islam sacrificing his life at Karbala. This is the Muslim individual redeeming an entire culture by standing up to the state terrorism of a usurper. Islam refuses to resign itself to perpetual injustice and repression. Drawing upon Ali Shariati’s “Iqbal, Ma’mar Tajdid Banaye Taffokar-I Islami “ (Iqbal, the architect of the reconstruction of Islamic thought) and his seminal Shahadat (Martyrdom), Mannochehr Dorraj makes the following observation about Shariati and, by implication, about Iqbal : “For Shariati, one of the greatest and most revolutionary contributions of Islam to human society has been to instil a sense of devotion and sacrifice in the pursuit of justice. Through martyrdom a society refines itself. By sacrificing the most precious possession (one’s life) the individual also affirms his/her faith in the ideals of the collectivity and adds to the credibility and sanctity of this ideal.” The western failure to distinguish between lawful resistance to foreign occupation and mindless terrorism that stalks the world of Islam today is the root cause of the rapidly growing mutual incomprehension.

Millions of Muslim denounced in unequivocal terms the outrage in East Africa in 1998, the World Trade Centre attack in 1993, the ghastly tragedy of Twin Towers, the terrorist bombing in Madrid, the bombs of Bali and every other atrocity committed in some twisted logic of defending Islam. But what they get in return is the tarnishing of their faith as “Islamofascism” not only by opinion-makers such as the novelist Martin Amis who wrote an anti-Muslim  polemic entitled The Age of Horrorism in Sunday Observer but also by leading western politicians including President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In a remarkable essay entitled ‘Muslims and Democracy,’ Abdou Filali-Ansary sought avenues of better mutual understanding and co-existence.[4] He conceded that Muslim confrontation with European colonial powers in the nineteenth century gave birth to some great and lasting misunderstandings, as a result of which Muslims have rejected key aspects of modernity as alienation and a surrender of the historical self to the “Other”. But then he also reminded us that ‘the rule of law is a notion that expresses something that Muslims have longed for since the early phases of their history, and have felt to be part of the message of Islam.” The Muslims seek higher universalism for the concept of the rule of law in the conduct of international relations and will not accept another century of dominance, subjugation, humiliation and exploitation by the West or its new surrogates.

The Muslim world does not deny that a high degree of natural cosmopolitanism is inherent in economic globalisation; it is willing to accept it as an evolutionary process. But it is a delusion to think that by applying overwhelming military force, local cultures hallowed by thousands of years can be bludgeoned into the total homogeneity of a superficial western culture. In fact, it is a recipe for conflicts lasting generations. Justifying this project as a post-Enlightenment civilisation dragging a pre-Enlightenment culture into a creative encounter with modernity is sheer hubris.

The events of 9/11 were a manifestation of pure primordial evil which can never be condoned. But they signalled a new stage in a new kind of warfare which has only been expanded by the retribution extracted from the Taliban in Afghanistan and during a far more indefensible invasion of Iraq. Professor Michael Mazarr speaks of ‘twilight struggles against non-state networks of evildoers.” The new conflicts are not wars waged by regular, organised armies, however lethally armed, across vast swathes of European or Asian land mass They do not belong even to the tradition in which less powerful peoples made hit and run raids to prosecute the classical anti-colonial and national liberation movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “We are not fighting,” writes Professor Nazarr, “proto-Bismarcks, who want nothing more than to seize power and start operating as realpolitikers.”[5] It is a fight against a ‘fantasy ideology,” a mind set and ‘the central route to war in such psychological dramas is national humiliation and society-wide alienation.” For a battle for the society, for its mindsets and psychologies, (and) to address sources of grievance and anxiety, to shore up institutions of governance,’ Mazarr proposes a theory of psychopolitik resting on three pillars of statecraft: restraint, compassion, and fiscal responsibility. He is aware of the danger that the West would persist in its faith that traditional conventional conflict is the dominant mode. Were it to do things differently, his recipe for at least mitigating the threat of new radicalism, is stated thus: attend to identity; attend to the global economy; practise the greatest restraint possible in foreign policy; avoid humiliating others; do not become the focus of alienation. This recipe would obviously not be acceptable to the hardcore Al-Qaeda that is already beyond reverence for life, beyond the insights of the three monotheistic religions, beyond the fruits of settled civilisations and beyond the four walls of international law. But it could still make a profound impact on thousands of radicalised young men and women who are engaged in battles of alienation and mutual incomprehension.

As stated in the beginning of this paper, Muslim activism in the Indian sub-continent aimed primarily at reviving a vanquished community. In reconstructing Muslim thought its main proponents tried to cut through cobwebs of ritualism and esoteric practices that induced a passive acceptance of life under foreign domination. Even when they successfully mobilised Muslim separatist sentiment and demanded a “Muslim homeland” in South Asia, the emphasis was on constitutionalism and democratic assertion in Muslim majority areas. The Indian Muslims steered clear of all anti-British movements that embraced political violence as a tool of the independence struggle.

Pakistan’s emergence as an independent state however created a new dynamic. The founding fathers believed that they would be able to accommodate Islamic aspirations in a largely secular state structure of an elected parliament, independent judiciary and modernising bureaucracy. This was challenged by Islamic parties not so much by rejecting the state organisation as by demanding that it should be the instrument of creating an Islamic state. The principal parties like Jam’ati Islami, which was established by the internationally renowned scholar Abul Ala Maududi in British India in 1941, and Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i- Islam took up the banner of Islamisation engaging the state peacefully through the established institutions. Since the early years of Pakistan’s history were marked by a vocal if small Marxist movement that opposed military alliances and propagated a leftist revolution, much of the energy of the Islamic parties was expended on combating communist radicalism. The fear of an ideology alien to Islam also created a rapidly expanding apolitical movement – the Tablighi Jamaat – that concentrated on reviving the basic knowledge of Islam amongst the masses through low key frictionless contact with individuals and susceptible groups such as students. In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the Islamic parties in Pakistan received western support. By and large, the Islamic parties have garnered very limited electoral support except in 2002 when they were able to gain significant representation in the National Assembly and two provinces by exploiting the anti-American wave unleashed by the American invasion of Afghanistan. They have failed to repeat their success in Pakistan’s general election in 2008.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Pakistani state responded to demands for Islamisation with a gradualist policy of incorporating elements that did not alter its basic organisation. Pakistan’s Constitution forbids parliament to enact a law that is repugnant to Islam. First a state-funded Institute of Islamic Research and then a Council of Islamic Ideology emerged as forums for study and research on how Islam could interface with the modern world. Pakistan also created a Sharia Court with a parallel existence to the established system of traditional courts inherited from the British Raj.

The subsequent drift towards radicalisation was caused by intrinsic factors as well as by momentous changes in Pakistan’s strategic environment. First and foremost, Pakistan experienced along with several Arab-Islamic countries the failure of the nationalist secular elites that had emerged during decolonisation to provide political stability and sufficient economic growth. In Pakistan’s case, periods of high economic growth were marred by an accentuation of class and income disparities. Disillusionment with the post-colonial modern state fuelled the urge for a return to the pristine values and true tenets of Islam. The failure of the state to provide universal education led to a rapid expansion of the traditional seminaries, the religious madrassas, which now have an enrolment of nearly a million young people and account for a significant percentage of literacy in a certain age group.

The external developments that radicalised Muslim politics in Pakistan and the neighbourhood include several seminal events: the Soviet Union’s direct military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 to save a tottering  Marxist regime; the Islamic revolution in Iran; the refusal of Israel to withdraw from Arab territories occupied during the 1967 war and later colonised heavily; the suppression of Palestinian intifada, the Iran-Iraq war; the eventual American interventions to liberate Kuwait and later in 2003 to occupy Iraq for an indefinite period of time; and the collapse of the Soviet Union that brought freedom to predominantly Muslim Central Asian states. The emancipation of Central Asia— played an important role in radicalising the Kashmiri movement against India with attendant consequences for Pakistan’s polity; it was taken as affirmation of the view that a local armed struggle could change the status quo otherwise preserved and sanctified by nuclear deterrence stability in the sub-continent.

In Afghanistan Islamist politics emerged because of the country’s brief experiment with parliamentary democracy in 1960s. It was also a distinct reaction to the growing Marxist trends amongst the educated classes. Pakistan’s Islamic parties kept contact with Afghan parties such as Hizbe Islami because they were never enthusiastic about the irredentist claims of Afghan leaders typified by Sardar Mohammad Daoud who was to lose his life in the Marxist-led military putsch in 1978. These links played an important part in forging a formidable front against the Marxist regime and then in organising the great Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union. The Jihad was largely outsourced to Pakistan’s intelligence services which, with strong American assistance, radicalised the Afghans Mujahidden and their Pakistani partners. The madrassas that had imparted a conservative Sunni education based upon a centuries old curriculum became a special focus of anti-Soviet militancy. In the mid-1990s the madrassa students on both sides of the border constituted the Taliban who intervened strongly in a fierce power struggle amongst the Mujahideen leaders. The Taliban had much of Afghanistan under their medievalist control when they were overthrown by the American attack in October 2001.

The Afghan Jihad brought thousands of Muslims, mostly Arabs, to Afghanistan and the neighbouring districts of Pakistan. Amongst them were Shaikhs who commanded veneration for their knowledge of fundamentalist Islam and who raised the awareness of the Pakistani and Afghan Islamists from the local to the global. People of both the countries had always taken a strong interest in Muslim causes all over the world especially in Palestine. But the Arab component of the Afghan Jihad provided them with a conceptual framework for a perpetual struggle against powers that continued to humiliate the Muslims and usurp their lands directly or through indigenous surrogates. Pakistan’s reversal of policy on Afghanistan in 2001 and the wholehearted participation of the Pakistani army in the project to build a new democratic Afghanistan aroused great hostility amongst this ideological enclave of the erstwhile Afghan Jihad. Pakistan has ended up importing the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan where the Taliban have re-surfaced as the main resistance group into Pakistan. Its tribal belt now has militants called local Taliban and the losses suffered by the Pakistan’s security forces exceed the aggregate of American and NATO losses since 2001. The Pakistan government has not carried conviction that the country needs to fight the militants for its own security and prosperity. The armed forces are currently engaged in re-establishing the writ of the government in Waziristan where the jihadis have created a rival authority. It is a costly enterprise in military losses and government’s popularity ratings. The ever widening perception in the country that the government is fighting America’s war in Afghanistan by itself has become a factor in the radicalisation of Islamists in the country. The post-election political government in Pakistan is mindful of this factor and is currently engaged in exploring avenues for diversifying the strategy for combating extremism so as to include offers of negotiations with amenable groups of militants enraged by an excessive reliance on military counter-insurgency operations.

European Concern

As a citizen of a country  from where considerable emigration to Europe, especially the United Kingdom, has taken place one cannot but understand the increasing anxiety about the inroads that Muslim activism is making into Muslim expatriate communities in Europe. Nor can one be indifferent to the reactive implications of this phenomenon for European societies and for inter-state relations in a globalising world. If the European liberal -left feels that Muslim radicalism has intensified the shift in the European political spectrum to extreme right, the Muslim world is equally apprehensive of irrational Islamophobia. Not since the crusades and the Spanish Inquisition has Islam been vilified the way it is being done in this age.

What are the easily recognisable aspects of the situation that need to be addressed? First and foremost, it is the fear of demography. Muslims tend to concentrate in urban centres for obvious economic reasons. They have a high birth rate. According to Timothy M.Savage,[6] there are 15.2 million Muslims in the original pre-expansion European Union (EU). France with five million, Germany with four million, the UK with 1.6 million, Italy with a million, and the Netherlands with 886,000 lead the charts. Austria, Belgium, Greece and Sweden have Muslim populations ranging from 300,000 to 450,000. Muslims in the New EU member states are estimated at 290,000 out of which Cyprus alone accounts for 200,000. One estimate visualises a doubling of Muslim population in Europe as a whole by 2015. While it is possible to dramatise the confessional situation in a particular city like Bradford in England, a situation that certainly calls for appropriate interventionist strategies, the overall demographic profile of Europe does not justify paranoid reactions. Surely, the cause is more qualitative than quantitative.

Three aspects of the qualitative situation stand out. The Muslims are reluctant to shed their identity; in fact, they are mobilising themselves more earnestly than ever before to preserve it.  Even though they are not a monolithic group, European Muslims “increasingly identify first with Islam rather than with either their family’s country of origin or the European country in which they reside.” Here is an abiding conflict of values. Second, they are prone to “the seductive lure of a transnational Muslim identity forged in foreign policy grievances, a culture of victimisation and a sense of alienation that is only partially fed by socio-economic factors.” {Jonathan Paris) Third, even for those who are not unduly distressed by the new diversity produced by Muslim cultures, in the plural, there is a putative threat to the state and the society. Analysing the scene in the Netherlands, Professor Paul Sniderman argues that multiculturalism encouraged an ambiguity of commitment; the fundamental issue, it turns out is not diversity but loyalty. Fourth, there is anxiety that Muslim communities in Europe, aggrieved as they feel, may not be fully forthcoming to cooperate with intelligence and law enforcement agencies in eliminating terrorist cells.

Unfortunately, Europe, like Pakistan, is reluctant to admit that an uncritical acceptance of the metaphor of a global war against terrorism has worked against the initiatives for greater harmony and integration. The two seminal strategies— multiculturalism adopted as a policy by the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Scandinavia etc., and assimilation by France — might have had a better chance if Iraq had not happened the way it did and Afghanistan was not mishandled after the initial success against the Taliban. It would be unnatural to expect that Muslims anywhere in the world would not be outraged by the destruction of Iraq.  They were prominent in the peace marches because of their race and religion; the demonstrations were otherwise overwhelmingly composed of Europeans whose time-hallowed post-Enlightenment values were grossly violated by the invasion and its sordid aftermath. The perception that the US-led West was waging war against Islam was as much a product of the fevered imagination of Muslim communities as of the reckless semantics used increasingly by western leaders once it became clear that the invasion had turned into a fiasco. The morally untenable over-simplification that any Muslim failing to show submission to the US grand design for the broader Middle East must either be a terrorist or a sympathetic accomplice has contributed greatly to the radicalisation of Muslims all over the world.

One of the new clichés is that the project to build multi-cultural societies in the West has collapsed because of ‘political Islam.’ It is possible to revive both multiculturalism and assimilation provided they are subjected to a critical reappraisal. The British are backing away from multiculturalism partly because they have not as yet factored into their assessment the blowback of the policies of the Blair era. France has to rethink its literalist interpretation of assimilation which over-blows issues like the wearing of scarves. Such potentially emotive matters are often a substitute for hard solutions for the harsh realities of the banlieues. The British academic, David Drake, pertinently asked why so much political, intellectual and emotional energy has been spent on the issue of a teenager wanting to wear a head scarf rather than on far more pressing issues of integration such as the high rates of unemployment and deprivation in the Muslim community. The explanation that the apprehensions of the French state are rooted in the memory of the bloody struggle for secularisation after the French Revolution and through the counter-revolutionary movements for restoration of the old school system does not make much impression on Muslims who consider the scarf as an ordinary statement of identity. For many Muslim analysts, Islamophobia is an escape from a cluster of realities. It has an undertone of racism that the West does not want to admit. There is a touch of imperial nostalgia that manifests itself into a hierarchical arrangement of people from former colonies. It is also a state of denial about the fact that many western countries have lost their distinctive status because of globalisation, American hegemony and now a rapid shift of economic power to the emerging Asian nations.

An effective strategy to combat the rise of radicalism will have to address issues of foreign and security policies and those of integrating or assimilating Muslims into European societies simultaneously. Seeking to bring about a forcible disconnect between the two has already been shown as counter-productive. At the psychological and emotional plane, it is as difficult to make Muslims indifferent to the disastrous new wars in the Middle East as to expect Jewish communities in the United States and elsewhere not to concern themselves with the fortunes of Israel. Secular western states often show an understandable bias in favour of Christian minorities in other lands particularly when they become victims of an oppressive majority, as was the case of East Timor under Indonesian control. The harm done by European procrastination over a ceasefire in Lebanon in August 2006 was incalculable as every additional day provided to Israel to wreak havoc in Lebanon was being carried to millions of homes all over the world in real time. The recent history of Arab-Muslim people from Palestine to Afghanistan has regrettably highlighted how little is the impact of the mass of liberal people in the West on the policies of their governments. It has gravely undermined the European moral authority. With its unrivalled experience of other cultures and climes spanning at least three hundred years, Europe is expected to exercise a moderating influence on American policies. The popular perception in the Muslim world is not only of the insensitivity of American decision-making to honest advice but also of Europe not even tendering such advice.

Muslims do not expect Europe to unleash an insurgency against what is often described as the new global American empire. But they do think that Europe can strengthen its own initiatives for Good Neighbourhood policies towards Muslim lands across the Mediterranean and on its eastern rim from Turkey southwards. On issues like Palestine that fuel radicalism, Europe has not tried hard enough to present a different profile. If Prime Minister Tony Blair was lured to the Iraq war by a subliminal desire to recapture the lost glory of the British Empire, then the outcome should open our eyes. Iraq has emerged as the new epicentre of radicalism and given Al-Qaeda a new lease of life.

Even on its own, Europe in partnership with Arab-Muslim countries can help create a civilisational infrastructure of education, professional knowledge, economic reforms and technology transfer that would stop the rapid expansion of the space where deprivation and frustration translate into radicalism. Europe can also disseminate liberal and democratic values by demonstrating that in the final analysis it is not on the side of local despots and dictators. Unfortunately the present evidence points to the contrary; Europe is still seen to prefer puppets that can keep the natives on a tight leash.

Internally, Europe must make a distinction between those who have signed up for mindless violence and the rest including those given the derogatory title of “fence sitters.” If further recruitment is denied the hard core will succumb before long to better law enforcement, intelligence and international cooperation. Europe needs to deconstruct myths being popularised by the extreme right wing and the American evangelists trying to hasten the second coming. It is often said that the Muslim minority is “encroaching upon the collective identity and public values of European society.” We need to sift the truth in such assertions from deep-seated historical prejudices which project themselves as a paranoid fear of the “other.” Thirteen European states have been listed as not recognising Islam as a religion. Many of them do not even bestow minority rights embodied in their constitutions on Muslims because they are not a recognised ethnic group. No less than 19 percent of Germans were reported in a survey to favour a ban on Muslim worship altogether. Several European states create serious hurdles in the construction of mosques.  Discriminated against frequently, the ghettoised mind can only resist assimilation. That resistance is stronger amongst the young is as much an indictment of the European societies as the false charisma of the radicalised Imams. Loyalty comes more easily if one has a stake in the state and society.

Reforming Islam

The present crisis in the West’s relations with the Muslim world emanates in no small a measure from an inflexible hostility towards what is often referred to as ‘political Islam.’ The term is becoming synonymous with terrorism. Political Islam is considered on a priori basis as antithetical to modernisation, democratic choice and liberal values. Embracing an essentialist view of Islamist movements, the US-led West seems to have taken upon itself the task of reconstituting Islamic civilisation. Since political Islam is pathology, a surgical use of force is considered legitimate. The fact of the matter is that the major “Islamist” movements in Morocco, Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia reject neither modernity nor development. Nearly all of them are willing to stake their claim to political power through free and fair election. What is, however, true is that they also share their opposition to conflating modernisation with westernisation. “History,” writes Menderes Cinar, “is narrated accordingly: the pious Muslim people reacted to the colonisation of their lands by waging a war of independence, but since then an alienated, Westernising elite grabbed the power of the state and acted as internal colonisers.” Cinar recommends that Islamism be accepted as a legitimate political movement, advancing a moral criticism of politics which is a sine qua non of democracy.[7] This proposal to “normalise” Islamism as an alternative vision that is willing to figure in a democratic battle of ideas resonates well with much of liberal Muslim opinion which regards the western pressure on Muslim rulers to exclude the Islamist tendency from the equation as playing into the hands of militants and terrorists. Muslim politics cannot be severed by force from assertion of a Muslim identity by segments of the polity; the balance can be found only in the adoption of democratic procedures. The West, at the moment, is seen as clearly arrayed on the side of non-democratic regimes willing to advance its agenda of re-establishing control of physical resources of the Muslim world. That religion is not a factor per se is seen in the readiness of most of the Islamic movements to support increased ties with non-Muslim or secular states such as China and India.

In Muslim history, a transnational awareness of the Ummah has never abolished local identities. At best it was unity in diversity even at the zenith of the Caliphate, a concept left far behind by modernity. A great deal of the sacred has survived in all Christian sects despite the Enlightenment and the Jacobeans. A great deal of the sacred will shape the Muslim imagination wherever the Muslims live as a community. They will imbibe modern sciences and technology and yet retain some sense of mystery in their understanding of the Genesis and the purpose of human life. How it can threaten European values is simply incomprehensible. Nor would it stand in the way of Muslims integrating in non-Muslim states as loyal citizens as they have done for 1400 years.


[*] Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former ambassador and foreign secretary of Pakistan. This essay is based on a presentation made by him to an international conference held in the Netherlands in October 2007.

[1] Rahman, Fazalur, Revival and Reform in Islam, One world, Oxford 2006. P.7

[2] ibid p 13

[3] ibid p 21

[4] Abdou Filali-Ansary. Journal of Democracy 1999

[5] Mazarr, Michael J, March 6, 2006

[6] Savage, Timothy M.,, Europe and Islam: Crescent Waxing, Cultures Clashing, The Washington Quarterly; Summer 2004, pp 25-50

[7] Cinar, M, 2002, From Shadow boxing to Critical Understanding, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 3.1, 35-57