Roots of Islamicist terrorism in modern times

| | in Oped
Roots of Islamicist terrorism in modern times

Hardly a week passes without Islamicist terrorism related news. The killing of more than 300 Egyptian Muslims in Sinai-based supposedly Sufi mosque last Friday is just another addition to horrific saga of Islamicist terrorism. Harsh condemnations by majority of Muslims as well as counter-terrorist discourses and strategies, including the application of force, have not deterred its recurrence.

Analyses to such recurrence of Islamicist terrorism range from thesis of “Muslim marginalisation in global power structure”, “democratic and educational deficit in the Muslim world”, “the foreign policy postures of the West, particularly vis-a-vis Israel- Palestinian conflict” to “reaction to modernity”. However, none of these factors are specific to the Muslim community alone. Colonisation, imperialism, modernisation, democratic deficit in governance and under-development have been a reality in most parts of the world. Yet, the violent reaction from a section of Muslim community has no parallel in other faiths, communities or groups. In its intensity, frequency and scale, Islamicist terrorism has surpassed all other forms of terrorism, at least in the recent times.

Two factors seem to account for its sustenance:

(a) it has increasingly become a part of “state politics” and “state political economy” across many parts of the Muslim world; and (b) the gradual blurring of distinction between the ultimate “Islamic vision” of radicalised Muslims and mainstream Muslims centred around the doctrine of Tawhid (monotheism) — the core of Islam. The dominant meaning of doctrine of Tawhid has underwent transformative shift in the hands of Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the 18th century Islamic reformer in Arabia, the roots of which date back to bitter Islamic theological contestations in the 11th century, which even continues till date, between Wahdut al-Wujud (All is Allah) and Wahdut al- Shuhud (All is from Allah).

This shift signifies a very sharp, literal, rigid, ideological, vertical and exclusive as compared to pre-modern times’ understanding of Tawhid in which the notion of Allah emerged as “marker” of the differentiated Muslim identity vis-a-vis other faiths with following specific connotations: (a) a vertical relationship between Allah via Quran and Sunnah and mankind without any mediatory role of Islamic agencies — learned Ulema, Sufis, institutions and interpretative textual traditions; (b) Allah has to be imagined as a complete separate uncreated entity from all created things; (c) Allah as the sole source of authority over everything and the soul object of worship, glory, praise and expectation for mankind; and (d) any association with Allah or expectation in any form other than Allah is considered Shirk (unbelief). All subsequent Islamic reformist movements have operated within this discursive meaning of Tawhid as laid down in Wahhabi-Salfi narratives.

Today, the above-meaning of Tawhid has become the standard bearer of Muslim understanding of Islam owing to multiple factors — the most important of which is the development of petro-dollar improved means of communication and transportation and revolution in information technology that allow the Wahhabi- inspired Gulf states to universalise its “local” version of Tawhid at rapid pace across many parts of the Muslim world.

Such understanding of Tawhid has multiple implications in radicalising a section of the Muslim youth. First, this has led to development of an idea among a large number of Muslims that by restoring back Allah’s rule — which is considered to have been corrupted through long process of shirk and bida (innovations including ideas, practices and institution that was non-existent during the period of Prophet Muhammad) committed by Muslim governments and people alike — the pristine glory of Islam can be retrieved and a good fortune for Muslims can be assured. This “material” hope, how illusory it may be, sustains the preference of “Sharia law” over any form of “man-made law” among a large section of Muslims, as former is forever “sacralised”. That is why the idea of “Islamic state”, no matter how faceless and abstract it is, continues to retain an appeal among a good number of Muslims and propel them either to rebel against existing forms of secular government or to demand Sharia law in governance in Muslim- majority nations or to seek “autonomy of Sharia law” in Muslim-minority context.  

Second, it makes Muslims accountable only before Allah in their daily life and demands to uphold Allah’s authority in all matters and actions, including the political ones with a consequence that temporal authority, irrespective of its forms, suffers from lack of legitimacy in the eyes of majority of Muslims. This perception becomes more sharp with the decline of legitimacy of Islamic institutions, which used to confer Islamic legitimacy on political leadership as well as perform mediatory role between ruler and the ruled. One implication of this process that all government in Muslim societies, how popular, democratically elected and legitimate they may be, tends to prefer an “authoritarian mode of governance with Muslim face” as it lacks complete trust in its own institutions and people as well as fears the backlash of Islam.

No wonder all governments in Muslim societies —whether Islamic or secular —exercise effective supervision and control over the symbolic and institutional resources of Islam.

Third, the “everyday diversified Islamic experiences” across the Muslim world lacks sufficient legitimacy in the narratives of Wahhabi-Salafi discourse of Tawhid, which considers them as an obstacle in the creation of Ummatic unity. No wonder that local Sufi shrines and other centres of Islamic practices, which do not prescribe the Wahhabi-Salafi understanding of Tawhid, has been object of attack of modern Islamic reformism and Muslim extremists alike all across the Muslim world in the past and in present too. The post-colonial modern Muslim state too targeted and marginalised them in the name of “obstacle” to progress, nation-building and development. Over the centuries this has resulted in erosion of much of internal catholic, syncretic, pluralistic, accommodative, and humanistic traditions of Islam. 

One consequence of this process is the development of particular understanding of Islam that pays a very low premium on human life, focuses more on identity discourses, promotes an ideological, binary world view of Muslim vs other (which includes even practicing Muslims) that considers the current age as Jahhilya (ignorant, pre-Islamic) and contributes in the development of political culture that lacks trust in the politics of accommodation and negotiation. This partly explains the cult of “suicide bombing” and the indiscriminate killing of people, the majority of which are Muslims, by Islamicist extremists.

A cumulative effect of above implications of modern understanding of Tawhid is that a large number of Muslims lost their faith in the transformative capacity of Muslims as humans to change their affairs with their positive actions and leave everything to the Commandments of Allah for the improvement in this life! This leaves a good number of Muslims with a question: how to effectively implement the Commandments of Allah as enshrined in the Quran, Hadith and Sunnah? With this question in mind, a tectonic shift — under the condition of colonial modernity — took place in the notion of Sharia, Dawa, Ummah, Hijrat, and Jehad, which are more literal, ideological, exclusive, technical, legalistic, hierarchical and violence prone, the discursive meaning of which is shared by the majority of moderates and the radical elements alike. This partly explains that even though the moderate or mainstream Muslims did abhor the “culture of mass killing”, this abhorrence and condemnation of what has come to be known as “Jehadi Islam” does not translate into questioning “the Islamicness” of its motive, intention and objective of such killings.

If the battle of Islamicist terrorism is about the battle of minds and hearts, then the Muslim community has to critically re-look, review and delegitimise some of its own Islamic traditions, which are bringing disrepute to Islam itself in today’s modern context. One recent development in this regard is Fateullah Gulen, a trained imam and Islamic scholar of Turkish origin based in the USA, who has developed a powerful human- centred Islamic theology of peace, non-violence, love, service, cooperation, tolerance, and development and heralded a worldwide faith-based civic-social-educational movement. It is pity that at a time when such movement is needed most to fight internally the menace of Islamic terrorism, the Erdogan Government in Turkey chose to wipe it out by labelling it as a terrorist organisation!

However, there is a welcoming step in this regard is the Saudi’s recent declaration of “return to moderate Islam” and decision to establish a “Salman complex to review the Hadith by bringing worldwide Islamic scholars”. While the former is a process from below and has inherent limitations to influence the large public, the later with its top-down approach and worldwide Islamic legitimacy, if implemented, has potential to root out the menace of Islamicist terrorism.


(The writer is Senior Fellow, Policy Perspectives Foundation, New Delhi, and former professor of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia, both in Delhi)

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