The latest terrorist attacks in Paris and in Bamako (Mali) have drawn, once again, the attention on Islamic extremist groups. They have spread death across the Middle East, Africa and now at the heart of Europe. We look at the phenomenon: causes, characteristics, diversity and challenges.
Al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, ISIS, Khorasan, Al-Nusra, the list could go on and on for quite a considerable time! History has always seen one religious extremist group or another slowly emerging. However, there is something that is particular about Islamic extremism as we see it today: the proliferation of militant extremist groups and their capacity to do harm is unprecedented. While it is true that the means of doing harm are more sophisticated now than in centuries past, the real question is: how do we understand this phenomenon, not just the phenomenon of extremist Islam in general, but its resurgence with a force not seen before?
Who is it that names certain groups or trends of Islam as ‘extremists’. How does a so-called ‘extremist’ Muslim understand himself? There is great likelihood that what the ‘infidel’ terms ‘extremism’ is just a total religious submission in the proper sense of the word. It is purely, essentially Islam. And the ‘moderates’? The so-called extremist sees the so-called ‘moderates’ as half-baked Muslims, people who need help to become better Muslims, or else face the same fate reserved for the infidels. It is important to note that extremism can also be found in other religions and not only in Islam. And that secondly, not all extremist groups are necessarily armed or terrorist groups. However, Islamic armed groups have always found their driving force in extremist theology and propaganda and often too, extremist theological and ideological positions have given birth to extremist armed groups.
Some causes of Islamic extremism
The doctrinal causes of extremism. Islamic extremism, at a doctrinal level can be traced to the distant past, finding some of its seeds in the Kharijite movement, those men who chose to withdraw their support from the Khalif ‘Ali for having opted for human arbitration during the first intra-islamic wars.
As in modern times, even though Islamic extremism has and still comes dressed in different colours with different leaders and sometimes feigning doctrinal difference, there is a common doctrinal denominator which can be traced generally either in Wahhabism or in Salafism. Mention may also be made of Shi’a extremist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon but, if taken at an international level, we discover that Sunni (Salafist and Wahhabist) extremism is more notable than any other.
Established in the eighteenth century by ibn Abdul Wahhab, Wahhabism remains a doctrinal well from which different extremist movements drink even though to different degrees. A number of Islamic scholars themselves, in the Islamic world itself, contend that religious extremism must, to a great extent, be traced to Wahhabism. After the 2002 bombing which claimed more than 180 victims in Bali (Indonesia), an Indonesian writer, Yusf Wanandi, said: ‘Perhaps the most important thing is the ideological struggle against radicalism and terrorism in the name of Islam. Although Muslims in Indonesia are mainly moderate, they need help and assistance in expanding their educational systems which have so far been able to withstand the extremist influences of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia”.
The absence of a space to question doctrine. Extremism in Islam is closely related to an abiding conflict, if not to a lack of conjugation, between doctrine and faith as a personal experience of God. Looking back at the history of Islam, being a Muslim was at the beginning something spontaneous and free to the extent that some collaborators of Muhammad such as Ibn Waraqa remained unconverted, but there came a crucial moment (at Medina) when not being a Muslim meant that one was thus necessarily an enemy. According to Malek Chebel, it is at this moment that Muslims lost the freedom to adhere to any other faith that their conscience might suggest.
The resulting trend is that anyone who claims to be custodian of doctrinal truth will also claim power over other believers. Extremist groups and movements claim, each in their own way, to be the true custodians of Islam or at least to be the right representatives of the interests of the Islamic community. It is generally accepted that the truth and validity of doctrine has to be guaranteed by the exercise of power and control over believers. This helps understand why extremist armed groups will put even those Muslims who do not hold their own similar doctrine in the category of unbelievers.
Extremism is fruit of the fact that what is acclaimed as orthodoxy especially by the extremists themselves cannot be questioned or debated. This is aggravated by the fact that those who claim to be custodians of orthodoxy reserve to themselves a God-given mandate to control believers and annihilate whoever is judged an enemy of religion.
Modern historical factors. The abolishing of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 and the founding of the Republic of Turkey by Mustafa Atartuk was a turning point in the history of Islam and also in the sentiments of many a Muslim. Having suffered the shame of seeing many Muslim territories colonized by infidels, the disappearance of the caliphate was the last thing that many Muslims would have expected. This resulted in nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ when Islam manifested its power and dominance. This situation had of necessity for many Muslims to be reversed in one way or another. In fact, many extremist groups have had as one of their main objectives to reestablish the Caliphate, a political space where only Islam rules and commands; a place where a powerful Islam can truly be seen. Boko Haram in Nigeria and The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are doing just that.
Between the years 1968 and 1979, when many states were basking in the post-colonial sun, many Arabic states tried and failed to establish democratic states. Failure to establish democratic institutions led to the growth of Islamic-nationalist groups. Secondly, the war between Israel and Arabs was going on. This was also the moment when groups such as the the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Al-Fatah appeared on the scene. As Palestinian groups they became models for other movements in the region.
While it can be argued that Palestinian groups were not motivated by doctrinal reasons as such, other religiously motivated groups learned much from them. With time, these religiously motivated groups established themselves strongly in different countries and got financial support from conservative Islamic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, to counter nationalist movements.
The years between 1979 and 1991 were marked, among other things, by two events that were later to have a great influence on militant extremism: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979. The anti-soviet war in Afghanistan for which many fighters were trained by USA and Western powers, provided not only the basis for what is known as the modern ‘mujahideen culture’, but also a large number of well-trained men who became key fighters in subsequent armed groups such as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Volunteers for the anti-soviet war in Afghanistan had come from many origins and played roles in setting up armed groups in other parts of the world such as North Africa, Chechnya, Philippines, etc.
As for the Iranian revolution, though Iran is, by doctrine, an enemy of Sunni Islam, the anti-western propaganda (from Iran) found its way into the mind-set of many Sunni extremist groups.
Geopolitics and the ignorance of western powers. Certain foreign political powers have also fueled extremism such as in the case of the Taliban. The Soviet presence in Afghanistan was countered by the Americans by training young zealous people into a force that the Soviets had to reckon with. However, although the ‘young theology students’ needed arms and training, their religious zeal was more of a determining factor in the war than the arsenal of arms received from the Americans. After the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan, the students were to become (later) a real problem for their western masters.
In the recent Arab Spring that saw the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt, Hillary Clinton, the then Secretary of State of the USA expressed readiness to work with the Muslim Brotherhood. The USA has continued to do so despite the current Egyptian government for they still recognize Moursi (a Muslim Brother) as the rightfully elected president.
While Assad of Syria is fighting for his survival, the forces fighting him, which are of diverse extremist tendencies, have received much material and moral support from Western countries. In the same way, the USA and western governments have continued to maintain ‘political correctness’ by not talking of the help extremist groups are receiving from some Arab countries. In fact, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are major American allies, they stand as a main source of finances for extremist movements.
The ignorance of western powers is what prevented them from foreseeing the danger that lay behind extremist groups taking power during the so-called Arab Spring. As NATO jet fighters helped in smoking out the forces of Muammar Gaddafi, they contributed at the same time to the confusion in Libya and even worse, to the expansion of the influence of Al-Qaeda in North Africa. (A.K.)