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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Al Qaeda's deep philosophical roots 

This blog has long argued that our enemy in the current war – not the tactic “terror” but al Qaeda and its ideological and organizational affiliates – has, like the international Communist movement, been in gestation for several generations. Al Qaeda uses recent or symbolically powerful grievances such as the existence of Israel or the presence of “infidels” in Arabia or Mesopotamia for propagandistic purposes, but neither the organization nor its philosophy fundamentally derive from anything that the West has done in a very long time. Some of this argument is developed in this post, which most of you have already read (a summary of Michael Scott Doran’s lecture on “Al Qaeda’s grand strategy”). In that lecture, Professor Doran traced the ideological development of al Qaeda to the much earlier Muslim Brotherhood organization in Egypt. But even the Muslim Brotherhood had predecessors.

I have just stumbled across a passage in Andrew Wheatcroft’s excellent book Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, which, by the way, I highly recommend. Toward the end of the book, Wheatcroft detects the seeds of the movement in the 19th century:
The Islamic thinkers of the late nineteenth century were very much aware of Western modernity in its physical and political manifestations. Some, like [Egyptian savant Mohammad Abduh], knew the European intellectual revolution from which it emerged; but their thinking developed in opposition to what they saw as the negative character of the West. This grew out of a long tradition. At Al-Azhar in Cairo, the oldest university in the world, scholars had debated the shape and structures of the faith since the late tenth century. This tradition of criticism and scholarship in Cairo outlasted its competitors in Damascus and Baghdad, and from the early nineteenth century the city became a pioneer in the printing and publication of secular, nationalist, and also religious material. In the years after World War I, as Egypt remained in thrall to Britain, much of the political debate in Cairo began to focus anew on the Holy Qur’an and the hadith for guidance. This had to be done carefully. Islam was opposed to the idea of innovation (bid’ah), which would undermine the concept of a perfect revelation of the ideal society. Change had to be presented, rhetorically, as “no change,” or better, as a reversion to an earlier and purer state of society. A new practice had to be embedded within an unchanging paradigm. Nevertheless there was a tradition of speculation, for unobtrusive reexamination and reinterpretation of questions that had been closed centuries before.

In the early history of Islam there had been a tradition of ideas passed on by pupils, each of whom listened to the words of his master, and then transmitted them to his own successors. It was a chain binding each scholar irrevocably to his predecessors and to those who in turn had learned the truth from his own lips. A similar chain of connection linked the theorists and activists of the Islamic revival, each of whom added his own contribution. An intellectual movement centered upon fighting the power of the West began with a complex figure called Jamal al-Din, often known as Al-Afghani, who taught in Egypt, was exiled to Paris, and eventually died in Constantinople in 1897. He called on Muslims to resist the West, to turn the West’s own weapons and techniques against it.

One of his most devoted supporters was Muhammad Abduh. When Al-Afghani was expelled from Egypt, Abduh followed him to Paris. There they published a short-lived journal called the Indissoluble Bond, which preached Muslim unity in the face of Western power. Abduh’s work was continued by his pupil, a Syrian called Rashid Rida. He in turn became a powerful influence on Hasan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, and on its most notable theorist, Sayyid Qutb.

Banna created a new kind of political and religious organization that began “as a youth club with its main stress on moral and social reform through communication, information and propaganda.” Banna began a tradition where Islamist politics were allied to providing assistance for the poor and dispossessed. By 1940 there were more than 500 branches in Egypt, which had risen to 5,000 by 1946….

Sayyid Qutb was both a scholar and a prolific author, who wrote his last and (arguably) his greatest work in prison in the 1960s. He became one of the leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood. When he was hanged on the orders of the Egyptian government, he turned into a martyr in the eyes of his supporters. A younger Egyptian, Abd al-Salem Faraj, suffered the same fate as Qutb; in 1979 he had founded a group called the Society for the Holy War (Jamaat al-Jihad), usually known simply as Al-Jihad. On October 6, 1981, Al-Jihad succeeded in killing the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, whom they had proscribed as an evil prince. As one of the assassins publicly declared, “I am [Lieutenant] Khalid Islambuli. I have killed Pharaoh and I do not fear death.” For Faraj, Islambuli, and their group, Sadat merited death. “We have to make the Rule of God’s Religion in our own country first, and to make the Word of God supreme … there is no doubt that the first battlefield for jihad is the extermination of these infidel leaders [“corrupt” Muslims like Sadat] and to replace them by a complete Islamic Order. From there we should start.” (bold emphasis added)

The political philosophy behind al Qaeda’s movement has been developing for more than a century. Indeed, to a non-expert outside observer, it looks as though al Qaeda’s articulated radicalism is the only political philosophy that seriously competes for legitimacy in much of the Muslim world. Communism – which once contended for legitimacy in many Muslim countries -- is dead, and “moderate Islam” does not seem to excite sufficient passion to motivate most Muslims to risk their lives to turn in the radicals in their midst. Western concepts of “popular sovereignty,” which are worth fighting for, are not well-known and are only being articulated at all in a few corners of the Muslim world. Indeed, most Muslim governments are based not on any defendable political philosophy, but on rank authoritarianism or the divine right of kings. In the absence of competition, a coherent and superficially spiritual political philosophy can gain a lot of traction, almost no matter how horrible its consequences. That political philosophy in turn will inspire groups that are only loosely affiliated with the founding political movement. This is why al Qaeda, which means "the base," and its affiliates have been able to sustain wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, the Balkans, Spain, England and the United States, and used many other countries (Germany and the Netherlands, for example) as staging areas. Al Qaeda will not go away if America withdraws from Iraq, and it would not go away if Israel withdrew from the occupied territories. It can, in the end, only be beaten by Muslims who are willing to take a stand and risk their lives in defense of an inspiring alternative political philosophy.

UPDATE (5:15 pm, July 25): MEMRI just put up a translation of a very relevant article by Dr. Ahmad Al-Rab'i, former Kuwaiti minister of education:
"If we were to go according to the logic of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement then we shouldn't condemn the Sharm Al-Sheikh crime, nor [should we condemn] other terrorist crimes!

"The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has its own justifications for violence. In a statement by the movement, in which it 'condemned' the Sharm Al-Sheikh crime, it laid out its justification for the crime. The statement said: 'the colonialist policies that the world's strong countries pursue, as well as the aggression against the peoples – they are what engender the culture of violence.'

"The Muslim Brotherhood's problem is that it has no shame. The beginnings of all of the religious terrorism that we are witnessing today were in the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology of takfir [accusing other Muslims of apostasy]. Sayyid Qutb's book Milestones was the inspiration and the guide for all of the takfir movements that came afterwards.

"The founders of the violent groups were raised on the Muslim Brotherhood, and those who worked with Bin Laden and Al-Qa'ida went out under the mantle of the Muslim Brotherhood.


"If the imperialist countries' policy is what engendered violence, as the Brotherhood's statement says, then what is keeping a few citizens in Vietnam – which American planes utterly destroyed with millions of tons of bombs – from blowing up buildings in San Francisco? What is keeping a few citizens in Japan – which America attacked with an atom bomb – from blowing up Boston?

"Also, what do foreign tourists and innocent Egyptian citizens have to do with the policies of 'the imperialist countries'? Should peaceful and defenseless citizens be killed in Sharm Al-Sheikh, Baghdad, Riyadh, and San'a in order to take revenge on imperialist countries?" (bold emphasis added)

All good questions.

16 Comments:

By Blogger Jane, at Sun Jul 24, 10:30:00 AM:

wow, great post.  

By Blogger james82, at Sun Jul 24, 12:22:00 PM:

If I had to guess, I'd say that Muslims are taught to hate, that the majority subscribe to it - just read the Koran for yourself. If we really want to prosecute a war on terror, it needs to be conducted more ruthlessly. We can't win if we have liberals and their minions in the press whining about Abu Ghraib, privacy rights, and Gitmo, resulting in tying the Armed Forces hands. Second, the largest piece of the cause is the Saudis. They promulgate the hate of Wahhabiism, which is easy to do when you pump oil for $3 a barrel and sell it for $60 a barrel. Let's bring democracy to Saudi Arabia, and we'll see whom they elect - more mad mullahs. I'm wondering if we're conductiing the war too timidly. This Islamic hate is not going to go away. I wish we could abandon them to their whack-o ways and leave them in their 10th century isolation. Too bad the Islamic world has slightly more than half the world's oil. Can we enjoy our standard of living with the occasional suicide bomber, or do we go all out and fight terror - including Saudi and the Paki-Afghan border. How long before NYC or other big city is hit like London was?  

By Blogger Donald Sensing, at Sun Jul 24, 10:46:00 PM:

And there were other fuses that were lit more recently. Jihadism, an expansive, aggressive form of Islamism in which violence and killing are the central "sacraments," is quite recent. See my essay, "Islamism's War Against the West."  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jul 24, 10:47:00 PM:

Here is the reality of the situation. These enemies of the USA, the presidents for life, the kings, princes, mullahs, clerics,wahhabism schools, Al Jihad, and the rest of the Moslem world exist because we are civilized, and have tremendous military power in restraint.
This "battle" between Islam and Western Civilization could be over in about 45 minutes if we took the gloves off.  

By Blogger Mark Daniels, at Sun Jul 24, 11:40:00 PM:

Terrific post. Because I'm a pastor, I've been looking at what seem to be among the religious underpinnings of al Qaeda's ideology. As I see it, bin Laden and crew commend a perverted version of Islam, to be sure. But one can see where these ideas come from religiously. All religious faiths are subject to perversion. But it seems like a good enterprise for all of us who are not Muslims to better understand the Islamic faith, thus avoiding both prejudice and naivete.

Once again, this is a fine post.  

By Anonymous danithew, at Mon Jul 25, 12:28:00 AM:

Sayyid Qutb's most influential work is his book "Ma'alim fi'l Tariq" which translates as "Milestones Along the Way." You can find it in English translation under the name Milestones. I've posted title chapters and some quotes at Wikipedia herehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ma%27alim_fi-l-Tariq.

By the way, the extended chapter quote you provided reminds me very much of a chapter I recently read in Dilip Hiro's book "War Without End: The Rise of Islamist Terrorism and Global Response". See chapter 3, which is titled "Islam in Modern Times."  

By Anonymous danithew, at Mon Jul 25, 12:29:00 AM:

It looks like I posted that last link badly. It is here.  

By Anonymous John Burgess, at Mon Jul 25, 08:57:00 AM:

Something both you and Doran are missing, I think, is what happened when the MB- and Wahhabi-inspired "Islam" got to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The Deobandi-based interpretations of political Islam was already in Afghanistan. The Deobandis, arising as a response to the British Raj in the mid-19th C., had a strong activist base, not the theoretical base further west. It had a history of militant and violent acts against the Raj and those natives--Muslim or Hindu--who supported it. It had also shown great intolerance toward Shi'a and Sufi interpetations of Islam. The Taleban, in fact, were a Deobandi sect.

When two "imported" extremist interpretations met up with the native Deobandis, a new synthesis was formed, a murderous one, which was now well-funded and had a more philosophical appeal to young Muslims and Arabs looking for explanations of their failed or failing societies.

The Muslim Brothers, pre-Afghanistan, had very little history of terror, instead looking toward targeted assasinations. The extremist Wahhabis were even less active, with the seizure of the Grand Mosque n 1979 being just about the only overt act in recent history.

Added to Deobandism, however, the new combination became incredibly toxic.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon Jul 25, 09:19:00 AM:

James82 - I don't think that the majority of Muslims are taught to hate, any more than the majority of Christians are. At least, that's my guess. Most people just want to get along in the world, go about their business, and wish for a better future. I read a lot of the Arab blogs, including a lot of very anti-American ones, and still I do not think that the idiom of "hate" is a useful one when discussing the average Muslim.

I think the press tends to amplify extremism on both sides. Like many of my readers, I'm a regular reader of LGF and MEMRI, which tend to accentuate the negative. The MSM inclines at least as much, if not more, in that direction. This is all very instructive, but it perhaps presents a skewed perspective. I note that if you read anti-American Arab blogs they tend to quote our biggest idiots as if they were representative, and it makes me wonder whether we are not doing the same thing.

Of course, with more than 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, if even 10% "hate" as you say, that's an awful lot of hatred.

John Burgess, thank you for your excellent contribution. In fairness to Doran, his exposition on the development of al Qaeda was confined to a lecture, and my post was itself somewhat edited. He agrees, I think, that Afghanistan was the "primordial soup" in which Egyptian traditions, Wahhabism, Afghani traditions, and the veterans of the war against the Soviets all got together to shape the ideology that fuels this war.  

By Blogger Jason_Pappas, at Mon Jul 25, 10:30:00 AM:

I generally make a distinction between religious philosophy and sociology – between Islam as a doctrine and Muslims as a demographic group. Muslims vary from the devout to the lax or lapsed. The history you outlined is part of what is called the Islamic Revival. Some Muslims want to return to the original practice of Islam of their founder, Mohammad. I agree that we must learn about this ideology even if most Muslims don’t fully practice it. Islam is the root cause.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jul 28, 11:37:00 AM:

Perhaps the Western world should also look at what is happening in India. Muslims have taken advantage of democracy to create a situation where any body that opposes Muslim extremism is branded as communal; and every party that supports Muslim separatism is classified as secular. Muslim extremists have honed their skills by operating in India, and exploiting the loopholes in democratic set-ups. Presently, they are targetting Western world too.

The problem, as I see it, is the warped thinking that is now very much a part of Indian society. Common muslims, too, are increasingly beginning to believe that Muslims have been/are being wronged at many places in the world. The truth is far far different, but the entire world will have to operate much more honestly if this belief is to be changed.  

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