"Born-again" Muslims: cultural schizophrenia

Malise Ruthven
10 September 2009

In the immediate aftermath of the skybombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on 11 September 2001, anyone with a minimum of human sympathy will be overwhelmed by feelings of rage and despair. Politicians, responding to the public mood, declare a “war on terrorism”. The airline industry goes into the proverbial nosedive. The stock markets tumble and experts predict that to the cost in human sorrow will be added the pain of economic recession.

Muslim statesmen and spokesmen, fearful of the consequences of America’s ire, denounce the attack as contrary to everything that Islam stands for. But Palestinian Muslims are shown on TV dancing in the streets and in Pakistan, Islamic militants are shown demanding jihad (“holy war” or “struggle in the path of Allah”) against the United States in the event of an attack on Afghanistan.

Pakistan, pressured by the United States, agrees to join the “coalition against terrorism” despite fears that collaboration with the US will meet resistance from the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters. Yet a US attack on Afghanistan could trigger the overthrow of the moderate, pro-western government headed by General (and now President) Pervez Musharraf, placing Islamist fingers on the nuclear button long before President George W Bush’s "national missile defence" initiative is ready for action.

An American attack on Afghanistan could well precipitate the overthrow of pro-western regimes not only in Pakistan, but in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and north Africa. Should this occur the attack on New York and Washington will no longer be seen as acts of “nihilistic” violence as some commentators maintain. Seen from the terrorists’ perspective it was an act of provocation aimed at unleashing a global conflict between a revitalised “Islam” and “the west”.

Whether or not George W Bush’s “war against terrorism” will generate such direful consequences remains to be seen. The dust has to settle and the debris cleared, with its hideous burden of human remains, before the international ramifications become fully apparent. Yet certain patterns are already beginning to emerge.

Contrary to the rhetoric of politicians, the attack was far from being “cowardly” or “mindless”. A brilliantly executed feat of planning, coordination and execution backed by an astonishing degree of courage, the attack exemplifies something that has come to characterise the modern (or "post-modern") world: the union of the symbolic with the actual, the mythical with the material, in a single act of destruction shown live on television.

Solidarities of tribe and faith

The United States president, using the language of a Texan sheriff, has announced Osama bin Laden is “wanted dead or alive” for mass murder in New York City and Washington. The evidence linking the Saudi dissident with the atrocity appears to be largely circumstantial and it is doubtful if, on present reckoning, it would stand up in a court of law.

One should, of course, be cautious before drawing firm conclusions. But if press reports fed by leaks from the FBI are accurate, the finger points directly to Osama bin Laden. Although the networks over which he presides are loosely structured - he does not apparently use his own satellite phone in case the calls are traced to him - the fact that the hijackers are thought to be Saudis and Yemenis from the same region as his own family suggests that the inner circle of al-Qaida, its Praetorian guard, may have been directly involved.

There are precedents. Throughout Islamic history rebels and reformers - or, to be more precise, rebels against the established order who present themselves as mujaddids (“renovators”) – have allied themselves with closely-knit tribal communities (often their own) with a view to achieve power and purge the state of corruption. The 14th-century philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun (d 1406) who lived in Spain and north Africa before moving to Egypt, used the word ‘asabiya (group-feeling or solidarity) to describe the tight human bonds that held these movements together.

In Ibn Khaldun’s historical theory, the ‘asabiya of groups moving from the periphery to the centre under the banner of reformed or revitalised Islam was the motor of historic and dynastic change. The ‘asabiya of the group that planned and executed the hijackings, which may have involved hundreds of individuals in different countries communicating via coded emails and mobile-phones, appears to have been formidable: not only was nothing leaked, but some people with foreknowledge of the attack appear to have made fortunes in airline stocks, possibly for use in future operations.

Many hundreds of Muslims may be numbered among the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center. In their “war against America” the terrorists do not distinguish between their co-religionists and others. Most westerners find it paradoxical that people who have demonstrated a remarkable degree of technical proficiency in their operations - training as pilots, coordinating a highly complex logistical operation involving the coordination of airline schedules with carefully worked-out dummy-runs, should hold “fanatical” or “fundamentalist” religious views. Newspaper accounts focus on the rewards of martyrdom promised for those “who die in the path of Allah”, which include the ministrations of seventy-two virgins in paradise.

The political passions that motivate terrorists in other traditions (such as Irish republicanism) are not usually linked so directly to a belief in the carnal pleasures of immortality. Yet no successful movement of this kind, whether religious, political or a combination of both, has ever lacked for martyrs willing to kill and be killed for the “cause”.

Modernising the war on unbelief

There is, however, a substantial body of research which indicates that fundamentalist movements in the Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) are particularly attractive to graduates in the applied sciences (such as engineering, computer programming and other highly technical trades).

Graduates in the arts and humanities who are trained to read texts critically may be less susceptible to the simplistic religious messages put forward by such movements. Technical specialisations discourage critical thinking. It may be that technicians from “pre-Enlightenment” cultures operate on separate epistemological tracks. The cultural, emotional and spiritual knowledge embedded in the religious tradition they inherit has not been integrated with the technical knowledge they acquire by training and by rote.

Their understanding of paradise may be a case in point. Traditional Muslim exegesis - which the fundamentalists bypass - takes a sophisticated view of the heavenly rewards promised to the believer: the imam Ghazali (d 1111), the greatest of the medieval theologians, saw the sexual imagery in the Qur'anic descriptions of paradise as inducements to righteousness: “It is a foretaste of the delights secured for men in paradise, because to make a promise to men of delights they have not tasted would be ineffective…”

Similarly, traditionally-trained scholars take a more nuanced view of duty of jihadthan today’s fundamentalists. In classical jurisprudence jihad is a collective duty which is only valid if a sufficient number of people take part in it. War against the unbelievers may not be mounted without summoning them to Islam or submission before the attack. Clearly a terrorist raid conducted without warning satisfies neither of these conditions. Mainstream Islamic doctrine would deny the rewards of martyrdom to the takers of innocent life.

The issue revolves around a theological question which has caused considerable controversy within the Islamic movement in recent decades. The Qur'anic discourse on jihad was based on the duty to fight the unbelievers – Mohammed’s Meccan opponents who rejected his message. Their condition was one of ignorance - jahiliya: a word which also carries connotations of paganism, arrogance, and stubbornness. Although revival movements throughout Islamic history invariably characterised their opponents as “infidels”, for most authors up to modern times the jahiliya remained the “period of ignorance” before the coming of Mohammed.

Modern Islamic ideologues have given it a new definition: for them it refers not to the past condition of the pre-Islamic Arabs, but to the present condition of Islam, in which the people are ignorant and the rulers have effectively apostasised.

The new definition of jahiliya was formulated by Sayyid Abu Ala al-Mawdudi (1903-79), the influential Indo-Pakistani Islamist ideologue and founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami, the Pakistani version of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It was adopted by the Egyptian revolutionary ideologue Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) who saw jahiliya everywhere: “Humanity today is living in a large brothel! One has only to glance at its press, films, fashion shows, beauty contests, ballrooms, wine bars, and broadcasting stations! Or observe its mad lust for naked flesh, provocative postures, and sick, suggestive statements in literature, the arts and the mass media! And add to all this the system of usury which fuels man’s voracity for money and engenders vile methods for its accumulation and investment, in addition to fraud, trickery, and blackmail dressed up in the garb of law…”

“Today we are in the midst of a jahiliya similar to, or even worse than the jahiliya that was ‘squeezed out’ by Islam. Everything about us is jahiliya: the concepts of mankind and their beliefs, their customs and traditions, the sources of their culture, their arts and literature, and their laws and regulations. [This is true] to such an extent that much of what we consider to be Islamic culture and Islamic sources, and Islamic philosophy and Islamic thought… is nevertheless the product of that jahiliya.”

"Born-again" Muslims

Sayyid Qutb, imprisoned and tortured by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s police and executed on what were almost certainly trumped-up charges, concluded that Muslim society in the Arab world and beyond had ceased to be “Islamic”, having reverted to the condition of jahiliya. Just as God had authorised Mohammed to fight the Meccan pagans before they eventually submitted to Islam, so Qutb in his prison writings provided the rationale that would later be used to justify the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in October 1981, and the Islamist attacks on the Egyptian and other nominally Muslim governments, on western personnel and tourists.

Though Qutb himself never explicitly advocated violence against individuals, the myth of the jahiliya state, supported by the west, sustains Islamist militants from Algeria to the Philippines. Yet before his “conversion” to Islam, Qutb had been a member of the Egyptian intellectual elite. A protegé of the writer Taha Hussein and the poet Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad, leading lights in Egypt’s liberal western-oriented intelligentsia, he received government funding to study in America, where he attended universities in Washington DC, Colorado and California. It was exposure to western (particularly American) culture, not ignorance, that led to his revulsion. His is the paradigmatic case of the “born-again” Muslim who having adopted or absorbed many modern or foreign influences makes a show of discarding them in his search for personal identity and cultural authenticity.

The term “fundamentalist” may or may not be appropriate when applied to Muslim radicals, but in Qutb’s case it is problematic. Far from espousing received theological certainties or defending “Muslim society” against foreign encroachments, his understanding of Islam seems almost Kierkegaardian in its individualism: his “authentic” Muslim is one who espouses a very modern kind of revolution “against the deification of men, against injustice, and against political, economic, racial and religious prejudice.”

The Saudi boomerang

It may be too early to say how far the men who hijacked the four American airliners and committed the greatest terrorist atrocity in history were influenced by Qutbist doctrines. Osama bin Laden is reported to have studied with Sayyid Qutb’s brother Mohammed after his “conversion” to Islam. Mohammed initially shared his brother’s radicalism, although in the debate among the militants that followed Sadat’s assassination, Mohammed eventually sided with the moderates who rejected the strategy of pronouncing takfir (declaration of infidelity) against other Muslims.

But if press reports are to be believed, at least one of the hijackers, the Egyptian-born Mohammed Atta, fits the Qutbist mould in many respects. A brilliant student of architecture and town-planning at the technical university of Hamburg, he seems to have experienced a dramatic conversion to Islamic fundamentalism shortly before completing his thesis (the equivalent of an MSc in town planning) which earned him a 1.0 - the highest possible mark).

After returning from Egypt where he had temporarily grown a thick bushy beard he began shying from any physical contact with women - the hallmark of fundamentalist piety. Thereafter he appears to have led a double life, showing unusual courtesy and consideration to strangers while planning and training for his murderous attack.

Atta’s “schizophrenic” behaviour seems to dramatise the conflict that also occurred in Sayyid Qutb’s mind after he abandoned his love affair with the west and reverted to “Islam”. In both cases, of course, this was far from being the received Islam or what scholars of religion call “cumulative tradition”; rather, it was a brand-new, invented Islam that drew on selected elements of this tradition but also incorporated, without acknowledgment, many “western” ideas - from the revolutionary puritanism of Robespierre to the “propaganda of the deed” advocated by the Baader-Meinhof gang.

The cultural and religious schizophrenia experienced by a man like Mohammed Atta is microcosmic when compared to that of a whole society. Modern Saudi Arabia (where Osama bin Laden’s father, a street-porter from Aden, made a fortune by constructing palaces for princes) exemplifies the paradox of a hi-tech society wedded to a pre-modern conservative theology.

The chief religious dignitary, Sheikh bin Baz, still holds a Ptolemaic or geocentric view of the cosmos based on his reading of the Qur'an. Yet Saudi Arabia has bought into the US space programme, sending the first and so far the only Muslim astronaut into orbit.

Oil, the source of Saudi wealth, has been the “fuel of fundamentalism” - ever since the Stewart brothers of southern California used the money they made in the oil business to fund the conservative Christian publications that brought the “f-word” into the English language. Because the extraction process is largely technical and depersonalised, the creation of oil wealth (unlike wealth acquired through manufacturing) has not necessitated the intellectual or social transformations and the evolving relations of production that occurred in older industrialised societies.

Saudi Arabia buys in its technology wholesale and houses its guest-workers and hired technocrats in foreigners-only compounds in order to protect its society and the Wahhabi version of Islam underpinning it from foreign influences. This strategy, however, has failed to insulate it against the radical religio-political currents sweeping through the region. Paradoxically, it has assisted their spread through its sponsorship of such organisations as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Muslim World League. Having assisted in the globalisation of radical Islam Saudi Arabia is now one of its principal targets. What happened in New York and Washington exemplifies the contradictions between Saudi Arabia’s hired technocracy and its religious conservatism.

The Qur’an as training manual

The people of Pharaoh, according to the Qur’an, rejected God’s warnings and were punished for their sins [54: 41-2] as were the people of Thamud, who, rejecting the teaching of the Prophet Salih, were destroyed by a single blast that turned them into “dried-up crumbling twigs” [54:31]. Just as the assassins of Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 identified the Egyptian president with the evil figure of Pharaoh in the Qur’an, so it is reasonable to speculate that the perpetrators of the 11 September massacres in New York and Washington may have seen - in their dying moments - the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre as the pillars of Pharaoh’s temple.

Although liberal Muslims and concerned western leaders are at pains to deny any connection between American atrocities and the Islamic faith, the “punishment stories” in the Qur’an, understood literally, can be read as operational briefings by those who see themselves as agents of the divine wrath.

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