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The roots of terror: Islam or Islamism?

Meghnad Desai
6 February 2007

The last week in Britain has witnessed reports of yet another alleged terror plot, involving dawn arrests, intense media coverage, and resentment and anger among some British Muslims at the "targeting" of their community.

As another police operation proceeds, and the media once again focus on the "Muslim question", some familiar yet still unanswered questions re-emerge. Why are Muslims "always" in trouble? Is it something to do with the nature of their religion? Is the problem (as Salman Rushdie suggested after the July 2005 bombs in London) that Islam has not had a "reformation"? (Not every religion has had one and Islam has had modernising movements in its recent past, but let that go). To answer these questions and to de-demonise Muslims as a group, it is necessary in my view to distinguish between religion and ideology.

Religion is a private matter - or at least ought to be. Religion provides moral direction to many people, and solace to their troubled psyche when (for example) they are puzzled by accidents of life such as the sudden death of a beloved person. Yet religion is also often present in the public arena. Every religion has been used as a tool of aggression and violence, and to instil hatred of the people of other religions. No religion has a monopoly of virtue, though each will claim the others are worse.

Meghnad Desai is professor of economics and director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics. He is a Labour party peer in Britain’s upper house of parliament. His books include Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism (Verso, 2004) and, Rethinking Islamism: The Ideology of the New Terror
(IB Tauris, 2006)

Also by Meghnad Desai in openDemocracy:

"Social Democracy as world panacea? A comment on David Held"
(1 July 2004)

The events of 9/11 and terrorist attacks in London, Madrid, Bali, Delhi, Sharm-al-Sheikh and elsewhere mark the emergence of al-Qaida as a global terrorist organisation. Al-Qaida is also happy when any bomb-thrower claims to belong to it or when anti-terrorist forces accuse it of yet another act of carnage. But the argument then extends to all Muslims. People assert that Muslims are terrorists or that Islam is an intolerant religion. In the western press there have been long debates about whether Muslims are incapable of living in modern democratic societies, or whether Islam has a problem since it has never had a reformation. Muslims in the western world, and not only there, are viewed with suspicion because of their religion.

I have argued in my book Rethinking Islamism: The Ideology of the New Terror (IB Tauris, 2006) that the roots of this new terrorism are not in religion but in a political ideology which uses religious language - and that its purpose is like any other political ideology: to win power.

The roots of this ideology of "global Islamism" lie in the era of the decline of the Ottoman empire at the end of the great war of 1914-18, and the empire's partition by the British and the French. This partition, codified in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, involved these two rival empires secretly planning to establish control over the Arab territories then under Ottoman rule, even as their foreign offices were promising their Arab "friends" independence. The Balfour declaration followed in 1917, whereby Britain promised a homeland for Jews in a territory which it did not then possess (somewhat like the pope dividing the "new world" between Spain and Portugal).

Osama bin Laden has constructed a story of Muslim decline and victimisation at the hands of what he calls the "crusader" powers. He blames the existence of Israel as well as the troubles in Chechnya, Kashmir, East Timor, Bosnia on the single agency of United States-led imperialism taking over from Britain and France. He objected to the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia as they defile the Hijaz. He appeals to Sunni Muslims all over the world (other branches of Islam are apostate) to avenge this insult by attacking all non-Muslim powers involved in any of these disputes. India in his view is part of the crusader west.

Understand, then deconstruct

Every ideology tells a story about the plight of a people, a nation, a race or even the whole of humankind. It talks of a glorious past, a miserable present for which someone else is responsible and a glorious future if the "someone else" is removed.

In communism, it is the capitalist class whom the working class will remove to usher in socialism and, later, communism.

In national-socialism (Nazism), the story was of a "master race" betrayed and stabbed in the back by an enemy within. Jews had to be eliminated and Europe had to be conquered to usher in the new order where the master race would rule again as it did in Germany's glorious antiquity.

In global Islamism, the villain is the west and it can be eliminated only by a military defeat or else by the conversion of every non-Muslim to Islam. The operating vision of Islam here is not the faith practiced around the world in diverse forms, but Islam as defined by Osama bin Laden: an intolerant, puritanical and fanatical sect holding a monopoly of virtue.

Also in openDemocracy on radical Islamist ideology and practice:

Malise Ruthven, "Cultural schizophrenia"
(27 September 2001)

Murat Belge, "Inside the fundamentalist mind"
(4 October 2001)

Maruf Khwaja, "Terrorism, Islam, reform: thinking the unthinkable"
(28 July 2005)

Ehsan Masood, "The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation"
(11 August 2005)

Since all human beings - outside those beholden to or self-intoxicated by this creed - want to live, it is essential to defeat this ideology. Terrorism kills innocent bystanders, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But to defeat the ideology requires political steps, while the anti-terrorist squads do their intelligence and police work.

We need to deconstruct the ideology. We begin by pointing out that other countries and regions which were subject to imperialism - China and India, for example - have recovered from their victimhood and emerged strong. Muslims of the middle east can do the same: not by appealing to some false unity to wage a war against the west but via education, investment, good governance and innovation.

We need to say loudly that while Islam has one book and one God, it also has a rich diversity of manifestations around the world. We need to point out that Muslims around the world live in harmony with other people and share the common concerns about leading a happy prosperous life, caring for their children's future and ensuring a safe and healthy old age for their elders.

Faith is a private concern; where it enters the public realm and creates dispute, the resulting problems are resolved more by negotiations and diplomacy around matters of disagreement than by violence or threats of violence.

The way to defeat terrorism conducted in the name of religious belief is to distinguish between religion and ideology. Then you fight the terrorist while leaving the devout alone to pursue her or his faith.

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