A transnational umma: reality or myth?

Fred Halliday
6 October 2005

In the four years since 9/11 much has been written, in the west and in the Islamic world, about the emergence of a new “transnational” and militant Islam, a community of jihadis who operate independently of states, recruit from many countries, and whose operations are not confined to any particular state. Al-Qaida, for example, has had fighters from dozens of countries – from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Morocco, to Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines and Pakistan (and, on occasion, Britain, France, and Australia also).

In one sense, there is nothing particularly Muslim about this phenomenon. The facility of virtual and physical movement today means that many ideas, symbols, and causes are transmitted globally and near-instantaneously. British surprise that the 7 July bombers were “homegrown” missed the fact that there very few purely “homegrown” things left – and that, in any case, at least one of the bombers had been exposed to Pakistani Islamist, if not al-Qaida, influence.

Yet there is clearly some truth in the claim that the present form of Islamic militancy has distinct, novel features. The decentred structure of al-Qaida is very different from the hierarchical system of interwar world communism or from traditional guerrilla groups such as Ireland’s IRA, the Kurdish PKK, Lebanon’s Hizbollah or Palestine’s Hamas; and its ability and willingness to hit targets in the United States, western Europe, the middle east, Africa and southeast Asia all seem to reinforce this “transnational” model.

Moreover, and despite the activities of a transnational militant like Che Guevara, no other guerrilla or insurrectionary or other group in history has been able to recruit as widely as al-Qaida now does. No other nationalist or revolutionary group has hit targets in such a wide range of countries and within the ambit of what appears to be a coherent, if demented, global strategy. The organisational flexibility of this phenomenon is also remarkable – hence the search for words to describe this originality: mouvance, a French fusion of “movement” and “tendency”, originally used of the non-party “new social movements” of the 1970s and 1980s in western Europe, or “franchise”, or “affiliates”.

Something evidently new is operating here, which the difficulty in establishing clear links of organisation, recruitment or command between (say) Madrid’s 11-M, London’s 7/7, and al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan or Afghanistan confirms. The prison sentences given in Madrid recently to alleged al-Qaida activists, including the al-Jazeera journalist Tayser Alouni – for far lesser periods than the prosecution and investigating Judge Garzon had requested – reflect scepticism in Spain about the degree to which the accused had in any real sense been part of al-Qaida preparations for the 9/11 attacks. The same problem bedevils attempts to Italy, Germany and Britain to pin specific charges on Islamists in detention.

There is enough contemporary evidence, then, to make Islamic “transnationalism” worthy of attention. Moreover, the idea is reinforced by the way it draws on two elements, historical and doctrinal, of the Islamic world.

First, “transnational” activities – of a commercial and financial as well as political and religious kind – have been common in the Muslim world for centuries. If anything, it is the recently created modern state – with its frontiers, centralised tax systems and bureaucratic administrations – which broke ties of scholarship, mystical orders, and trading groups that had existed for centuries.

In terms of political ideas, the whole history of the Islamic countries from around the second half of the 19th century has been one of ideologies and doctrines produced in one country and then being applied in very different ones. The 19th-century reformer Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, for example, at various times influenced Ottoman Turkey, Iran, and (via his follower Mohammad Abduh) Egypt. A more recent, and striking, case of cross-boundary and cross-national fertilisation was the use made by the Egyptian fundamentalist thinker Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual father of al-Qaida, of the writings of the Pakistani writer Maududi.

What may appear recent and artificial roots in the Islamic world are often historically deeper. For example, the influence of the Iranian clergy in Iraq and Lebanon does not derive from some new conspiratorial activism by the Islamic Republic, but a continuation of ties that have existed for centuries between the clergy, and the Shi’a communities, of the three countries.

Second, Islam as a doctrinal system also favours transnational ties. Islam set out – like Christianity, but unlike Judaism or Hinduism – to be a world religion. The claim of some Islamists that the Prophet Muhammad invented globalisation is exaggerated but contains some truth. In modern times, Islamists have repeatedly portrayed the division of the Muslim world into separate nations as the product of imported, western ideas of nationalism and imperialism. Ayatollah Khomeini once said: “Islam has been slapped in the face by nationalism”.

Islam and nationalism

There are also countervailing trends to the transnational view. Muslims do proclaim one faith and one God, and feel in some respects (as on the hajj to Mecca and Medina) a sense of common history and community. But this religious internationalism has always co-existed with multiple other identities. Muslims can also feel that they are Egyptians, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Nigerians and Palestinians.

Doctrinal claims that Islam as a religion prohibits nationalism are of little value, for two reasons: nationalism (identification with a particular state and people) is a universal phenomenon; and the textual sources available to a Muslim allow for national loyalties. A verse in the Qu’ran, after all, proclaims that Allah has created different “tribes and peoples, so that they should get to know each other”, and Prophet Muhammad is accredited with saying that with “love of homeland comes faith”. The Muslim Brotherhood established in Egypt in 1928 – the nearest Islamic equivalent to the Communist International – significantly never imposed centralist control of the Bolshevik kind on its members.

The world today contains more than fifty Muslim-majority countries, in which strong nationalist and patriotic sentiments flourish – often directed against fellow Muslim peoples (Iranians / Iraqis, Sudanese / Egyptians, Uzbeks / Tajiks, to name a few). This adherence to national as opposed to Islamic identities is reflected in the way that middle-eastern Muslim states (except Saudi Arabia) invoke elements of the pre-Islamic past as a form of legitimation; this, even though Islam formally denounces the pre-Islamic period as one of jahiliya (ignorance). Thus Egypt celebrates the Pharoahs, Tunisia the Pheonicians, Iran the ancient Persian empires, Yemen the kingdoms of Saba and Himyar.

These considerations are relevant to Osama bin Laden’s transnational project; research on jihadi documents, and interviews with former or imprisoned members, reveal strong inter-ethnic tensions within the movement. The excellent new book by Fawaz Gerges The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (Cambridge University Press, 2005) shows that, although al-Qaida’s footsoldiers come from many countries, its leadership is drawn from two only: Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

This raises the issue of the precise meaning of “transnational”. A business does not merit the term merely because it sells, has factories or shareholders from several countries: most so-called “multinational” corporations are, in large measure, national corporations (American, Spanish, Dutch, British) that operate internationally. Such a company and its senior management almost always have direct, institutional and cultural, associations with a single, predominant, national state.

The same routinely applies to groups resisting or seeking “independence” from the grip of a state or system of states. The cold war echoed to noisy rhetoric from east and west about the degree of state sponsorship of guerrilla, terrorist, or “national liberation” movements. In reality, the picture was mixed: South Vietnam’s the NLF was always more controlled by Hanoi than was claimed at the time, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas closer to the Cubans, while the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was less controlled, by either Arab states or Moscow, than it seemed.

In the “war against terror”, a similar confusion operates. Washington’s attempts to link al-Qaida to Saddam Hussein (before his 2003 overthrow) or Iran are bogus, while the current Sunni Islamist insurrection in Iraq does indeed receive some covert support from neighbouring states concerned to protect their options in the future.

The limits of universalism

Al-Qaida’s current status as an apparently free-floating and stateless group, it must be recalled, is for Osama bin Laden and his cohorts very much a second best. Al-Qaida began life and long continued its operations with the support of states:

  • 1980s, phase one: activity in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States
  • 1990-96, phase two: work alongside the Islamist revolutionary regime in Sudan to export revolution to Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea
  • 1996-2001, phase three: operations from Afghanistan, as an ally of the Taliban government

Al-Qaida is a state-centred group in a further, highly important, sense: its goal is to take power in specific Islamic states and establish a new form of authoritarian government, a caliphate. The preferred option and long-term goal of al-Qaida is therefore not something different from “transnationalism”

The Muslim world is not, nor ever has been, defined wholly or mainly in terms of the umma or transnational linkages and identities. To be sure, forms of solidarity over Muslim-related political conflicts and issues – such as Palestine, Kashmir and now Iraq – do exert a hold on many people, and inspire some to radical activism. But just as the international communist movement after 1917 masked sharp internal differences of culture, politics and interest, so today’s global jihadi movement contains such fissures. The umma may not be as stateless, fluid or international as it appears.

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