[News] America & Political Islam
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Mon Jan 31 12:52:11 EST 2005
AMERICA AND POLITICAL ISLAM
January 29, 2005
by Mahmood Mamdani
I was in New York City on 9/11. In the weeks that followed, newspapers
reported that the Koran had become one of the biggest-selling books in
American bookshops. Astonishingly, Americans seemed to think that reading
the Koran might give them a clue to the motivation of those who carried out
the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center. Recently, I have wondered
whether the people of Falluja have taken to reading the Bible to understand
the motivation for American bombings. I doubt it.
Why the difference? I suggest we look at the nature of the public debate in
America as a key ingredient in shaping public opinion.
The post-9/11 public debate in the US has been inspired by two Ivy League
intellectuals -- Samuel Huntington at Harvard and Bernard Lewis at
Princeton. From Huntington's point of view, the Cold War was a civil war
within the west. He says the real war is yet to come. That real war will be
a civilizational war, at its core a war with Islam. From this point of
view, all Muslims are bad.
Bernard Lewis, in contrast, makes a more nuanced claim. He says that there
are good secular Muslims and bad fundamentalist Muslims, and that the west
needs to distinguish between them. He identifies a secular point of view
with western culture so completely that, for him, a secular Muslim is
necessarily a westernized Muslim. A neoconservative guru, Lewis was a major
inspiration behind the Iraq War.
Their differences aside, Lewis and Huntington share two assumptions. The
first is that the world is divided into two -- modern and pre-modern.
Modern peoples make their own culture; their culture is a creative act and
it changes historically. In contrast, they assume that pre-modern peoples
have an unchanging, ahistorical culture, one they carry along with them;
they wear their culture as a kind of badge, and sometimes suffer from it
like a collective twitch. The second assumption is that you can read
people's politics >from their culture. I call these two assumptions Culture
The aftermath of the Iraq War has turned into a crisis for theory. It is
increasingly clear that the designation of some Muslims as good and others
as bad has little to do with their orientation to Islam, and everything to
do with their orientation to America. Simply put, good Muslim is a label
for those who are deemed pro-American and bad Muslims are those reckoned
anti-American. Culture Talk is not only wrong, it is also self-serving. How
convenient it is to see political violence as something wrong with the
culture of one party rather than an indication that something has gone
wrong in the relationship between two parties.
Contemporary, modern political Islam developed as a response to
colonialism. Colonialism posed a double challenge, that of foreign
domination and of the need for internal reform to address weaknesses
exposed by external aggression.
Early political Islam grappled with such questions in an attempt to
modernize and reform Islamic societies. Then came Pakistani thinker Abu ala
Mawdudi, who placed political violence at the centre of political action,
and Egyptian thinker Sayyed Qutb, who argued that it was necessary to
distinguish between friends and enemies, for with friends you use reason
and persuasion, but with enemies you use force.
The terrorist tendency in political Islam is not a pre-modern carry-over
but a very modern development.
Radical political Islam is not a development of the ulama (legal scholars),
not even of mullahs or imams (prayer leaders). It is mainly the work of
non- religious political intellectuals. Mawdudi was a journalist and Qutb a
literary theorist. It has developed through a set of debates, but these
cannot be understood as a linear development inside political Islam. Waged
inside and outside political Islam, they are both a critique of reformist
political Islam and an engagement with competing political ideologies,
Let us remember that the period after World War II was one of a
decades-long secular romance with political violence. Armed struggle was in
vogue in national liberation and revolutionary movements. Many political
activists were convinced that a thoroughgoing struggle had to be armed. The
development of religious political tendencies that glorify the liberating
role of violence is a latter-day phenomenon. Rather than a product of
religious fundamentalism, it is best thought of as both religious and
secular, a sign of the times.
The late Cold War
That said, we are confronted with a singular question: How did Islamist
terror, a theoretical tendency that preoccupied a few intellectuals and was
of marginal political significance in the 1970s, become part of the
political mainstream in only a few decades? To answer it, we need to move
away from the internal debates of political Islam to its relations with
official America, and back from 9/11 to the period that followed America's
defeat in Vietnam, the period I call the late Cold War. My claim is also
that this question is best answered from a vantage point inside Africa.
Decolonization reached a momentous point in 1975. The year the Americans
were defeated in Vietnam was also the year the Portuguese empire collapsed
in Africa. The result was a shift in the centre of gravity of the Cold War
from south-east Asia to southern Africa. Who would pick up the pieces of
the Portuguese empire in Africa, America or the Soviet Union?
The defining feature of the new phase of the Cold War was the strong
anti-war movement within America opposed to direct military intervention
overseas. Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state, designed a strategy
in response to the changed context: if America could not intervene overseas
directly, it would intervene through others. Thus began the era of proxy
war, one that was to mark the period from Vietnam to Iraq.
Angola was the first important American proxy intervention in the
post-Vietnam period. Kissinger first looked for mercenaries to counter the
independence movement in Angola, and then followed with a nod to apartheid
South Africa. The South African intervention was discredited
internationally as soon as it became public knowledge and led to a powerful
anti- war response in Congress: the Clark Amendment terminated all
assistance, overt and covert, to anti- communist forces in Angola.
The administration of Ronald Reagan raised proxy war from a pragmatic
response to a grand strategy, called the Reagan Doctrine. Developed in
response to two 1979 revolutions -- those of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua
and the Islamists in Iran -- the Reagan Doctrine made two claims. The first
was that America had been preparing to fight the wrong war -- that against
Soviet forces on the plains of Europe -- and meanwhile was losing the real
war, that against Third World nationalism. Reagan called on America to
fight the war that was already on, against yesterday's guerrillas now come
to power. Arguing that there could be no middle ground in war, the Reagan
administration portrayed nationalist governments newly come to power in
southern Africa and central America as Soviet proxies that needed to be
nipped in the bud before they turned into real dangers.
The Reagan Doctrine also turned on a second initiative, one that involved a
shift from "containment" to "rollback", from peaceful coexistence to a
determined, sustained and aggressive bid to reverse defeats in the Third
World. To underline the historical legitimacy of this shift, it brought the
language of religion into politics. Speaking before the National
Association of Evangelicals in 1983, Reagan called on America to defeat
"the evil empire".
Evil is a theological notion. As such, it has neither a history nor
motivation. The political use of evil is two-fold. First, one cannot
coexist with evil, nor can one convert it. Evil must be eliminated. The war
against evil is a permanent war, one without a truce. Second, the Manichean
battle against evil justifies any alliance. The first such alliance, dubbed
"constructive engagement", was between official America and apartheid South
It is through "constructive engagement" that official America provided
political cover to apartheid South Africa as it set about developing a
strategy for proxy war in the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and
Angola. As the Reagan administration moved from "peaceful coexistence" to
"rollback", so the apartheid government redefined its regional strategy
from "detente" to "total onslaught".
The bitter fruit of constructive engagement was Africa's first genuine
terrorist movement, called Renamo. Created by the Rhodesian army in the
early 1970s and nurtured by the apartheid army after 1980, Renamo
consistently targeted civilians in Mozambique to convince them that an
independent African government could not possibly assure them law and
order. At the same time, when terror unleashed by Renamo became the subject
of public discussion, the apartheid regime explained it in cultural terms,
as "black on black violence", as an expression of age-old tribal conflict,
of the inability of black people to coexist without an outside mediator.
America's responsibility for Renamo was solely political. But without an
American political cover, it would have been impossible for apartheid South
Africa to organize, arm and finance a terrorist movement in independent
Africa for more than a decade -- and to do so with impunity.
Constructive engagement was a period of tutorship for official America.
America created and wielded the Contras in Nicaragua just as apartheid
South Africa did Renamo in south central Africa. Under CIA tutelage, the
Contras blew up bridges and health centres, and killed health personnel,
judges and heads of cooperative societies. The point of terror was not to
win civilian support, but to highlight the inability of the government to
ensure law and order. It was to convince the population that the only way
to end terror was to hand over power to terrorists. This lesson in the
electoral uses of terror was learnt by others, including Charles Taylor in
Liberia and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone.
It is worth drawing some lessons from the history of terror after Vietnam.
Terror was a strategy America embraced when it had almost lost the Cold War
in 1975. Mozambique and Nicaragua were the founding moments of that
history. Both Renamo and the Contras, the pioneer terrorist movements, were
proxies of South Africa and America. Both were secular in orientation. The
development of a religious proxy -- terror claiming a religious
justification -- was characteristic of the closing phase of the Cold War in
Rollback on a global scale: Afghanistan
The Afghan war was the prime example of "rollback". In the history of
terror during the last phase of the Cold War, the Afghan war was important
for two reasons. First, the Reagan administration ideologized the war as a
religious war against the evil empire, rather than styling it a war of
national liberation such as that it claimed the Contras were fighting in
Nicaragua. In the process, the CIA marginalized every Islamist group that
had a nationalist orientation, fearing that these groups might be tempted
to negotiate with the Soviet Union, and brought centre-stage the most
extreme Islamists in a partnership that would "bleed the Soviet Union
Second, the Reagan administration privatized war in the course of
recruiting, training and organizing a global network of Islamic fighters
against the Soviet Union. The recruitment was done through Islamic
charities, and the training through militarized madrasahs. Unlike the
historical madrasah, which taught a range of subjects, secular and
religious, from theology and jurisprudence to history and medicine, the
Afghan madrasah taught a narrow curriculum dedicated to a narrow theology
(jihadi Islam) and gave a complementary military training.
The narrow theology recast Islam around a single institution, the jihad; it
redefined the jihad as exclusively military and claimed the military jihad
to be an offensive war entered into by individual born- again devotees as
opposed to defence by an Islamic community under threat. The jihadi
madrasahs in Pakistan trained both the Afghan refugee children who were
later recruited into the Taliban and the Arab- Afghans who were later
networked by the organization called al-Qaeda ("the Base"). If national
liberation wars created proto-state apparatuses, the international jihad
created a private network of specialists in violence.
America did not create right-wing Islam, a tendency that came into being
through intellectual debates, both inside political Islam and with
competing secular ideologies, such as Marxism-Leninism. America's
responsibility was to turn this ideological tendency into a political
organization -- by incorporating it into America's Cold War strategy in the
closing phase of the Cold War.
Before the Afghan jihad, right-wing political Islam was an ideological
tendency with little organization and muscle on the ground. The Afghan
jihad gave it numbers, organization, skills, reach, confidence and a
coherent objective. America created an infrastructure of terror but
heralded it as an infrastructure of liberation.
Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government, Department of
Anthropology and School of International Affairs, Columbia University, New
Copyright © 2005 Mahmood Mamdani and Z Magazine
The Freedom Archives
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