Westminster Institute Conference [May 25, 2011]: Fighting the Ideological War. Strategies for Defeating al-Qaeda.
by Ibn Warraq
The overall philosophy or mission of the conference was to educate the public and the government about the ideology of our enemy which is, as the Westminster Institute announced, “well-organized, well-funded, and grounded in the authority of religious texts. The United States therefore has a particularly difficult battle to fight. It is engaged with an enemy who cares first and foremost about the ideological battle””rebuilding a distinct Muslim identity, strengthening the ummah, and defeating the West, both materially and spiritually. Without directly confronting the ideology driving such groups as Al Qaeda, the United States will never be able to defeat the threat of terrorism. Drawing on the expertise of those who were directly involved in the fight against past totalitarian ideologies and of those who are intimately familiar with the ideology and strategy of the current enemy, this conference will draw lessons from the past for today”s fight against Al Qaeda and associated movements.”
Patrick Sookhdeo, author of Global Jihad, and Adjunct Professor at George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, inaugurated the conference with a lucid presentation of the underlying problems in fighting Islamic Terrorism, and offered some tentative solutions. In what follows, I have taken Sookhdeo’s talk as the basis of my analysis. I have added further examples that were not in the original talk, and have fleshed out some of his arguments. Thus the present article should be seen as my own take on the problem, though of course heavily derived from Sookhdeo, and certainly in the spirit of his presentation.
Sookhdeo’s talk was divided into three parts: Confusion, Understanding, and Prospects.
First, he pointed out that our policy makers were confused about what the terrorist ideology was, and thus were unable to take the necessary measures needed to defeat it.
Michael Hayden, who was the Director of the CIA until 2009, declared in 2008 that there had been “significant setbacks for al-Qaida globally – and here I’m going to use the word ‘ideologically’, as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam.” However, as Sookhdeo insisted, “al-Qaeda and radical Islam remain significant and in some cases a growing threat. Al Qaeda has continued to strike in the West and even on US soil, has established new bases and is consolidating existing strongholds, is recruiting new generations of young Muslims and Muslims living in the West. Successes such as the death of Bin Laden will not have a fundamental impact on the underlying issues which continue to make Islamic radicalism a significant force.” In May 2010, the White House released the document “US National Security Strategy, 2010” [NSS, 2010], which declared that “We are at war with a specific network, al-Qa”ida, and its terrorist affiliates”. But nowhere in this document is there a mention of the whole Islamist culture and ideology which justifies terrorism; instead we have a vague enemy called “violence and hatred”: “For nearly a decade,” NSS 2010 tells us, “our Nation has been at war with a far-reaching network of violence and hatred”.
As Katherine Gorka of the Westminster Institute underlined in November 2009, “The 9/11 Commission Report, released in July 2004, clearly stated the nature of the perpetrators and the ideology that was driving them. As Stephen Coughlin, an expert on radical Islam, has recently pointed out, the 9/11 Report used the word Islam 322 times, Muslim 145 times, jihad 126 times, and jihadist 32 times. In sharp contrast, The National Intelligence Strategy of the United States, issued in August 2009, uses the term Muslim 0 times, Islam 0, and jihad 0. Similarly, The FBI Counterterrorism Analytical Lexicon, the purpose of which is “˜to standardize the terms used in FBI analytical products dealing with counterterrorism,” uses the term Muslim 0 times, the term Islam 0 times, and the term jihad 0 times.”
On August 6, 2009, John O. Brennan, Barack Obama’s assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said “Even as we condemn and oppose the illegitimate tactics used by terrorists, we need to acknowledge and address the legitimate needs and grievances of ordinary people those terrorists claim to represent”¦.Using the legitimate term jihad, which means to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal, risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve.”
This can only be characterized as appeasement; and what legitimate grievances do Al-Qaeda represent?
A ranking US Defense Department official, speaking at a recent conference: “We are not at war with jihad. Jihad is a legitimate component of Islam.” The muddled thinking behind such statements is clear: “We must not give the impression that we are at war with Islam, a great world religion of peace and tolerance”¦.”.
President Obama in a similar vein indulges in fantasy when he declares, “…we reject the notion that al-Qa”ida represents any religious authority. They are not religious leaders, they are killers; and neither Islam nor any other religion condones the slaughter of innocents.” [NSS, 2010, p.22] British Ambassador to Lebanon, Frances Guy, speaking after the death of the Hezbollah leader Shiekh Muhammad Hussein Falallah, displays his own kind of wishful thinking, “The world needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints.” President Obama’s ecumenical gush was replied to by Anjem Choudary, the British radical cleric, “There is a place for violence in Islam, there is a place for jihad in Islam…Jihad is the most talked about duty in the Koran after tawhid — belief.”
It is time Western policy makers woke up to the reality of the struggle we are facing: we are not faced with freedom fighters, or latter day Robin Hoods trying re-distribute wealth; we are dealing with ideologues who wish to impose their worldview on the entire globe, and who are willing to use every kind of violence at their disposal. All the violence is justified with references to the Koran, Hadith, and the example of the wars and tactics employed by Muhammad and his Companions.
The West is still consumed with post-colonial guilt, is hampered by political correctness, and wishful thinking. Adding to the confusion have been the geopolitics of oil, and the wars in the Islamic world which have influenced policy adversely — seeing allies where there are none. President Obama in particular has tried to deny reality, and pursues his goal to win popularity in the Muslim world. There are no quick fixes; we are engaged, as in the Cold War, in a long ideological struggle that is likely to endure for decades. Since poverty is not the problem — as Khomeini once said, we did not make the revolution to reduce the price of melons — the solution is not to throw money — billions of dollars of taxpayer money — at various Islamic regimes.
Various dictators in countries where Muslims form the majority have themselves been engaged in struggles against the jihadists, and are perfectly aware of Islamic history, the theological and Koranic underpinnings of their ideology. Leaders in Muslim countries have tried to control mosques and the sermons preached there, and even the Islamic media and discourse. And yet these same leaders, living in cultures of honor and shame, refuse to admit that there is a problem, and even less that it is Islam that is the chief obstacle to peace. Others who are more conservative refuse to let in the cold blasts of sobering modernity knowing that they themselves might be blown away, and that Islam itself would be undermined.
The Islamists, with considerable justification from Islamic history and Islamic theology, view Islam as inherently political — there is no separation of state [dawlah] and religion [din], and thus they aim at political dominance worldwide. For them the state is the best way to implement Islamic Law, Sharia, and hence their primary goal is gain power in the state. The Koran and the Sharia are enough to construct a complete social and political system.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo superbly summarizes the historical roots and the theological components of the Islamists” ideology in this way:
“¢ Historically Islam continually faces the same challenges which it is facing today
o Difficulty in coping with change
o Constant quest to return to what is pure and authentic
“¢ These pressures have frequently led to violence and conflict
“¢ Quest for authenticity has led to violent reactions
o Wars of apostasy
o Wars of succession
o Wars of takfir
o Wars against the infidel
“¢ Set the parameters for contemporary violence
“¢ All of the main Islamic sources can be used to justify violence:
o Qur’an — abrogation of peaceful Meccan by aggressive Medinan verses
o Hadith — traditions recording words and deeds of Muhammad related to violence
o Muhammad’s Model (Sira) — his normative example in dealing with opponents (raids, wars, assassinations, Jews) and his explicit command
o Shari”˜a and classical scholars — codified laws of Jihad
o Violence in Islamic history
“¢ Civil wars Sunni-Shi”˜a, Kharijis, dynastic, tribal
“¢ Conquests and expansion
o Model of recurring revivals: purifying Islam, return to Shari”˜a, expansion by Jihad.
“¢ The influential Islamist Abdallah “˜Azzam celebrates Muhammad’s role as a military leader:
o “Jihad was a way of life for the Pious Predecessors (Salaf-us-Salih), and the Prophet (SAWS) was a master of the Mujahideen and a model for fortunate inexperienced people.
o The total number of military excursions which he (SAWS) accompanied was 27.
o He himself fought in nine of these; namely Badr; Uhud, Al-Muraysi, The Trench, Qurayzah, Khaybar, The Conquest of Makkah, Hunayn and Taif . . . This means that the Messenger of Allah (SAWS) used to go out on military expeditions or send out an army at least every two months.”
“¢ [Abdallah “˜Azzam, Join the Caravan, p. 30]
“¢ Faisal Shahzad, the suspected perpetrator of the failed car bombing in Times Square, NYC, commenting on a Muslim opponent:
o “I bet when it comes to defending the lands, his opinion would be we should do dialogue, etc., which is not the proven way from history and has not worked in current time and will not work in the future because it simply wasn’t the way of the Quran.”
“¢ The well-known Egyptian scholar, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd [died 2010], has noted:
o “If we follow the rules of interpretation developed from the classical “science of Koranic interpretation”, it is not possible to condemn terrorism in religious terms. It remains completely true to the classical rules in its evolution of sanctity for its own justification. This is where the secret of its theological strength lies.”
— Resurgent in first half of 20th century
— Accelerated spread since 1970s
“¢ View of Islam as inherently political: Unity of religion (din) and state (dawlah) —
“¢ no dichotomy
o Islam aims at political dominance everywhere.
o State is the best tool for implementing Shari”›a.
o Seek to gain power in state and then use its coercive power to enforce Shari”›a.
o Peace only possible under Islamic rule.
o Qu”ran and Shari`a contain recipe for complete social and political system (nizam)
“¢ Theological Components
o Takfir — Judging jahiliyya (idolatry) wherever it is found. Legal, official declaration of heresy and apostasy
— Jahiliyya demands response of jihad
o Jihad against internal “apostates” (secular Muslim regimes) and external infidels (the West)
o Istishad — glorification of martyrdom
— Renewed the Khariji and Assassin principle of suicide missions
o Khilafa — restoring the Caliphate a shari”˜a duty
o Tawhid — unitary and uniform vision of God, universe and society: One God, one people, one law
— God’s physical laws imposed on the universe
— God’s religious law (shari”˜a) imposed on society
— God’s unity enforced on all in unitary shari”˜a system
o Hakimiyya (rabbaniyya) – God’s sovereignty, implementing tawhid
“¢ All legal and political systems must be based on shari”˜a
“¢ Islam as revolution — Protest of poor and oppressed, “wretched of the earth”, purifying violence, liberation theology, third-worldism.
“¢ Utopian — NaÃ¯ve and holistic view of man’s inherent goodness (fitra) flourishing under a totalitarian worldwide Islamic system that ensures God’s will on earth.
“¢ Shari”˜a centered — Shari”˜a only criterion of legitimacy. Must implement Shari”˜a in state to fulfil God’s will.
“¢ Binary dichotomies — Good vs Evil, God vs Satan, everyone must choose – no neutral ground, no innocent civilians.
“¢ Conspiracy theories — Scapegoating. Identify evil enemies who always, at all times and places, seek to destroy Islam.
“¢ Permanent battle — Constant fight in God’s way.
As Dr. Sookhdeo reminds us, “the mainline Islamist movements are a seedbed out of which the terrorist groups originate, and with which they continue to exist in a symbiotic relationship:
— The Wahhabi-Salafi movement (Saudi Arabia, worldwide)
— The Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt, worldwide)
— The Jama”˜at–i-Islami (Indian Subcontinent, worldwide)
— The Deobandi movement (Indian Subcontinent, worldwide)
— Ahl-i-Hadith (Indian Subcontinent)
— The Shi”˜a revolutionary Islamist movement founded by Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati.”
The terrorist networks have become increasingly decentralized, as the focus shifts to self-reliant individuals and groups. Al-Qaeda does not necessarily have much direct influence over their “affiliates”, which use their association with al-Qaeda to gain credibility and funding, but remain essentially autonomous. There may well be further decentralization after Bin Laden’s death, and confusion over the succession.
Patrick Sookhdeo does put forward some positive proposals to combat this ideology, which threatens Western civilization immediately, and the rest of the world in the long-term. Some general strategies should begin with what the jihadists are saying, and then by taking their ideology seriously. Religion can no longer be excluded from international relations. We are engaged in a war of ideas and must not be afraid of criticising Islamic ideology. What can we learn from the success and failures in the battle against the Islamists in the United Kingdom? As Andy Hayman, the former Assistant Commissioner in charge of counter-terrorism in Great Britain, commented in The Times of London on 7th July, 2010, he never thought the threat of al-Qaeda would be home-grown, and soon realised that they needed greater intelligence coverage at home. Counter-terrorist police officers were increased from 500 to 2000. However, the money spent, some Â£53 million, on preventing radicalisation seemed to have been a total failure since there were more people who had turned to extremism than before the de-radicalization efforts.
Hayman concluded, “MI5 once published figures stating there are 2,000 people of interest and 200 networks. But they now appear reluctant to declare any figures, possibly because it would paint such a grim picture. We should stop dancing around the problem, which has been dogged by political correctness. The plan to reduce the number of Muslims being radicalised by giving those in the mainstream the confidence to challenge extremists is sensible, but overlooks a couple of important factors. First, the extremist threat is international, and the reasons for its existence are beyond the control of any one country. Second, sections of the Muslim community are so suspicious of police involvement that these projects cannot gain traction.” The solution is greater intelligence gathering, winning support from Muslim community, and international co-operation.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo also wondered about the prospects in the Islamic world. There were some hopeful signs since some Muslim governments were engaging the terrorists at an ideological level, seeking to undermine some of their arguments. There were a number of pronouncements by individual former jihadists or former hardliners renouncing violence such as Dr Sayyid Imam Sharif. Mansour al-Nogaidan, a Saudi and former Salafist who has embraced Sufism wrote, “Muslims are too rigid in our adherence to old, literal interpretations of the Koran. It’s time for many verses — especially those having to do with relations between Islam and other religions — to be reinterpreted in favor of a more modern Islam. It’s time to accept that God loves the faithful of all religions. It’s time for Muslims to question our leaders and their strict teachings, to reach our own understanding of the prophet’s words and to call for a bold renewal of our faith as a faith of goodwill, of peace and of light.”
However, despite these positive developments, said Dr Sookhdeo, “the essential ideological problems still remained unsolved. Most counter-Islamist policies are carried out by conservatives who are not prepared to tackle the deeper theological legitimacy which terrorism derives from Classical Islam and the sources. Unwilling to argue that: [a] Aggressive texts in the sources should be contextualised, and [b] Sources and models are not applicable to the modern world”. In any case, the reformers and moderates in the Islamic world remain largely marginalized. What makes change in the beliefs of individuals from the Muslim world difficult is the fact that there is no culture of dissent or freethought, or a tradition of uninhibited exchange of ideas as in the West. Individuals remain firmly wedded to their ideologies- a abandonment of their beliefs is a far more traumatic affair in the Islamic world- apart from being dangerous. A self-confessed atheist would not last long in the streets of Cairo or Karachi. Then there is whole culture of honor and shame: a change in beliefs would bring shame on their family, tribe, and religion.
Dr Sookhdeo’s conclusions were bold. We must avoid wishful thinking, and acknowledge the role of Islam, and Islamic theology in inspiring the Islamists. I would go further. I believe, and I must emphasize that I, Ibn Warraq, alone am responsible for the following observations, that we cannot hope to reform Islam without attacking the fundamental tenets of Islam adhered to by Muslims of all colors and stripes, not just Islamists. We shall never make progress until we subject the Koran to the kind of analysis and criticism that was applied to the Bible by Spinoza in the 17th Century, and the great German scholars of the Nineteenth Century, such as Julius Wellhausen and Albert Schweitzer. We must embark on a series of translations into Arabic of works of Koranic criticism, of skepticism, of the great books of Western civilization. We must support the separation of religion and state, and secularists in the Islamic world. We must defend the religious minorities in the Muslim world: by according non-Muslims their human rights, Muslims would already be on their way to secularism.