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The History of Islam and Terrorism
by John Shaw
INTRODUCTIONThis series of writings is not intended to be a complete course in Islam or the rise of radicalism within the Islamic communities. Rather, they are intended to be an introduction to those who wish to learn about the history and events that have brought us to this moment in time and the issues involving Islam that are influencing world events in our times. At the outset of these writings let me say that having lived in a number of countries with large Muslim population, it is not the peace loving majority of Muslims that are addressed here but rather those who have chosen a path using Islam as the excuse for committing outrageous acts against both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Without question, there will be those who wish to dispute my explanations and those who for whatever reason will say what I am writing constitutes Islamaphobia. I would suggest that each reader take the time to confirm the facts that I present as being historically accurate. While intelligent people can honestly debate the interpretation of facts
(attacking an opponent's character rather than answering his argument) attacks are all too often a common tactic used to quiet or silence those who state positions not shared by the attacker. It is my sincere hope that what I am writing will spur debate and discussion and assist the reader in gaining greater insights into the world we now live in.
Part 1. Where did it all start?
It is important for the reader to understand a few basic events in the progression of Islam. In this first chapter of my discourse I will introduce you to a series of events and issues that have molded modern Islam and are integral to an understanding of modern radical Islamic thought. It is impossible to fully cover all of the events during the 1600 years of Islam that have brought us to where we are today. As such, this chapter is designed to introduce concepts and events in Islam to the reader that may seem disjointed at this time but will be tied together as we move forward in this discourse.
After the death of Mohammed (570-632 AD), the prophet, there was a disagreement among Muslims as to who should succeed Mohammed as the leader of this new religion. A majority of Muslims at this time, about 632 A.D., felt that leadership of the religion should be awarded as a result of the election process to the new leader. This leader would then become the de facto ruler of an Islamic caliphate. The group of Muslims subscribing to this belief is what we now call Sunni. Others believed that leadership within Islam should be passed down through hereditary linkage to Mohammed. While there were some other differences between the groups, this is the basic difference between the Sunni and those we now refer to as Shia.
If you want to understand radical Islam in today's world and its different factions, you must understand and separate Sunni radicalism from that of the Shia-based groups. This does not mean that the two different factions in our times don’t cooperate. In fact funding, support, and training will sometimes cross between these groups when it is seen to be in their best interest. The primary Shia-based support comes from Iran, where the Shia are the majority population. It should be noted, that Iran is not Arab but rather Persian and that there is a historic distrust and dislike between Arabs and Persians.
After the death of Mohammed, Islam entered into a the period of time often referred to as The Caliphate (632 through 750 A.D.). During this time, Islam continued to spread through the Arabian Peninsula, Asia Minor, and North Africa. Additionally, there were continual conflicts between Sunni (the majority) and Shia factions of Islam.
Following the era of The Caliphate Islam entered into its Golden Age (750 through 1258 A.D.). If you are of basic European descent, as I am, while our ancestors were burning each other at stake for heresy or as witches, the seat of academic and scientific knowledge was in the Islamic world. It was under Islam that great efforts were made to collect, preserve, and translate all known knowledge in all fields of human endeavor. All of us owe a debt of thanks to the Islamic world for the collection and preservation of knowledge that had been accumulated by mankind prior to this.
As Western Europe shed the mantle of darkness that followed the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire we began to enter the Renaissance era. However, as Europe climbed out of the Middle Ages, there was a decline in influence and prosperity within the Islamic world. We can debate whether the ascent of European influence was the cause of the decline of the Islamic world, but this concept is basic to any real understanding of the premise under which modern radical Islam views history. We will return to this concept and expand upon it in subsequent chapters. It is important, however, for the reader to understand this view of history.
There is an overlap between the Islamic Golden Age and its entry into a period sometimes referred to as the Age of Dynasties and the Ottoman Empire (1030 through 1918 A.D.). It is during the age of dynasties and the Ottoman Turkish Empire that the Islamic world reached its widest physical expansion and control. Recognizing the land area once under Islamic control and rule is another point that must be understood by those seeking to understand modern radical Islam. It is a basic belief by radical Islamist that it is the duty of every good Muslim to help restore those lands that have been taken away from Islam. As such, any area that was once under control of Islamic rulers must be returned to restore Islam's proper place.
The conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims has continued throughout their history. As we have seen in Iraq and other places, this conflict can easily transform from disagreement to violence with little more than the spark of a perceived insult. The Shia continued to follow imams with direct lineage from Mohammed while the Sunni followed the elected caliphate through the time of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. There were continual conflicts between these two groups, often very violent, such as the massacre of the Third Imam. The Third Imam, Husayn ibn Ali, and most of his family were killed at the Battle of Karabla, 680 A.D. (in present day Iraq) because he was the acknowledged Shia leader.
One of the key events that occurred during the Golden age was the disappearance of the 12th Imam. The 12th Imam, Mohammed ibn al-Hasan, disappeared around the year 868 A.D. while still a young teenage boy. In spite of his disappearance, the Shia still believe he is the legitimate leader of Islam and they await his return. The Shia believe that the return of the 12th Imam will occur after a period of great strife and suffering in the world. The 12th Imam will return with Christ and usher in an era of peace under Islamic rule. Understanding this belief is also critical if we are to understand the complex basis upon which radical Islam functions.
Although somewhat simplistic in view, a comparison of the Christian belief in the second coming of Christ is very similar to the Shia belief in the return of the 12th Imam. Just as some Christian groups focused heavily on the end of days in Christ's return with a sense of longing so do certain Shia groups anxiously await the return of the 12th Imam. Any understanding of the radical Islamic views held by the leaders of Iran must be based in the understanding of their messianic belief in the return of the 12th Imam. It must also be based on an understanding that these leaders feel it is their responsibility to usher in the return of the 12th Imam. It is only with this understanding that one can recognize why the traditional use of diplomacy has little impact on the course of actions taken by the current Iranian leaders. We will return to this idea later in this series.
In the later half of the 19th century, the Ottoman Turkish Empire was in decline. Many of the areas that were once solidly controlled under the caliphate's were no longer part of the Turkish Empire. Areas such as present-day Bulgaria had managed to successfully breakaway after 500 years of occupation. With the outbreak of World War I, the Turks sided with the Germans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Britain, France, Russia and the other allies.
In this theater of the war, the primary Allied forces were British under Gen. Allenby. Many of you may remember the 1960s film, Lawrence of Arabia. This film recounts the actions of T.E. Lawrence, a British army officer, and his organization of the Arab Bedouin tribes to fight with the British against the Turks. Promises were made by the British to the Arab Bedouin's for their support against the Turkish forces. The primary promise made was that they (the Arabs) would be given an Arab homeland in the postwar Middle East. However, during the war a secret agreement (the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916) between Great Britain and France was made. This agreement divided the postwar Middle East between the British and French. The French would receive what is now Lebanon and Syria, the rest would remain under British control.
With the end of World War I and the defeat of the Turkish Empire the stage was set for what we now deal with in the Muslim world. Within just a few years of the Turkish defeat in World War I, the Ottoman Turkish Empire collapsed and occupation of the Middle East by European powers became the reality. This occupation or colonial expansion under a League of Nations protectorate umbrella was an irritation to Arabs seeking Arab control of Arab lands.
Arab writers in the middle and end of the 19th century had complained about the decline of status and loss of Islamic values within the Ottoman Turkish Empire. They criticized both their fellow Muslims and the institutions of government for their lack of adherence to true Islamic values. These writers strongly encouraged the return in all aspects of life to Islamic values as the road to an Arab/Islamic return to prominance.
While the Turkish Empire was not loved by the vast majority of the Islamic world at the time, it was an Islamic empire. With the fall of the Ottoman Turkish Empire almost the entire Arab world fell under actual European colonial rule or de facto European control through monarchs. This only increased Western influence throughout the area and was often viewed as an insult and embarrassment to both Arab pride and to Islam. This directly leads to the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 in Egypt.
In the next installment we will pick up with the founding of the Muslim brotherhood in the modern radical Islamic movements.
Part 2. Islam and Terrorism
In the end of the last part of this series, we addressed how the end of World War I changed the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. With the defeat of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and its subsequent collapse, Islamic political control of the Middle East ended. Under a League of Nations mandate Great Britain and France took control of the majority of this area under the status of a protectorate. This effectively ushered in an era of colonial rule of the majority of Arab lands and consequently the majority of the Islamic world.
Many of the Arab groups that have fought with the British, against the Turkish forces, had done so with the understanding that they would have self-rule after an Allied victory. With the defeat of the Turkish forces and their withdrawal from areas previously controlled and administered by the Turks, the British (there were a few military forces outside of British Commonwealth forces in the Middle East at this time) did not want to see a strong Arab nation that could compete with British interests. While the Arab Bedouin forces have been very effective in fighting a guerrilla war against the Turks, they had almost no technical expertise in running or maintaining the critical infrastructure of a modern city or nation. Without this expertise, Arab leaders were forced to rely upon the British and French to provide the expertise to run and maintain the needed infrastructure (water, sewage, electrical grids, telephone, etc.). Thus throughout most of the Middle East, British and French control amounted to little more than continued colonialism under a new name.
In the almost half a century prior to World War I, Arab jurists and philosophers had written about the decay within the Arab world. Initially, many of these writings were based upon the decay of the Ottoman Turkish Empire because of its failure to adhere to basic Islamic principles. The writers often viewed this decay as a result of Western influence (predominately European) on the Turkish Empire. Turkish alliances were formed to protect the Ottoman Empire from encroachment by the Russians on Ottoman provinces. These alliances brought with them significant contact and influence from Great Britain, Germany and Russia to name a few. The fear of Russian influence in what were Ottoman controlled territories, such as Russian support of Bulgarian freedom fighters in the 1870s, caused the Turks to continually seek modernization of their military forces in order to maintain control of their dwindling empire.
It is in the light of these events that Arab writers saw the weakening of the Ottoman Turkish Empire as a function of its departure from the traditional teachings of Islam. Many of these writers saw a direct connection between the departure from traditional Islamic ways of life and the adoption of European mores as the cause of the decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. These writers preached that a return to traditional Islam is the cure for the decline and decay they saw in the Arab world.
For those of you who may be historically challenged, remember that World War I ended with the armistice on November 11, 1918. The Turkish defeat in World War I led to the final collapse of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in the early 1920s. In 1928, Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian educator and writer, founded an organization called the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Kuntzel (2002, Page 17-19) "al-Banna called for the return to original Islam and followed Islamic reformers like Mohammed Abduh and Rashid Rida" 19th century Arab reformer, jurists and writers, "according to al-Banna, contemporary Islam had lost its social dominance, because most Muslims had been corrupted by Western influences. Sharia law based on the Quran and Sunnah were seen as laws passed down by God that should be applied to all parts of life, including the organization of the government and the handling of everyday problems."
Al-Banna founded the brotherhood along with workers from the Suez Company, a British company that controlled and ran the Suez Canal. In part, the brotherhood was intended to help protect workers from the excesses of colonial company. But the brotherhood was also seen as intended to be an all-inclusive lifestyle. Its stated purpose was, "God is our objective; the Quran is our Constitution, the Prophet is our leader, Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations".
While the ideas and goals of the Muslim brotherhood have not significantly changed from its founding, as an organization it has benefited many of the poorest communities in Egypt. Establishment of schools, medical clinics and food banks to provide necessities to many needy Egyptians has endeared the brotherhood to many of the poor and common Egyptians. This method of providing material support to local populations has been successfully used both by the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and by many of its branches in other countries. Failure to recognize this facet of the brotherhood and its fellow associations only prevents the reader from recognizing why these organizations have met with success and support among the people.
During most of the Muslim brotherhood's existence in Egypt, it has had a tenuous at best relationship with the ruling government. It has gone through numerous periods of being banned and then to have conditions relaxed allowing it to operate more openly. For the reader, over the past two decades, it has been the largest and best organized opposition party to the Egyptian government. An early election in Egypt, following Pres. Mubarak's stepping down from power, is likely only to assist the brotherhood gaining control. Without sufficient time to organize, recruit support, and spread their message the other smaller less organized groups vying for power in Egypt have little chance to overtake the significant advantage that decades of organization the brotherhood holds.
Offshoots of the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood exist in almost all of Arab countries. For example, Hamas in Gaza is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood. Many of the offshoots of the brotherhood in countries outside of Egypt have been working in the shadows for decades. The Muslim brotherhood and its various offshoots are well aware of outside opinions to their desire to establish Sharia Law in accordance with conservative Islamic values. It is not at all uncommon for their spokesmen on the world stage to use terminology and verbiage that sounds like what we would expect from democratic freedom fighters. This is in order to appeal to Western ideas in order to gain support and avoid early conflict that could derail their desire to gain political power.
It should be noted that the Muslim brotherhood is a Sunni-based organization in contrast to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon which is a Shia based organization. I point out this difference because it leads us to view the complexity of Islamic political ambitions. In most of the Arab countries the Sunni Muslims are the majority group, with the Shia being a small minority. The one Muslem country that is almost completely Shia is Iran. Iran, however, is not Arab but rather Persian. Over the centuries there has been repeated conflict between the Arab and Persian people.
If you remember in the first chapter, I outlined some of the reasons for the Sunni/Shia split and the Shia belief in the 12th Imam. In Shia Islam the world will go through a period of great conflict, strife and struggle prior to the return of the 12th Imam (with Jesus at his side). The return of the 12th Imam will then usher in an era of peace under Islamic rule. This view is very similar to the Christian belief in the Second Coming of Christ. To help you understand the importance of the 12th Imam in the Shia world view some of the alternate names used to refer to him are: Al-Mahdi (the Guided one), Al-Muntathar (the Awaited one), Al-Qa'im (the Rising one).
To understand the leadership of Iran one must understand this Messianic view of the world. The ayatollahs and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are all fervent believers in the return of the 12th Imam. In fact, not only do they strongly believe in the return of the 12th Imam, but they believe it is their role to help usher in his return. Understanding this dedication to the return can go a long way to provide insight into their actions on the world stage. This also helps explain their willingness to support groups that one would normally consider to be outside of the traditional Shia allies.
Iranian support of the many radical Islamic groups stems from the belief in hastening the return of the 12th Imam as a duty among other things. The desire to reestablish the Islamic Caliphate (remember the Golden Age of Islam) and the need to eliminate all non-Islamic influences from Islamic lands (remember the map of once Islamic controlled areas) are their solemn duty to advance. While these are not exclusively Shia ideas they are important to understand and explain the support they provide. It may also help to recognize that often the operational concept used in the Middle-East is, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Thus, temporary alliances and casting aside of historic differences is acceptable if it advances the cause in the short term (don’t get smug, reference American/Allied acceptance of Stalin because he was needed to defeat Germany in World War II).
In the next chapter we will address the post war (World War I) development of the Arab Islamic world. We will introduce Israel into the mix and the progression of radical Islam into the post Vietnam American experience.