The common foe

OVER the last week, Canadian intelligence agencies and the FBI have arrested nine Tamils of Sri Lankan origin for attempting to buy arms (including shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles) for the Tamil Tigers. But this news scarcely figured in a Western media still preoccupied with the alleged plot to destroy passenger aircraft.

By Irfan Husain

Published: Thu 31 Aug 2006, 9:02 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:26 PM

The truth is that it is terrorism of the Muslim variety that continues to dominate the international agenda in one form or another. Ever since 9/11, it has become acceptable to place all movements involving Muslims under the inappropriate umbrella called ‘Islamic terrorism’. Thus, whether Chechens are resisting Russian occupation, or Palestinians are struggling to create a state, the common Western perception now is that they are all somehow connected to the global jihad.

Heading this imaginary network is the sinister figure of Osama bin Laden who is seen to be coordinating and directing complex plots against the West and its allies. In this worldview, a vast Islamic conspiracy exists to impose its values and beliefs on the rest of the world, and to this end, it is sending waves of suicide bombers to destroy and damage Western interests across the globe.

While this may be convenient as well as politically expedient, a little analytical rigour would reveal the absurdity of this reading of current events. When Al-Qaeda expressed its joy over Hamas’s electoral victory, it was told sharply by the Palestinian leadership to back off. Muslim separatists in the Philippines conduct their struggle without their co-religionists in the rest of the world being aware of what they are fighting for.

The reality is that several struggles are being waged by Muslims for specific, local causes. The only factor linking them is a common faith. But this does not mean they share some global pan-Islamic vision. A Kashmiri Muslim engaged in a fight for independence has more in common with a pundit in Srinagar than with a fellow Muslim in Chechnya, even though many terrorists have targeted Hindus, and driven them from their homes. A Turkish Kurd is more concerned about his fight for autonomy than about the global jihad.

When Basque terrorists belonging to ETA, the separatist movement that has been fighting a long and deadly battle for independence from Madrid, strike civilian targets, they are not accused of being part of a Christian movement together with the IRA. Although fighters in both organisations are Catholics, this does not automatically mean that they, or indeed, Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas, are part of some vast Vatican-controlled conspiracy.

Similarly, the only thing the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka’s LTTE separatists have in common with India’s Naxalites is their Hindu belief. But this shared faith in no way puts the two groups on the same side. They both have their own agendas and their own methods. Both would resent the label of ‘terrorists’, and insist that they are fighting for just causes.

I would define ‘Islamic’ terrorism as violence aimed at creating a vague, utopian world based on a fuzzy vision of a distant tribal past. This involves bringing back the caliphate, adopting the laws and way of life that might have existed fourteen centuries ago, and imposing these archaic values on the rest of the world. This search for a ‘perfect’ world involves destroying the existing dominant power structure so it can be replaced with the ‘pure’ Islamic model. Adherents of movements like Al-Qaeda fall into this category. But clearly, organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah do not.

Reformist movements, inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, seek to impose Islamic values, often by force, on their own societies. And while they are connected spiritually to the larger ummah, their primary aim is to obtain political power in their own countries. They use a combination of political manoeuvring, violence and moral posturing to achieve their ends. But most of their energies are devoted to local goals. Many so-called terrorist organisations are doing nothing more than trying to remove dysfunctional governments and venal leaders. In the absence of any political freedom to bring about change through peaceful, democratic means, they have been driven underground.

Had it not been for the sudden flood of petrodollars that poured into Saudi coffers after the oil price-rise of 1974, we would not have been discussing these issues. Over the years, some of this wealth has translated into support for the most reactionary Muslim governments, and the most violent Muslim groups. By exporting their brand of Wahabi/Salafi Islam across the world, the Saudis have unwittingly set the stage for the current confrontation. Theirs is an exclusionary vision of the faith in which anybody not following a narrow and literal interpretation of Islam is not only beyond the pale, but is, for some extremists, deserving of death.

This is the kind of fundamentalism that has caused so much havoc around the world. Saudi generosity has funded Muslim dictators, Islamic political parties and ruthless terrorists. It has also paid for the establishment and operation of thousands of madressas across the Muslim world. These incubators of extremism have proved to be fertile recruiting grounds for Islamic jihadis. This is the version of the faith that has infected young men from Lahore to London.

Given this violence and extremism, it was not difficult to sell the idea of a vast, unified Islamic conspiracy against the West in the wake of 9/11. Fanning public fear, Washington soon had the majority of Americans believing that somehow, Saddam Hussein and Iraq were connected to the suicide attack on the Twin Towers. According to a poll published in the July/August 2006 issue of Foreign Policy, 57 per cent of Americans believe an attack on their country on the scale of the Madrid or London train bombings is likely by the end of this year. 79 per cent think it likely or certain that there will be a terrorist attack of the magnitude of 9/11 by 2011. The same poll reveals that 62 per cent of Americans believe that Saudi Arabia has produced the biggest number of terrorists; 13 per cent think it is the Egyptians; and 11 per cent feel it is the Pakistanis. Thus, a total of 86 per cent consider that the three top Muslim allies America has in its ‘war on terror’ also produce virtually all the terrorists they are fighting.

After 9/11, a number of countries, eager to jump on the American bandwagon, declared their local problems to had global roots. Thus, freedom fighters in Chechnya, Kashmir and Palestine were immediately lumped together with Al-Qaeda. This made it simultaneously easier to deny even their legitimate demands, as well as to get American diplomatic, moral and material aid in suppressing them.

But while this conflation of different movements might be politically expedient, it does not help in combating the common foe.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani writer based in London. He can be reached at

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