Al-Qaeda Threat Overblown?

A question I have had for some time is how connected up the various militant Islamists elements are. A case can be made that in many places the incentives for insurgency are local and provincial, in which case the various militant groups, even if in some contact, have little reason to cooperate except in the most elementary sense. Authors like Robert Naylor (Satanic Purses) argue that in fact al-Qaeda is a small network of fairly informally connected militants; to him the West’s fear of al-Qaeda, etc., is overblown.

At the same time there are indications that some of the groups cooperate. Claims that Al-Qaeda and Iran or Hizbullah are cooperating seem preposterous to me: Al-Qaeda is a Sunni movement that cannot tolerate any divergence from their view; Shi’a for them are anathema. But the recent news that Hezbollah has trained several hundred members of Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Lebanon is plausible. It is also likely – perhaps only too obvious — that Iran has been supporting Iraq’s Shi’a militants, including the Mahdi Army.

Even so, I wonder if the scale of the militant movement, lethal and vicious as it is, has not been overblown. Islam – or rather Islamic terms, Islam as a political ideology — now seems to be the popular vehicle of anti-Western expression in the Middle East and South Asia – which means that we cannot take the movement as an authentic religious movement, a struggle over “higher values,” so much as an authentic political expression of frustration.

In the end, this is what many specialists of this region have been saying all along, while the public in the West has not internalized it.

What Makes a Muslim Radical?

John L. Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, has teamed up with Dalia Mogahed, executive director of Muslim studies for Gallup, to study the perspectives of “radical” and “moderate” Muslims in several countries. On the basis of a comparison of the views of 9,000 Muslim respondents who thought the 9/11 attack was justified [“radicals”] and those who thought it was not justified [“moderates”] Esposito and Mogahed have discovered that, contrary to popular wisdom, “radicals” are better off than “moderates,” and expect to be better off in the future; they are better educated than “moderates,” and are not more “hopeless” than the moderates. The difference between them seems to be that radicals tend to feel that the West threatens and attempts to control their way of life whereas “moderates” are more eager to build ties with the West through economic development.
Esposito has been vilified by the far right for his efforts to explain what the Muslim world is like. I hope his work will be looked at carefully but chances are that, as usual, this report will be read as just another attempt to mitigate Bush’s fabricated “war on terror”.


Why Are So Many Afraid to Call Iraq a Civil War?

Most of us are so pessimistic about the course of affairs in the Middle East and Central Asia that we can’t envision things getting worse. But they keep on getting worse. Yesterday was an example: Once again George W. Bush denied that there is a civil war in Iraq. Then on the Jim Lehrer News Hour there was a serious discussion about whether the fighting in Iraq can be called a civil war. Somehow admitting that it was a civil war seems a threshold; it would mean something new and important if the war can be called a civil war. But Thomas Friedman sees it as even worse than a civil war, “This country is so broken it can’t even have a proper civil war. There are so many people killing so many other people for so many different reasons – religion, crime, politics – that all the proposals for how to settle this problem seem laughable. … [In the Bosnian civil war] leaders . . . could cut a deal and deliver their faction. But Iraq is in so many little pieces now, divided among warlords, foreign terrorists, gangs, militias, parties, the police and the army, that nobody seems able to deliver anybody. Iraq has entered a stage beyond civil war – it’s gone from breaking apart to breaking down. This is not the Arab Yugoslavia anymore. It’s Hobbes’s jungle.” At least in his view, Iraq has descended below a threshold we could scarcely imagine. The nearest analogue to such an image is the convoluted carnage in Darfur, which is being called genocide. The wreckage of decisions made, bridges crossed and burned, continues to compound.

Middle East Specialists Wanted by U.S. Government

I, along with many others no doubt, have received an advertisement for a specialist of Islam and social affairs in the Middle East and Central Asia. “Level of Education: MA/MS or PHD in History, Anthropology and Religion with emphasis on Iraq, Middle Eastern, Afghanistan and Southwestern Asia …” Yes, if only such people were in abundance, and already involved in our government. In fact, the government has had a number of smart people whose opinions the administration studiously avoided lest they deflect them from its stated agendas. Now the government wants such people, now that the mess has been made, now that this administration has discovered that it is not possible to confront the outside world without knowing something about it. I wish them well in finding such competent people. And to those who take the job I offer my prayers, that they will be wise and discerning in their advice, and that they will be listened to, that their warnings will be heeded, etc.

The Industry from Hell

A suicide bomber killed Hakim Taniwal and two colleagues two days ago, and then at his funeral yesterday another suicide bomber killed seven more, including two boys aged 10 and 12, maiming forty more. Suicide bombing is not typically Afghan; it is an import from elsewhere. And it is not Islamic. But wherever it was invented it was never natural; it is a cultural product: it has to be produced. And as a cultural product it is never the only possible solution to a situation.

It is now an industry: Suicide bombing has come to be practiced – not just as an occasional act of a few (as in London) but as a way of life -in several places: Palestine/Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Kashmir; and it seems to have been practiced in such places as India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines.

For such an industry to exist it has to be conceived and formulated, discussed, promoted. People have to meet and plan and organize. Funds have to be provided. Buildings have to be built or rented for training, teachers have to be trained, explosives and equipment have to be bought and collected, photographs and videos of “martyrs” have to be made, copied, circulated, promoted. Children have to be socialized over a period of years – that is, fed, housed, clothed, trained, taught to believe that to blow themselves up is the highest form of spiritual service. Officials have to turn a blind eye; neighbors have to remain silent. Hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, are implicated in this practice. Although secluded, it is not being done in a corner.

Some crimes are so heinous that one recoils from even describing them. It is too easy to condemn – can this be ourselves? Human beings? What an image of humanity is displayed in such hideous practices. We pray for God to save us from such a scourge. But I also pray for the whole industry with all its ugliness to be exposed for what it is. The ancient wisdom is still true: “men love darkness because their deeds are evil and they will not come into the light lest their deeds be exposed.” And a voice with terrifying authority still speaks to the authors of such monstrous practices: “Woe to you teachers of the law … for you traverse sea and land to make a single disciple and when he becomes a disciple you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”