Saturday, October 23, 2004

Global Jihad: Terror and Poverty - A Connection?


To get this discussion going let me make the following observation attributed to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. He reputedly said, "Poverty is kufr (disbelief)." Consequently, those who connect terrorism with poverty would be then confronted with the logical deduction derived from the prophet's observation that terrorism is disbelief. In other words, at least for a believing Muslim who accepts the words and practices of the prophet Muhammad as religiously binding, there is no excuse for indulging in disbelief.You have noted the idea of a religious hatred in the name of Islam. Terrorists who act in the name of Islam obviously believe in that notion. But a majority of contemporary Muslims don’t share this necrophilic ideology. Instead, they cherish and yearn for a good life, peaceful co-existence, safety, and so on. In history too, there were times when some Muslims were militant and some were quite peaceful.
Symposium: Terror and Poverty: A Connection?
Jamie Glazov

Is Islamist terrorism rooted in economic inequality and social injustice? To discuss this question with us today, Frontpage Symposium has assembled a distinguished panel. Our guests today are:

Mustafa Akyol, a political scientist, columnist and writer of the Muslim faith. He is a director at the Intercultural Dialogue Platform, based in Istanbul;

Salim Mansur, a Muslim writer and a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario;

and

John Loftus, a former Justice Department prosecutor with code word clearances whose 1982 expose of Nazis working for western intelligence won the Emmy Award for Mike Wallace. He is the author of several books on the Middle East and the director of INTELCON.US, the upcoming National Intelligence Conference and Exposition. At 10:30 every weeknight, the Loftus Report is a featured segment of ABC national radio, and Fox Television's "Inside Scoop with John Loftus" airs at 11 am Sundays. His website is John-Loftus.com.

FP: Mustafa Akyol, Salim Mansur and John Loftus, welcome to Frontpage Symposium. It is a pleasure to have you here.

Many left-liberal critics postulate that Islamist terror is a backlash against economic inequality and social injustice.

In other words, if Osama and al-Zarqawi had had a dream mansion in their youth, with a large screen TV, a remote control, a play station and an indoor swimming pool, then neither of them would have become very interested in a holy jihad against the West. Right?

The only problem with this picture is that, as the empirical evidence suggests, when it comes to a significant number of the Islamist jihadists, poverty is something that eluded them all of their lives. These terrorists come from wealthy, educated, and privileged backgrounds. They have been the beneficiaries of all the luxuries of modernization and Westernization. . .which they ultimately despise and reject.

What do you make of this phenomenon? Prof. Mansur why don’t we begin with you?

Mansur: Let me begin by thanking you for inviting me to join this symposium on "Terror and Poverty."

The question you pose is not entirely new, and keeps recurring from time to time as new with the spread of Islamist terrorism. The answer too will not be entirely original, rather we will be engaging in the sort of descriptions and discussions what, for instance, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz referred to as "thick description" of the general condition or malaise within the Arab-Muslim world that has generated the current phenomenon of organized violence by transnational Muslim groups in the name of Islam.

To get this discussion going let me make the following observation attributed to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. He reputedly said, "Poverty is kufr (disbelief)." Consequently, those who connect terrorism with poverty would be then confronted with the logical deduction derived from the prophet's observation that terrorism is disbelief. In other words, at least for a believing Muslim who accepts the words and practices of the prophet Muhammad as religiously binding, there is no excuse for indulging in disbelief.

Islamdom (a very appropriate word coined by the late Marshall Hodgson as an analogue to Christendom) is a part of the world consisting of countries with a Muslim majority population, and it is located in Africa and Asia (Bosnia is the exception). In modern history most Muslim countries are post-colonial developing societies reflecting social problems associated with poverty, from which follows economic inequality and social injustice. For instance, countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, rank in the bottom end of the UN Human Development Index. But then there are non-Muslim majority countries of Africa and Asia also located at the bottom end of the UN HDI.

While Muslim majority countries and non-Muslim majority countries of Africa and Asia share much in common - whether it be colonial past or lack of development to ameliorate socioeconomic inequalities and injustices - terrorism as a phenomenon at the present juncture of history seems to be primarily located in some of the Muslim majority countries such as Pakistan and Sudan. Then there are the Arab League countries of the Middle East, all Muslim majority states and some gifted with wealth from oil resources, where Islamist terrorism seemingly has become entrenched and acquired a following of Muslims engaging in it and Muslims providing material and political support sanctioned in the name of Islam.

From the above preliminary observation, without getting deeper into "thick description," the opening answer to your question "Is Islamist terrorism rooted in economic inequality and social injustice?" is: not quite. This answer should not mean, however, that Muslim terrorists, their origin being in developing countries of Africa and Asia, do not exploit the conditions of poverty for their purposes. We will return to this, hopefully, as the discussion proceeds.

FP: Thank you, Prof. Mansur. Once again, what I crystallizing is that the reason the 9/11 hijackers blew themselves up along with 3,000 innocent people is not because they were part of the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. They did it because they hate the unbelievers, who, in their eyes, are led by the Americans. They did it because of their yearning for death, which their totalitarian ideology has inoculated in them. For the Islamist terrorists, this is a religious war, which entails the necessity of death and suicide for other-worldy rewards.

Mr. Akyol, go ahead.

Akyol: Many thanks. In general, I agree with Prof. Mansur’s assessment and your comment, but I would like to add some further thoughts.

Jamie, you state the 9/11 conspirators killed 3,000 innocent people not because they were poor, rather because they had an ideology which compelled them to hate the American people. I fully agree. What we face here is an ideology, not poverty or backwardness. (And a very basic evidence for this would be the many poor countries in Black Africa who have nothing to do with terrorism.) Therefore, the make-up of the ideology in question is the issue that we should focus on. Where does this come from?

You have noted the idea of a religious hatred in the name of Islam. Terrorists who act in the name of Islam obviously believe in that notion. But a majority of contemporary Muslims don’t share this necrophilic ideology. Instead, they cherish and yearn for a good life, peaceful co-existence, safety, and so on. In history too, there were times when some Muslims were militant and some were quite peaceful. So it is not the teaching of Islam per se that drives some Muslims into violent action. There are some elements in the teaching of Islam, of course, such as the notion of jihad, which have been used to support violent action, but the way this is interpreted by Muslims have varied over time, mostly according to the historical conditions they lived in. That is why Daniel Pipes, one of the important analysts on contemporary Islam, emphasizes that “militant Islam is not Islam.” Of course there is a connection between the two, but there is a big difference as Pipes well notes: "Traditional Islam seeks to teach human beings how to live in accord with God's will; militant Islam aspires to create a new order."

And where does this search for a new order come from? I believe the answer is the widespread frustration we have in the contemporary Islamic world. ‘Islamdom’ used to be a powerful, dignified, wealthy civilization until the last two centuries. The state of affairs since then has stirred the “crisis of Islam,” as Bernard Lewis calls it. This crisis leads some Muslims to believe that Islamdom is in bad shape because the Westerners -- and especially the archetypal scapegoats, ‘the Jews’ -- have supposedly conspired against it.

In this general picture, I think poverty in the Islamic world has a share in the ideological make-up of militant Islamists. Of course, most terrorists themselves, at least their masterminds, are not poor and ill-educated. But just as leftist intellectuals, who often came from bourgeois families but fought capitalism in the name of "the proletariat," well off and educated Islamist militants believe they sacrifice themselves for the sake of the impoverished, oppressed umma, the worldwide Muslim community. And in fact, in that frame of mind, an ideological motivator more central than poverty would be humiliation. Thomas Friedman from the New York Times had some brilliant analyses on the sense of humiliation as the driving force behind current militant Islamism.

And another quick note: Prof. Mansur noted the hadith, "Poverty is kufr (disbelief)." I believe that this is one of the many fake sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad. Because this is completely against the message of the Koran, which denies any correlation between faith and any worldly criteria.

FP: One second, Mr. Akyol. If a hadith is fake, then which ones can we say are real or not?

Akyol: The traditional method to decide whether a hadith is fake or not has been to trace its lineage to Prophet Muhammad. But this was done about two centuries after the Prophet had died and I believe that even with the best lineage and the best intentions, it was not possible to discover his authentic sayings and deeds after so many generations.

My criteria is the Koran. Hadiths should be compared with the verses and the overall message of the Koran. There are some modern scholars who think in this fashion. For example Professor Hayri Kirbasoglu, a theologian in Ankara University and an expert on hadiths, argues that a new method is necessary to evaluate the hadith collection. Compatibility with the Qur'an -- a criteria much neglected before -- he says, should be the basis of this method.

And I find the "Poverty is kufr (disbelief)" hadith unacceptable according to this criteria. There are several verses in the Koran in which poor Muslims are praised for their sincere faith in God. See 59:8, 4:135 and take a look at 2:173:

“Alms are for the poor who are confined in the way of God-- they cannot go about in the land; the ignorant man thinks them to be rich on account of (their) abstaining (from begging); you can recognise them by their mark; they do not beg from men importunately; and whatever good thing you spend, surely God knows it.”

An approach that would define poverty as disbelief (!) would be unthinkable from a Prophet who conveyed the message above.

FP: Ok. I have a feeling that we have just found a topic for a future symposium. Mr. Loftus, let’s move over to you. What do you make so far of our discussion on terror and its connection, or non-connection, to poverty?

Loftus: Modern terrorism is not an Islamic phenomenon, it is an Arab one. Eight five percent of the world Muslims are not Arabs. Of the fifteen percent who are Arabs, less than one percent of them can be described as active supporters of Islamic extremism. Virtually all the disseminators of modern Islamic extremism come from the Arabian peninsula.

This is not to say that Arabs are genetically prone to terrorism or bigotry. For centuries, when Christendom was going through its dark ages, Islamdom (I like the phrase) was going through what both Arabs and Jews call a "Golden Age." It was an age of tolerance, science and learning. If one wanted to go to law school or medical school, it was likely that you would attend a Moslem university and be taught by a Jewish professor. The very words "medicine, magazine, algebra" come from the Arabic language. Judeo-Islamic culture was a learned one, in which Islamdom often gave shelter to Europeans fleeing the intolerance and bigotry of the middle ages. Arabia was where they found religious freedom and tolerance.

Every great religion goes through its ups and downs. When Christendom begin its renaissance, Islamdom began a sudden and sharp decline. For the last 300 years, Islamdom has being going through its dark ages. What caused the sudden destruction of such a learned and tolerant society? I submit that it was the Turkish edict to ban the printing press on the Arabian peninsula.

Literacy was more than a luxury for the new ruling classes of Islamdom, it was a political weapon. Illiterate populations are more easily subdued and controlled by dictators, a truism that has been the driving force on the Arabian peninsula for the last three centuries, and continues to the present day. The illiteracy rates in the Arab world are shockingly low. To this day, fewer books are published in Arabic than in any other major language.

The prophet warned us that the Koran could be interpreted in 78 different ways, 77 of them false. In the last three centuries, Arabs could not read the Koran let alone the hadith. They could only memorize selected verses. You can take a few lines out of context from any holy book, whether the Torah, the Bible or the Koran, and twist them to suit your prejudice.

Extremist cults like Wahhabism arose because it suited the political needs of the Arab dictators. Wahabbism was condemned by Islamic scholars as a heresy to Islam more than 60 times before the year 1900. It would have remained an obscure and unimportant cult, but for one thing: Fascism.

In the 1920's, the new dictator of Saudi Arabia expelled the Ikwahn, the Wahabbi extremists who had brought the House of Saud to power on the back of "religious reform." These extremists settled in Egypt, where they joined forces with an Egyptian fascist named Hassan Al Banna, a devout admirer of Hitler. The Nazi intelligence service saw the merger of Fascism and Islamic extremism as a marriage made in heaven. The Third Reich used Banna to create the Muslim Brotherhood, which became the Nazi's secret weapon against the British in the Middle East.

By the end of World II, the Muslim Brotherhood had a half million Arab Nazis as members. The Arab Nazis were thought by the British SIS, and later the CIA, as a valuable counterweight to Arab communism. In the 1950's Egypt expelled the Muslim Brotherhood and the CIA resettled them, ironically, back in Saudi Arabia.

In the 1980's, Al Qaeda emerged directly from the previous generation of Nazi Arabs who taught at the Madrassas. The Nazis of the Muslim Brotherhood are still the backbone of Al Qaeda and the parent of nearly every other terrorist group in the Arabian peninsula.

The recent merger of Nazi philosophies and Wahabbist bigotry was a heady mix for many Muslims. Both doctrines defied the traditional learned culture of Islamdom by teaching hatred for Jews, western science and democracy. The Turks may have prepared the ground for exploitation by banning the printing press, but it was the Nazis who planted the seed of hatred, and Islamdom itself which has reaped the bitter harvest.

It was and is illiteracy, more than poverty, that gave rise to the fascists of the Moslem Brotherhood. In the Arabian peninsula, the next generation calls themselves Al Qaeda instead of Arab Nazis, but their heritage is the same. Just as Hitler exploited peasant ignorance and shame in Germany to foster his rise to power, so do the Arab dictators manipulate their people with the promise that extremist dogma will end their humiliation.

If the poor and oppressed of the Arab world ever learn to read, they will escape their poverty and begin an Islamic renaissance. Of course, the Arab dictators want to prevent this, as it would mean the end of their regimes, and so they use the tools of militant extremism to mislead and distract their own people. The new elite of the Islamic Militant movement uses the same tools of exploitation as the Fascists. The game is the same, only the names have changed.


FrontpageMag 22/10/2004