THE beheading on video of the American photo-journalist James Foley by an Islamist jihadist — believed to be British — in Syria is yet another and grisly reminder of the rise of and threat posed by religious extremism.
Ever since the destruction by al Qaeda of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, the West has struggled to comprehend and cope with the menace from ideologically driven religion, especially Islamic extremism.
The causes of this extremism are both internal and external. “The root causes of modern Islamic militancy are the myriad reasons for the grievances that are the first step on the road to terrorism,” according to Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda — The True Story of Radical Islam.
Social and economic problems, he says, are critical as a pre-condition: “Such problems are growing more, not less, widespread and profound throughout the Islamic world.” Socio-economic deprivation is a breeding ground for radical Islam.
A belief that the West has mounted a cultural assault against the Islamic world is a key external cause. “The perception that a belligerent West is set on the humiliation, division and eventual conquest of the Islamic world is as much a root cause of Muslim violence as relative poverty or government repression,” says Burke.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is usually traced back to the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9 from which Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. It has much older roots, however.
One of the ironies of our present situation is that the USA’s most important Arab ally — Saudi Arabia — has long been the home of and breeding ground for one of the most fundamentalist and radical strands of Islam – Wahhabism. Its founder was Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92). “Wahhabism is the form of Islam that is still practised today in Saudi Arabia, a puritan religion based on a strictly literal interpretation of scripture and early Islamic tradition,” writes Karen Armstrong, author of Islam – A Short History.
A much less benign (and frightening) view of Wahhabism is to be found in God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad by Charles Allen. “In the late 18th century a violently intolerant reinterpretation of Islam took root in the Arabian desert,” writes Allen. “To their many critics in the Muslin world the followers of this movement became known, after their founder, as al Wahhabi — the Wahhabi.
“In Arabia, a dynamic Bedouin chieftain named ibn Saud harnessed the religious zeal and fighting spirit of a number of desert tribes to carve out the Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Then in the early 1980s a combination of political events took place in Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan that allowed two strands of Wahhabism to converge and cross-infect on the Afghanistan-Pakistan fault lines. Two very different organisations emerged out of this coming together, one tight-knit and localised, the other loose-knit and with global aspirations: the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.”
In his book The Dagger of Islam, John Laffin focuses on the role of Saudi Arabia in promoting jihad (a holy war against Christians, Jewish, and other non-Muslim ‘infidels’) by proxy: “Saudi’s power does not lie in its military potential — though it can buy whatever armaments it desires — but in the Islamic example it sets to the Muslim world and in the terrorism and propaganda it finances.”
Noam Chomsky, emeritus professor at MIT, agrees, while pointing to US complicity. “In the Arab world, the United States and its allies have regularly supported radical Islamists, sometimes to prevent the threat of secular nationalism,” says Chomsky. “A familiar example is Saudi Arabia, the ideological centre of radical Islam (and of Islamic terror).” It is worth noting, in passing, that 15 of the 19 al-Qaeda hijackers responsible for 9/11 were born in Saudi Arabia.
Despite all this, the US dependency on Saudi oil means that its policies towards the oil-rich kingdom are, at best, ambivalent. Washington’s “worst nightmare”, says Chomsky, would be to lose “effective control” over the “unparalleled energy resources” of the Middle East. To maintain this control US has shown again and again a willingness to enter into alliances with unsavoury regimes.
Today the Islamist State (Isis) has been described as the “new face” of al Qaeda, and may even be more radical, brutal and ruthless than the older organisation from which it evolved in Syria in early 2013.
Karen Armstrong says that during the 20th century, the “militant form of piety known as fundamentalism” erupted in every major religion as a rebellion against modernity. “Every fundamentalist movement I have studied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is convinced that liberal, secular society is determined to wipe out religion,” says Armstrong. “Fighting, as they imagine, a battle for survival, fundamentalists often feel justified in ignoring the more compassionate principles of their faith. But in amplifying the more aggressive passages that exist in all our scriptures, they distort the tradition.”
In this “distortion”, however, is to be found the matrix from which radical Islam springs. In a speech in April to the Bloomberg organisation in London, former British prime minister Tony Blair identified Islamic extremism as the greatest threat to world peace. “Islamic extremism is so opposed to modernity it could yet engender global catastrophe,” he said.
He warned against a “deadly mixture of religion and politics across the Middle East, saying that an Islamic ideology that mixes politics and religion in such a deadly way must be confronted.
“At the root of the crisis lies a radicalised and politicised view of Islam, an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message.”
THE real problem is that a distorted and warped ideology is able to flourish within Islam, and that the Koran is open to interpretations in support of jihad. And what Blair refuses to acknowledge, of course, are the awful repercussions of his decision to form an alliance with George W Bush to invade Iraq in 2003.
Apart from the barbarism of Isis, there is also more bloodletting as the conflict between the two branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia (a conflict with roots stretching all back to the 7th century, following divisions over a successor to the Prophet Muhammad) intensifies.
“We need to remember that every time force is used, it provides more evidence of a ‘clash of civilisations’ and a ‘cosmic struggle’ and thus aids the militants in their effort to radicalize and mobilise,” Burke stresses.
John Gray, professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, agrees. “The conflict between al-Qaeda and the West is a war of religion,” he writes in his 2003 book Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern.
“Western societies are ruled by the myth that, as the rest of the world absorbs science and becomes modern, it is bound to become secular, enlightened and peaceful — as contrary to all evidence, they imagine themselves to be.
“With its attack on the Twin Towers, al-Qaeda destroyed this myth; and yet it continues to be believed. Al-Qaeda is driven by the belief that the world can be transformed by spectacular acts of terror. This myth has also been repeatedly disproved; but still it persists.”
Isis is the latest embodiment of it. Gray, writing in 2003, made a forecast that is today horribly true: “Once al-Qaeda has disappeared, other types of terror... will surely follow.” That these are animated by radical Islam is no surprise.
The murder of James Foley is proof of this. To representatives of mainstream Islam, the ultra-extremists of Isis may be a dangerous aberration in violation of Islam’s true precepts, but they have shown themselves adept at exploiting religion for political ends.
“Islamic State, or Isis, have emerged as the most recent form of radical jihadism,” says Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. “Their narrative may well be wrapped up in the familiar language of jihad and ‘fighting in the name of Allah’, but it amounts to little more than destruction of anything and anyone who doesn’t agree with them.”
What many in the West are slow to grasp is that Islam is not just a religion; it is a complete way of life. “Islam aims to control the state without being a subject of the state,” says Roger Scruton, former professor of philosophy at Boston University and author of The West and the Rest.
Of the three great monotheistic faiths, Islam alone admits of no separation between religion and politics, and therefore no separation of Church and State. It is an all-compassing way of life. “Islam is all-round, a whole, a force which moves all its elements at one time; it is theology as law,” says John Laffin. “And it is this relentless and remorseless nature that should concern us in the West.”
Burke emphasises the need to adopt a new approach. “Of course the ‘war on terror’ should have a military component,” he says. “But if we are to win the battle against terrorism our strategies must be made broader and more sophisticated.
“We must eliminate our enemies without creating new ones. Military power must be only one tool among many, and a tool that is only rarely, and reluctantly, used. Currently, military power is the default, the weapon of choice.
“In fact, the greatest weapon available in the war on terrorism is the courage, decency, humour and integrity of the vast proportion of the world’s 1.3bn Muslims.” It is, in other words, the battle for hearts and minds that must be won.
Meanwhile, we in the West must ponder the sobering assessment from Dominic Sandbrook, visiting professor of history at King’s College, London. “When future historians look back, they may well see the summer of 2014 as a watershed marking the end of the post-Cold War order, and the birth of a new and far more dangerous era of religious extremism and regional instability,” says Sandbrook.