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U.S.: 11 September -- Muslims Debate Fundamentalism In Wake Of Attacks (Part 5)

By Charles Recknagel/Zamira Eshanova

The 11 September attacks on America sparked a worldwide debate on terrorism and how to deal with it. Over the past year in the Muslim world, the discussion has moved from shock over the scale of the suicide attacks to debate over whether performing such acts in the name of Islam is a violation of the faith's teachings.

Prague, 6 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Immediately after the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, mainstream leaders in the Muslim world condemned them as an unacceptable massacre of civilians for political ends.

Many mainstream religious authorities said the attacks violated some of the most basic values in Islam. Saudi Arabia's leading Islamic authority, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al-Sheikh, told some 2 million pilgrims at this year's hajj -- the annual Muslim pilgrimage -- that "Islam enjoins respect for people's rights, money, honor, and life. It instructs against killing children, women, and the unarmed."

But some radical scholars disagreed. They dubbed the attackers "holy warriors" in a jihad, or struggle, to defend their faith from foreign enemies propping up repressive Middle Eastern regimes. And they equated the willingness of the attackers to commit suicide -- something Islam forbids -- with the heroism of past Muslim warriors who have marched into battle despite the certain knowledge they would die.

Today, moderate and fundamentalist Muslims are still debating whether the 11 September bombers acted outside the pale of Islam or were true martyrs for their faith. The debate shows no sign of going away because it addresses one of the most central issues in Islamic society -- that is, the question of what kind of society Muslims hope to live in and what price they are willing to pay to obtain it.

In this conflict, one side is represented by moderate Muslims who regard Islam as a peaceful religion and are pragmatic about politics -- including the fact that their governments are mostly secular and far from perfect. On the other side are fundamentalists, who see Islam as a powerful weapon for political change and seek to wield it to realize their personal vision of a religiously pure and ideal society.

Islam is open to both views because it includes not only a set of beliefs but also a complete legal system which Muslims believe is divinely given. The legal system, which has inspired several competing schools of interpretation, is complex. But fundamentalists believe that by applying their understanding of it, they can realize the perfect world they seek.

Ahmed Versi is the editor of "The Muslim News," a monthly newspaper published in Britain. He says most Muslims reject the fundamentalists' position because it views force and intolerance as a justifiable way to impose extreme ideas upon others: "[The extremists] do not tolerate any other views except their own. They believe that their view is the [only] view. And this is against the basic teachings of Islam, where a diversity of views are allowed. And, of course, some of them become terrorists, which is again against the teachings of Islam and the beliefs of the majority of Muslims."

Over the centuries, the divide between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims has grown deep, as the mainstream has accepted being ruled by monarchs -- and more recently by self-declared presidents -- who pay respect to Islamic beliefs but subordinate the Islamic establishment. In many countries, these secular governments appoint top religious officials who endorse the head of state's right to rule and restrict their own authority to purely religious questions.

But throughout the history of Islam, myriad fundamentalist groups have arisen to challenge the secular rulers in the name of returning Islamic society to its earliest ideals. Those ideals include egalitarianism and communalism, as symbolized by the close-knit society formed by the Prophet Mohammad and his first followers.

Mohammed Fateh is a regional coordinator for the Islamic militant party Tanzeem-i-Islami in Pakistan. He described the goals of Islamic fundamentalist groups this way in an interview with RFE/RL earlier this year: "The basic thing is that we consider Islam as a complete code of life which deals from each [individual] person [all the way] to the top of the government, and from a child's [birth], to wedlock and then, thereafter, his death. The matters of such natures are then decided on the basis of those basic fundamentals of Islam. The first and the foremost of those is that Allah is the sole supreme power of this universe and Islam has come as a final message, as a final code of conduct, for humanity."

The debate over fundamentalism has been particularly strong in Pakistan in the aftermath of 11 September because President Pervez Musharraf is cracking down on militant groups there in response to appeals from Washington. Many of the militant groups had close ties with Afghanistan's former ruling Taliban, and Washington worries they are providing a new base for fleeing members of the militia and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Since the Taliban's collapse late last year, Pakistan has seen a spate of bombings aimed at Western targets but which mostly have killed Pakistani bystanders. As public outrage has increased, Pakistan's two largest fundamentalist groups have stressed that they seek social change only through nonviolent means. The most radical groups -- now banned by the government -- have gone underground.

In Central Asia, 11 September also has fueled the debate over fundamentalism as most of the region's presidents have joined America's war on terrorism. They have stepped up their own fights with armed Islamist opponents, who accuse the presidents of godlessness and for years have operated from bases in Afghanistan.

Sheikh Muhammad Sodiq Muhamad Yusuf is one of Central Asia's most respected Islamic scholars. He says that groups like Uzbekistan's Hizb ut-Tahrir, which advocates the creation of a region-wide Islamic state, have gained appeal because the region's post-Soviet governments have tried to resist a popular return to mainstream Islam -- possibly for fear of losing power. The governments have restricted the construction of new mosques and the publishing of religious tomes by mainstream religious leaders: "People who want to learn Islam have no possibility to do that in an easy, correct and free way. That's why Hizb ut-Tahrir and other radical groups have had a chance to spread their radical and violent ideas by illegal and secretive ways and to introduce their ideas to ordinary people as true Islam. To stop this process, Islamic education should be put on the right track [encouraged by the government and brought into the mainstream]."

Throughout the Muslim world, the militant fundamentalist groups have seen themselves as underdogs in a struggle which usually ends in victory for the well-armed governments they oppose. But the militants take strength from the fact that several Islamic revolutions in modern times have succeeded despite the odds. The most recent example is Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, which swept aside the shah and established clerical rule instead. A slightly older case is Saudi Arabia, where the Saud family made common cause with the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect to take power in 1932. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia strictly apply Islamic law, making them the most fundamentalist Muslim states in the world today.

But even when an Islamic revolution does succeed, it does not spell an end to the social debate.

Instead, in Iran today, the debate is over to what extent a modern society can successfully operate as a theocracy. Iranian reformers argue that the ruling clergy must share power with secular figures, and particularly technocrats, in order to give ordinary people more of a stake in the system and to develop the economy.

Mohammad Khatami has twice won the Iranian presidency in landslides by promising greater personal and political freedoms under clerical rule. However, the reforms have been blocked by conservative clerics, who fear that giving up too much of their political power will mean a return to a secular state. Khatami has recently pledged to ask parliament to strengthen his presidential powers so that he can better pursue the reforms that many Iranians support.

And in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi-backed Saud monarchy is now itself the target of newer fundamentalist groups, which accuse it of corruption and pandering to Western interests. The best known of these new groups -- which spring directly from the Wahhabis themselves -- is Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, the same group responsible for the 11 September attacks.