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Over the past three centuries, the world has witnessed the rise of a new faith, Wahhabism, which sought from the start to cloak itself in the mantle of Islam, a religion that had established itself across the world during the previous millennium. Converts to Wahhabism have destroyed sites relating to the heroes of the early years of Islam and have sought to extinguish the culture of tolerance and knowledge that gave the world so many intellectual riches.

Since the rise of Wahhabism, there has been no increase in the number of Muslim-majority countries, with the exception of the newly created Pakistan, which already had a substantial Muslim population, and hence cannot be regarded as a genuine addition in the way -- for example -- the lands that today comprise Indonesia and Malaysia became Muslim.

Why is it the past few centuries have seen a steady decline in the relative standing of the Muslim world, when compared to the West? Because this is the era not of "landspace," but of "mindspace."
Why is it the past few centuries have seen a steady decline in the relative standing of the Muslim world, when compared to the West (which is largely Christian by tradition, but secular in outlook)? Because this is the era not of "landspace," but of "mindspace." Capturing territory is of little use unless combined with winning the minds and hearts of the populations of the territories targeted. The tools needed to win the mindspace war are very different from those needed to conquer more landspace. They do not inflict physical harm, but help humanity and charm the mind -- things like advances in medicine and other technologies that enhance the quality of life.

The rise of Europe in recent centuries owed its origin to the substantial contributions made by that continent to knowledge. It is instructive that the vast majority of significant discoveries in the frontiers of knowledge still originate in the Western world, although, of course, some result from the work of people tracing their roots back to Asia.

Shared Mindspace

Because of migration from other continents to Europe, Australia, and North America, Western civilization is increasingly anchored not in ethnicity but in a shared mindspace -- a phenomenon exemplified by the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. A software engineer in Chennai, India, or a technician from Singapore would have internalized as much -- if not more -- of the core values that define Western civilization -- such as hard work, an inquiring mind, and an independent spirit -- as migrants from countries that have for decades been under personalized dictatorships, such as Romania, Albania, or Bulgaria.

This goes to prove the obvious -- that the virtues that propelled Western countries to positions of power during the past several centuries are not geographically specific but are universal in their applicability.

Mindspace is at the core of the struggle now taking place within the Muslim world. Over that period, many Muslim-majority countries fell under the sway of external powers (several for the first time) and even today remain far behind others in the spread of the knowledge economy. This is at least in part the consequence of the spread of Wahhabism within the Muslim community, especially since the 1980s, when worldwide funding for it increased substantially, making Wahhabism (and later Khomeinism) a profitable business for many.

Afghanistan has been portrayed by the Wahhabis as a great victory. They forget to mention that the success of the Afghan resistance to the 1979 Soviet invasion was largely due to money, training, and weapons provided by the West and the involvement of moderate Afghans who provided information and helped the resistance fighters in many ways. Unfortunately, once Soviet troops left Afghanistan, the Wahhabis soon began killing others, thereby ensuring -- with a lot of help from outside -- their rise to power in 1996.

The Wahhabi Taliban are a group of fanatics who have nothing in common with the age-old Muslim ethos of peace and tolerance or with the ancient Pashtun tradition of chivalry and hospitality.

Why are Wahhabism and Khomeinism ideological twins? Because Khomeinism shares with Wahhabism the same intolerance for knowledge that Abdal Wahhab had and the same hatred of all those who refuse to bow before the Wahabbist-Khomeinists. Encouraged by the advent to power in Iran in 1979 of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Wahhabists in other Middle Eastern countries increased the volume of their rhetoric and began demanding monetary tribute as the price for their support for some ruling elites in the region.

Losing Ground

Since the 1980s, these twin philosophies, especially Wahhabism, have been spreading across the globe, bankrolled by tens of billions of dollars that have made important Wahhabi and Khomeinist preachers multimillionaires. Several religious structures and institutions have come under their control and hundreds of millions of Muslims today have no education except that taught in schools that have as their basis the philosophy of Wahhab and Khomeini. No surprise that science, technology, literature, and culture have steadily lost ground in regions dominated by these fanatics.

Unless each country takes vigorous steps to free itself from this twin scourge, the future will remain bleak. Young Muslims of both sexes have the right to a modern education that gives them the knowledge needed to succeed in the global market. Sadly, many countries still deprive the majority of their young people of this opportunity. In many countries, the poor are condemned to a dismal future solely by the refusal of their governments to provide comprehensive education. To argue that such training may dilute adherence to the faith is an untruth designed to keep people in a state of ignorance, the better to exploit them.

The compassion and tolerance that form the core of Islam can eradicate the hatred and intolerance preached by the Wahhabis and the Khomeinists.

Who can forget that the Prophet Mohammad himself preferred conciliation to conflict, dialogue to violence? Only some 500 people (half of them Muslims) were killed in the battles that he fought, which together totaled only about 20 hours. His immense successes came not only from the sword but from the heart and the mind, the two qualities ignored by the Wahhabists and the Khomeinists that need to be honored today in a world where all humanity needs to work together to battle such common enemies as climate change, gender discrimination, poverty, and disease.

M.D. Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University, India. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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