Islamic terrorism has struck not only countries such as Britain, which have participated in the Iraq War, but also Muslim countries which have not, such as Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia. Dr Sharif Shuja examines the origins of Islamic extremism and the possible strategies for curbing it.
The July bombings in the London Underground tubes and at the Sharm al-Sheikh resort in Egypt indicate this type of tragedy can happen to anyone, anywhere.
Both Britain and Egypt have built effective counter-terrorism operations for decades, but for both the July attacks were their deadliest ever.
The London bomb-plotters included Britons of Pakistani descent. The bombings themselves provoked a testy exchange between Tony Blair and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose country has seen the rise of militant Islam. Many accuse Pakistani madrassas (Islamist schools) of being breeding grounds of terror.
“The problem is not in Pakistan; the problem is in England”, Musharraf insisted in an interview with the ABC (American Broadcasting Company) News on July 20.
Some British people, looking for a reason for the attacks, blamed Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support of the Iraq War, which is deeply unpopular in Britain. The invasion of Iraq has also greatly enraged many Muslims, radicalising some of them deeply.
But is Britain’s foreign policy the real cause of such rage?
Egypt, which sent no troops to Iraq and condemned the invasion, was targeted, as were Turkey and Indonesia, both also opponents of the war.
Terrorists claim this kind of bombing as a political act and part of the war against the enemy, but history has shown that such senseless and brutal violence against innocent people does little to advance one’s cause and indeed can often be counterproductive.
Middle East scholar Gilles Kepel draws an analogy between communist groups and Islamic fundamentalists. In the 1940s and 1950s, communists were popular and advanced their cause politically.
By the 1960s, after revelations about Stalin’s brutality, there were few believing communists left in Europe. Facing irrelevance, the hard-core radicals, such as the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang, resorted to violence and terror, hoping to gain attention and adherents.
Similarly, for decades Islamic fundamentalists tried to mobilise political opposition in Arab countries. Frustrated by their failure, they have turned to terror.
Within hours of the July 7 London bombings, Muslim groups throughout Britain condemned the bombing, declaring that such acts had nothing to do with Islam.
The Muslim Council of Britain said: “Religious precepts cannot be used to justify such crimes, which are completely contrary to our teaching and practice.”
The Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony UK announced: “No school of Islam allows the targeting of civilians or the killing of innocents. Indiscriminate, senseless and targeted killing has no justification in Islam.”
The tenor of these statements is that the bombings were the acts of mad people; Islam has nothing to do with it.
But the problem is, if terrorists use Islamic sources to justify their atrocities, how can one then say that their actions have nothing to do with Islam?
It is true that the vast majority of Muslims reject violence and terrorism, and that the Koran and various schools of Islamic law forbid the killing of innocent civilians. The vast majority of Muslims believe that the main message of Islam is peace.
Nevertheless, it is false to assume that Islamic law is incapable of being used to justify barbaric acts. Terrorists and suicide-bombers are a product of a specific mindset that has deep roots in Islamic history. They are nourished by an Islamic tradition that is violent in its thought and practice; they study in Islamic schools, or madrassas, that promote this type of extremism.
We saw the consequences of this sort of thought and tradition most clearly in the repressive rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
What is required are operations against organisations that use terrorism as a weapon, such as al-Qaeda, and specific religious institutions such as madrassas in Indonesia and Pakistan that teach militant Islam, violence and fanaticism.
Alongside these strategies, we should devote more effort to find lasting solutions to political problems.
It should be noted that the vast majority of Indonesia’s 14,000 plus pesantren (a Javanese word meaning religious boarding school) teach a moderate, rather than a radical, understanding of Islam. Only five pesantren are closely linked to Jemaah Islamiah and teach a jihadist interpretation of Islam. These are Al-Mukmin in Ngruki, Sukohardjo in Solo, Al-Muttaquien in Jepara (Central Java), Dar us-Syahadah in Boyolali (Central Java) and al-Islam in Lamongan (East Java).
Al-Mukmin pesantren – one of the biggest schools, with 1,800 boarders – is believed by many to be the recruiting ground for Islamist extremists. Its alumni were responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2003 Jakarta Marriott Hotel bombing and the 2004 suicide bombings at the Australian embassy in Jakarta.
Head of JI’s military wing
Ali Gufron (alias Mukhlas), Amrozi and Ali Imron all graduated from here. And the alleged head of JI’s military wing, Zul Karnaen – closely linked to the Marriott Hotel bombing – is also a graduate of this school. The principal of the school, Jahi Wahyuddi, in an interview with The Bulletin‘s Asia correspondent, Eric Ellis, said: “The problem of terrorism is imported from outside, it is not from Indonesia or from this pesantren.” (The Bulletin, September 21, 2004).
Another controversial pesantren is Ihya’as Sunnah (in Jogjakarta, Java). It does not teach radical Islam, but is run by Jaffar Umar Thalib, an anti-Soviet Mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s, who proudly admits to killing Russians.
Indonesians regard Jaffar as a Muslim intellectual. He became notorious in the late 1990s for leading a jihad in Ambon, where local Christians and Muslims were fighting a civil war that has claimed hundreds of lives.
It was from this pesantren that Jaffar raised the Laskar Jihad (Army of the Holy War), a militia that rallied the faithful for battle in the Moluccas.
These were the schools and madrassas in Indonesia that have mixed political indoctrination with religious extremism.
Pakistan has been seriously threatened by Islamic extremism and the spread of radical madrassas.
Islamabad has been cracking down on militants. It has detained Hashim Qadeer, wanted for the 2002 abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl, a journalist from The Wall Street Journal. It has banned extremist groups such as the Sipahe Saheba, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed.
The revelation that some of the London bombers spent time in Pakistan has intensified the drive against domestic extremists.
Investigations to date have proven that three of the four British men identified as the London bombers were in Pakistan this year. They were Shahzad Tanweer (22), Mohamed Sidique Khan (30) and Hasib Hussain (18).
Tanweer apparently told his family he was going to Pakistan to study religion. Pakistani authorities are reportedly investigating whether Tanweer visited the Manzoor-ul Islam madrassa in Lahore, with links to the banned militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. The madrassa‘s administration has denied that Tanweer attended the school.
Madrassas vary widely in their curriculum, aims and doctrine. Most have no links with extremism at all. “It is a figment of the imagination that they are a factory for terrorism,” says Khurshid Ahmad, a senator from a leading Islamist party (The Economist, May 21, 2005).
Nevertheless, many of the Pakistani jihadists who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and early 1990s against the Soviet army, with the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban, and then in Indian-controlled Kashmir, were products of a madrassa education.
Their wars seemed to help popularise Islamic education. According to research by Islamabad think-tank the Institute of Policy Studies, the number of madrassas increased from 1,861 in 1988 to 6,761 in 2000.
It is widely reported that madrassa education has boomed since the 9/11 attacks on America and the “war against terror” that followed. In November 2003, Pakistan’s education minister estimated the number of madrassas in his country at between 15,000 and 20,000.
President Musharraf has identified madrassa reforms as the key to tackling extremism. He has asked all madrassas to register in order to make them more transparent.
But these schools are operating out of the ambit of government control and are funded privately. Trying to monitor them all is not as easy as it seems.
Weapon of terrorism
Terrorism is a weapon, a tactic, wielded by certain groups. While it may not be possible to eliminate terrorism entirely, it could be reduced to only nuisance level.
There is a view that counter-terrorist strategy will succeed only to the degree it can exploit the apparent division within the followers of Islam, between a small minority who believe in violence against infidels and the enlightened majority who are opposed to violence.
From all accounts, such a division is genuine, and efforts from now onwards should be directed towards strengthening the latter group to win the support and confidence of this moderate Muslim mainstream.
- Dr Sharif Shuja is Research Associate at Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Unit.