All the core Muslim countries gained their independence after the Second World War and were ruled by non-fundamentalist, liberal-minded Muslim leaders, who abysmally failed to meet the expectations of their people. Apart from socio-economic and political failures, they presided over military fiascos.
(First published in Daily Times, 6 May 2004, but readers may find it useful even now to explain the current worldwide Jihadist upsurge)
Al-Qaeda has now directly targeted the Saudi state, bombing its security establishment and vowing more attacks. The chicken are coming home to roost, so to speak. In trying to trace the roots of such movements as Al-Qaeda and the larger phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism, one cannot speak of one cause or source. It is now fashionable, however, to blame the Americans (who else?) for the rise of both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, for no better reason than that the United States supported the Mujahideen, whose ranks included Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
As we know, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan in December 1979, which gave birth to an Afghan resistance movement against occupation. It was supported not just by the United States, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but virtually by all the countries of the world except the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe, Cuba and India. Pakistan felt flattered to be called a “frontline state” in the Afghan war of liberation and Saudi Arabia, among others, was rather generous with money. Whatever the separate motivations for Washington, Islamabad, Beijing and Riyadh, to help a people rid their country of foreign occupation seemed the right thing to do.
Considering the political and religious composition of the Afghan population, it is hardly surprising that the resistance movement was largely built and sustained by Islamists of all hues, the so-called Mujahideen. It is hard to see that the US could have foreseen all the ramifications of supporting this movement. Even if it did, Washington didn’t have a choice. If it failed to support the Mujahideen-led resistance, the United States would have been accused of a bias against Islam to the extent of condoning an invasion by its arch adversary, the USSR. Secondly, given the justice of their cause, the history of Afghanistan and the deep support from Pakistan, Iran and other Muslim countries, the Mujahideen would have triumphed, sooner or later, even without the American support.
The emergence of this Islamist-Jihadist movement of which Al-Qaeda is now the cutting edge, seems to have been the result of a number of factors and developments.
All the core Muslim countries gained their independence after the Second World War and were ruled by non-fundamentalist, liberal-minded Muslim leaders who had little time for or patience with the political variant of Islam, let alone the extremist Wahabist interpretation. These governments, whether they professed the Arab socialist model of Egypt’s Gemal Nasser or the pro-Western type of Pakistan’s Ayub Khan, abysmally failed to meet the expectations of their people. Apart from socio-economic and political failures, they presided over military fiascos, best reflected in Pakistan’s failure to wrest Kashmir from India in 1965 and, on a grand scale, in the humiliating defeat of the combined Arab armies against Israel in 1967.
In contrast to the evident failures of “secular” governments, Ayatollah Khomeini was able to overthrow a pro-American regime in Iran apparently using only Islam as a weapon in 1979. This success in Iran was repeated even more spectacularly in Afghanistan in the next few years where the Mujahideen, joined by a large number of Islamists from all over the Muslim world, were able to inflict a humiliating defeat on the other superpower, Soviet Union.
The triumphant end of the Afghan “Jihad” gave the Islamists new confidence in their prowess, but also rendered its non-Afghan component jobless. They now set themselves the task of Islamising their own countries, among them Egypt, Algeria, even Pakistan. Hardly surprising that the Afghan Taliban were ready to return the favour, providing their country as a safe haven and training ground for the world’s Islamists-Jihadists.
Simultaneously with these developments, starting in the mid 1970s, Saudi petro-dollars had began to flow to all the Muslim countries as aid to governments as well as to non-government Islamic religious institutions, which began to proliferate and preach the extreme Wahabi variant of Islam. This is not the place to dilate on Wahabism, but suffice it to say that it takes an extremely intolerant view of “infidels” and “unbelievers,” is dedicated to the propagation of Islam on a global scale, despises supposed Western “decadence” and infiltration of Muslim countries and espouses Jihad as a tool in the struggle for the triumph of Islam.
Most governments were oblivious to the emerging threat and, being themselves dependent on Saudi largesse, were in no position to stop the Wahabist infiltration of their society through the religious institutions. Some of these rulers, like Pakistan’s Gen Zia and, to a lesser extent, Bangladesh’s Gen Ziaur Rahman and Gen Ershad, chose to espouse and promote Wahabism themselves, either from conviction or convenience, or perhaps a combination of both.
Encouraged by such governments, the madrasas used Saudi money to attract tens of thousands of unemployed and angry young men, exposing them to the most virulent and militant brand of Islam. Using Kashmir, Bosnia and Chechniya as their rallying cry, these madrasas inevitably became incubators and breeding grounds of Jihadis.
Thus, if any one country or regime has to bear the brunt of the responsibility for the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in the form and on the scale now seen, it is Saudi Arabia. In this sense, Al-Qaeda is a Saudi Frankenstein, now bent upon destroying its own creator.
By Razi Azmi