The threat by Osama Bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri to continue to target London has serious implications for Britain and Ireland.
The Al-Qaedaists need to contrive a clash of civilisations to help them hijack Islam for their own ends – power. If we assume that London, and the West, is being threatened by Islam, Islamic fundamentalists, or Islamism (Islam in political mode), we play directly into their hands and help them win their war.
Islam is not monolithic. It fractured bloodily after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Since then, there has been significant conflict within Islam, in general, and between the Sunni and the Shi’ite traditions, in particular. There are also many other differences within Islam at regional, national and local levels. This is evidenced by the fact that in every century since the death of the prophet Muhammad, more Muslims have been killed by fellow Muslims than by any external enemy.
Despite what is frequently said, Islam is in many respects a democratic religion. This has disadvantages – Bin Laden is as entitled to issue Fatwas within the Islamic religion as I am to issue encyclicals for the Roman Catholic church, but there is no Pope or centre of authority within Islam who can immediately proclaim him a heretic. This allows him and other ideologists to – literally – get away with murder.
The Al-Qaedaists – those who adhere to what should be seen as a belief system – Al-Qaedaism, come from the Sunni tradition of Islam and have perverted many of its core concepts. Many of their key targets are actually within Islam itself – firstly, members of the Sunni majority who do not agree with them and secondly, Islamic minorities. They consider the Shi’ites, the biggest Muslim minority, to be “apostates” and “the most evil creatures under the sun”. The Iraqi Al-Qaedaist, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi has described the Shi’ites in Iraq as “the un-surmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom”. This is not just talk as has been seen in the many sectarian attacks on Shi’ites in Iraq. Nor is it new. In 1998, in Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan, when the Taliban captured that city they gave the Shi’ites there three choices – convert to their brand of Sunni Islam, emigrate to Iran or die. Independent reports show that almost 2,000 Shi’ites died in the subsequent massacre.
This is not an Islamic war on the West. This is a war by a tiny vanguard on Islam itself. In reality, they despise true Islam in all its glorious tradition.
It is also an error to see it as an attack by Islamic fundamentalists. Islamic fundamentalists divide initially into two broad groups – those from the Sunni tradition and those from the Shi’ite tradition. Clearly, Shi’ite fundamentalists who are a target of this Al-Qaedaist attack, are not part of any war against the West. However, even most Sunni fundamentalists do not believe in violence. Of the minority who do believe in violence, such is usually social violence – when they attempt to force others to dress, act or live in a particular fashion. Such violence is not a threat to the world. Only a tiny minority of Islamic fundamentalists are Al-Qaedaists.
Describing the problem as an Islamic fundamentalist attack is a double insult to the vast majority of fundamentalists within Islam and is clearly totally counter-productive.
The final and most subtle misconception is that this is an attack by Islamism. Unfortunately, most experts and commentators fall into this trap. Islamism, Islam in political mode, can produce very different outcomes, from the Al-Qaedaist outcome at one extreme (the best examples of which were the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and GIA controlled areas in Algeria) to democratic governments including those in Turkey and Indonesia.
If we focus on Islam in political mode as being a problem or a threat to the West, we jeopardise what may be the most effective way to solve this problem, to win this war. It is widely accepted that a key issue politically in the Islamic world over the next few decades will be the expression of Islamic beliefs in the political system. There is a significant rage and sense of grievance in many in the Islamic world at present and whether we like it or not, and whether it is well founded or not, such grievances have to be expressed. They can be expressed through the democratic process, but failing that they may emerge through the outrages of Al-Qaeda.
It will take time and effort, but the key to solving this long-term problem is for Muslims to be able to address their grievances in a proper, democratic fashion rather than through the terrorist violence of Al-Qaedaism. Many westerners fear Islam in political mode and the actual and potential conflict between religion and democracy. However, we should recall the opposition of the Catholic church in Europe in the 19th century to the development of democratic institutions. That resistance was eventually eliminated through the creation of political parties with theological agendas – Christian Democratic parties. A similar process, with its own characteristics obviously, will be needed over the coming decades in the Islamic world, to achieve a similar outcome.
It is crucial that we in the West support the evolution of Islam in political mode. And we in Ireland should not fall into the trap of seeing this war as an attack by Muslims or Muslim fundamentalists.