This article first appeared in the 25 September 2005 edition of The Sunday Business Post and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
The threat by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, that terrorists will continue to target London has serious implications for Britain and Ireland.
If we assume, however, that London – and the west – is being threatened by Islam, Islamic fundamentalists or Islamism (Islam in political mode), we play directly into al-Qaeda’s hands.
Islam is not monolithic. It fractured bloodily after the death of the prophet Muhammad and since then, there has been significant conflict within Islam in general, and between the Sunni and the Shi’ite traditions in particular.
There are many other differences within Islam at regional, national and local levels.
In every century since the death of Muhammad, more Muslims have been killed by fellow Muslims than by any external enemy.
Islam is in many respects a democratic religion. This has disadvantages: bin Laden is as entitled to issue fatwas within the Islamic religion as a Catholic is to issue encyclicals, but there is no pope or centre of authority within Islam who can proclaim him a heretic.
Al-Qaeda has emerged from the Sunni tradition of Islam and perverted many of its core concepts. Many of its key targets are actually within Islam itself – firstly, members of the Sunni majority who do not agree with it and secondly, Islamic minorities.
Al-Qaeda considers 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 unsurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom’‘.
The many sectarian attacks on Shi’ites in Iraq have shown that this is not just talk. Nor is it new. When the Taliban captured the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan in 1998, 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-Qaeda 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, this 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.
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 atone extreme (the best example being the Taliban regime in Afghanistan) 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. 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. Whether western governments 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-Qaeda.
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.