Al-Qaeda is Really Targeting Muslims’ Hearts and Minds

This article first appeared in the 8 July 2007 edition of The Sunday Business Post and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

The recent attacks in Britain are part of a global insurgency and are not just a terror campaign, writes Richard Whelan.

The recent discovery of car bombs in central London and the terror attack on Glasgow Airport has alarmed the public, frightened Muslim communities in the west and prompted politicians to produce counter-measures for a problem they may only dimly understand.

This alarm is fuelled by doctors forsaking their roles as healers to become killers. The timing suggests that a clear message is being sent to Britain’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown.

The only positive comes from Scotland Yard, where anti-terrorist police appear well advanced in dealing with the current wave of attacks.

With a lot of luck, the security forces can deal with some of the terrorism aspects of what is, in reality, a global insurgency. This insurgency is not dispossessed Islam taking on a corrupt and venal west. Muslims are right to be frightened.

Their immediate fear is of host communities blaming them for these outrages. But in fact they – not Brown or US President George Bush – are the real targets of this insurgency. The majority of Muslims stand accused of forsaking the true path of Islam by the people behind the attacks, the vanguard of al-Qaeda.

Their intention is to radicalise Islam to get the majority of Muslims to accept that there should be no separation of ‘church and state’. All is one to al-Qaedaists, and anything that comes between God and His people on earth, be it a communist politburo, a socialist or liberal democratic parliament or a Muslim leader or regime, is illegitimate.

For this reason alone, they say all governments and regimes in the world today are illegitimate and may be attacked by those walking on the pure path of the one true religion.

This global insurgency is not being led by a tightly-knit terror group such as the IRA or Eta. It is instead being activated by an ideology, followed, to a greater or lesser extent, by three different groupings. The first, the original core al-Qaeda group led by Osama bin Laden, is much reduced since the defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The second is a series of terrorist groups – 60 or more – spread around much of the world, particularly the Middle East and Persian Gulf, Asia and North Africa. This most powerful of the three groupings is most frequently activated by local or national issues, rather than pure ideology.

The third grouping embraces supporters in the Muslim world and in the west who have not yet been involved in militant actions but are prepared to do so or to support those involved. These are frequently unknown to the security services. Some of the recent attackers in Britain are part of this grouping.

An insurgency is always targeted at hearts and minds – in this case, the Muslim community worldwide. Bin Laden and many other senior ideologists have made clear that propaganda – the diffusion of this ideology to convince the majority of Muslims to move from their current soft opposition to the west to hard opposition – is the primary focus of their campaign. Bin Laden has defined it as 90 per cent of their effort.

From this perspective, terror is simply a tactic -a video game essentially – to provide the propaganda platform to radicalise the vast majority of Muslims worldwide.

Looking back at previous ideological challenges, including fascism and communism, it is clear that frequently those involved in such campaigns are, in fact, the best and brightest, not the poverty-stricken, downtrodden masses.

The underlying ideology is primarily derived from two theorists, Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the Marx and Lenin to al-Qaedaists. Both insist on the duty of Muslims to attack any Muslim who accepts any kind of temporal power structure.

Ibn Taymiyya in the 13th century was quite prepared to declare takfir (excommunication) against any Muslim who did not share his understanding of what being a true Muslim was.

That, together with his willingness to attack all around him – including Christians, the Shiaminority and other Muslims – and his belief that jihad was good for the individuals’ ‘‘soul as well as for society’’, was reinforced by Sayyid Qutb in the middle of the last century and is being followed to the letter by al-Qaedaists today.

Much research has been carried out to determine why this ideology has surfaced now. I believe it can be traced to three direct sources. The first – the foundational issue – is the relative failure in nonreligious terms of the Muslim world today, compared to its glorious past, and relative to an assumed, even darker, future.

Secondly, globalisation, as it affects economic modernisation, has had an unintended impact on local cultures. We see this clearly in Ireland – and we willingly sought economic modernisation.

That negative impact on culture in the Muslim world, on top of their perception of massive relative failure, leads to a ‘‘seething mass of discontent’’ in many Muslim countries and in the west. All that is missing is a spark.

That spark, the third source of this ideology, was the rise of Sunni radicalism during the second half of the 20th century.

This in turn was due to events in Afghanistan, the rise of Shia activism after the Iranian Revolution and a perception of continuing failure, especially of the state system itself.

This then is a battle within Islam, and only Muslims can win it – only they can defeat such an ideology. The west’s role can only be indirect. Our approach can be summarised as ‘‘defend hard and attack soft’’.

We need to defend ourselves for the next few decades while this battle plays out around us.

The key point of attack is against the ideologists and the ideology itself. This can only be challenged, and is being so challenged, by Muslims. Our role is simply to support Muslim states and communities any way we can, in that effort.

In the long term, the west has to focus on the rage in the Muslim world and address the negative impact of globalisation and the underlying causes of the relative failure of many Islamic states. This will require significant economic and financial support, and encouragement of a democratic opening, particularly in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

This may take 15 or 20 years or more, with the slow building of institutions and the development of social and economic capital and secular, moderate, non-violent alternatives to the existing non-democratic regimes and religious movements.

Indonesia, a democracy and the largest Muslim population state in the world, shows what can be done and what needs to be done in this struggle.

In November 2005,Yusuf Kalla, vice president of Indonesia, said the current struggle comprised two elements: first, what he called police action, and second, what he saw as the key element, the ideological struggle against ‘‘fringe ideological views’’.

Indonesia is winning this ideological struggle and its police action is quite successful. What it needs more than anything is help to develop its economy, reduce mass urban unemployment (the perfect pool for al-Qaeda to fish in) and to alleviate chronic poverty. Who better than the EU, and Ireland in particular, to help in such a noble endeavour?

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