Dossier 22: Jihad International Inc.

Publication Author: 
Eqbal Ahmad
January 2000
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The violence of Islamism has roused anxious concern throughout the world, especially the Muslim world. In the United States, the media and policy makers wage a campaign to demonize Muslims and Islam as a threat to Western interests and civilization itself. This politically motivated propaganda has been aided by the Islamic resistance to Israel's occupation of Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan, along with such incidents as the plot to blow up New York's World Trade Center. The anti-lslam bias of media and policy makers is revealed in their double standard: They condone Israel's US-aided violence — conducted on an enormous scale — while denouncing Arab resistance to it. They condemn "Islamic fundamentalism" but ignore the historic role the West played in spawning the violence of the groups and individuals they now label and denounce as terrorist. And after the West promoted the violent ideological enterprise that served its short-term interests, it largely withdrew, leaving the native peoples to pay the heaviest price.

The propaganda in the West suggests that violence and holy war are inherent in Islam. The reality is that as a world-wide movement Jihad International, Inc. is a recent phenomenon. It is a modern, multinational conglomerate founded not so much by fanatic mullahs in Teheran as it is sponsored by governments including the US and its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It was the 1979-91 US-sponsored anti-communist crusade in Afghanistan that revitalized the notion of jihad as the armed struggle of believers. Israel's invasions and occupation of Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan continue to invest it with moral meaning and give it added impetus. Never before in this century had jihad as violence assumed so pronounced an "Islamic" and international character.

Nearly all the Muslim struggles of the 20th century were secular. The Ottomans fought their last wars on essentially secular terms in defense of a tottering empire and, at least in the Middle East, against predominantly Muslim foes. The Egyptian national movement - from the rise of Saad Zaghlul to the demise of Gamal Abdel Nasser - remained secular and explicitly Arab and Egyptian. This non-theological character was equally true of the Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese national struggles. The Turks attained their liberation under the banner of intemperate secularism. Iranian nationalists fought and forged a Belgium-like constitution in 1906. In India, Muslim nationalism - opposed by an overwhelming majority of lndian Ulema (Muslim theologians) - defined the demand for and achievement of Pakistan. All these movements resonated among other Muslim peoples who were similarly engaged in anti-colonial struggles but none had an explicit pan-lslamic context.

Jihad — a noun meaning struggle, from the Arabic root verb jhd "to strive" — was a favored term among Muslims in their struggle of liberation from colonial rule. Its meaning was expansive and often secular. When my brother was expelled from school after raising the nationalist flag, for example, he was welcomed in our village as a mujahid — one who struggles, one who engages in jihad. In the Maghreb, Algerian nationalist cadres who warred against France for seven gruelling years were called Mujahideen Their newspaper El-Moudjahid was edited for a time by Frantz Fanon, a non-Muslim, and their struggle was led by a secular organization — Front du Liberation National (FLN). In Tunisia, the national struggle was headed by Habib Bourguiba, a diehard Cartesian secularist who nevertheless enjoyed the title of Mujahidul-Akbar. And although the word jihad did occasionally appear as a mobilizing cry of the 1979 Iranian revolution, it was the cry of Enghelab – revolution - that sounded the uprising against the Shah. After seizing power, Iran's revolutionary government adopted Jihad-l- Sazandegi - jihad for construction - as its mobilizing call. Without significant exception during the 20th century, jihad was used in a national, secular, and political context until, that is, the advent of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Reagan's Holy War

Then, for the first time in this century, the standard bearers of a Muslim people's struggle for liberation were Islamic parties committed to the violent overthrow of "godless communism" and dedicated to the establishment of an "Islamic state" in Afghanistan. Theirs was a jihad in the classical, strictly theological sense of the word. Ironically, they had the kind of support no other liberation movement had ever enjoyed: that of the Western powers. Washington and its allies supplied the Mujahideen with an estimated $10 billion in arms and aid. They also invested in this jihad the legitimacy of their enormous power, and the lustre of their media-made glory. President Ronald Reagan treated them as glorious freedom fighters. Similarly, the US and European media played up the war in Afghanistan as the greatest story of the 1980s. Foreign correspondents combed the Hindu Kush for stones of "Mooj" heroism. Competition for jihad narrative was so great that in one instance a major network, CBS, bought film of a staged battle between Islamism and Communism. As testament to the great importance and authority that Western media carry in the Third World, its Afghanistan war coverage made an enormous impact, especially on Muslim youth.

Within a year of the Soviet intervention, Afghanistan's struggle was on its way to becoming a pan-lslamic jihad. Hundreds, eventually thousands, of young Muslims, from as far apart as Algeria and the Philippines, Sudan and Sinkiang, travelled to Peshawar and Torkham, for military training. Under the strict guidance of various Islamic parties, they tasted the jihad-in-the-path-of-God and grew ideologically ripe. Washington and its vaunted intelligence agency saw in this process a Cold War opportunity to pit militant Islam against communism. Had the Soviet Union not collapsed unexpectedly, it is likely that the US would still be benefiting from this historic mobilization of jihad. As the Afghan war raged, many knew of the violent pan-lslamic character it was assuming-with US sponsorship. But no country, not Algeria, not Egypt-protested the participation of its nationals; all watched casually, then looked the other way. Pakistan, which served as a CIA conduit of US-sup- plied arms, was hospitable to a fault. In 1986, for example, Egyptian intelligence had an effective presence in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar and excellent information on the demography of jihad. But it could not interfere with the agenda set by Washington, which was, after all, an ally and benefactor. It was only after the US had cashed in its investments in Afghanistan and all hell broke loose in Algeria and Egypt, that demands for extradition started to reach Pakistan from Algiers and Cairo. But whom can Pakistanis request to rid its country of the thousands of armed zealots their own government has nurtured, and continues to nurture?

Transnationalization of Jihad

Not since the crusades in the Middle Ages has jihad crossed cultural, ethnic, and territorial boundaries with such vigor. Except for a brief emergence in the 19th century, Pan-lslamism survived only as the abstract agenda of a microscopic minority of Muslim intellectuals and as an influence on the works of some modern writers and poets including Mohammed Iqbal.

The generalized sentiment of Muslim affinity on which pan-lslamism relied was real nevertheless and from time to time manifested itself in peoples expressions of solidarity with co-religionists in Palestine, Bosnia, etc. Still, the national struggles of Muslim peoples remained national, and pan-lslamism endured only as an inchoate sentiment of solidarity until Afghanistan. With that war, pan-lslamism grew on a significant scale as a financial, cultural, political, and military phenomenon with a worldwide network of exchange and collaboration. Myriad institutions-madaans, Islamic universities, training camps, and conference centers-arose in Pakistan and other places. Sensing its enormous opportunity, traders in guns and drugs became linked to the phenomenon, creating an informal but extraordinary cartel of vested interests in guns, gold, and god.

Transnational involvement in the jihad not only reinforced links among Islamic groupings, but also militarized the conventional religious parties: Pakistan's Jamaat-l-lslami is an example. Until its involvement in Afghanistan, it was a conventional party, cadre-based, intellectually oriented, and prone to debate and agitation rather than armed militancy. It now commands perhaps the largest number of armed and battle-hardened veterans outside of Pakistan's army and rangers. In 1948-49, its chief ideologue, Maulana Abul Ala Maududi had rejected, on theological grounds, the notion of jihad in Kashmir. Today, his party openly boasts of its militant involvement there. In recent years, other conventional Islamic parties theJamiat-e-Ulama-l-lslam (JUI) and Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Pakistan — have also been militarizing, thanks to their linkages with the Taliban; thanks also to their involvement in Kashmir. In addition, other armed sectarian groupings-the Sipahe Sahaba, Lashkare Jhangvi, Harakatul Ansar, Sipahe Mohammed, Lashkare Tayba, Anjumane Sarfaroshane Islam — have emerged to menace society no less than the state. They are all sectarian formations, apparently a far cry from Islamism as expounded by the older religious parties such as the Jamaat-l-lslami and JUI. Yet the fact remains that their antecedents lie with these parties, and they draw sustenance from the neighboring wars which are cast in Islamic terms. In effect, while Washington and the media blamed Iran as the source of organized Muslim rage, armed Islamic radicalism was actually nurtured in Zia ul-Haq's Pakistan with US funding and CIA help.

Divisions in the Ranks

The birth of Jihad International coincided with another development that has had a particularly unwholesome effect on Pakistan. Following the prolonged hostage crisis during which Iranian radicals held US diplomats captive in Teheran, a contest began between two versions of political Islam: The radical approach was supported by Iran; the conservative by Saudi Arabia and until 1988, by Iraq.

While Washington was involved in this development, its logic was essentially regional. Iran’s revolutionary Islamists were quite uncompromising in opposing the US as an imperial power and in their rejection of monarchy as an un-lslamic form of government. As a pro-US conservative kingdom, Saudi Arabia felt threatened by Iran. Riyadh was quick to counter Iran's proselytising zeal and found support in such Gulf sheikhdoms as Kuwait. With the start of the Iran-lraq war in 1980, Saddam Hussein's secular government joined in the theocratically cast campaign against Iran. Islamic organizations all over the Muslim world became beholden to one or the other side of this divide.

In countries with mixed Sunni-Shi'a population such as Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan, this development had the greatest impact as sectarian groups and individuals found new incentive to arouse old hatreds. Although the Americans, Saudis, and Iraqis may have promoted their brand of conservative Islam only to counter Iran's growing appeal, heir anti-lran campaign was easily translated into anti-Shi'a sentiments and actions. The Sipahe Sahaba, a die-hard anti-lran, anti-shi'a terrorist group in Pakistan, is one such result. It was funded first by the Saudis and then by Iraq. The terror and counter-terror that followed have involved murders of Iranian diplomats and trainees, US technicians, ordinary people in mosques, and most recently, in a cemetery Battles for souls often degenerate into a hankering after body counts. As the chickens of jihad once nurtured by imperialism and the state come home to roost, Afghanistan threatens to become a metaphor for the future.

Source: Covert Action Quarterly, No. 64, Spring 1988, pp.29-32

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