Waging the war of words
There's no shortage of polemic for Islamic militants seeking to 'purify' their religion. Suhayl Saadi is depressed by what he discovers in bookshops and on the net.
by Suhayl Saadi
The Times [London]
July 23, 2005
IN POWER STRUGGLES, EVERY letter is a bullet, every word a bomb. So what might the London bombers have read?
When I walk into most "Islamic bookshops", I am struck by apocalypse. Texts of fire and brimstone abound; books of which John Knox would have been proud. Most such shops are run by miserabilist Islamist organisations.
Perhaps the young Islamists were studying Jihad in Islam (1930), by Maulana Maududi, the founder of the IndoPakistani political party Jamaat-eIslami. This book combined rigid theology with political theory in search of state power. Or perhaps it was the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb's Milestones (1964) -a primer for political Islam. In Saudi Arabia, Qutb's brother taught the "crusader" Ayman al-Zawahiri (author of Knights Under the Prophet's Banner), the chief ideologue to the leader of the "blessed avant-garde", Osama bin Laden.
Through words, money and guns, this cocktail of fascism, anti-colonialism and puritanical Wahhabism hijacked the Salafi reformist movement which had been created to "purify" Islam. From the mid-1970s, inadvertently encouraged by the US and its Saudi and Pakistani client states, the concept of global jihad began to spread, crushing mystical and rational streams of Islam, establishing book chains, taking over mosques and severely destabilising Muslim society and culture. This intensified during the Afghan wars of the 1980s and 1990s. In this context, the continuing role of powerful, simplistic, mass-proselytising groups like the cultish Tablighi Jamaat -a Pakistan-based group -remains deeply problematic (Tablighi Nisab -Seven Essays).
The 1980s shift from economic to tribal consciousness, fuelled in the West by racism, hyper-materialism and social exclusion, generated a hybrid of individualism, monolithism, a cult of victimhood and political violence.
The trans-national production of madrassa stormtroopers reached industrial levels, while Islamist literature degenerated into the cheap "hate books" that today crowd bookshelves and the web, exhorting young Muslims to "become time bombs": Jihad Unspun: 39 Ways in the Service of Jihad and Taking Part in It; Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad); Defence of the Muslim Lands; and The Islamic Legitimacy of the Martyrdom Operations.
Thought, theology and the word have become secondary. The driving force of "third-generation" jihadism today is simply the will to power. Its publications justify political statements by quoting the Koran or Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), but the tone is of supremacist rage.
The political party Hizb-ut-Tahrir -which is banned in some countries but operates openly in Britain -publishers of The Inevitability of the Clash of Civilisations and Democracy is a System of Kufr (an unbelief in Islam), describes a process of "culturing...a party structure from people...melted by Islam". An existential dislocation between outward stability and a politically alienated core combined with an emptying of spirituality leads to its teenage readers becoming the drum-majorettes of Islamism.
With core concepts extant since Islam's first century -as outlined in Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas and Cyber-Islamic Environments (Gary Bunt, Pluto Press) -the Islamist supremacist movement is a paragon of postmodernism, with its cyber-jihads and snuff movies. The sex industry has played a major part in the web, so it is deeply appropriate that the web has become the medium par excellence for the pornographers of the soul. Through links redolent of paedophile rings, one slips easily from soft to hard-core.
Sadly, it seems that what I -and the bombers -are unlikely to find in most Islamic bookshops are collections such as Shattered Illusions: Analysing the War on Terrorism (ed. Aftab Ahmed Malik, Amal Press), Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism (ed. Omid Safi, Oneworld) or the works of the UCLA professor Khaled Abou el-Fadl, such as Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (Boston Review).
And certainly not the former CIA shrink Marc Sageman's Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press).
There are other books that the London bombers might not have read, and which I have little hope of finding in the Islamic bookshop, but which ought to be there, if only because of their objectivity. Some of them are listed in the box below.
I leave the bookshop depressed, angry. Perhaps there can be too many words, and too few. Islamist terrorism was the logical outcome of 80 years of Western complicity, conflict and covert operations. The equally hardline approach of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington would sometimes almost seem to urge strategic ahistorical terrorism on behalf of imperial power. Global populist resentment casts young people into the hallucinatory cyberworld of Islamism, and until there is a will to move beyond these dynamics the texts of illumination will remain unread by those who most need to read them -and there can be no peace, anywhere.
I want to scream at the shopkeeper, a man at least 15 years my junior, who had ticked me off for wearing a gold wedding ring. I want to tell him: it's power, stupid, not theology! But I buy a paper instead and read about "The War on Terror". It seems that once again I have passed through the looking-glass and am supping at a table of Mad Hatters. Perhaps the London bombers were reading Lewis Carroll. Or Mary Shelley. Or simply nothing at all.
Suhayl Saadi's novel, Psychoraag (Black and White Publishing), was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. www.suhaylsaadi.com
* Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (OUP)
* Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library)
* Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid (Yale UP)
Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Limited
* The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity by Tariq Ali (Verso)
* The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror by Stephen Schwartz, (Doubleday)
* My Jihad by Aukai Collins (Lyons Press)
* Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim by Ziauddin Sardar (Granta).
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