(A paper read during the Forum on Islam and Terrorism, held at Gloria Maris Restaurant, Greenhills, San Juan City, Metro Manila, on June 6, 2010.)
Let us begin with the concept Islamic fundamentalism. It’s a term that was in vogue in the ‘80s and was used to refer to Protestant fundamentalists during the Reagan era that carried strict interpretation of the scripture like the inerrancy of the Bible and its teaching like salvation, atonement, and so on. With the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the term was transported to refer to struggle characterized by fusion of religion and politics in Islamic context. While it is true that there is a close Arabic counterpart like al-usuliyyun, strictly speaking, Islamic fundamentalism cannot simply be viewed in the political sense. As all Muslims ought to believe in the fundamentals – the usul – of their faith, they can all be called thus as fundamentalists.
But there is nothing wrong to believe and to follow the spiritual teachings of one’s religion and hence making him or her “fundamentalist.” What is generally protested is when the term Islamic fundamentalism is used to describe almost in haughty and disparaging manner all Muslims when it is actually just referring to certain groups which because of their unconventional understanding and politics attempt to transform the spiritual teachings of Islam into an ideology – that is, a social project envisioned to reflect or realize certain ideal that is generally antithetical to modern society; hence, dragging every Muslim worth of his or her faith into a single pigeon-hole called fundamentalist (publicly understood as: bigot, medieval, primitive, archaic and so on).
While it can be argued that Islam as din is essentially religious and can take historical content that may come in the form of ideology, it is thus necessary that Islam and Muslim society, its ills and aspiration should not simply be understood from either the prism of religion or sociology but from both so that proper reading of its context is derived and thus proper appropriation of political order and social arrangement could be done. What generally happens is that instead of understanding Muslim society in comprehensive manner, politics of fear is promoted often undressing its history, its political rights, and its freedom. “Fear as essential” according to Sardar and Davies is a prerequisite in spreading global hegemony (2004: 21).
Having touched on the notion of ideology as one possible category of fundamentalism, the latter would not automatically translate into terrorism which is often the way it is generally hyped in the media. For one, terrorism is not an ideology but a strategy; and being a strategy, terrorism can thus change through time. It is generally accepted that terrorism being a politically charged concept has been relatively defined depending on one’s perception and interest, making widely popular the adage “one nation’s terrorist is another nation’s freedom fighter.” As early as 1983, there have been more than a hundred definitions of terrorism so that the United Nations could hardly adopt a single definition of terrorism until these days.
Undeniably, any ideology-based group must have the probability, albeit not a necessity, to adopt a range of strategies and tactics some of which can border on what is considered as acts of terrorism like assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, barricades and hostage situations, and hijackings (Weinberg and Davies, 1989: 11). Since the rise of the Jacobins during the French Revolution, which political groups struggling for their causes – rightly or wrongly – had not engaged in terrorism? In modern period of 20th and 21st centuries, what states have not done terrorism against their populations and other nations? The question is not why do states or groups engage in terrorism but why do some states have more right to engage in terror than others?
While groups or states that have their own cause may have the tendency, and at times, even the propensity to adopt the methods of terror, the rise of radical ideology and the changing context of international system in recent centuries owing largely to the sophistication of materials used for war and violence, have made many societies vulnerable to terrorism. The rise in different phases of ideological groups owing largely to evolutionary and changing character of Muslim society has been a dominant feature in Islamic history. To say the least, the interplay of ideology and social dynamics has been common. What makes this latest century unique is the extreme modernization of war materials coupled with interference by big powers in the supposed internal affairs of Muslim ummah making thus its supposedly internal or regional tension an international problem and could become, at times, a source of global menace.
In this regard, the tension within and without the Muslim world presents both as threat and opportunity depending on how they are made to configure power and interest by those who would like to exploit, to ride on, and to make use of such tension. This is the context in the changing feature (read: politics) of international terrorism. For instance, given the fact that there have been little changes in the milieu of the Muslim world during President Bush and now President Obama, the latter’s “US National Security Strategy” that was just released a week ago “aims to downplay fear that the US is ‘at war’ with Islam.” It also drops some of the most controversial language from the Bush administration like “global war on terror” and “Islamic extremism” and the like. The 52-page document strategy also says: “Yet, this is not a global war against a tactic – terrorism, or a religion – Islam. We are at war with specific network, al-Qaida and its affiliates.”
We may ask: Is the Obama administration simply engaged in politics of euphemism or “euphemization” of politics relative to Islam and terrorism given the comparatively similar intensity of US war during and after President Bush in such devastated country like Afghanistan and Pakistan? While such shift and change of words is the first step, it is concrete action and actual deceleration of US forces in many parts of the Muslim world that is more essential and that would convince many people that the “change we can” slogan of Obama during his presidential campaign has actual, relevant meaning.
Simply resorting to politics (or euphemism) of war on international terrorism is a cheap recourse unless there is actual and real reconfiguration of US power, control and hegemony in many parts of the Muslim world especially after the revelation by former President Bush II himself with his appalling mistake in the invasion of Iraq and the accompanying lies that were made to justify the invasion couched in such frightening but hallow words like WMD and the false link created by GWT between Saddam and the Al-Qaida.
We may ask further: What’s the use of decreasing US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan when the US has already established a mammoth US Embassy there that is probably intended to man not only Iraq but practically the whole Middle East; has already controlled much of Iraq’s oil wells; and, has already cornered many of Iraq’s oil contracts? What’s the use of expressing intention to pursue the Middle East peace process when the US cannot even lift a finger to convince or coerce Israel to stop expanding Jewish settlement in the West Bank or to stop Israel’s siege of Gaza including the White House’s refusal to issue strong statements against Israel’s terrorism on peace activists on humanitarian mission aboard the Mavi Marmara? In similar vein, how can the US convince the world community to stop Iran from becoming a Islamic nuclear state, when she refuses to mind Israel’s nuclear arsenals which is generally believed to have the largest number of nuclear warheads in the Middle East, if not the world at large?
And close to home, the same question maybe raised: How can we be convinced that the US soldiers stationed particularly in the Sulu Archipelago are there to stop terrorism notwithstanding the pouring in of US foreign funded assistance program allegedly intended to help Muslims in Mindanao when right at their back (Sulu Sea and Sulu forest), their strategic resources particularly oil and gas and other treasures are unilaterally and arbitrarily exploited by US soldiers and Exxon Mobil, a leading American oil giant, without the knowledge and participation of the Moro people themselves?
At a time that the Moro fronts are engaged in peace process so that they can properly put their house in order, is it an exercise of rational, fair or civilized foreign policy for the US to come and start throwing crumbs to the destitute Moro people through US aid and other funded projects while lording it over the exploration if not exploitation of oil and other strategic resources that wholly constitute as ancestral domain and maritime resources of the Moros?
The issue of international politics of Islam and terrorism goes beyond terminology. It strikes at the core of power and control that often borders on “imperial hubris” as coined by CIA veteran Michael Scheuer as he writes:
The fundamental flaw in our thinking about Bin Laden is that “Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than what we do.” Muslims are bothered by our modernity, democracy, and sexuality, but they are rarely spurred to action unless American forces encroach on their lands. It’s American foreign policy that enrages Osama and al-Qaeda, not American culture and society (2004).
Finally, for the new “US National Security Strategy” under President Obama to become different from the past, it is necessary that it goes beyond euphemism. It has to elicit real and substantive reconfiguration of power and must be refrained from becoming a tool of exploitation of other people’s resources and ancestral domain. By doing so, the politics of Islam and terrorism could still possibly be salvaged to take a new turn for the better.
(Mindaviews is the opinion section of Mindanews. The author is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman.)