The Shadow of Militant Ideology over Islam

by Ahmed Humayun

The causes of contemporary militancy in Muslim majority societies are many and complex, but one of the important factors is a virulent ideology that glorifies violence as a means to achieve political and religious ends. This ideology draws upon various historical inspirations—some Islamic and some Western, some local and some global—and can boast intellectuals, activists, and propagandists operating across different Muslim cultures and languages.

My concern here is not in tracing out the intellectual history of militant ideology. Nor am I seeking to precisely determine the importance that can be placed on ideology relative to other factors—a partial list of which might include a particular interpretation of Islamic doctrines about just war, the colonial legacy, the repression and failures of the authoritarian modern state, the consequences of the Shia Islamic revolution in Iran and the corresponding Sunni reaction in Saudi Arabia, Western alliances with authoritarian Muslim states or occupations of Muslim lands, and the systemic tendency of a wide range of states to utilize militant groups as proxies to advance their narrow interests. I am interested instead in exploring some of the consequences of militant ideology for Muslim societies today.

There is a tendency in the West to primarily view the activities of militant Islamist groups from the perspective of the danger that they pose to Western homelands. This is natural as a matter of pragmatic policy and national interest. Cataclysmic events like 9/11 in the United States or 7/7 in Britain have underscored the fact that the element of anti-Westernism in militant ideology is deeply ingrained. And yet it is clear that the greatest danger of militant ideology is posed to Muslims living in Muslim majority societies. This can be seen in the endless, gruesome wave of violence that has yielded enormous death tolls in recent years, mostly civilian, in countries as varied as Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen, and many other places besides. (In Pakistan alone, militant violence may have claimed as many as forty to fifty thousand lives since September 11th).

As the drawdown of Western military forces from Muslim lands proceeds—Iraq having been vacated, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan imminent—the level of danger seems greater than ever. Militant groups show no signs of disbanding once Western military forces depart (though that departure may weaken the force of some militant arguments, and is therefore a positive development). Instead, militant ideas that emphasize the use of slaughter to advance political and religious change, and that target minorities and Muslims deemed beyond the pale of Islam—that is, the overwhelming majority of them—is on the rise. Militant ideology can boast many more factions today than it did on September 11th, with hundreds of them fueling sustained campaigns of terrorism and insurgency, and a general resistance to state authority, across the Middle East and South Asia.

Over the last few decades, an enormous amount of time, effort, and money has been invested—by states and by militant groups—in constructing a vast infrastructure of extremism that can find, recruit, indoctrinate, and train ideological killers. Part of this infrastructure is an elaborate edifice of rhetorical justification designed to normalize violence based on ideological grounds. This ideology is adaptable to different contexts, from remote tribal regions to bustling urban centers, given expression in many different languages, and disseminated in pamphlets, newspapers, newsletters, books, audio cassettes, DVDs, YouTube videos, websites, and online chat forums.

The sheer quantity and variety of militant propaganda, is staggering, and the militants are vigorous proselytizers. What they lack in numbers—even in Pakistan, a hotbed of militancy, insurgent and terrorist groups number in the tens of thousands out of a nation of one hundred and eighty million people—they compensate for in energy and productivity. They are well-organized; they are well-funded; they are well-trained in the practice of propaganda and polemic.

Still, one can appreciate the very real dangers of contemporary Muslim militancy without falling into the trap of exaggerating its appeal. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are not engaging in militant violence because, it turns out, most people tend not to be mass murderers, whatever the propaganda shoved at them. Militant internal communications have therefore always been rife with condemnation of the somnolent masses, who refuse to rise to the challenge of defending Islam against Western aggression and unjust rulers and of building an authentic Muslim society.

Equally importantly, and despite many claims to the contrary, there are and have always been many voices ranged against extremism. There are many Muslim clerics who have issued religious edicts against terrorism—one may debate the effectiveness of these pronouncements, given that contemporary Muslim militancy is in part about revolting against traditional religious establishments, not conforming to their strictures, but one cannot deny their existence. There are counter-radicalization programs, fledgling still but important, that try to refute, one individual at a time, the edifice of justification for ideological violence. Most importantly, however, there are the grassroots activists who work in their communities and who are as a result perpetual targets of militant violence.

It is true that they are not as loud as their opponents and they don't have the guns, so they are weak. The support of the state is often not forthcoming, whether because of its own haplessness or its own troubling relationship with militant groups. On the other hand, support from the West is inherently problematic, because it makes them vulnerable to the charge of foreign subversion. Whatever the role that Western military and intelligence establishments have played in protecting Western homelands through military occupation of Muslim lands, the projection of power through special forces operations, the flying of drones, or the construction of sprawling spy networks, some of these tactics have made it impossible for Muslim activists to align themselves with the West.

Effectively denied help from outside, and hindered by authorities inside, the ideological landscape of these societies will ultimately hinge on the ability of local citizens to construct alternative visions of possible Muslim futures. This is possible but it is very difficult and it will happen very slowly. We are many years away from the day when the bloody manifestations of militant ideology in war-torn Muslim lands – and less frequently, in Western cities – will not feature prominently in our daily newspapers, our blogs, and our television channels.