[First published April 17, 2006]I have searched the literature for analyses of Islamism and its terrorists that would bare its roots and provide the understanding needed to fight the War on Terror knowledgeably. There is no dearth of studies, reports, and essays, of course, and their diversity of analyses and conclusions, not to mention differences over details, reminds me of the professional head scratching during the first years of the Cold War. Among the most informative and useful article (in pdf) I found is that by Ladan Boroumand and Roya Boroumand. They are Muslim sisters from Iran and professional historians. Ladan Boroumand received her doctorate from the French Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris; her sister Roya earned her doctorate from the Sorbonne.
In sum, the strategic arrow points to Iran. This means that the democracies must not allow this leader of the Islamist terrorist pack to get nuclear weapons. This is not a conditional. This is an absolute for the War on Terror and Western national security.
I have excerpted the heart of the sisters Boroumand article below (a painful process, since there is so much that is good in it). I hope this will encourage you to read the whole thing.
“Why?” That is the question that people in the West have been asking ever since the terrible events of September 11. What are the attitudes, beliefs, and motives of the terrorists and the movement from which they sprang? What makes young men from Muslim countries willing, even eager, to turn themselves into suicide bombers?….
….Islamist terror first burst onto the world scene with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November of that year….
Before the Iranian Revolution, terrorism was typically seen as a straightforward outgrowth of modern ideologies. Islamist terrorists, however, claim to fight on theological grounds: A few verses from the Koran and a few references to the sunna (“deeds of the Prophet”) put an Islamic seal on each operation. The whole ideological fabric appears to be woven from appeals to tradition, ethnicity, and historical grievances both old and new, along with a powerful set of religious-sounding references to “infidels,” “idolaters,” “crusaders,” “martyrs,” “holy wars,” “sacred soil,” “enemies of Islam,” “the party of God,” and “the great Satan.”
But this religious vocabulary hides violent Islamism’s true nature as a modern totalitarian challenge to both traditional Islam and modern democracy. If terrorism is truly as close to the core of Islamic belief as both the Islamists and many of their enemies claim, why does international Islamist terrorism date only to 1979?….
There is in the history of Islam no precedent for the utterly unrestrained violence of al-Qaeda or the Hezbollah….To kill oneself while wantonly murdering women, children, and people of all religions and descriptions … has nothing to do with Islam….
The man who did more than any other to lend an Islamic cast to totalitarian ideology was an Egyptian schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna (1906–49)….he founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 with the express goal of counteracting Western influences. By the late 1930s, Nazi Germany had established contacts with revolutionary junior officers in the Egyptian army, including many who were close to the Muslim Brothers. Before long the Brothers, who had begun by pursuing charitable, associational, and cultural activities, also had a youth wing, a creed of unconditional loyalty to the leader, and a paramilitary organization whose slogan “action, obedience, silence” echoed the “believe, obey, fight” motto of the Italian Fascists….
From the Fascists—and behind them, from the European tradition of putatively “transformative” or “purifying” revolutionary violence that began with the Jacobins—Banna also borrowed the idea of heroic death as a political art form.…Following Banna, today’s Islamist militants embrace a terrorist cult of martyrdom that has more to do with Georges Sorel’s, “Reflexions sur la violence,” than with anything in either Sunni or Shi’ite Islam….
Sayyid Qutb (1906–66), the Brothers’ chief spokesman and also their liaison with the communists, framed an ideological response that would lay the groundwork for the Islamism of today.
Qutb was a follower not only of Banna but of the Pakistani writer and activist Sayyid Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi (1903–79), who in 1941 founded the Jamaat-e-Islami-e-Pakistan (Pakistan Islamic Assembly), which remains an important political force in Pakistan, though it cannot claim notable electoral support….He denounced all nationalism, labeling it as kufr (unbelief). Using Marxist terminology, he advocated a struggle by an Islamic “revolutionary vanguard” against both the West and traditional Islam, attaching the adjectives “Islamic” to such distinctively Western terms as “revolution,” “state,” and “ideology.” Though strongly opposed by the Muslim religious authorities, his ideas influenced a whole generation of “modern” Islamists.
….Qutb’s brand of Islamism was informed by his knowledge of both the Marxist and fascist critiques of modern capitalism and representative democracy. He called for a monolithic state ruled by a single party of Islamic rebirth…. His ideal society was a classless one where the “selfish individual” of liberal democracies would be banished and the “exploitation of man by man” would be abolished. God alone would govern it through the implementation of Islamic law (shari’a). This was Leninism in Islamist dress.
When the authoritarian regime of President Gamel Abdel Nasser suppressed the Muslim Brothers in 1954 (it would eventually get around to hanging Qutb in 1966), many went into exile in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Morocco. From there, they spread their revolutionary Islamist ideas—including the organizational and ideological tools borrowed from European totalitarianism—by means of a network that reached into numerous religious schools and universities. Most young Islamist cadres today are the direct intellectual and spiritual heirs of the Qutbist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
….we can detect the Brothers’ influence as early as 1945 in Iran, the homeland of most of the world’s Shi’ites….
Khomeini himself first took a political stand in 1962, joining other ayatollahs to oppose the shah’s plans for land reform and female suffrage….The turning point came in 1970, when Khomeini, still in Iraq, became one of the very few Shi’ite religious authorities to switch from traditionalism to totalitarianism. Much like Mawdudi, he called for a revolution to create an Islamic state, and inspired by Qutb, he condemned all non-theocratic regimes as idolatrous….Qutb’s ideology was used by Khomeini’s students to recapture for the Islamist movement a whole generation influenced by the world’s predominant revolutionary culture—Marxism-Leninism.
Khomeini became a major figure in the history of Islamist terrorism because he was the first truly eminent religious figure to lend it his authority. For despite all its influence on the young, Islamism before the Iranian Revolution was a marginal heterodoxy. Qutb and Mawdudi were theological dabblers whom Sunni scholars had refuted and dismissed. Even the Muslim Brothers had officially rejected Qutb’s ideas. As an established clerical scholar, Khomeini gave modern Islamist totalitarianism a religious respectability that it had sorely lacked.
….The Leninist characteristics of [Khomeini’s] rule—his policy of terror, his revolutionary tribunals and militias, his administrative purges, his cultural revolution, and his accommodating attitude toward the USSR—alienated the majority of his fellow clerics but also gained him the active support of the Moscow-aligned Iranian Communist Party, which from 1979 to 1983 put itself at the service of the new theocracy.
Khomeini’s revolution was not an exclusively Shi’ite phenomenon. Not accidentally, one of the first foreign visitors who showed up to congratulate him was the Sunni Islamist Mawdudi; before long, Qutb’s face was on an Iranian postage stamp….Khomeini’s own interest in creating an “Islamist International”—it would later be known by the hijacked Koranic term Hezbollah (“party of God”)—was apparent as early as August 1979.
As these ties suggest, Islamism is a self-consciously pan-Muslim phenomenon. It is a waste of time and effort to try to distinguish Islamist terror groups from one another according to their alleged differences along a series of traditional religious, ethnic, or political divides (Shi’ite versus Sunni, Persian versus Arab, and so on). The reason is simple: In the eyes of the Islamist groups themselves, their common effort to strike at the West while seizing control of the Muslim world is immeasurably more important than whatever might be seen as “dividing” them from one another.
The Lebanese-based, Iranian-supported Hezbollah is a case in point….A closer look at the organization reveals the strong influence of Marxism-Leninism on the ideology of its founders and leadership. The group’s current leader, Mohammad Hosein Fadlallah, influenced by Marx’s and Nietzsche’s theories on violence, has openly advocated terrorist methods and tactical alliances with leftist organizations. Hezbollah is a successful creation of the Islamist “Comintern.”….
Also inspired by the Iranian Revolution was the independent Sunni terrorist network that later became the basis of al-Qaeda….
The influence of Iran’s Islamist revolution was also cited by the members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who gunned down President Anwar Sadat in October 1981….
The Islamization of the Palestinian question is also partly due to Khomeini’s influence on the Palestinian branch of Islamic Jihad….
As these examples show, such distinctions as may exist among these terrorist groups are overshadowed by their readiness to coalesce and collaborate according to a common set of ideological beliefs. These beliefs are properly called “Islamist” rather than “Islamic” because they are actually in conflict with Islam—a conflict that we must not allow to be obscured by the terrorists’ habit of commandeering Islamic religious terminology and injecting it with their own distorted content….
The Islamic Republic of Iran also rests on heterodoxy, in this case Khomeini’s novel and even idiosyncratic theory of the absolute power of the single, supreme Islamic jurisprudent (faqih). It was not a coincidence that one of the first uprisings against Khomeini’s regime took place under the inspiration of a leading ayatollah, Shariat Madari. Officials of the regime have admitted that most Iranian clerics have always taken a wary view of Khomeinism….
What gives force to the terrorist notion of jihad invented by the Iranians and later embraced by bin Laden is not its Koranic roots—there are none—but rather the brute success of terrorist acts. Bin Laden has spoken with particular admiration of the Iranian-sponsored suicide truck bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines and others in Beirut on 23 October 1983, precipitating the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon. Bin Laden was also not the first to think of setting up training camps for international terrorists—the Tehran authorities were there before him….
As they released the hostages in January 1981, the Tehran authorities crowed over their victory, which Prime Minster Mohammad Ali Rajai called “the greatest political gain in the social history of the world” and an act that “had forced the greatest satanic power to its knees.” At first glance this claim might seem foolish, for the United States had said no to the revolutionary government’s demands to hand over the shah and unfreeze Iranian assets. But a closer look shows that the Iranian Islamists had in fact scored a big political and ideological victory over both the United States and their domestic opponents, and thus had ample cause for jubilation….
….The U.S. government in 1979 clearly had neither the will nor the ability to stage a coup against the Islamic Republic. But totalitarians typically speak an esoteric language of their own devising….By Rafsanjani’s logic, therefore, any Iranian group that spoke of human rights was thereby revealing itself as a tool of the United States.
….the revolutionary regime began using the Stalinist tactic of claiming that anyone who spoke in favor of a more representative government was really a U.S. agent. With the hostage crisis, the Islamist regime was able to make anti-Americanism such a leading theme that Iranian Marxists rallied to its support, while Moscow extended its tacit protection to the new theocracy….
From the taking of the hostages in Tehran in 1979 until the terrorist attacks of last September, Western policy makers too often implicitly downgraded the claims of justice and shirked their duty both to their own citizens and to the cause of human rights by refusing to pursue the terrorists with any real determination. Considerations of “pragmatism” and “prudence” were put forward to justify a sellout of justice which, in one of the cruelest ironies revealed by the harsh light of September 11, proved not to have been prudent at all….
Islamist terror poses a different but no less grave problem for those of us (including the authors of this essay) who come from Islamic countries, and it carries a special challenge for Muslim intellectuals….
For the last several centuries, the Islamic world has been undergoing a traumatizing encounter with the West. Since this encounter began, our history has been a story of irreversible modernization, but also of utter domination on the one side, and humiliation and resentment on the other. To Muslim minds the West and its ways have become a powerful myth— evil, impenetrable, and incomprehensible. Whatever the Western world’s unfairness toward Muslims, it remains true that Western scholars have at least made the effort to learn about and understand the Islamic world.
But sadly, the great and brilliant works of the West’s “Orientalists” have found no echo in a Muslim school of “Occidentalism.”
We have been lacking the ability or the will to open up to others. We have opted for an easy solution, that of disguising in the clothes of Islam imported Western intellectual categories and concepts. In doing so we have not only failed to grasp the opportunity to understand the West, we have also lost the keys to our own culture. Otherwise, how could a degenerate Leninism aspire today to pass itself off as the true expression of a great monotheistic religion? The Islamists see themselves as bold warriors against modernity and the West, but in fact it is they who have imported and then dressed up in Islamic-sounding verbiage some of the most dubious ideas that ever came out of the modern West, ideas which now—after much death and suffering—the West itself has generally rejected….
Our incapacity to apprehend reality lies at the root of our paranoia. If we were to take a clear and careful look at the West, we would see that it draws its strength from its capacity for introspection and its intransigent self-criticism….
….We might have grasped that, not long ago, Westerners faced the same obstacles that we face today on the road to democracy. Citizens in the West fought for their freedoms; in this fight they lost neither their souls nor their religion. We too must roll up our sleeves to fight for freedom, remembering that we are first and foremost free and responsible human beings whom God has endowed with dignity.