All Writings
October 16, 2001

Islamic Fundamentalism and Terrorism

Many Americans are perplexed about the connection between Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. The fact that every known terrorist captured or being sought by the United States is of Arab or Muslim origin creates both real and imagined links that only add to the concern and confusion. To suggest that there is no connection between the two is wrong, but to view Islamic fundamentalism as synonymous with terrorism is just as wrong and misleading as well.

graphic There is nothing in Islamic teaching, particularly in the Koran, that advocates, endorses or encourages acts of violence against another human being, especially murder, unless in self-defense. That said, a brief survey of the modern rise of Islamic fundamentalism reveals that several major events particularly–the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Iranian revolution of 1979–have created a mindset that singles out the United States and Israel as the culprits behind Arab and Muslim misfortunes.

The Six-Day War profoundly humiliated the Arab states, especially, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, whose armies were completely destroyed by Israel. In less than a week, Israel had captured three times the size of its territory, including the Old City of Jerusalem. The shock of the war and its consequences vibrated throughout the Arab world, leaving millions feeling lost and helpless. Cynicism, disillusionment and despair left the Arab masses looking for consolation and an outlet to relieve their anger and pain. They quickly found comfort in the Mosques where fundamentalist preachers welcomed them with opens arms. There they were offered material and emotional support, a renewed sense of community and the hope for a better future. But the preachers also gave those who flocked to them a heavy daily dose of distorted versions of Islam, as well as targets to blame and hate for their misfortune. Israel and its protector, the United States, were the natural enemies against which the preachers directed their poisonous verbal onslaughts in the name of Islam. I believe that the Six-Day War was the catalyst behind the modern revival of Islamists. Never before had Arabs, throughout the Arab world, converged on mosques as they did immediately following that war. As a result a mindset was created linking Islamic fundamentalism to resentment and hatred of the United States and Israel which made violence against them permissible.

KhomeiniThe 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran added a new dimension to Islamic fundamentalism. In their efforts to consolidate the revolution, the Irani clergy, led by Ayatollah Komehini, blamed the United States for the misery and suffering of the people under the Shah's rule. The takeover of the American embassy in Tehran and with it the seizure of 52 hostages for 444 days were fully exploited by the clergy to establish the difference between the "liberalizing" Islamists and the United States, the supporter of a corrupt regime. Then, for many years after the revolution, Iran attempted to export its brand of Islamic fundamentalism while portraying America as Satan, with the mission of suppressing and manipulating the Arab/Muslim world for its own benefit. Although the Iranian clergy were not particularly successful in replacing what they term decadent secular Arab States with Islamic republics (the Sudan and Afghanistan are the exceptions, but are hardly success stories), they nevertheless succeeded in spreading the contrasting images of Islamic virtue and American evil throughout the Arab/Muslim world. Therefore, for the average Muslim, Islam became an antidote to American arrogance, corrupting influence and exploitation.

Algeria Thirteen years later, in 1992, the Algerian experience cemented in the minds of many Islamists that the United States was the enemy of Islam. The Algerian independence in 1962 was followed by twenty-seven years of turmoil punctured by military coups and bloodshed. Finally, in 1989, a new constitution was adopted allowing for the formation of political parties other than the ruling FLN. After winning the 1990 provincial and municipal elections by a large margin, the FIS won by a clear majority the first round of democratic national elections in January 1992. The military-dominated regime then annulled the results of these elections and cancelled the second round. In the violence that subsequently erupted more than 40,000 people died. To the chagrin of the Algerian people and many intellectuals from around the Arab world, the United States–the champion of democracy–was deafeningly silent. Newspapers in the Middle East and North Africa missed no opportunity to criticize the United States, charging us with hypocrisy and disdain. We were accused of being the enemy of Islam, the opponent of real reforms, self-absorbed and the supporter of any regime, no matter how corrupt, as long as it served our own narrow interests.

tankIn sum, the Six-Day War pushed millions of Arabs into the fold of fundamentalism, while the Iranian revolution ostensibly provided the vehicle to address Arabs and Muslim grievances and to establish an Islamic agenda to deal with the West on Islam's own terms. The Algerian experience came to validate in the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims that the United States not only did not really care about democracy and human rights, but opposed Islamic fundamentalism in any form.

Today most Arab/Muslin nations are weary of the distorted version of Islam, the bin-Laden brand, which has made a virtue of terrorism by invoking outright Koranic distortions. Although these nations are themselves threatened by terrorism, they do not want to openly support the United States until they ascertain (1) how committed we are to the battle against terrorism and whether we will stick by or abandon them as we did the Afghan Mujahidin once the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and (2) what lessons we have drawn from the World Trade Center disaster and whether we will address their legitimate grievances and begin a new chapter in dealing with the Arab/Muslim world based on mutual respect and dignity.

America's task in the months and perhaps years to come is daunting. To combat terrorism decisively we must wage two "wars" simultaneously­a war against terrorism and a war for the hearts and minds of Arab and Muslims, especially in the Middle East. Even if their attitude and feelings toward us are grossly misconceived and misguided, it remains our responsibility to inform, enlighten and explain ourselves to them, while reassessing our policy toward each state in the region on a case- by-case basis.