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News Flash to Bush: Many Moderate Muslims Share al-Qaeda's Goal of a Caliphate

President Bush is badly mistaken when he says that Muslims who share al-Qaeda's goal of a unitary Muslim State are 'evil Islamic radicals.' Under the contrary, according to this article from Pakistan's The Nation, while al-Qaeda's methods 'might be unorthodox,' its theology is 'reasonably orthodox.'


November 4, 2005

Original Article (English)    

Bush Explains the 'War on Terror' in October

For Pakistanis, this Eidul Fitr of 1426 AH [November 10, 2005] will be marked by a sorrow not seen since the Eidul Fitr of 1366 (18 August 1947). However, President George W. Bush has chosen this Ramadan to tackle the ideological underpinnings of the War on Terror, to move beyond a focus on Afghanistan or Iraq, and to portray the battle in more global terms. Interestingly, the venue he chose to this was an address to the National Endowment for Democracy on October 6, a conservative think tank founded by Ronald Reagan; and his address on October 20, at a ceremony handing over the old Air Force One to the Reagan Presidential Library.

—C-SPAN VIDEO: President Bush Commemorates 4th Anniversary of 9/11 attacks during a policy speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, Oct. 6, 00:40:23

[Editor's Note: At the conclusion of the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, on the first day of the 10th month of Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims all over the world celebrate Eidul Fitr. This is one of two main festivals of Islam and this year, the day falls on November 19th].

The evocation of Reagan's victory over communism is important. Reagan's reference to the Soviet bloc as the "Evil Empire," while biased, at least had some objective basis. The USSR was the opposite pole of a bipolar world, and was indeed America's rival for global influence and control. But al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is hiding in caves. Therefore, Bush had to build a case, which he did in some detail at the National Endowment for Democracy: the terrorists have an ideology, which is evil:

"Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism. Whatever it's called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam. This form of radicalism exploits Islam to serve a violent, political vision: the establishment, by terrorism and subversion and insurgency, of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom."

Map of the Muslim Caliphate at its Height, 786-809 AD

By combining the ideology and the method, Bush has implied, though his words contain qualifiers, that anyone propounding the idea of a single Islamic State shares an ideology "very different from the religion of Islam." (For Pakistanis, it is worth noting that Bush lumps together "global, borderless terrorist organizations" like al-Qaeda and "local cells, inspired by Islamic radicalism," and "paramilitary insurgencies and separatist movements in places like Somalia, and the Philippines, and Pakistan, and Chechnya, and Kashmir, and Algeria.")

Then came Bush's charges against the "evil Islamic radicals": "First, these extremists want to end American and Western influence in the broader Middle East." This would probably place a simple majority of the world's Muslims in the ranks of the radicals.

"Second, the militant network wants to use the vacuum created by an American retreat to gain control of a country, a base from which to launch attacks and conduct their war against non-radical Muslim governments They achieved their goal, for a time, in Afghanistan." Yet al-Qaeda's primary target from Afghanistan was the United States, not Muslim governments.

"Third, the militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region, and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia "

Here, at the crux of his speech, Bush creates a problem. A single state is Islam's political default setting, the Caliphate. That it was a decayed institution when it was abolished in 1924 is beyond doubt. That it is not a part of mainstream Muslim political discourse is also correct, but the idea is seeing something of a revival. In that sense, it is not really a "radical" idea. It is possible to argue, from the standpoint of traditional theology, that the concept of a single Ummah divided into over four dozen separate sovereign entities, is the really radical idea.

It is also unfair to use the word "empire" for the Caliphal system. While citizen rights under the Caliphate were no doubt different from those that Bush would prefer, they applied equally across the board. There were no distinctions between "mother country" and "colonies" that even the United States suffers with dependencies like Puerto Rico and Guam. While groups or individuals may have been exploitive, entire nations didn't have their interests subordinated to another's.

"Over the years, these extremists have used a litany of excuses for violence - the Israeli presence on the West Bank, or the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, or the defeat of the Taliban, or the Crusades of a thousand years ago. No concession, bribe, or act of appeasement would change or limit their plans for murder." This allows Bush to give up any attempt at redressing wrongs committed against Muslims. Clearly, this paints as impotent [Pakistan's leader] Pervez Musharraf's "enlightened moderation," which requires the West to act more justly as an essential constituent.

"Like communism, Islamic radicalism is elitist, led by a self-appointed vanguard that presumes to speak for the Muslim masses Like communism, our new enemy teaches that innocent individuals can be sacrificed to serve a political vision Like communism, our new enemy pursues totalitarian aims Like communism, our new enemy is dismissive of free peoples, claiming that men and women who live in liberty are weak and decadent." Here Bush is making an interesting equation: asking for justice is to be like the communists. He is apparently talking only of those who use violent means, but he is also clearly implying that those who derive their political ideology from Islam are extremists and radicals.

Zawahiri and bin Laden: 'Reasonably Orthodox'?

It should be clear that al-Qaeda's methods might be unorthodox, but their theology is reasonably orthodox, and the main debate within Muslim society is not the justness of their cause, but of their methods. Bush condemns their cause as well.

His solution includes four operational elements: prevention of attacks, the denial of WMDs to "outlaw regimes and their terrorist allies," the denial to radical groups of support and sanctuary of "outlaw regimes," and the denial to the militants the control of any nation for use as a base.

The "fifth element of our strategy" is more interesting: "to deny the militants future recruits by replacing hatred and resentment with democracy and hope across the broader Middle East." And how is this being done?

"America is making this stand in practical ways. We're encouraging our friends in the Middle East, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to take the path of reform We're standing with dissidents and exiles against oppressive regimes We're making our case through public diplomacy, stating clearly and confidently our belief in self-determination, and the rule of law, and religious freedom, and equal rights for women, beliefs that are right and true in every land, and in every culture." Not a word about Palestine or Kashmir.

"As we do our part to confront radicalism, we know that the most vital work will be done within the Islamic world itself. And this work has begun. Many Muslim scholars have already publicly condemned terrorism The time has come for all responsible Islamic leaders to join in denouncing an ideology that exploits Islam for political ends." 

At the Reagan Library, Bush said: "Because of Ronald Reagan's leadership, America prevailed in the 20th century's great struggle of wills. And now in this new century, our freedom is once again being tested by determined enemies. The terrorists who attacked us on September the 11th, 2001, are followers of a radical and violent ideology. They exploit the religion of Islam to serve a violent political vision, the establishment of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom. These extremists distort the idea of jihad into a call for terrorist murder against Christians and Jews and Hindus, and against Muslims from other traditions who they regard as heretics."

The bottom line is a valid one for Bush, as an American, to make: keep religion out of politics. Whether it behooves a President elected by mobilizing the Christian Evangelical Right is another matter, but this doesn't sit well with Muslims who believe that, as a complete code of living, Islam also provides a detailed blueprint for political organization.

Bin Laden and Musharaff: Opposite Sides of the Same Coin?

While it is facile to dismiss Bush's remarks as representing not just a Western viewpoint, but reflecting the narrower American national interest, there is an important point for Muslims lurking within. Both Osama bin Laden and Musharraf seek a return to the lost glory of the Muslim past, though by widely divergent paths. Osama advocates a violent rejection of the West, focusing on freedom struggles. Musharraf wants, through enlightened moderation, to turn the Muslim world into a replica of the West. The latter is a failed path, but the former just might work, despite all American efforts. And therein lies a danger.

The purpose of Muslim reunification must not be to fight the West, as al-Qaeda inspired radicals would probably be inclined to do. It is only justified by an attempt to create a just State, ordered according to Allah's commands, which, it is an article of Muslim faith, are designed to meet mankind's natural contours (themselves shaped by the Creator). Only if reunification flows from an appreciation of what constitutes an Islamic polity, society and economy, will it be purposeful. It might conflict with the West's capitalism, but that would be the West's choice. Otherwise, we might as well struggle along in our 50-odd different states, seeking our own niches in a Western-dominated globalized world.

The only path possible for a political problem is a political one. Hence, Islamic political forces become all the more important. The US-backed regimes of the Muslim world are not rooted in the masses; else they would not require external support. The radicals who have turned to violence may be militarily capable, sincere in purpose, and admirably brave, but they lack political maturity. If the Ummah [the Muslim community] is indeed to reunite, it must be by political means, involving patience without compromising principle. Muslim political forces have an extremely important role to play, not just for the Ummah, but for the world's security.

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