Radical Islam: A New Paradigm?

by Riaz Hassan; 11-16-1998

Jakarta Post

ADELAIDE, Australia (JP): In the heartlands of the Islamic world from Indonesia to Egypt a spiritual and religious renaissance is taking place. A recently concluded study shows that men and women from the elite of society as well as the masses, are embracing religion with greater devotion. In this study over 3,400 people were interviewed in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Egypt, about religious practice and social and political attitudes.

The religious devotion is most pronounced in Indonesia and Egypt where over ninety percent of respondents regularly performed their daily prayers. Sixty percent of the respondents in Pakistan did the same. In all three countries over 50 percent of the interviewees read the Koran every day and claimed to be following its teachings in conducting their daily lives.

The religious practice is accompanied by deeply held beliefs about the sanctity of sacred texts, universalism of Islam and strong support for Islamic social and economic values. If the term religious fundamentalism is defined to mean high degree of devotional religiosity then these heartlands of Islam are becoming fundamentalist.

The anecdotal evidence from other Islamic countries indicates that they are also experiencing a religious revival. What are the implications of this for Islamic radicalism? Does this mean increasing support for the militant Islamic movements that are agitating to establish their versions of the Islamic state by discrediting and overthrowing the existing political structures? Would this increase militancy against those groups or countries they regarded as the enemies of Islam? The evidence shows that devotional religiosity interestingly appears to be associated with a marked decline in the support for militant and radical Islamic movements. A large majority of those interviewed were not members of any radical Islamic group or offering any support to the activities of such groups in the society. In fact, most of the people who were interviewed approved of moderate political leaders who were leading political and social movements for democratic, fair and tolerant societies and political cultures.

A large majority of the respondents support multi-party democratic political structures. The attitudes towards major Western countries such as the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany are formed on the basis of their assessment of their policies towards the Moslem communities and countries such as the Palestine, Bosnia-Herzegovenia and Chechnya. In general, the attitudes towards the Western countries are based on rational political and social calculations and not on the intensity of religiosity.

The lack of support for the militant Islamic movements among the religiously active is having a consequential impact on the shape and structure of these movements. The declining support of Islamic radical and militant movements is paradoxically further radicalizing these movements and transforming them into more violent and secretive entities. The nature and ruthlessness of violence reflect their desire to gain public attention and was often described by the respondents as symptomatic of their desperation. There is little or no evidence that the religious and spiritual renaissance, now occurring in the heartlands of Islam, was supportive of Islamic radicalism and militancy.

The new form of violence is different from the earlier form that was carried out by organizations often with some type of tacit support from the political structures. The new militancy appears to be fueled by a sense of desperation and humiliation caused by globalization and increasing economic, cultural, technological and military hegemony of the West.

This new pattern represents a kind of paradigm shift in the nature, causes and targets of terrorism carried out by the new militant groups. The old form of militancy was aimed at establishing legitimacy of the political goals. The new form is guided by religious fanaticism, destruction and revenge. The old form of militancy had identified enemies. The new enemies are ephemeral global conspiracies.

These developments require a reassessment of how to deal with that new militancy. This is a new challenge which governments of the Islamic countries as well as the larger international community must address. The old policies, aimed at punishing and destroying them by military actions, may not work because of the secretive nature of the new militant organizations and also because of the massive logistical problems. Military action may ensue as demonstrated by recent American response to the attacks on American embassies in East Africa. Perhaps the most important reason for not adopting such policies is that they will mobilize public opinion in Moslem countries against such attacks if they are seem to be killing innocent people.

The evidence from the study shows that a majority of the people in the heartlands of the Islamic world regard major Western countries as anti- Islam. The primary reasons for the presence of these attitudes are not religious but the perceived indifference and inaction of the Western countries to protect the Moslem populations of Bosnia-Herzegovnia, Palestine and Chechnya from random destruction, which is being perpetrated against them. Such views are widely held among the elites.

The findings of the study show that those who trust the religious institutions also tend to trust the government. This means that the governments of the Moslem countries need to be aware that if they are seen as attacking Islam this may undermine their own legitimacy in the public mind. Similarly military attacks on targets that kill innocent people will further reinforce the widely held views that Western countries are anti- Islam. This may galvanize support for the new militant groups among the masses once again and create new political problems and instabilities.

The study provides new insights into the dynamics of new Islamic militancy. It shows that, contrary to the general belief, increasing religiosity in Moslem countries is associated with political liberalization and diminishing support for militant Islamic groups. The impact of these developments is paradoxically making the militant movements highly secretive and more violent.

The economic and cultural globalization trends are further accentuating these trends. The globalization process, in particular, is creating a social and cultural hiatus, which is affecting the nature and organization of Islamic militancy. The new militancy is not motivated by attitudes towards colonialism and struggles to win the hearts and minds of Moslem populations. It is fueled by a sense of powerlessness, revenge and religious fanaticism.

The enemy is ephemeral global conspiracies. How Moslem countries and the international community respond to these new developments will have a profound impact on the nature and activities of the new militancy. Given these attitudes towards the Western countries, a military attack resulting in deaths of the innocent will once again galvanize support for the new militancy among the masses in the Moslem countries, thus creating new political and social problems.

The solution would require more open and stronger political structures in Moslem countries to legally and politically pursue the solutions to the problem of new militancy. It will also need a change in the mind-set that increasing religiosity does not increase support for militancy but in fact does the opposite; it diminishes support for it. Similarly, the larger international community would also need to handle the new militancy through international institutions such as International Tribunals and the newly proposed International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

The old style militaristic response may indeed galvanize support among the public for the militant groups, which would create more political and social volatility in Moslem countries, which they can ill afford. I think the time has come to abandon the conventional strategy of countering individual acts of terrorism by the state-sponsored terrorism.

The writer is professor of sociology, the Flinders University of South Australia and Visiting Professor, Department of Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles.

Window: The lack of support for the militant Islamic movements among the religiously active is having a consequential impact on the shape and structure of these movements.