Terrorism: a political, military danger or a cultural, ideological challenge?
(Gamal Arabi, September 14, 2016)
Transcript available below
ISIS is not merely a terrorist organization, it is a malicious idea. ISIS and Al Qaeda have the same ideological underpinning. We need to confront this pernicious thinking with an enlightened, open-minded thought – one that accepts The Other and co-exists with him, enlightened ideas emanating from within Islam.
About the speaker
Gamal Arabi will introduce a non-usual approach to fighting the Jihadi threats originating from the Muslim World. His approach focuses on the importance and potential of defeating the ideology the terrorist groups and individuals spread through the Middle East and the entire world. Such an ideology, he believes, resides in the currently prevailing interpretations of Islam’s holy books and teachings. Thus, an “enlightenment” program is essential to complement the political and military measures aimed at eradicating terrorist threats.
Arabi’s intellectual contributions include the publication of two books written in Arabic: “Opening of the Muslim Mind” and “Muslim Woman Dress: Body Covering or Mind Blinding?”. In addition to that he has published several articles on Islamic enlightenment in Arabic newspapers and websites.
Arabi graduated from the University of Khartoum in 1980 and, since then, worked in the area of information technology in many institutions in his country, Sudan. He ended his professional career as director for the information technology department of the Sudanese central bank.
Well, our speaker tonight is someone I met several years ago when for some reason he happened across a book I wrote about Islam called The Closing of the Muslim Mind. I was very grateful for his encouragement that the book be translated into Arabic, which it has been by a fellow countryman of his, so I owe to him my thanks for his inspiration in guiding me to getting that done.
To repay his kindness, I put Gamal al-Arabi in touch with my friends who are affiliated with Westminster in England who have a Muslim reform website called Al Muslih to which he now has become a contributor, and it is a compilation of contributions to that website made both in Arabic and English that have been published in the Reforming Islam book, which you can see on the table outside, which contains a lot of stunning analysis by Arab Muslims about what needs to be done within the Islamic world to reform it.
And Gamal al-Arabi is one of the people who can tell us that because he’s done a very acute analysis from his perspective, “From Within Sudan What Needs to be Done.” And the subject of his talk tonight, “A Political, Military Danger or a Cultural, Ideological Challenge,” speaks to that point as well as the shortsightedness of the United States and others in the West who have misdiagnosed the problem and therefore applied a wrong solution.
Just a couple of words about Gamal’s intellectual contributions, which include two books written in Arabic, appropriately enough, “Opening of the Muslim Mind” and “Muslim Women Dress: Body Covering or Mind Binding?” He is a graduate of the University of Khartoum and since then has spent many years working for the Central Bank in Sudan and is the director of the information technology department of the Sudanese Central Bank. Please join me in welcoming Gamal Arabi.
Good evening, everyone. I hope that the lecture will be useful and please forgive me if there is any difficulty in transferring my ideas to you because this is my first time to speak in English about this area.
Before I proceed, I need to briefly explain the meaning of the terms that are usually used in this paper and I think in many other lectures: these are Salafi, Salafist and jihadi, jihadist. The word Salafi describes in general the widely dominant state of mind in the Muslim world that is different interpretation of the basic Islamic or Muslim books that took place in the first three centuries that followed Prophet Muhammad.
And these interpretations are still governing the way Muslims are thinking and looking to the world until now throughout these thousand years, the past thousand years. I think Mr. Robert Reilly’s book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, may be the most important source to show exactly how this happened, how Muslims froze their minds and became captive to ideas that were created before a thousand years.
The word jihad stands for the use of violence and war against infidelity or apostasy. In the Salafist thought, whoever is not a Muslim is an infidel who should be a Muslim either by wisdom. I mean in the Salafi interpretation, not every Muslim is thinking this way. But frankly, the majority of the ideas that are moving in our minds are related to this concept. The jihad should be used with the wisdom has no direct response or has no direct impact aside people become Muslims, so the jihad is not just violence, it is not just war. It has another dimension. It is a religious way of practicing violence and terrorism.
Since the emergence of the phenomena of extremism in the Arab and Muslim worlds, analysis undertaken by most of the well-known centers and theorists, especially in the West, for the understanding of the phenomena and the causes of its rapid growth did not go beyond four or five factors in trying to attribute what is happening on the ground in the Middle East or the Muslim world.
Normally, most of the researchers go and attribute these events and this kind of terrorism and extremism to the frustration of the young people in the Arab and Muslim world, and the closing off of horizons before them as a result of the deteriorating social and economic conditions. That is the economic and social conditions are the main driver of their behavior. Also, most of these researchers or some of them emphasize the tyrannical rule and the lack of democracy as a direct cause for the condition that brought about the emergence of terrorism and extremism.
Some also blame the West or try to attribute some attacks to Western policies, the political policies of the United States in particular, towards the Middle East and toward the Muslim world, that these policies encouraged and initiated the emergence of extremism and terrorism. And also, the double standards used by the West with regard to the Palestinian issue. Most people in the Muslim world consider the West as biased to Israel.
Also, some analysts go to attribute the emergence and rapid growth of extremism and terrorism to the Iraq or Afghan wars as a direct result of that. Another analysis was to attribute the emergence of terrorism and extremism to the colonization and unjust exploitation of resources of the Muslim world and the Middle East practiced by the West and the United States. For instance, the general opinion in the Middle East is that the United States has exploited their resources, the oil resources, with cheap prices and so on and so forth. This was clear, especially when the attacks in France took place before a couple of months [ago]. A lot of media was talking about that, [saying that] the reason is a matter of revenge toward France [for killings] in Algeria, killings that took place in the ’60s and the ’50s of the past century.
Anyhow, I tried to sum up or to summarize most of the arguments that are raised by researchers, by politicians, and by activists with regard to understanding the main cause and the root cause of what is happening in the Middle East. I would like to also bring your attention to examples, some statements that have been spoken out by many thinkers and theorists as examples of this understanding.
For instance, Francis Fukuyama in an interview with Newsweek on 29 December 2003 stated that the strength of radical Islamist groups, the main advocates of terrorism, is attributed to “a combination of lack of democracy, a lack of development, frustration with American foreign policy–some combination of all those” and that the solution is “more democracy, more development and some kind of resolution of the Palestinian issue,” and this is one example of the way thinkers and theorists in the West are looking at the issue of extremism. The root cause of what is happening is “a multitude of factors (…) contribute to Islamic radicalism and terror. However, one important factor, and one that appears to have a strong empirical basis, is the Middle East’s democracy deficit. Any long-term strategy to combat terrorism should therefore include a vigorous, sustained effort to support democracy and democrats in a region long debilitated by autocracy.” This is stated by Shadi Hamid and Steven Brooke [in] Policy Review journal [in] February 2010 [by the] Hoover Institution.
Another new study about [the] expansion of jihadism and Salafism in Tunisia [says], “Ben Ali’s,” the former President of Tunisia, “[tight] control of the religious [sphere caused problems]. [The] Ennahda movement, (…) has focused on constitution building and political struggles and has not struck a healthy balance between politics and religion. Ennahda movement,” an Islamic movement in Tunis, “has acted pragmatically to consolidate its political standing. The socioeconomic situation in Tunisia has worsened since the revolution,” so what is the solution?
Recommendations for the state and Ennahda [are as follows], “Address socioeconomic grievances. Strengthen political inclusion of the Salafi movement. Balance state control over the religious sphere. Separate religious and political activities. Form de-radicalization coalitions.” This is October 16, 2015, from the Carnegie Center for the Middle East, Market for Jihad: Radicalization in Tunisia, by Georges Fahmi and Hamza Meddeb.
These are examples of research and ideas that come from many of the theorists about the factors that caused the current wave of extremism and terrorism. I am not in agreement with these ideas at all. I believe that the reasons said to be behind this Islamist radicalization are nothing more than triggers. The reasons are really different than those. It is worth noting that the extremist organizations do not raise such issues in their goals and political discourse and literature. I have never read or heard from them any complaints about [the] economic situation or political problems or lack of democracy, and these things. It is not part of their agenda at all. In my opinion, the real roots lie in other spheres or domains, the field of ideas and concepts that formulate the collective mind and conscience of the peoples of the Arab and Islamic worlds
In the coming part of this lecture, I will try to list hundreds of indicators and factual evidence that support my view that the main driving force behind the emergence of this phenomena is ideology, is the cultural framework, the collective mind, let us say.
The extremist ideas spread in all countries of the Islamic world and among almost all Muslim communities in the West, even, in Europe and America. They hold the same ideas and the same way of looking at the world and life despite the fact that many of them enjoy a high degree of material wellbeing. For instance, those jihadists of France who killed people in a massacre, were not born in Africa or the Arab world where opportunities are very limited and so on and so forth, they were born here in a very good environment. They are not so poor. They enjoyed a good quality of life and so on and so forth.
Another point is that extremist ideas spread in countries where this is a reasonable degree of democracy. Democracy is not the problem because Tunisia is a democratic country at the moment. Lebanon is a democratic country. Indonesia, Kuwait, for example, is a democratic country. I mean there are no tight controls from the government towards the people.
It is worth noting that economic decline and frustration caused by unemployment and lack of opportunities are global phenomena almost hitting a substantial part of the world and suffered by a wide range of countries in the world. This does not result in political and intellectual extremism in a similar manner. As I say, conditions are referring in many places in the world, but still do not cause such a kind of thinking and do not bring about such a kind of violence and terrorism.
Many countries in all continents had been subject to colonization and oppression by others. To those who think that the colonial period and exploitation of forces has directly impacted Muslims, young Muslims, to become terrorists, one can say that many countries in all continents have been subjected to the same. For instance, people of Japan have been exposed to one of the most horrific nightmares in the history of mankind, that is the unleashing of the atomic bomb and the killing of hundreds of thousands of people. We can add Chinese, for example. The Japanese colonization for China was so cruel and that is gone. And take the case also of Jews who were in Germany. They had been subject to a huge and horrible kind of torture and suppression.
But no kind of such a response has taken place. Therefore, I cannot speak about the former colonization period and so on and so forth as the main driver for the terrorism and extremism that is spreading everywhere.
Of interest when we speak about the Palestinian issue as one of the core factors that initiated extremism, like what Fukuyama has said, if you remember, he emphasized the Palestinian issue as one of the driving factors, I can say that the extremists’ arenas for their current operations are far away from Israel. They did not choose even in Syria to start their operations in the territory that is close to Israel. Even those in the Sinai, ISIS members are hitting the Egyptian national army. They are not targeting Israel. Therefore, I cannot attribute the extremism and terrorism and what they are doing to the Israeli issue. This is my point.
There is another point which I feel many people overstate, and it is very important in our analysis to the causes and roots of extremism, that terrorism has started in the Muslim and Arab worlds before any other country. For instance, in 1981 [terrorist groups] started in Egypt by assassinating the former President, Anwar Sadat. This took place in 1981 and continued until the end of the ’80s in the last century. That was before the Iraq War, before all of these kinds of justifications we are looking after.
And also, in Algeria the civil war started in 1991, and it was an internal conflict, actually, because it did not have any extension outside of Algeria. Tens of thousands of Muslims were slaughtered, and the main reason is that the terrorist groups wanted to impose an Islamic state in Algeria. It was not an issue of Israel. It was not an issue of economics. It was not an issue of lacking democracy.
If we look to the nature of the operations that are taking place by ISIS or Al Qaeda or whatever, there is something unique about it.