Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Fundamentally terrorist

The so-called Islamic State is not so much new as an evolution of past phases in Islamist extremism, all leading back to their origin in the Muslim Brotherhood, writes Azmi Ashour

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is far from a conventional war between standing national armies, or even a civil war between rival domestic militias contesting control over patches of land. It is a symptom of a conflict that begins in the mind and with ideas about imposing a narrow religious worldview. The mind-set and its agenda clash against reality, culture, civilisation and humanity, leading to a campaign of murder and treachery as a means of justifying a terrorist outlook.

While the failure of modernism manifests itself in many ways, as current events in the region indicate, extremist fundamentalism is one of the most salient expressions of the inability of the Arab intellect and Arab societies to grasp and accommodate modernist ideas and values.

No sooner had modernism begun to make inroads in the Arab world at the beginning of the 20th century than the fundamentalist current began to bristle and rail. Its first organised manifestation was the Muslim Brotherhood, which grounded its legitimacy in an anti-modernist rhetoric.

Everything Western was its enemy. Every “sinful innovation” added to its lexicon of condemnation and shaped its ideological approach, which sought to bury the intellect alive as it orbited in the realms of its fundamentalist ether.

When one considers the fundamentalist mentality’s descent into atrocity and crime, the phenomenon invites study. It is as if it followed a trajectory of inverse evolution over the course of its near century of existence. After the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in spreading its organisation abroad, establishing itself in various countries, it began to breed increasingly extremist and fanatical offshoots.

By the 1970s, after the regime opened the door to them again, new Islamist groups had emerged that condemned the whole of society as heretic. They launched a campaign of murder and assassination of political and intellectual figures whom they disagreed with, culminating in the assassination of President Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981.

The 1980s brought the second phase, in which the use of Islamist fundamentalists by intelligence agencies intersected with the fundamentalists’ religious ambitions when jihadists were mobilised to fight communism in Afghanistan. The so-called jihadists may have pretended to be championing Islam, whereas in fact they were championing the interests of Western powers.

Not that this is the only irony of that phase that brought the “Afghanisation” of Islamist fundamentalist culture, starting with the mode of dress and wearing of beards. It is surprising to see your average fundamentalist in Egypt or Libya wearing the Afghani shalwar kameez as a form of religious rite or identity, in spite of the fact that such garments have their origins in rural and tribal customs that have more to do with the local geography and climate in Afghanistan than with religion and native Afghan jihadists.

But the phenomenon extends beyond outward costume to the modes of behaviour and outlooks of those who returned to their homelands, and generated a new phase in the evolution of Islamist extremists in the 1990s.

Active recruiters and indoctrinators, the “Arab Afghans” ushered in a mushrooming of Islamist groups of various names, bases of activity and numbers, but they all had in common a lust for assassinations and murder, targeting police and security forces, tourists, Christians and society as a whole.

Eventually, however, the horror and disgust they aroused in public opinion, combined with the state’s military offensive, compelled them to issue ideological retractions from behind bars, where most of the jihadist leaders ended up.

Nonetheless, a more dangerous development occurred abroad and specifically among those jihadists who remained in Afghanistan. The development was epitomised by Al-Qaeda, an organisation founded not so much by individuals as it was by a superpower — namely, the US— and the mutation of “jihad” (or to be more precise, terrorism) from a localised to globalised form.

It might be argued that terrorism already had an international face in the war against the USSR in Afghanistan. However, that was still a conventional war using standing armies, even if one of the instruments was Islamist militia. But following that war, Al-Qaeda redirected its crosshairs from the communist evil to the “great Satan”, the US.

 Initially, Al-Qaeda’s threats were not taken seriously. But then came the bombing of the US Embassy in Kenya and before that the World Trade Centre. More ominous, however, were the changes in reach, strategy and, above all, imagination that catapulted terrorism to the global level.

What happened on 11 September 2001 seemed straight out of a Hollywood film, except that those events were very real and they sent tremors throughout international political relations, galvanising the US to spearhead a global war against terrorism. It was a war unlike anything that preceded it, in that it was not against an enemy that could be easily pinpointed geographically and that had a standing army, but against one that was virtually invisible and highly unpredictable.

 Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded and occupied. However, as is clearly evident ten years later, not only did those actions fail to eliminate terrorism, they generated the conditions and environment that fostered the fourth phase in the evolution of the terrorist virus.

The logical conclusion of all the preceding phases, this one is encapsulated in Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which was born out of the ruins of the disastrous US occupation of Iraq and that has added a new layer of inhuman sadism and savageness to the brutality of the Islamist extremists’ purported drive to establish “God’s Law.”

The crimes committed by jihadists of the previous phases almost pale in comparison to those perpetrated by Daesh, which will gladly avail itself of the latest inventions of modernist civilisation to film the very horrors that demonstrate how remote its mentality is from the principles and spirit of the civilisation that gave birth to that technology.

In general, it is possible to rank what occurred in Arab societies following the Arab Spring revolutions as the fifth phase in the evolution of the Islamist terrorist threat, as epitomised by Daesh and its sisters. A salient aspect of this phase is that the mother organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, finally showed its true colours during the year of its rule in Egypt.

However, it did so in a curious and unique way. Unlike the militias that can be clearly seen in Yemen, Syria and Libya, for example, it conforms with the recognised definition of terrorism in that it deliberately targets innocent people, destroys facilities intended to serve the public good and targets soldiers and policemen using booby-trapped vehicles and other sorts of treacherous devices.

Paradoxically, these facets of the Muslim Brotherhood’s behaviour are proof of the coherence of the state and society, for the opposite would have paved the way to the emergence of identifiable militias, such as Daesh. More importantly, as appalling as the terrorists actions are against public property and the lives of the Egyptian people, they have revealed a number of significant truths.

Foremost among these is the failure of the mind-set of that group to come to terms not only with the values of modernism but also with the values of Islam itself, which it claims to represent but that it has assassinated in spirit and substance.

Also, by its actions, it has proven that the Muslim Brotherhood organisation and its mentality and upbringing can only thrive through religious despotism crafted to perpetuate itself, or through terrorism and murder.

At least this has lifted the veil from 80 years of deception and dissimulation beneath the guise of religion, exposing the true nature of this terrorist organisation that has spawned so many variations of the original.


The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya, published by Al-Ahram.

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