Internal Paradoxes of Muslim Extremism

Stephen Suleyman SchwartzBy Stephen Suleyman Schwartz

The faith of Islam today faces a profound crisis. Long-established traditions and spiritual insights are sources of commitment for the majority of the world's Muslims. But these mainstream believers are confronted by adherents of radical ideologies. The latter phenomena include Wahhabism, the interpretation exercising sole dominion over religious life in Saudi Arabia; South Asian Deobandism (inspiration for the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban); the varying political programs of the Muslim Brotherhood in countries like Egypt and Jordan; Pakistani "jamaati" jihadism; Khomeinist clerical rule in Iran (with influence on Iraq); and the "soft fundamentalism" of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP).  While tradition guides most Muslims to reaffirm long-recognized principles of belief, including respect for differing religions, ideology drives other Muslims to acts of violence.

Many non-Muslims, and some Muslims, view radical Islam as a product of local grievances and international geopolitical relationships. Thus, it is often claimed that the lack of democratic structures in countries like Egypt, and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, are sources of discontent throughout the worldwide Islamic community and that until such problems are resolved, radicalism will retain its appeal.  

But for each such example cited as a cause of radicalism, counter-examples should be noted. The people of Iran today contend with a harsh dictatorship but have turned to democratic protest rather than a fundamentalist option, in contrast with the Egyptian opposition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. In the Bosnian war of 1992-95, Muslims suffered, in three years, many times more deaths and injuries, as well as rapes and vandalism of sacred structures, than have accumulated on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian contention since 1948. Yet Bosnian Muslims affirmed their national traditions of interreligious coexistence and rejected any temptation to define their struggle in jihadist terms. 

Other paradoxes illustrate the internal contradictions of Muslim extremism. To the non-Muslim, radical Islam appears traditional, conservative, and archaic. Yet Muslim radicals alleging they represent Sunnism reject long-enduring customs and practices in Islam, in particular the spirituality of Sufism or Islamic mysticism, with the claim that they are purging the religion of unacceptable innovations allegedly attached to it over the centuries. 


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Further, non-Muslims often call for modernization of Islam and a "Muslim Reformation" -- as do some anti-extremist Muslims -- yet the radicals themselves claim the mantle of modernity and reform. Wahhabis and their sympathizers, who preach violence against Muslims dissenting from their views, have abusively appropriated the title of "Salafis," asserting continuity with a 19th-century Islamic trend that advocated modernization and adoption of Western achievements, but did not preach violence. Both today's Wahhabi-"Salafis" and the 19th-century Salafis claimed to emulate the aslaf -- the companions of Muhammad and the scholars who made up the first three Islamic generations. Traditionalists have criticized the outlook of both groups as presumptuous, since no Muslim living after the aslaf should compare him- or herself with their distinguished Muslim forerunners.

Westerners seldom seem to recall that in the history of Christianity, "reformation" and "counter-reformation" took two counterposed forms: "purifying" versus modernizing. Extremist Muslims have adopted attitudes and propositions that are new to Islamic history, rather than reinforcing recognized precedents. The history of Wahhabism began only 250 years ago.

A similarly recent origin characterizes the state ideology set up in Iran by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his supporters. In Islamic history, including that of the Shia sect, the clerical class had never previously governed society. Rather, they advised the rulers on proper conduct and decision-making. Khomeini and his cadre admitted that their inspiration came from the Platonic idea of the "philosopher-king" rather than any Islamic precedent.

The Deobandi movement providing a doctrinal justification for the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan is also historically new, as a product of the aftermath of the failed 1857 Indian Mutiny against British rule. At their beginning, the Deobandis called for non-violence and regeneration of the Muslim community on the argument that the failure of the 1857 uprising illustrated the futility of violence. Years after the departure of Soviet occupiers from Afghanistan, a group of Pashtun Deobandi students located in Pakistan established the Taliban order in Kabul, and under the influence of Wahhabism and South Asian "jamaati" jihadism -- the latter, like the Muslim Brotherhood, a product of the 20th century -- they adopted brutal methods for enforcement of their dictates.

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