Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Evolution of Bin Laden's Phobialatry

Crossroads Arabia, in an article about Stephen Schwartz, provides a useful summary of the threads of Islamist thought that culminated in Bin Laden's religion of terror.
Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Jammia Al-Islamiya and other terror groups did not suddenly erupt from Saudi Arabia. They arose out of a noxious combination of extremist interpretations of Islam that originated in different parts of the world that metatasized in Afghanistan.

Take it as a given that Wahhabism brings with it a pernicious intolerance for difference and a narrow understanding of the world. Then combine it with the political aspirations of the Muslim Brotherhood, which originated in Egypt. From its founder Hassan Al-Banna through its more contemporary Said Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood has brought its own strain of intolerance, coupled with action, to the mix.

Now add in the extreme intolerance of the Deobandi sect of Sunni Islam. [Note particularly footnote #xii in the linked document.]

This was a religious sect that developed largely in reaction to British colonial rule in India, the Raj. It shared many of the same fundamentalist values as the Wahhabis and Muslim Brotherhood, but was even more intolerant toward non-conforming Muslims. It is the Deobandis who are blowing up Shi’a mosques in Pakistan. It was Deobandi Islam that was the official sect of the Taleban in Afghanistan.

The holy war in Afghanistan succeeded in driving the Soviet Union out of that country. It also resulted in a witch’s brew of various strains of fundamentalist Islam.

That brew has come to be called “Wahhabi", but it is, in fact, a combination of three strains of Islamic fundamentalism, each intolerant, each with a xenophobic view of the world. Calling it “Wahhabi” may make for simpler sentences, but it oversimplifies the reality.

In Afghanistan, Saudi fighters met Egyptian fighters. Both were allied with Deobandis operating with Pakistani government support. All joined the native Afghan mujahidin.

The United States provided arms. Saudi Arabia provided young men and money. Pakistan provided logistical support. Other Muslim countries provided foot soldiers. All combined in Afghanistan.

While both the US and Saudi Arabia saw the war in Afghanistan as vital to their national interest, neither predicted the eventual outcome: a militant and viciously intolerant Islamist movement.

The United States dropped the ball in Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out. The country and its problems essentially disappeared from our scopes. It didn’t disappear for the Saudis, however, on several counts.

First, there was a desire–joined with the perceived religious duty to prosyletize–to spread its version of Islam. That is something all religions do: promote their version of “the truth". Afghanistan had been identified as a country with many heterodox views of Islam, so it was natural that the Saudis wanted to work toward bringing them to orthodoxy.

Second, once the war was won, there were thousands of young Saudi warriors coming home. They returned to a country vastly different from the one they had grown up in. From the late 1960s into the very early 1980s, Saudi Arabia was one of the richest countries in the world. Its per-capita income was essentially equivalent to that of the US. Saudis were proud to be Saudi. The government assured an easy life for the majority of its population–notable not including the Shi’a communities.

If a young man of that time wanted to get married, he could apply to the government for money to pay a dowry. He could apply for an interest-free (of course) loan to build a house or to start a business. And business opportunties were abundant. It was a good time to be a Saudi.

By the late 1980s, however, the situation had changed. The price of oil had dropped, the Saudi government was running a deficit, money became very tight, and perquisites of being a Saudi were starting to drop. Population was expanding more rapidly than the government could accommodate and the future was not looking good.

The Saudi government had no place for these returned warriors. The Saudi population was not acclaiming them as heroes. These young men were disjointed from their history and heritage.

The collapse of Communism, however, offered other opportunities.

Countries in which Muslim had been oppressed–or had been perceived to be oppressed–were now open for assistance from their co-religionists. The young veterans, from Saudi Arabia, but also other Arab and Muslim countries, found a new lease on their political and religious life. They started descending on the Balkans–where even the US was fighting to support the Kosovar Muslims–and Central Asia. Their assistance, this time, was not as welcomed as it had been in Afghanistan. The world had changed, the situations were different, and the Islamic warriors were seen as a hinderance rather than help.

Desert Storm–the First Gulf War for Americans; the Third Gulf War for Arabs of the region–signaled a complete repudiation of Usama bin Laden and his chaotic concept of jihad. He had offered his services, and those of other Afghan War veterans, to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq. The Saudi government rejected his offer and instead accepted that of the US and the coalition it established.

I believe it was then that bin Laden made the conceptual leap that combined the different threads of Islamic fundamentalism into a new, Islamist movement.

Rejected by Saudi Arabia and eventually stripped of his nationality, bin Laden moved to Sudan. That country, in addition to being strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, had its own history of the Mahdi, a 19th C. visionary who sought an apocalyptic Islamic war. If anything, bin Laden became even more radicalized and started funding operations against the West, the US in particular. It was also where he started accusing the Saudi government of apostacy.

Eventually driven out of Sudan, bin Laden found himself again in Afghanistan. This time, he was paired with Mullah Omar, theoretician and religious leader of the Deobandi Taleban. Again, a different and noxiously intolerant strain of Islam cross-fertilized the mix he had brought with him.
Phobialatry, by the way, is a neuvelle coinage (original as far as I know) based on the Greek roots Phobia (fear) and Latry (worship).

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