Colombo Telegraph

Understanding Islamic Terrorism – III

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

Todd noted that to everyone’s surprise, and the refusal of the Americans to face up to the facts, a process of democratic stabilization was taking place in Iran – that is at the time he was writing his 2002 book. The elections were not quite free, but the political system was definitely pluralist, with a left-wing and a right wing, reformers and conservatives. The sequence of literacy-revolution-lowering of the birth rate which applied in the case of the Iranian Revolution is not an invariant law that is universally applicable but it is a normal process. Todd argues therefore that the violence that is going on in parts of the third world should be seen not as regression to the past but as part of the politics of transition to modernity. Todd reminds the reader that his 1976 forecast of the demise of Soviet communism was based on demographic factors.

Todd acknowledges that while violence was widespread in the world there did seem to be a concentration of violence in the Islamic world, more violence there than anywhere else. That led to the notion that violence is integral to Islam, a consequence which flowed from the fact that the Prophet himself was a warrior. The notion that Islam posed a threat to the West gained currency. Todd notes that although Huntington saw China as the principal rival of the US, it is the virulence of the world of Islam and its supposed conflict with the Christian West that underlies the argument in the Clash of Civilisations. It is an interesting fact that Khomeini also thought in terms of a clash of civilisations.

But what facts are there to sustain the charge that Islam and terrorism go together? Todd notes the case of Algeria where fundamentalists had wide support, in fact majority support in the ‘nineties, but the military put them down and since then Algeria has been peaceful. He notes the case of Turkey where fundamentalism was popular but never strong enough to challenge the secular basis of the State established by Kemal Attaturk. The case of the Central Asian Republics has been particularly instructive. There was a civil war between fundamentalist groups in Tajikistan, but a feared fundamentalist take-over in Uzbekistan never materialized, and the rest of the Central Asian Republics was remarkably peaceful. Why? Todd’s explanation is that the Soviet Union had given the peoples there universal literacy, enabling them to make the demographic transition to modernity between 1975 AND 1995.

Todd points out that a good part of the Islamic countries had completed the process of literacy-revolution-lowered birth rate and were therefore peaceful places. But two of the most important Islamic countries, namely Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, had only just started the process. Both were parts of the American imperial system, and significantly in both of them there had been a steep increase of anti-American sentiment – which had to be expected because of the freeing of the mind that goes with literacy. The same steep increase in anti-American sentiment had been seen also in Iran before the 1979 Revolution, corresponding there also with a period of expanding literacy. It is significant that the main actors in the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center were from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Todd wrote, “Saudi Arabia and Pakistan will be, for at least two decades, dangerous zones, where instability will keep increasing in significant proportions”. How do we assess this prediction from the perspective of 2015? There is no revolutionary turmoil in Saudi Arabia of course, mainly perhaps because the oil billions have enabled a welfare system from which all citizens benefit.. But the appeal of fundamentalism remains strong, even to the extent that there are anxieties that the IS might be able to ignite unwelcome changes within Saudi Arabia. It is a fact however that Saudi Arabia is probably the single biggest source of financing for the IS. It is also a fact that Saudi Arabia is the biggest force behind the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the world today. As for Pakistan, fundamentalist movements have much appeal there though fundamentalists have not been able to take power at the level of the state. A significant fact is that Pakistan has been promoting fundamentalism abroad through the Jamaat –e- Islam. Further significant facts are that it was Pakistan that created the Taliban, which spawned Al Qaeda, which in turn spawned the IS. I think that Todd’s prediction has proved to be substantially correct. We must hope therefore that fundamentalist fervor will die out both in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan around 2222.

I must make a clarification at this point. I have drawn material for this article from a chapter in Todd’s book After empire because the focus there is on exposing the myth of universal terrorism., a myth spread by the US to serve its imperialist purposes. It is important for Sri Lankans to understand the truth behind that myth because that will enable us to counter the Islamophobia which has been spreading in Sri Lanka. For a full exposition of Todd’s thesis on Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism the reader should turn to the book he co-authored with Youssef Courbage the title of which reads in translation The Rendez-vous of civilisations (2007). It was written in explicit refutation of Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilisations.

How would Todd’s theory of the transition to modernity apply to the Sri Lankan Muslims? They have certainly made the cultural transition through a high standard of literacy along with our other ethnic groups. But there are doubts about their demographic transition. The problem is that some of the population statistics put out by the Department of Census are quite definitely wrong. I must mention that some Muslims even believe that the statistics were deliberately distorted to give the impression that the Muslims will become the dominant majority in Sri Lanka before long. In this situation we have no option but to go on impressions. My impression, formed after several inquiries, is that the average Muslim family consists of two children both among the middle class and the poor. The situation could be different where there is heavy Wahabi influence, particularly in the Eastern Province. My commonsense tells me however that that Wahabi influence is an extraneous and adventitious factor and that the universal trend, the universal inexorable trend, towards two children per family will assert itself in the EP as well. It seems very doubtful that Islamic fundamentalism in Sri Lanka will lead to Islamic terrorism.

I will conclude by pointing to an irony. The US is supposed to be the exemplar of modernity more than any other, the country in which the Enlightenment ideology, which is at the core of modernity, is enshrined in its very Constitution. That ideology is secular and rational, tolerant of religion only in the vague and abstract form of Deism, and is therefore the very opposite of all that is implied by fundamentalism. But paradoxically the US is the country where fundamentalism has thrived most of all. It is known that at the time of the Declaration of Independence only a small elitist minority was devoted to the Enlightenment ideology, whereas ninety per cent and more of the American people were staunchly Calvinist. Since then the American people have produced a whole series of fundamentalist movements. Fred Zimmerman’s classic Hugh Noon is enlightening in this connection. It is not just a Western but a political film that matches the best work of Wajda and Pontecorvo. At the end of the film Gary Cooper throws down the Sheriff’s badge and lights out for the frontier with his wife. Both of them are Quakers, that is to say the practitioners of a fundamentalist form of Christianity. The film exemplifies the myth of the frontier, which has nothing to do with the Enlightenment ideology and everything to do with seeking renewal through religion. A proper reading of that film should enable Americans to reach out towards an understanding of the complexities that there might be behind Islamic fundamentalism.

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