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Islam’s Religion of Power

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“Religiously motivated to the extreme, Islamists usually rally around charismatic religious leaders for guidance and motivation,” wrote Yossef Bodansky in his 1999 book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. Contrary to common claims that Islam means peace, this House Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare director emphasized the role that political power plays in legitimating Muslim leaders past and present.

Osama bin Laden and his Saudi Arabian homeland exemplified the importance of might along with any Islamic conception of right among Muslims during their longstanding struggles with an ever more dominant Western civilization. After helping win a jihad against Soviet invaders in Afghanistan in 1989, bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996 in order to turn his sights on the other, last remaining infidel superpower, the United States. As Bodansky wrote, bin Laden

settled down in the Taliban’s Afghanistan and established a system of camps and training sites. The aspect of territorial rule in the Imarat system established bin Laden as a leader—an emir—even though he lacks formal religious education.

“Bin Laden’s emergence as an emir amounts to recognition by the Islamist leadership that he is a unique leader and an important mujahid. He was now called Sheikh bin Laden, a title of honor among Muslims,” Bodansky added. In the eyes of bin Laden’s followers, this honor was well deserved. “The fact that no previous terrorist leader of any ideology dared to confront the United States so directly testifies to bin Laden’s resolve and dedication,” Bodansky noted.

Bin Laden’s status was notable, Bodansky observed:

Historically only a few men lacking formal Islamic education have been recognized as leaders, mostly on the basis of their piety, knowledge, and unequaled contribution to the progress of Islamic and Islamist causes through military means—the jihad. One of these men was Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders and liberated Jerusalem.

Jihad’s nature meant that such leaders preferred fanaticism over philosophy, Bodansky explained, for jihad is a

holy war undertaken to further the rule of Islam over contested lands, particularly Muslim lands occupied by non-Muslims (any land ever conquered by Islam is considered its forever) and lands with a significant Muslim population controlled by non-Muslims. These leaders have elected to demonstrate their Islamic credentials with extremist interpretations of Islamic law. The extremists have amputated Muslim civilization from its future and condemned it to an eternal isolation.

Bin Laden fit for Bodansky a recurring pattern in Islamic history whenever Muslim leaders used military power to strengthen Muslim societies in the face of non-Muslim threats and influences:

Having consolidated power by the strength of their swords, the new conquerors-turned-rulers had to prove their uniqueness—their “Islamness.” They revived religious extremism as the source of their legitimacy while accusing their enlightened and sophisticated predecessors of causing the Muslim world’s earlier defeats.

This demand for purity suppressed any liberal, enlightened tendencies Islamic societies might have developed. As Bodansky explained,

incited and excited by the lure of brute force, the community of believers willingly agreed to abandon and deny its own cultural and scientific achievements and commit itself to a process of self-destruction that still unfolds.

Bodansky traced the continuity of this thinking throughout Islamic history:

Aspiring to power, new generations of extremist and militant forces have repeatedly demonstrated their supremacy by ordering the destruction of cultural treasures of previous generations. For example, in 1192 the ulema—the religious leadership—in Cordova, Spain, publicly burned the books of the main scientific-medical library including a rare study of astronomy, because these books were a “horrible calamity” to Islam. And in 1979, following the Islamic revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini issued an order ensuring the Islamization of the higher-education system. Student committees, composed of hard-core Islamist activists, complied by evicting leftist activists, both students and faculty, from the campuses and then supervised the Islamic “correctness” of both the material taught in classes and the research conducted by the surviving faculty. Finally the government closed the universities between 1980 and 1983 to complete a proper Islamic approach, that is, the elimination of all departments and courses the mullahs considered un-Islamic as well as the banishment and at times arrest and execution of all the related faculty.

Writing in 1999, Bodansky saw a similar negative relationship between Muslim brawn and brain. The global Muslim community “is in a transitional period of historical significance. On the one hand, the Muslim world is on the defensive against the penetration of Western values,” he wrote. “On the other, the Muslim world has embarked on a strategic ascent made possible by the acquisition of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other strategic capabilities.”

Bodansky highlighted hereby Iran and Pakistan:

Pakistan and Iran are plagued with acute, seemingly insoluble socioeconomic problems. At the same time because of their strategic developments—the acquisition of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles—Pakistan and Iran are perceived as the leaders of the strategic ascent.

Given Islam’s inherently Arabic, ethnocentric basis, Bodansky saw further incentives towards militancy for these two non-Arabic nations. For Iran and Pakistan, “with the predominance of Arabism in Islam, both countries need a major achievement to demonstrate to the Arab world their right to power and leadership.”

Bodansky’s historical review reveals disturbing themes in Islamic history. Any weakening or reform of Islamic doctrine often results not in mellowing of societies but rather in a pious backlash. Thus, zealous militancy in the name of preserving pure Islam displaces moderation, as a forthcoming article on Pakistan will examine.

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