Al-Qa’ida and Muslim hearts and minds

Matthew Parris, writing in the most recent edition of the Spectator (part 1, part 2) in reply to David Selbourne, who claimed that American power is past its prime, that Islam is what has done for it and that the Americans’ big mistake was to “underestimate the guile, energy and willpower of international Islamism” and to fail to stand up to it, opines that history will not see “Islamism” as a “great and enduring force in the world, or the ‘reason’ for the decline of American power”, on account of the sheer incompetence of Muslim governments and organisations worldwide:

Have we not noticed how incompetent are Islamic governments and organisations the world over? Has it not occurred to us that if al-Qa’eda really were as wily and resourceful as we tell ourselves they are, and if their tentacles really did extend as wide and deep as some say, they would be on the advance — not battled into a stalemate by Western security and intelligence? If I were an al-Qa’eda activist I could have blown up Parliament or shot at least one of a range of prime ministers by now. Al-Qa’eda’s failure to infiltrate or penetrate Western structures has been complete. There is a reason for this. Islam, in its more fundamentalist form, doesn’t work. Serious, committed Islamists are most unlikely to succeed within any structures but their own. Their own, meanwhile, are notoriously inefficient and corrupt. Only by lucky coincidence have much of the world’s known petrocarbons been found beneath Islamic nations, giving them what temporary influence they wield. How can any culture which despises modernity, hates mobility, distrusts individual liberty and autonomy, persecutes those who deviate from cultural or ideological norms, imposes a kind of brutal conformity on the way people live, love and work, and at a stroke disempowers 50 per cent of its people (women) from proper education and from all career opportunity so that every boy-child it produces is being brought up by a person who knows little of the world and only a fraction of what the boy must learn — how can such a culture bestride the 21st century, as Selbourne fears Islamism will do?

Parris then suggests that the west stand back and pretty much let Russia and China deal with the problem of fighting “Islamism”:

We are hugely overestimating our supposed enemy. We are overlooking the fractures and potential fractures within it. Even if we were not — even if Islamism really were a great, fearsome and growing beast — cynics would say that we in Europe and America would be best advised to let its most implacable enemies shed their blood and money confronting its advance. In Chechnya, in Southeast Asia, with China, and all across that swath of nations ending in -stan, the struggle between Islam and its rivals is one from which the West can stand aside, leaving both sides to an expensive and wasteful scrap. The Chinese and the Russians are infinitely more savage than we dare be.

In other words, stand back and let the Russians and Chinese slaughter the Muslims, rather than take the job on themselves. He seems to forget that the Russians and Chinese would likely face not a bunch of Osama bin Laden types attempting to Talibanise Beijing or Moscow, but ordinary decent Muslims seeking self-determination to reverse the Russians’ and Chinese’ own previous imperial conquests. (Of course, how long the Russian or Chinese empires can themselves last is something Parris does not consider.)

However, Parris makes the basic mistakes of confusing Muslim culture generally with that which produced the likes of the Taliban and al-Qa’ida and of overlooking the historical context in which al-Qa’ida emerged, and the relationship between them and ordinary Muslims. While some may trace the roots of al-Qa’ida back to Sayyid Qutb, the event which tipped some of the “Arab Afghan” jihadis into the extremism which led to 9/11 were the decision of King Fahd to allow American bases in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War (the cancellation of the elections in Algeria may have had some effect; certainly it fed the extremist culture in London), rather than allowing the “Afghans” to fight the Iraqis “with their faith”. A common theme in the extremist literature of the 1990s was a denunciation of rulers like King Fahd, in which the American troops in the Arabian peninsula was a particular sore point, although all rulers who did not enforce the Shari’a were denounced as kafirs (infidels), along with anyone who opposed attacks on their armies or doubted that such people were infidels (Abdullah Faisal, for example, is on tape denouncing someone as a kafir for this).

It might be asked, then, why ordinary Muslims did not join the jihad. One answer is that it has quickly become obvious that these people are not really concerned with the interests of ordinary Muslims, repeatedly attacking targets which, from the average concerned Muslim’s point of view, is neutral or even friendly. Early on, when his record in Afghanistan was fresh in people’s minds, a lot of Muslims refused to believe that Osama bin Laden was behind the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, for example, and it took a while to convince a lot of people that 9/11 was not some Jewish or CIA plot. The fact is that their attacks have never been aimed at enemies of Muslims, but at perceived enemies of Islam. The bombings in London in July 2005 are a case in point - the Iraq war may have had some role in inspriring the bombers, but they hit a population in which there was massive hostility to the war and to British participation in it, and a city which had seen a massive anti-war demonstration where the mayor was (and still is) known for his anti-war and pro-Muslim stance. There was, simply, no reason to do it other than to sow hostility between Muslims and others, even if the bombers themselves did not see this.

Parris’s observations about the treatment of women under “Islamist” regimes also explains why the mass of Muslims do not support this sort of extremism. Most Muslims, even practising ones and even those sympathetic to the likes of Hizb-ut-Tahreer and the Muslim Brotherhood, do not want to live the way Parris describes, as evidenced by the fact that there is a controversy over the headscarf at all. If Muslim women with “Islamist” tendencies, or who are strict in their religion, really were content to be housewives and to stay in the house all day and not to receive an education, they would not be fighting for their right to attend school or college in religiously-mandated dress. In truth, there was only one recent incident of females being banned from education by “Islamists”; in every other Muslim country, Muslim women do receive education unless they are barred by restrictions imposed by secularists (or by poverty). And most of us do not favour “morality squads” policing the streets with sticks either. Plenty of Muslims are anti-Saudi because of their repressive character, not (just) because of their stance on American troops.

The type of extremism typefied by al-Qa’ida has failed because it has made no attempt to win the hearts and minds of Muslims, even at a time when western interference in three Muslim countries (Afghanistan, Iraq and now Somalia) have caused devastation. Before their presence in Afghanistan became the pretext for the invasion, their antics were instrumental in bringing about the ruin of Chechenia, with the result that the country is now ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov’s murderous gangsters. They bring destruction wherever they go. They are opposed to Muslims living peacefully in the west, or indeed anywhere.

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