In the west, the word ‘peace’ has a certain meaning, but among militant followers of the Prophet, peace can only be attained once the world has surrendered to Allah and his holy warriors. IAN WISHART backgrounds the rise, fall and rise of extreme Islam
There is a saying that those who don’t learn lessons from the mistakes of history are condemned to repeat them: it could also be said that those growing up in New Zealand’s education system are doubly condemned – our education curriculum appears to have left out some crucial elements of world history, notably the Sword of Islam, leaving a generation utterly ignorant of the potential fate awaiting them. With the world dancing on the precipice of war, some key perspectives are finally beginning to penetrate an otherwise liberal western media.
One of those is the just released book, The Shade of Swords by Muslim journalist M J Akbar, who argues that the West is about to be enveloped in a fight to the bitter end with Islamic fundamentalists which, if the West isn’t careful, it will ultimately lose.
Traditionally, liberals and the peace movement have blamed the US and western culture generally for “oppressing” Muslims, forcing the Islamic faithful to take extreme action to defend their cultures and beliefs from “Western imperialism”. The truth, says Akbar, is much less cut and dried.
Islam’s roots are well documented, originating with a supernatural experience in a cave that left a young Muhammad with the firm belief that the archangel Gabriel had summoned him to be God’s messenger on Earth.
But Islam was born in violence. Not only did the angel allegedly try to choke Muhammad to death at one point, so did his tribe, the Quraysh. From its very inception, Islam (according to Akbar, the best translation is “surrender”) has been about a fight to survive. Muhammad called this principle “Jihad”, and drew two distinctions. Ultimately the greater jihad, “Jihad al Akbar”, was the struggle to perfect oneself, the struggle to be a better person in the eyes of Allah. But of more pressing concern, said the Prophet, was the lesser jihad, “Jihad al Asghar” – the struggle to defeat infidels, non-believers and opponents who threatened the new faith.
It is this kind of jihad that the West confronts today. It is a problem the West has faced for 1,400 years. Yet few New Zealanders have any real knowledge of this fact, and even fewer understand the real root causes of the conflict.
It hasn’t crossed the mind of most Westerners that the world has been without a dominant Muslim empire for only the last 80 years out of that past millennium and a half. The pressures finding vent in the Twin Tower attack and the Bali bombing are not caused by “western imperialism” writes Akbar, but by a regrouping of the old Islamic forces of empire – the desire to rule the world is once again burning in Arabic Muslim hearts.
Osama bin Laden is a university-trained Muslim theologian. He studied the history of Islam at Riyadh University in Saudi Arabia. It is that history that inspired him to take up arms against the West. It is that history that Akbar’s bestselling new book covers in gory detail.
modern impressions of islam in the West have been polluted by myth and misunderstanding, but perhaps not in the way you might expect. Perhaps the biggest myth is this one: “Islam is a religion of peace”.
“Both sides should acknowledge candidly,” said Muslim professor Bassam Tibi of Germany’s Göttingen University recently, “that although they might use identical terms these mean different things to each of them.
“The word ‘peace’, for example, implies to a Muslim the extension of the Dar al-Islam – or ‘House of Islam’ – to the entire world. This is completely different from the Enlightenment concept of eternal peace that dominates Western thought.”
Perhaps it is a case of generational collective amnesia. The last Europeans to remember Muslim armies 200,000 strong storming their barricades died in the early 20th century, around the same time that the last Caliph was deposed when the Ottoman empire was crushed at the end of World War I.
WITH THE MUSLIM ‘peril’ beaten for the first time in 1,400 years, the world hardly had time to breathe a sigh of relief before a new threat in the form of Nazi fascism was on the rise, heralding yet another massive war.
From those wars, and the smaller conflicts that followed, a shell-shocked civilian populace in the West begged for peace. When Communism collapsed in the 1980s, it seemed as if the world was finally, after a century of conflict, about to witness calm. But they had forgotten the ambitions of the remains of Empire, Islam’s nascent priesthood who nursed fantasies of their own.
“Perhaps,” writes M J Akbar in The Shade Of Swords, “the West became too complacent, and too certain that Arab regimes that owed their survival to Western patronage had ended their last jihad against Israel in 1973.
“They underestimated the Muslim will to martyrdom. They did not recognise the child who would walk with complete calm under the shade of swords.”
The phrase, and title of the book, is an allusion to a reputed saying of Muhammad recorded in the Hadith – a collection of alleged quotes and anecdotes that together with the Qu’ran form the backbone of Islamic literature:
“Know that Paradise is under the shade of swords.”
It is an invitation to die for God, and thus obtain Paradise. This same message is being drummed into Palestinian schoolchildren today by their teachers, parents, imams and television commentators.
One Palestinian psychologist conducted a survey last year that shows more than 60% of Palestinian children aged between 6 and 11 dream of becoming suicide bombers. He warns that within 10 years an entire generation of pre-programmed killers will be coming of age.
So, is the violence in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Bali and New York typical of Islam or an aberration involving minority extremists? Paradoxically, it is both.
Within only a few years of creating the new faith, the prophet Muhammad found himself and his followers facing sometimes incredible odds on the battlefield. When the Muslims won those battles, they concluded that Allah had willed it so and that it would not matter whether they were 20 strong or 2,000 strong provided Allah was on their side. Muhammad’s Qu’ranic verses contained many passages exalting Muslims to die defending the faith and so attain Paradise, complete with 70 virgins to cater for their every physical desire.
So fixated have some Muslim warriors become on this principle that those left alive are disappointed. “We live, only to die in the service of Allah! That is our destiny and glory.”
When Muslim generals ordered their men into certain death against the incredulous Persians, the latter were quoted as exclaiming “Mad! Mad! Mad! We are not fighting against men but against jinns!” (genies)
Almost from the moment they are born, writes Akbar, Muslims true to the faith are taught not to fear death but to welcome it.
Cannon fodder who simply laugh in the face of bullets, bolstered in the certain belief that Allah himself will greet them on the other side, bringing blessed relief and an end to a miserable earthly existence.
“Every muslim child” writes historian John Glubb in The Great Arab Conquests, “is brought up on the accounts of the Prophet’s life and the Arab conquests, and thus the tradition of personal bravery to the neglect of skill has been perpetuated…Islam is essentially a soldier’s religion.”
Perhaps to drive home the point, Verse 216 of Al Baqarah in the Qu’ran says:
“Fighting is prescribed upon you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth and ye know not.”
Verse 38 of Surah 9 adds:
“O ye who believe! What is the matter with you, that, when ye are asked to go forth in the Cause of Allah, ye cling heavily to the earth? Do ye prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter?”
The Qu’ran teaches that Muslims who refuse to go to war for Allah will burn in hell eternally.
In Surah 3, Verses 169 and 170, the Qu’ran promises:
“Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord; they rejoice in the Bounty provided by Allah: and with regard to those left behind, who have not yet joined them [in their bliss], the [martyrs] glory is in the fact that on them is no fear, nor have they cause to grieve.”
Which is one of the verses that gives sustenance to Palestinian mothers. While New Zealand mothers would do everything possible to dissuade sons from going to war, Muslim mothers are taught to rejoice in it.
While the Qu’ran was dictated from Muhammad’s visions during his lifetime, and initially talks of tolerance towards other religions, the Prophet’s views changed over time.
Surah 3:85 states:
“If anyone desires a religion other than Islam, never will it be accepted of him.”
Surah 9:5, known as “the verse of the sword”, adds:
“Fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them and lie in wait for them in every stratagem.”
As if to put the seal on his attitude towards the other two dominant religions in his area, Christianity and Judaism, Muhammad’s last major instruction just before he died, as recorded by his followers, was:
“Let not two religions be left in the Arabian peninsula.”
His followers took it well beyond Arabia. At the head of conquering armies they seized Jerusalem, North Africa and swept into Spain, slaughtering, taking slaves and raping women before selling them as concubines.
To be fair, the European crusaders did much the same when they pushed back against Islam later in the Middle Ages, but the West appears to have adopted some collective Liberal guilt for the atrocities of the Crusades, without calling Islam to task for its own aggression. Indeed, for the first 400 years nearly all the pushing was being done by Islam.
in ad 634 muslims conquered Christian Syria. It was Jerusalem in 637, then from 653 wave after wave of Muslim attacks against Constantinople, now Istanbul in modern Turkey, which at the time was the seat of empire for the Christian church in eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Briefly, the attacks were mounted in 653, 664, 668, 670, 671, 672, 673, 674, 675, 676, 677, 678, 716, and 717.
In the 717 campaign, a Muslim force of 180,000 Arabs beseiged Constantinople. They lost. It would be another 700 years before Islam’s bloodthirsty troops finally brought down Constantinople, turning 30,000 surviving Christians into slaves and concubines.
In between times, the Catholic church struck back with its Crusades, seizing Jerusalem and slaying every Muslim man, woman and child they found – contemporary reports said rivers of blood flowed as high as chest-deep through some Jerusalem streets.
It was a brutal conflict. Right into the 1800s Muslim armies would foray into Bosnia, Hungary and the like and kidnap Christian children to be sold as sex slaves or converted to Muslims to serve the Emperor. It is these atrocities, and more committed by Muslims during World War II when they formed a special Islamic division of Hitler’s SS, that continue to stoke the fires of conflict in the Balkan states today. Nothing is ever as simple as it appears at first sight.
Eventually though, after the transfer of power and looting, life settled down. Christians and Jews were allowed to live in the Ottoman empire, but as second and third class citizens respectively.
Muslims were to wear white turbans as a symbol of their purity in Allah’s eyes, Christians consigned to blue and Jews yellow.. There were extra taxes imposed on non Muslims as well.
Only two years ago, while they still existed, the Taliban in Afghanistan were aiming to re-introduce the marks of class, with orders that non Muslims would have to wear different coloured armbands.
Islam has never had a desire to co-exist with any other religion without being the dominant partner, and its repeated attempts to forcibly overpower Christianity by conquest have been motivated less by an overt desire for power and more by the admonition to convert the infidels.
Islam, the Qu’ran teaches, supercedes the Christian Bible and Christians are ordered to rescind their faith in Jesus Christ and submit to Allah.
Yet M J Akbar believes the size and influence of Christen-dom has always been a motivating factor in Islam’s decision to wage war against it.
“Such raw passions have eased in a thousand years, but each age offers its own variation on a confrontation that begins with the birth of Islam. This is not a ‘clash of civilisations’ because both Islam and Christianity embrace more than one civilisation and culture,” he writes.
“At the heart of this conflict, often manifest as a political struggle for territory and power, is a basic, even fundamental, theological and ideological difference.
“For Muslims, Muhammad is a man and the last prophet in a sequence that begins with Adam and includes Jesus; for Christians, Jesus is divine and the final redemption of mankind. It is consequently incumbent upon the Church to declare Muham-mad an impostor. To do anything else would be to make Christianity a 611 year old religion and Christ’s mission would not be deemed eternal. The Qu’ran repeatedly tells Christians to return to the monotheism of Abraham, renounce the concept of the Trinity, and accept Muhammad as the Last Messenger. The Qu’ran venerates Jesus; for the Church to return the compliment would be suicide.”
Forget oil, forget Palestine, forget about US troops using Saudi airbases. The bottom-line clash has been, and always will be, about religious truth.
While many in the West no longer profess a belief in Christianity as such, militant Islam ignores the subtleties. It assumes you are Christian if you are born in the West.
Nor will pleading that you are not a Christian save you from militant Islam’s plan: Christians and Jews are “people of the book” to Muslims, brothers who are simply misguided. Atheists, agnostics and followers of Eastern religions occupy an even lower tolerance rung in the eyes of Islamic fundamentalists.
You are what you are born into, in Islam. If you are born a Muslim then the penalty proscribed by the Qu’ran for converting to Christianity is death. Which is one reason why in Muslim countries you rarely see an open conversion. Islam cannot take the competition, and has outlawed Christian churches in many of the more hardline Muslim states.
In Saudi Arabia, two westerners recently spent more than a year in jail for being found in possession of Christian music CDs, a la Amy Grant, in their own apartments.
It has often been this way, between East and West. When Constantinople fell in 1453, Sultan Mehmet “rode on a white horse towards the Cathedral of Hagha Sophia, mother of all churches, built in the sixth century by Justinian. He dismounted in front of the cathedral, picked up a handful of dust, poured it over his turban and proclaimed the shahadah: ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet’. The cathedral in that instant became a mosque,” writes M J Akbar..
While Christianity can and does support religious freedom based on the biblical doctrine of free will, militants argue the Qu’ran says humans have no free will: they must utlimately submit to Islam or die.
This creates another intriguing paradox: while Islam says it can tolerate in principle Christianity at a spiritual level, it cannot tolerate its physical presence. Yet while Christianity can tolerate Islam’s physical presence, it can make no faith connection to Islam’s spiritual side.
This is because if one of the religions is correct the other, by definition, must be a false religion.
Nor do Islamic fundamentalists make a distinction between those in the West who sympathise with them politically – they are, says the Quran, but a means to an end.
But there is an- other twist to the crisis that needs to be understood by the West: Islam itself has been hijacked. Although it has always been strident, a particular strain of Islamic interpretation has become dominant in the Middle East and Central Asia – Wahhabism.
It is the scholar Wahhabi, who died in 1787, who can be directly blamed for the style of Islam now practiced in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Egypt and within Indonesia’s militant groups.
The ultimate goal of Wahhabists is a worldwide Islamic state that governs every country containing Muslims, according to Shariah law. Those who then refuse to bow to Allah and stand in Islam’s way will be killed as the Qu’ran admonishes. The Prophet, according to one Islamic commentator in this magazine, made no distinction between and paid no heed to differing creeds, cultures and customs. They either converted or they paid the price. It actually doesn’t matter whether the Prophet did this or not: hundreds of millions of militant Muslims today believe those claims and have made it a new truth.
It is this battle to take the message of Islam to the world that is now being fought in nightclubs, theatres and office buildings around the world.
The opponents in America’s “War on Terror” do not fear death, they welcome it. They do not recognise the right of other cultures to maintain their beliefs and customs – it is not what the Qu’ran instructs.
And their ambition is the return of the Caliphate, the return of something like the Ottoman empire.
The sun is rising in the East once again, while in the West we have hamburgers, coca-cola and Shirley Maclaine’s New Age workout video.
“It’s not a clash between civilisations,” writes Mark Steyn in the Spectator, “but within them – in the Muslim world, between what’s left of moderate traditional Islam and an extreme strain of that faith; and in the West between those who think this culture is worth defending and those who’d rather sleepwalk to national suicide while mumbling bromides about whether Western hedonism is to blame for ‘lack of services for locals’ in Bali.
“To read Robert Fisk is like watching a panto cast on drugs: No matter how often the baddies say, ‘I’m behind you!’, Robert replies, ‘Oh, no, you’re not!’.”
Steyn accuses Western peaceniks of going on a “sleepwalk to national suicide” by ignoring the real issue of “Islamofacism”, and notes:
“Only when the entire world is a Dar al-Islam will it be a Dar a-Salaam, or ‘House of Peace’. The objective is not a self-governing Palestine but the death of the West.”
But although Steyn also talks of traditional moderate Islam, such a concept is hard to define. Mid-East Islam has always been fundamentalist in nature; its relative silence during the past century is more due to licking the wounds from World War I than developing any significant new interpretation of the Qu’ran.
And while it’s true that Asia’s Muslim countries, like Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have developed a strand of Islam that borrows culturally from Buddhism, leaders in Asia are noting a big rise in Arab-style fundamentalism among previously moderate Asians.
Steyn’s “Islamofascists” are just as much targeting moderate Muslim regimes, like Indonesia, as they are America, because there is – they say – no Qu’ranic authority for moderates. Islam is all or nothing.
So what, if any, are the answers?
The first and most urgent choice belongs to Muslim communities in the West: do they wish to see Shariah law forcibly established in Western countries and a system of Government that is inextricably intertwined with Islam?
In the West, by and large, governments are democratic, popularly elected – albeit manipulated by multinationals – but nonetheless the societies have legal systems that allow freedom of speech, freedom of movement and freedom to worship whatever faith you belong to.
Under the proposed Islamic regime favoured by Hizb ut Tahrir, Al Qa’ida, Jemaah Islamiyah and others, democracy and those freedoms go.
Muslims in the West must decide whether they will stand with the West against the move by one religion to become a world government, or whether they wish to join that move. If the decision is the latter, then those Muslims would, under New Zealand law, be exposing themselves to treason charges if they were in any way to assist an outside power or group in an attempt to overthrow our current system of governance.
Having addressed that choice, the focus then returns to whether any viable solution exists to the underlying problem?
Islamic fundamentalists correctly point out that when the Ottoman empire was carved up by the victorious West at the end of World War I, the component Arab nations were placed under the rule of Western puppets, families and leaders effectively in the pay of Western interests whose role was to build the nations as secular states, not rebuild the Ottoman Caliphate.
Arabia, for example, was renamed Saudi Arabia by the ruling family that the West installed, the Sauds – the first time that the origin of the Islamic empire had ever been renamed after one particular family.
Those ruling families in Arabia and elsewhere continued to foster business relationships with the West, in return for which they have repressed the would-be Islamic empire builders, executing them or throwing them in jail as insurgents over the years.
But such repression can only last so long: Islam’s genie wants back out of the bottle. The question for the West, then, is a moral dilemma: we are faced with a particular group of people who are currently oppressed and are not free in a Western understanding of the word. This group attempts to engender sympathy from the liberal West on the basis of that oppression.
Yet (and here’s the rub), were the West to assist in freeing this group from its oppression, that same group would then move heaven and earth to break down the West’s freedom. As Hizb ut Tahrir says, “Islamic conquest is mercy, Western colonisation is punishment.” In other words, if Muslims conquer the West, that is good, if the West retaliates, that’s oppression.
The truth is, Islamic militants are evil. Contrary to popular Western opinion, George Bush and Vladimir Putin may well be right: the movement is the biggest threat to world peace in existence.
The closest analogy to the world’s current plight is a variation on the story of the Three Little Pigs. Imagine an ending like this: the Big Bad Wolf is outside Political Liberal Pig’s brick house (he inherited it from his brother Practical) trying to blow it down when a snowstorm strikes, leaving an exhausted wolf huddled and shivering in the icy cold, close to death. Taking pity on the weakened wolf, Political Liberal Pig throws open the door and invites Big Bad Wolf in by the fire where it’s nice and warm…