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Islamists impose sharia by stealth

TO borrow a computer term, if Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden represent Islamism 1.0, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the French intellectual, Tariq Ramadan, represent Islamism 2.0. The former are more deadly but the latter will likely do greater long-term damage.

The 1.0 version presents a potentially mortal danger to those unfortunate enough to get in its way. From totalitarian rule to mega-terrorism, Islamism's original tactics present a potential for unlimited brutality. Three thousand dead in one attack? Bin Laden's search for atomic weaponry suggests the murderous toll could be a hundred or even a thousand times larger.

But Islamist violence, a review of the past six decades suggests, proves generally unsuccessful in attaining the goal of a society fully regulated by the sharia (Islamic law), much less does it help establish a global caliphate.

Survivors of mass murder tend not to capitulate to radical Islam. Victims did not raise the white flag after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in Egypt in 1981, the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bali bombings of 2002, the Madrid bombings of 2004, the Amman bombing of 2005, or the latest bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Extrapolating from these and other failures suggests terrorism does damage and causes human suffering but rarely changes the existing order. Imagine the devastation done by Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami of 2004 had been caused by Islamists: what could they have lastingly achieved?

Non-terrorist attempts from the outside to apply the sharia are hardly easier to accomplish. Revolution (meaning, a wide-scale social revolt) took Islamists to power in just one place at one time: Iran in 1978-79. Coup d'etat (a military overthrow) also carried them to power in just one place at one time: Sudan in 1989. Same for civil war: Afghanistan in 1996.

If Islamism 1.0's violence rarely overthrows governments, Islamism 2.0's working through the system serves significantly better. Islamists, adept at winning public opinion, have enjoyed electoral success in various Muslim-majority countries, including Algeria in 1992, Bangladesh in 2001, Turkey in 2002 and Iraq in 2005. In many other countries, such as Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Kuwait, Islamist political parties represent the main opposition force.

(What one might call Islamism 1.5 also works, that being a combination of hard and soft means, of the external and internal approaches. In it, Islamists soften up the enemy with lawful means and then use violence to seize power. The Hamas takeover of Gaza offers one case of such a combination, first winning the elections in 2006, then staging a violent insurrection against Fatah in 2007, and similar processes may be under way in Pakistan.)

At least one leading Islamist thinker with close ties to al-Qa'ida has publicly repudiated terrorism and adopted political means. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (also known by the nom de guerre Dr Fadl) was born in Egypt in 1950 and trained as a medical doctor. He emerged as a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group in the 1980s and came to public attention with the 1988 publication of his book, Al-'Umda fi I'dad al-'Udda (The Essentials of Preparation), in which he argued for perpetual violent jihad against the West.

With time, however, Sharif shifted gears: observing that violent attacks are counterproductive he instead advocated a strategy of infiltrating the state and influencing society.

In a recent book, At-Ta'riya li-Kitab at-Tabri'a (Exposing the Exoneration), he condemned the use of force against Muslims ("Every drop of blood that was shed or is being shed in Afghanistan and Iraq is the responsibility of bin Laden and Zawahiri and their followers") and against non-Muslims (9/11 was immoral and counterproductive, for "what good is it if you destroy one of your enemy's buildings, and he destroys one of your countries? What good is it if you kill one of his people, and he kills a thousand of yours?").

Sharif's evolution from al-Qa'ida theorist to advocate of lawful transformation echoes a broader shift as Islamists notice that while bin Laden, for all his notoriety, cowers in a cave, Erdogan remakes the Republic of Turkey.

In conclusion, fascists never developed a 2.0 version, nor did communists; only Islamists have done so. Because it threatens our values and our civilisation, this evolution represents perhaps an aspect of their movement no less frightening than their brutality.

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

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