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Published in the 1-15 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Extremism and the use of religion in power politics: myth and reality - i

Karamatullah K. Ghori

Extremism is the raging topic of our age. Unfortunately, in the post- 9/11 era, this syndrome of extremism-coupled with fundamentalism of a religious kind and blended with terrorism as an expression of political sentiment-has been entirely and, perhaps, purposely attributed to Muslims and the Islamic Ummah.

As is so well known by now, the power-that-be lost not a moment to lay responsibility for the cataclysmic collapse of the WTC twin towers squarely and arbitrarily at the door of the Muslims and the Islamic Ummah, condemning the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, in all six Continents for the heinous crime. There has been no let up, since, in an incessant propaganda barrage pointing the finger, collectively, at the world Muslims.

Thus, the burden of proving the allegation wrong-wrong in its fundamental premise, and wrong in its relentless tirade-has fallen on the Muslims of the world. 

The terminology of 'Holy War' or 'Crusade' was an invention of Pope Urban, and not of the Muslims who became unwitting victims of his 'holy war. There is no concept of a holy war in Islam. The Quran does not sanction or consecrate a war as being 'holy'. The only war the Quran enjoins upon its followers (the Quranic terminology used for this purpose is Qital, as distinct from Jihad) is in self-defence in response to an imposed aggression.

Why is it, the question may be asked, that Muslims, en masse, have been condemned and put in the dock? The answer, in this case, is that the aggrieved party, ostensibly hurt and bruised, has chosen to be the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the hangman, all rolled into one, and has condemned the Islamic Ummah of extremism and, of its twin sibling, terrorism. So when one hears of extremism and terrorism, one should be absolutely clear in one's mind that what the interlocutor is referring to is extremism and terrorism going hand in hand together. 

Extremism has a context like any other problem. It also has a history. Therefore, this complex and convoluted phenomenon of our age can best be understood in the backdrop of history, going back to at least a thousand years. The perspective of history is also essential to understand why the prosecutor of the Muslim Ummah is so keen that it accept its indictment without demur or critique of any kind and concur in the punishment being meted out for its perceived 'crime.'

Extremism, as social scientists argue, is a product of inequality, of injustice and of a variety of discriminations. When all these ingredients get together they induce frustration. They create an unconventional mode of thinking. They perpetrate an extraordinary and unconventional mindset. 

The founding fathers of United Nations, who conceived it at the end of World War II, realized that frustration was at the core of the global nightmare that had just unleashed on the world untold barbarity, murder and mayhem that characterized the six years of World War II. Therefore the preamble of the Charter of the United Nations categorically stated: 'since wars take place in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be erected'. 

That was the road map originally charted for the UN by the wise men drafting its Charter. They sought to stanch humanity's bleeding wounds through a system of responsible collective security so war as an instrument of settling dispute may become obsolete. Indeed most problems unleashed in the world since the founding of UN would have been settled peacefully and amicably had the intent of its founding fathers been honoured in its spirit. But that did not happen, largely because those who were supposed to be responsible for ensuring the Charter's success failed the test. They could not prove to be up to the task. They betrayed the trust and confidence reposed in their ability to enforce peace by the international community.

The dismal failure of collective security and the rise of the law of the jungle-might is right-as the world's supreme law encouraged the frustrated have-nots of the world to adopt violent means to give expression to their simmering frustration. Political scientists agree as one that when frustration comes to an extreme juncture-in other words reaches its critical mass-it invariably manifests itself with devastating effect and explodes in the form of terrorism. In both expressions, it is a raw emotion of mankind that asserts itself violently. And since it is ingrained in human psychology, it cannot be dissociated from the rationale of 'cause and effect'. As such, for extremism to culture and mutate into terrorism, there has to be a context and a perspective. It does not breed in isolation or thrive in a vacuum.

One hears this argument regularly voiced these days from political scientists and theoreticians that terrorists are, invariably, out to make a political statement. Politicians and leaders responsible for guiding their countries have been putting it differently since 9/11. They claim that fundamentalists and extremists-although it is patently unjustified to bracket fundamentalism with extremism as the two have different meanings and connotations-are not only making political statements but have hijacked religion for political ends. They fear, not without justification, that the exploitation of religious sentiment for political brinkmanship is a lethal weapon in the hands of those determined to make a political statement by violent expression.

It suits political jargon of the west to hold the religious 'fanaticism' of fundamentalist Muslims as the catalyst for terrorism in the name of religion. But history tells a different story, i.e. the use of religion for political ends, and as a means to justify violence and war, is not a Muslim property or invention. This 'necessity' was invented, a thousand years ago, by the Church of Rome in its capacity as the bastion of Christian interests. 

Those with a sense of history would know how and in what circumstances the Christian church first hijacked religion to make a violent and bloody political expression, as early as the 11th century. 

It started with the rout of the Constantinople-based Byzantium imperial power at the Battle of Manzikert, in Anatolia, at the hands of the Seljuk Turks in 1075. By the time the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus ascended the throne in 1081 the empire of Constantine, the founder of Byzantium Empire, had largely shrunk to the environs of Constantinople. The hardy Turks were literally knocking at the gates of Constantinople. So Alexius raised the alarm of the citadel of Christianity being in grave peril under a determined Turkish onslaught.

Alexius found a willing cohort and crusader in Pope Urban II who had been elected Pope in 1088. A native of France, Urban had inherited a passion for extreme religious purity and piety. He was also an ambitious man who saw in the alarm of Alexius an opportunity to rally those distancing from the church under his banner. Urban not only responded to Alexius' cry for support with fervour he also added his own propaganda twist, not too different from the media spin and doctoring we are witnessing today in the slick PR machinations of the Bush administration.

In his ghly inflammatory speech of November, 1095 at Clermont that could easily be described as the birthday of the Crusades, Urban played on the raw religious emotions of his audience. Pandering to crass passion, Urban raised the bogey of the land of the birth of Christ having fallen in the hands of 'savages' and 'barbarians.' He spoke as if Muslims had only recently conquered the Holy Land, thus conveniently glossing over more than four centuries of Muslim rule over Jerusalem and Palestine during which Christians of all denominations had enjoyed complete religious freedom and protection under successive Muslim dynasties. In fact, they enjoyed such favours from the ruling Muslims houses of Jerusalem that were unthinkable for religious minorities in Christian lands. The harassment of Jews in Europe, for instance, stood out in sharp contrast to the benevolence of Muslim rulers of the Holy Land.

But Urban had to conjure up the spectre of an uncivilized horde having desecrated the Holy precincts of Jerusalem. He said: " A race absolutely alien to God has invaded the land of the Christians, has reduced the people with sword, rapine and flame. These men have destroyed the altars polluted by their foul practices."

Fast forward such debased religious pandering to the last decade of the 20th century, exactly 900 years to the day Urban described the Muslims of Palestine, who had been there for 5 centuries as a people 'alien to God'. Osama bin Laden, using similar rhetoric, also demanded of the Americans, sitting pretty on the Saudi soil with thousands of their soldiers, following the Gulf War of 1990-91, to get out of the land he thought they had no right to set their feet on.

Like Pope Urban II, Osama too demanded that the American forces, ostensibly in Saudi Arabia at the 'invitation' of its rulers, pull out of the Holy Land because Allah had consecrated that land for Muslims only and non-Muslims had no mandate to be there. Osama may never have realized that, unconsciously though, he was echoing the raw religious and jingoistic emotion of Pope Urban. Both these characters-who would no doubt occupy conspicuous places in history-were using religion and the name of God as justification to throw out a people, not to their liking, from a land they thought had been consecrated for them by God?

The terminology of 'Holy War' or 'Crusade' was an invention of Pope Urban, and not of the Muslims who became unwitting victims of his 'holy war. There is no concept of a holy war in Islam. The Quran does not sanction or consecrate a war as being 'holy'. The only war the Quran enjoins upon its followers (the Quranic terminology used for this purpose is Qital, as distinct from Jihad) is in self-defence in response to an imposed aggression.

A 'holy war' is, in reality, a contradiction in terms. War is ugly and laced with gore and blood. It cannot be holy because God never sent down to this world any commandment consecrating the spilling of blood only to satisfy one's lust for power, pelf or land.

But Urban sanctified the shedding of Muslim blood when he exhorted that those battling as 'soldiers of Christ' would be purified by the fire of battle and would go to paradise for their act of 'service' to God.

Osama bin Laden and his frenzied followers also mistakenly believe that those responding to his call for Jihad and getting killed in its cause automatically earn a passport to paradise.

George W. Bush also believes that God has commanded him to chase the terrorists to the farthest end of the world. His gut reaction, in the flash of 9/11, was to pronounce his open-ended war on terrorism as 'a crusade.' No wonder he has consistently shown so much disdain and scant regard for the UN and the collective will of the world epitomized by it. Because of his untrammeled religious zeal, Bush has flouted international law and conventions with contempt and invaded and occupied Afghanistan-for which he managed to get a mandate of sorts from the UN-and Iraq-for which he failed to browbeat the UN into submission to his diktat and decided, therefore, to go solo. 

(To be continued)

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