Ahmed Rashid Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Rise of Militant Islam: Conversation with Ahmed Rashid, author and journalist: 3/26/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Fundamentalism versus Traditional Islam

In the middle of all of this, help us understand what the Taliban was and how they came to take over what had become an empty shell of a state.

Exactly. Afghanistan had become a failed stated, it was an empty shell. And it was relatively easy for one particular group, who was well organized, well funded, and had certain aims, to try and take over the country, which is, of course, what the Taliban did. But the Taliban popularity in the beginning was based on the fact that they didn't want to seize power. There has been an evolution with the Taliban. book coverYes, they were very conservative and very religious-minded in their personal practices, but they didn't have ambitions to rule the country and to impose their writ on the whole country. And that made them popular in the beginning, because they were seen as bringing an end to the warlordism. What they said was, "We will cleanse the country of the warlords, we will disarm the population, and then we will call our elders, and they will have a meeting, and they will set up a government."

Well, by '96, there was a group in the Taliban which was much more ideological, who [developed] the ambition to rule Afghanistan. Their ambition was to conquer the whole country and rule it. And then, of course, they linked up with bin Laden, and there was a re-ideologizing that took place, and the Taliban got introduced to this global jihad phenomenon, and gave bin Laden all these facilities and bases, and allowed him to virtually take over the running of the country, almost.

So there was an evolution of the Taliban. It was a very particular phenomenon that could have gone in another direction, if certain things had not happened.

One of the tensions that you talk about in Islam is the local versus international, provincial versus cosmopolitan. And you're suggesting in your new book that what you get is a global jihad without a programmatic content, without a vision of what a future Islamic state would look like. Explore that a little with us.

The history of Islamic fundamentalism as an alternative to British imperialism and the whole colonial era was very rich in the 1920s and 30s, and especially in the Middle East, with the creation of an Islamic state. There was a very rich debate about this. These groups in the Middle East, and then in India (British India at that time), explored the idea of how an Islamic state would run -- Islamic economics, the treatment of minority groups, the treatment of women, education -- all these major issues.

Now, during the war in Afghanistan and events elsewhere in the Muslim world, you get a completely new generation coming up who are not rooted at all in the history of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in the twentieth century. Who are not rooted at all in the wars of liberation against colonialism, which the earlier Islamic fundamentalists were rooted in. All you get is a kind of blind hatred against the West, against the Americans. But primarily what drives them is a hatred for their own regimes. Because they don't have this intellectual background, they are not Islamic scholars, they are not historians, they have very little knowledge about what has gone on in the last one hundred years, they have a kind of blind faith that toppling "our" regime -- the Saudi regime, the Pakistani regime, whatever -- toppling "our" regime and bringing in sharia, Islamic law, will automatically resolve all the problems of the country.

[But] the evidence is there already: Iran failed. The Iranian Revolution wanted to do just that, and it failed. The Taliban wanted to do it in Afghanistan, and they failed, too. There's no intellectual interest in what are they going to replace their regimes with? What are they going to offer the people? I think that's why they remain on the extreme terrorist fringe of society. They never develop into mass parties, you know. Their action is militant, is to topple. It's not to build or create.

Let's take three leaders whom you talk about from this Islamic fundamentalist side. I'm talking here about Juma Namangani, Osama bin Laden, and mullah Muhammad Omar. Are there similarities between them? If so, what are they? What are the differences? How do they fit into the picture that we've been talking about?

They fit very seriously into this idea of global jihad, the idea that you can destroy but you don't have to build, and you don't have to offer an alternative to people about society and justice and state-building. All three, for example, are extremely secretive. They are not interviewed. They are not photographed. There is not any kind of intellectual tradition amongst them. They don't have party manifesto. They don't offer people the alternative as to what they hope to achieve once the regimes are toppled. Essentially, it's the secrecy around these movements and the extreme difficulty of getting access to the leadership of these movements that makes them very negative forces even within the Islamic tradition. Because Islam is not about secrecy and evasion and avoiding the interview or avoiding giving lectures. The whole history of Islamic scholarship and Islamic empire-building, right from the Middle Ages, is about debate and discussion. The hallmark of the madrasa culture is debate and discussion, and then arriving at the consensus -- ijtihad. The madrasas are supposed to teach the students all the various interpretations of Islam, and then it is the job of the teacher to build a consensus within the classroom about where do you think now we should kind of be heading, and what should be our interpretation of Islam in this era for these times.

But all that is missing from these three men. And in that sense, they're identical.

In this context, the word "jihad" takes on an entirely different meaning, is that correct?

Yes. Jihad is one tenet of Islam. It's a very important tenet, but it's one of the five major tenets of Islam. What the global jihadists do, or what these three figures do, is to elevate jihad to be the only tenet of Islam, and the most important tenet of Islam. Well, you know, prayer, charity, performing the Hajj -- there are all sorts of other things that Muslims have to do. So the first issue is that.

The second issue is that in the Koran, it says very clearly that there are two sides to jihad. There is certainly a side where Muslims have to defend themselves if they're attacked by unbelievers, which is, if you like, the militant side of Islam. But that is what the prophet Mohammed called the lesser jihad. The greater jihad is the improvement of self and the improvement of community. As in all great religions, Islam has an enormous legacy of how do you become a better human being, how do you become an asset to society, how do you help other people. It's just like the Christian tradition, the Buddhist tradition, the Jewish tradition of religion, that religion is supposed to be about building community and building civil society, and improving yourself in the process while you worship God. The greater jihad is all about that. But, of course, that is totally ignored by these figures.

This perversion of jihad, are there any similarities with the international Communist Party, in terms of the organization format, in terms of its emphasis on secrecy and cells and so on?

Certainly, in the twenties and thirties, the Islamic fundamentalist movement took a lot, not from the ideology, but from the organizational capabilities and abilities of the Communists in Russia, Eastern Europe, and even the Muslim world. If you read all the scholars of, for example, the Hawan movement in Egypt in the twenties and thirties, and Sayyid A'la Maududi, who headed the Jamaat Islami in British India in the forties, they had all read Lenin. They were admirers of Lenin, in the sense that they had all read his very famous tract, What is To Be Done? where, in 1903, I think, he sets out how the Communist system is supposed to be organized in cells, and how it can propagate, and all the rest of it. So there was certainly an influence in that element, yes.

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