Islamic world and South Asia: Rise of Islamism and Terror, Causes and Consequences?

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Cold War, Containment, arms race, low intensity wars, cross border violations have changed the complexion of Islamic world and South Asia. The persistence of Palestinian and Kashmir issue, Afghan war, Khomeni revolution and Iraq-Iran war, contributed
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   1 Islamic world and South Asia: Rise of Islamism and Terror, Causes and Consequences? Saeed Shafqat, Quaid-i-Azam Distinguished Professor of Pakistan Studies Southern Asian Institute, Columbia University  Abstract Cold War, Containment, arms race, low intensity wars, cross border violations have changed the complexion of Islamic world and South Asia. The persistence of Palestinian and Kashmir issue, Afghan war, Khomeni revolution and Iraq-Iran war, contributed towards the resurgence of Islamism. It solidified Islamic sentiment, mobilized the Islamic militants in the Islamic world and insrumentalized Islam as an ideology of political action and holy war. It also led to the mushroom growth of religious institutions from  Afghanistan to Indonesia. Religious schools were not new to Islamic world and South  Asia, they had been there as institutions of learning for centuries but what these wars did was to politicize and weaponize them. More importantly, they gave legitimacy to Islamic militancy and in many weak states in the Rimland (Chechnya, Tajikistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines to name a few) became sanctuaries for potential terrorists .The roots of terror lie not in religious belief but political circumstances, economic conditions and security imperatives of these states. Consequently,    peace, cooperation, economic partnership remains elusive in the Islamic world and South Asia.   2 Introduction  This paper is divided into four parts. The first part provides a definitional context and conceptual framework for explaining and analyzing the Islamic world and South Asia. The two are interconnected at multiple levels; strategic, cultural, economic, political and more important in recent year’s escalation of religious militancy. I will argue that interplay of three variables; Islamic belief, geo-politics and institutional settings help us to understand the linkages between the Islamic world and South Asia. Second part builds linkages on how geo-politics of Cold war and policies of Containment contributed towards resurgence of Islamism in South Asia and the Islamic world. Third part focuses on analyzing the responses of the Islamic world and South Asia towards these policies and resurgence of Islamism. Fourth and last part summarizes the principle arguments and explores some ideas on a strategy for peace and cooperation between the Islamic world and South Asia. Islamic World: From Islamic Belief to Political Islam/Islamism Islamic world is large and amorphous. It includes 57 states and has a population of one and half billion 1 . It has diversity of race, language and culture. Territorially it spreads across the continent of Asia and Africa-from Morocco to Indonesia and Siberia to Zanzibar. Given this diversity and vastness, what is Islamic world? Is it a geo-political entity? Is it an economic block? Is it simply a conglomeration of states whose members (claim that they are a multinational community (Ummah) who are bounded by a common faith-Islam? What is equally important, it is not how the Islamic world or Muslim Ummah perceives, identifies and projects it but how they are perceived, identified and  projected by others. Out of 57 states 22 are Arab, which reflect a common identity and a certain degree of homogeneity based on language and Arab culture. 2  In this broader linguistic and cultural sense Islamic world is divided into Arabi and Ajami (that is those states and Islamic  people, who speak languages other then Arabic). In popular political imagination the Islamic world is defined as a community of believers who are one because of their Islamic faith and belief. It does not take into account nuances and differences of belief and practices (Shiite, Sunni and various other denominations in each). The reality of Islamic world is much more complex, it is multi-layered, multi-lingual and culturally diverse. Among the Muslim intellectuals those who propound the unity of Ummah argue that underneath this complex diversity, there is common thread of unity of belief, which cuts across region, race and ethnicity. Some would like to see this unity of belief transformed into an ideology of political action, but have had little success 3 . What is recognizable that Islamism or Islamic political discourse has gained greater legitimacy in  both the Islamic world and South Asia? The history of Islamic societies clearly indicates 1  . 2  see, The Arab Human Development Report 2002(New York:UNDP,2002)pp1-5 3  For an excellent discussion on various scholarly interpretations in Egypt, Pakistan ,Turkey ,see, Fazalur Rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition(Chicago/London: University of Chicago,1982)pp43-129   3 that religion and politics have remained inseparable in their evolution and development. 4  Today, more than ever, in the Islamic world, the separation between religion and politics is at best murky. The rise of Islamism is far from unified; it has multiple facets and reveals contradictory trends. It ranges from Osma bin Laden’s notorious Jihad, Taliban’s repressive variety of rule in Afghanistan to Algeria’s Islamic Front and Hizab Ollah, Hammas in Lebanon and Palestine, Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt to Ak/Fazilet party in Turkey or apolitical Tableeghi Jammaat in Pakistan and Nahdatul Ulama in Indonesia. What needs to be acknowledged that in each states Islamism has grown because of its  peculiar socio-political circumstances, state policies and adaptations to Cold War. Two kinds of tensions are visible in the Islamic world; first, there is a yearning for evolving some kind of unity among the Muslim states and a coherent response on issues confronting the Ummah. Second, more than an intellectual debate a pervasive and complex struggle to develop a political system that would distinguish a ‘Islamic state’ from the rest. On both fronts, the progress of Islamic world has been far from satisfactory. The greatest intellectual challenge the Muslim societies are confronted with is how to reconcile Islamic values with challenges of modernity and democratic form of governance. 5  Twentieth Century has witnessed revival of Islamic movements in different parts of the Muslim societies, attempting to synthesize theological and political to build a sense of identity revolving around Islam. In the Islamic world the nation-state and national identity is under duress from the twin forces of globalization and Islamism. Those who advocate unity of belief among Islamic societies they under value territoriality based idea of nationhood, thus Ummah are presented as a supra-national concept.  In reality the issue is political and not merely ‘cultural or civilizational’. The battles with in the Islamic world and struggles outside are political and not merely religious, Islamism and Islamic discourse is a dominant reality . Resultantly, Islamic world, today, is both, terror stricken and terror ridden. In the aftermath of 9/11, Bernard Lewis, the renowned historian addressing and analyzing the response of the Islamic world raised the pertinent question -What Went Wrong? 6 Lewis  provided the answer by debunking the religious education and inability of Muslim societies to respond to challenges of modernity. Both merit attention. But perhaps more relevant and meaningful question to ask is why the Islamic world has been so complacent in responding to the events of 9/11? This complacency provided the anti-Islamic interests in the West, particularly in the US to portray Islamic world as hostile to the West, its institutions, values of freedom and tolerance. A number of US policy intellectuals have used Islam and terrorism interchangeably 7 . In the Western perception, particularly US 4  Fazalur Rahman pp50-58 5  For an incisive and wide ranging analysis of Islamic revival movements and their political messages and organizations,see Garham Fuller, “ The Future of Political Islam ” Foreign Affairs,vol.81,no2,March April,2002.pp48-60 6  Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response(NewYork: Oxford University Press,2002) 7  See for example the influential conservative thinker William J. Bennett, who argues that “Islamist Terrorists” may be small in numbers and on the outer fringes but over all ideological movements in the Islamic world are anti-West and conclusively asserts-“there is no question that Islam is at war with the West and specifically with America”.pp77-78.His chapter “A war Against Islam?” provides an interesting   4  perception, terrorism emanates from the Islamic societies. It is explained as emerging from a set of factors: failure of Islam to adopt modernity, oppressive and corrupt regimes, and weak civil society, primitive and anti-west educational system (particularly the Madrassa education) 8 . This has led many observers and commentators in the US to demand/advocate reform of religious education and democratization of political system in the Islamic world 9 . What needs to be appreciated that for many in the Muslim societies this is an unwelcome intrusion. Is religious education system in the Islamic world flawed? Many in the Islamic world recognize that it suffers from serious inadequacies; yet, Madrassa and modern education have existed as parallel currents. What has contributed to the politicization and militancy of the Madrassa in the past few decades? I will argue the answer needs to be searched in forces of globalization and Cold War  policies that contributed towards the politicization of the Madrassa and not merely their curriculums. Geopolitics and the Islamic world Islamic world is a geo-political entity. It is rich in resources, oil, gas, radioactive minerals, agriculture and large population. It is an area of enormous geo-strategic value and significance. The Islamic world is a large component of what political geographer Spykman called the ‘Rimland States’- which are on the outer fringes of Eurasia-Europe, Russia and littoral states of Africa, Indian Ocean and along China. Spykman was a visionary strategic planner and thinker; almost half a century ago he articulated the strategic significance of Rimland for American strategy makers but simultaneously identified the problem of the Rimland states, which resonates for a large part of the Islamic world today . Writing in 1943, he argued; “The Rimland of the Eurasian landmass must be viewed as an intermediate region,  situated as it is between the heartland and the marginal seas. It is functioning as a vast buffer zone of conflict between sea power and land power. Looking in both directions, it must function amphibiously and defend itself on the land and sea. In the past, it has had to fight against the land power of the off shore Islands of Great Britain and Japan. Its amphibious nature lies at the basis of its security problems.” 10   Thus in geo-political context from Mediterranean Sea to Indian Ocean, the Islamic world straddles as a significant territorial land mass- Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and South East Asia For students of modern strategy and warfare, the formation and insight on conservative mind set in America. see, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and War on Terrorism (New York: DoubleDay,2002)pp71-101 also see Daniel Pipes, Militant Islam Reaches America(New York:W.W.Norton,2002) 8  Bernard Lewis, pp130-170. 9  Thomas Friedman, the celebrated Foreign Affairs analyst of The New York Times ,wrote a series of articles after 9/11 which reflect this point of view and are part of his book, Longitudes & Attitudes: Exploring The World After September 11 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux,2002).For his reportage of the Islamic world including India, see pp 52-162. 10  .Nicholas J.Spykman, The Geography of Peace(New York: Harcourt, Brace and co,1944)p.41   5 functioning of the two US global military commands Central Command (CENTCOM) and Pacific Command, further illustrate the pivotal position of the Islamic world.. Reinforcing the Sypkman thesis of who so ever controls the Rimland dominates the world. Thus, in geo-political/ geo-strategic sense one needs to understand the centrality of Rimland states, which happen to be predominantly Islamic and where Islamism with multiple facets is the prevailing political wave. Cold War and Containment Changing political realities change the geo-strategic significance of an area. During the Cold War (1947-89) Rimland was the principal territorial instrument for Containment. In its war against Communism the Islamic world has been generally supportive of the US if not totally aligned with it. With the collapse of Soviet Union, the significance of Rimland has not diminished, it has attained new heights, and a terrorist threat has appeared which seem to have roots in the Islamic world. A number of Rimland states have appeared as the primary source of security threat-Iraq, Iran, North Korea is the ‘axis of evil’ and Pakistan (including Persian Gulf) to the Philippines is infested with ‘terrorists’ of some Islamic connection 11 . So Containment is neither dead nor has become irrelevant, new alliances are in the offing and territoriality of the battlefield remains the  same. What is interesting to note that during the Cold War Era both the US and Soviet Union sought influence and alliances with the Rimland states in the Islamic world, however, today, both are skeptical and wary of the rising “Islamic fundamentalism”. The US is keen to explore ways to reduce dependence on Arab oil, while the Russian goal is to avail this opportunity and increase flow of its oil in the Western market. 12   In the early 1940’s when the Cold War was in its infancy phase, Spykman incisively argued that the Soviet power is located, “ west of Urals. The heartland becomes less important than the Rimland and it is the cooperation of British, Russian and the United States land and Sea power that will control the European Littoral, and thereby the power relations of the world.” 13 . Given the dismemberment of Soviet Union what Spykman forecast about US, British, Russian alliance appears in the realm of possibility? Russia is increasingly looking towards the West and is certainly wary of Muslim dominated states on its borders. This is a major transformation from the Cold War era when Russia was a major supporter of a number of Arab states. Will Russia seek reassertion in Central Asia in return for disengagement from the Arab World? Is Russia redefining its relations with Iran? What is obvious Russia is a closer ally of the US and West than ever before in modern times. In the wake of US-Russia convergence of interests the Rimland states of the Islamic world may find themselves redefining their strategies. North Korea, Syria and Iran in their 11  .Seth Mydans, “  Fears of Islamic Militancy Could Emerge in Cambodia ” The New York Times, December 12, 2002 p.c22.The report provides details of Islamic militants in Cambodia, Thailand and Philippines, how Muslim minority in these states has acquired militancy. According to yet another report the US is dispatching 1,700 troop’s commandos and military advisors to the Philippines to combat “Muslim Extremists”. For details see news report by Eric Schmitt, “U.S Combat Force of 1,700 is headed to The Philippines”. The New York Times, February 21, 2003. 12  see for example a report by Neela Banerjee, “ Oil, Politics and the New Global Fault lines ” The New York Times,September30, 2001 13  Spykman, p44.
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