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Osama's Godfathers By: Salim Mansur
National Post | Saturday, August 20, 2005


Nine days after the London bombings of July 7, Tony Blair gave a clear-headed speech about the threat to the West. "What we are confronting here is an evil ideology," he said. "This ideology and the violence that is inherent in it did not start a few years ago in response to a particular policy. Over the past 12 years, al-Qaeda and its associates have attacked 26 countries, killed thousands of people, many of them Muslims. Their cause is not founded on an injustice. It is founded on a belief, one whose fanaticism is such it can't be moderated. It can't be remedied. It has to be stood up to."

What Blair did not say, however, is that al-Qaeda's ideology is deeply entrenched in the Muslim tradition and reaches far back, into the earliest years of Islam.

Al-Qaeda's terrorists are a throwback to those Muslims in the first decades of Islam who believed their faith was the purest, while doubting the belief of others around them, and approved of violence as the right way to advance their views of faith and power. They are known as khwarij (meaning those who secede) or Kharijites.

Muslims in general, fundamentalists in particular, hearken back to the founding years of Islam as the perfect age when the Prophet Muhammad and his companions instituted the divine plan on Earth. In this view, what followed was a regression from belief to unbelief. This picture of Islam's early years is a myth that deprives most Muslims of a critical and rational perspective on history.

The reality, as documented by the earliest Arab-Muslim commentators on Islam's founding decades -- from Ibn Ishaq (d. 761) to Al-Tabari (d. 923) -- was one of internecine strife, bloodshed and war. Immediately after the Prophet died in 632, wars were fought to compel Arabs of contemporary Saudi Arabia and Yemen to re-submit to Islam as the only permissible religion of the new empire. Three of the Prophet's first four successors as rulers of the expanding realm of Islam -- Umar, Uthman and Ali -- were murdered as a result of grievances and factional strife. The Prophet's immediate family were the most conspicuous massacre victims in these seventh-century conflicts. The wars of succession left permanent schisms within Islam.

Ever since those early blood-lettings, Muslims have been the primary victims of Muslim violence.

The Kharijites held the view that since a perfect religious and political order had been instituted, anything outside it was impure and corrupting. Any diminution of this pure system of worship and rule, and any compromise with the outside world, reflected a weakening of faith, a commission of sin and a departure into apostasy that had to be fought and annihilated. Consequently, any Muslim who differed from the impossibly rigid Kharijite view of faith and politics was to be hunted down.

Politically and militarily, Kharijites were systematically eliminated by Muslim rulers within their domain in the first century of Islam. But Kharijite ideas persisted, breeding an exclusive, militant and sectarian body of followers outside the mainstream of Muslim belief and practice. The Kharijite view would re-surface through the influence of Ibn Hanbal (780-855), a founder of one of the four legal schools in Sunni Islam, and in the work of Ibn Taimiyya (1263-1328), who in turn was influential in shaping the view of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-87), the founder of the Wahhabi sect that is the dominant school of Islamic thinking in Saudi Arabia.

The Wahhabis are the contemporary version of the Kharijites, and their extreme sectarian views, funded by the oil wealth of Saudi Arabia, have permeated much of the Muslim world. Their atavistic thinking was given a modern facade by Syed Qutb (1906-66), an Egyptian thinker revered by Muslim fundamentalists for formulating Islamism as an ideology of power and jihad. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the populist Egyptian dictator, hanged Qutb for his politics, which were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (the antecedent group of al-Qaeda and Hamas) in Egypt and the wider Arab world. Later, Qutb's followers were responsible for the killing of Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, in October, 1981. Osama bin Laden is only the most recent face of the Wahhabi bigotry that has origins going back to the foundational years of Islam.

The arguments in the West that organized Muslim terrorism associated with al-Qaeda and its global network can be ended through concessions are ignorant and naive. Muslim violence is independent of anything Western democracies might do to accommodate grievances that are mostly rooted in their own dismal failures to meet the modern world's political and economic challenges.

In the pre-modern world, Muslim rulers from the Ummayad dynasty in Damascus, the Abbasid synasty in Baghdad to the Ottoman sultans in Istanbul contained and destroyed Kharijites and their ideological progeny. They knew there could be no toleration of these killers who used religion as an ideological shield.

We should do the same: The modern-day Kharijites need to be eliminated by force, like their predecessors. Eventually, Muslims themselves must confront the mentality that proselytizes for violence in the name of Islam. It is a disease that mutates over time into a variant of fascism. Only through long-term commitment to reform can this disease be cured.


Salim Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario.


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