THE WISDOM FUND: News & Views
March 13, 2005
Global Agenda

America Created Violent Political Islam

by Mahmood Mamdani

I was in New York City on 9/11. In the weeks that followed, newspapers reported that the Koran had become one of the biggest-selling books in American bookshops. Astonishingly, Americans seemed to think that reading the Koran might give them a clue to the motivation of those who carried out the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center. Recently, I have wondered whether the people of Falluja have taken to reading the Bible to understand the motivation for American bombings. I doubt it. . . .

The post-9/11 public debate in the US has been inspired by two Ivy League intellectuals - Samuel Huntington at Harvard and Bernard Lewis at Princeton. . . .

The aftermath of the Iraq War has turned into a crisis for theory. It is increasingly clear that the designation of some Muslims as good and others as bad has little to do with their orientation to Islam, and everything to do with their orientation to America. Simply put, good Muslim is a label for those who are deemed pro-American and bad Muslims are those reckoned anti-American. . . .

Political Islam

Contemporary, modern political Islam developed as a response to colonialism. Colonialism posed a double challenge, that of foreign domination and of the need for internal reform to address weaknesses exposed by external aggression.

Early political Islam grappled with such questions in an attempt to modernize and reform Islamic societies. Then came Pakistani thinker Abu ala Mawdudi, who placed political violence at the centre of political action, and Egyptian thinker Sayyed Qutb, who argued that it was necessary to distinguish between friends and enemies, for with friends you use reason and persuasion, but with enemies you use force. . . .

The late Cold War

That said, we are confronted with a singular question: How did Islamist terror, a theoretical tendency that preoccupied a few intellectuals and was of marginal political significance in the 1970s, become part of the political mainstream in only a few decades? To answer it, we need to move away from the internal debates of political Islam to its relations with official America, and back from 9/11 to the period that followed America's defeat in Vietnam, the period I call the late Cold War. . . .

The defining feature of the new phase of the Cold War was the strong anti-war movement within America opposed to direct military intervention overseas. Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state, designed a strategy in response to the changed context: if America could not intervene overseas directly, it would intervene through others. Thus began the era of proxy war, one that was to mark the period from Vietnam to Iraq. . . .

The administration of Ronald Reagan raised proxy war from a pragmatic response to a grand strategy, called the Reagan Doctrine. . . .

The Reagan Doctrine also turned on a second initiative, . . . Reagan called on America to defeat "the evil empire".

Evil is a theological notion. As such, it has neither a history nor motivation. The political use of evil is two-fold. First, one cannot coexist with evil, nor can one convert it. Evil must be eliminated. The war against evil is a permanent war, one without a truce. Second, the Manichean battle against evil justifies any alliance. The first such alliance, dubbed "constructive engagement", was between official America and apartheid South Africa. . . .

Rollback on a global scale: Afghanistan

The Afghan war was the prime example of "rollback". In the history of terror during the last phase of the Cold War, the Afghan war was important for two reasons. First, the Reagan administration ideologized the war as a religious war against the evil empire, . . .

Second, the Reagan administration privatized war in the course of recruiting, training and organizing a global network of Islamic fighters against the Soviet Union. . . .

The narrow theology recast Islam around a single institution, the jihad; it redefined the jihad as exclusively military and claimed the military jihad to be an offensive war entered into by individual born-again devotees as opposed to defence by an Islamic community under threat. . . .

Before the Afghan jihad, right-wing political Islam was an ideological tendency with little organization and muscle on the ground. The Afghan jihad gave it numbers, organization, skills, reach, confidence and a coherent objective. America created an infrastructure of terror but heralded it as an infrastructure of liberation.

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[Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government, Department of Anthropology and School of International Affairs, Columbia University, New York]

Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway, "From U.S., the ABC's of Jihad: Violent Soviet-Era Textbooks Complicate Afghan Education Efforts," Washington Post, March 23, 2002

Jonathan Power, "War of Civilizations?," International Herald Tribune, October 29, 2004

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