Tue, 06 May 2003

Part 2 of 2 Exploring historical roots of Muslim crisis

Azyumardi Azra, Rector, Syarif Hidayatullah, State Islamic University, (UIN), Jakarta

The crisis of Muslims originated in the disintegration of Muslim political entities. Meanwhile Europe -- and later also the United States -- continued to progress in science and technology, which in turn produced imperialism and colonialism, and made the Muslim world fall to its knees.

The European onslaught of the Muslim Middle East began in 1798 with the campaign of a young French general named Napoleon Bonaparte. Within a remarkably short time, Bonaparte was able to conquer, occupy and rule the great Muslim region.

The fact that a small European force was able to invade one of Islam's heartland profoundly shocked Muslims. Thus began the "soul searching" and "defeatism" among many Muslims and growing resentment towards Europeans.

Finally, as Bernard Lewis points out, in 1918 the Ottoman Sultanate, the last of the great Muslim empires, was defeated by European powers. Its capital Constantinople, was occupied, its sovereign held captive, and much of its territory was partitioned between the victorious British and French empires.

Worse, the Arabic speaking former Ottoman provinces of the Fertile Crescent were divided into three new entities, with new names and frontiers. Two of them, Iraq and Palestine, were under British mandate; the third, Syria, was given to the French. Later the French subdivided their mandate in two, calling one part Lebanon and retaining the name Syria for the rest.

The dismemberment of the Muslim region under the Ottoman Empire continued. The British created a division between the two banks of the Jordans; the eastern segment was called TransJordan, later simply Jordan; while the Western part was kept under the name Palestine.

The only Muslim power that was able to check the European imperialist ambition was lastly the Turks. Led by an Ottoman general named Mustafa Kemal (Kemal Ataturk), the Turks eventually succeeded in liberating their homeland.

Today, Islamists lament the success since he fought not in the name of Islam, but rather in the name of secular nationalism.

The abolishment of this "caliphate" is mourned by the Islamists. Even though most of the Ottoman sultans were repressive and dictatorial, they were widely recognized among Muslims as caliph, the political head of all Sunni Islam.

During its rule of nearly 13 centuries the caliphate underwent many vicissitudes, but it remained a potent symbol of Muslim unity, and even identity. Its abolishment under the double assault of foreign imperialists and their domestic westernizers -- like Kemal Ataturk -- was bitterly felt throughout the Muslim world, including in the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia).

The disappearance of the "Ottoman Caliphate" was only the beginning of the attempts to reestablish it.

Attempts to reestablish the caliphate have now been taken over by a number of Islamist movements, including in Indonesia, the most prominent being the Hizb al-Tahrir ("Party of Liberation") -- as reflected through its pamphlets distributed during rallies across the country to protest the U.S. actions in Iraq.

Such Islamist movements view the establishment of a single and universal caliphate as the only solution to Muslim disunity and predicament vis-a-vis the West.

The impact of European imperialism on Muslim lands was seen as more than a political defeat; in the eyes of many Muslims there were certainly major negative consequences of imperialism and more broadly of European or Western influence.

Notable among the effects of modernization or Westernization were the strengthening of un-Islamic ideologies and state authority by the reinforcement of the apparatus of surveillance, repression and indoctrination.

Also, intermediate powers that traditionally limited the power of autocratic rulers supported by Western powers were weakened or eliminated. Rapid breakdown of old social relationships and obligations, continuously brought harm to Muslim society.

Muslim resentment towards the Western powers grew rapidly with the rise of the U.S. soon after World War II. With the demise of European colonialism, anti-American sentiment grew steadily, particularly among Muslims in the Middle East.

This can be attributed to several causes: Economic exploitation, the support of the corrupt local tyrants who serve America's purposes by oppressing and robbing their own people; and more importantly, American support for Israel, first in its conflict with Palestinian Arabs, then in its conflict with the neighboring Arab states and the larger Muslim world.

With its increased involvement in the Middle East since the 1950s at the expense of the Arab Muslim, in the words of Lewis, America had become the archenemy, the diabolic opponent of all that is good, and especially, for Muslims, of Islam.

The list of Middle Eastern Muslim grievances and resentment toward the U.S. grew even more steadily since the late 1970s with the American support of the despotic ruler of Iran, Shah Reza Pahlevi.

On the eve of his successful Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini complained that the whole Muslim world was caught in America's clutches. He called upon the Muslims of the world to unite against their enemy.

It was about this time that he began to speak of America as the "great Satan"; of which its "servants" and "agents" were Egyptian Anwar Sadat and Iraqi Saddam Hussein. Much later, Osama bin Laden called President George W. Bush the Pharaoh of the present day, supported by his loyal allies among Middle Eastern Muslim rulers.

Therefore Lewis is right when he states that the phenomenon of militant and radical Muslims is not new. Since the beginning of harsh encounters with the West and its increasing impact in the 19th century, there have been religiously based militant opposition movements among Muslims.

Their failure, not only at the hands of the Western powers, but more importantly at the hands of their own repressive regimes supported by the U.S. and its allies, have produced even more bitter resentment, which makes them more easily resort to terrorism for "martyrdom" in the name of "Islam".

All different militant and radical groups justify and sanctify their violence through references to Islamic texts, particularly the Koran and the Prophet tradition (hadith). They claim to represent a more authentic Islam than that currently practiced by most Muslims.

In the end, the problem of radicalism and terrorism among Muslims should be addressed not only by mainstream Muslim leaders, but also by the Western world. Moderate Muslim leaders must not condone any kind of violent act, and make it clear that Islam is against any kind of violence.

The U.S. or the Western world should also address the root causes of the resentment and bitterness among Muslims. Cracking down on violent groups would only lead to a vicious circle of violence and terrorism.

The writer is a professor of history.