A lesson in terror

The ideologies behind today’s “isms”

By: Bev Goldman

I remember, as a student of Political Science at Wits many years ago, that part of the curriculum included the study of a number of “isms” – those that had become fashionable ideologies for some, destructive ones for others, intellectual exercises for the rest, but whatever one’s leaning, they had to be understood. And remembered. And employed, to make sense of a world which, at that time, may have felt complicated, but was nothing like today’s.

We learned about communism (remember the communist under every bed?), about fascism, about egalitarianism, about socialism, Marxism, and totalitarianism. In our little corner of the world, at the bottom of the continent of Africa, we were exposed to the dangers they presented, even if sugar-coated. Yes, there were students and activists who were fully immersed in them; there were actions undertaken under their names that caused dissension and created concern; there were dire warnings from government and civil society and religious bodies and defenders of all faiths of the damage they could do; but largely, and for a while, they seemed, certainly to the general public, to be relegated to the back of lecture halls, of railway stations, of hotels, always there, but often in the shadows.

Today, the situation is much different and more frightening. The “isms” that the media exposes – terrorism, Islamism, Jihadism, Salafism, Wahhabism – while not that unfamiliar, breed a different kind of fear, a dread, for countries and citizens internationally, with Israel often in the firing line. They have altered reality and created a world order that begets chaos and promises total annihilation. Yes, if we go back in history we’ll see similar periods of panic and alarm, but certainly not as globally threatening as these.

Extremism in any form and carried out by any groups or individuals is dangerous and destructive. Religious extremism has resulted in countless tragedies and caused untold grief and sorrow to its victims and their families. Unfettered extremism breeds war and violence and changes the face of the world as we know it.

There is a considerable amount of overlap among the “isms” mentioned above, but space does not allow for in-depth analysis, so the descriptions will be generalised rather than specific.

NATO defines terrorism as “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives”; while the definition given by the FBI is “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”. Terrorism maims, threatens, tortures, kills, and destroys lives and countries.

Islamism – as opposed to the religion of Islam – has a very strong and conscious political focus and tends to ascribe to religion a lesser importance, although still paying it lip service. Islamists, in the extreme sense of the word, set out to “conquer” the world, to “advocate for a privileged social and political role for Islamic belief” which they believe should be the overriding political and religious order practised in every country and by all people across the world.

While the majority of Islamists are not violent, those who are employ extremist actions, threaten world stability, and form a large proportion of today’s dangerous terrorists. The most extreme manifestation of Islamism is ISIS or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria which, according to a UN report, “has up to 30 000 members roughly equally distributed between Syria and Iraq, and its global network poses a rising threat — as does al-Qaeda, which is much stronger in places”.

The report added: “With its physical caliphate largely destroyed, the ISIS movement is transforming from a ‘proto-state’ to a covert ‘terrorist’ network, ‘a process that is most advanced in Iraq’ because it still controls pockets in Syria.” Scary indeed.

To the layman, Islamism and Jihadism are two sides of the same coin. But, in practice, their mandates differ, even though the end results of their actions may appear to be similar. Islamism operates within the ‘political processes’ of the nation-state, forming political parties and contesting elections in order to further its aims. Jihadism, on the other hand, rejects anything remotely associated with what it defines as Western imperialism, including national sovereignty and regional or international institutions. Jihadism ideology is inextricably linked with religiously-centred warfare: it calls on every Muslim to carry out its aims and become a jihadi. It has been described by students of Middle East politics as a military movement ‘rooted in Islam’ and ‘existentially threatening’ to the West (the big Satan). In the broad sense, Jihad is a religious duty imposed on Muslims to spread Islam by waging war. The Palestinian Jihad, sadly familiar to us, is an Iranian-inspired Islamic militant group that aims to derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and eliminate Israel from the region.

A seemingly less provocative and less confrontational “ism” than either Islamism or Jihadism is Salafism. Its ideology appears to be a political-religious one, concentrating more on preaching and religious education than exhorting its adherents to engage in warfare. Its involvement in politics tends to be limited to lobbying for specific Sharia-based policies; and according to Wikipedia, “it has become associated with literalist, strict, and puritanical approaches to Islam…and injunctions of the sacred texts”. Well, so says Wikipedia – but oftentimes the reality is very different from the text. Read on.

Wahhabism is fierce and totally uncompromising. While it is also an Islamic doctrine and religious movement, it has, unlike the others, been denounced by many Muslims as a faction or a “vile sect”. Some characterise it as a “Satanic faith”, a “source of global terrorism”, extremely violent, especially to Muslims who disagree with its pronouncements, and extremely destructive. Its adherents emphasise G-d’s “uniqueness” and “unity”, claiming a fundamentalist exclusivity on monotheism and rejecting outright the veneration of saints and their tombs which are considered idolatrous. It has also been called an ultra-conservative brand of Salafism; and is rejected by the majority of Sunni and Shia Muslims worldwide.

Arguably the best-known and possibly most feared of all the terrorist groups, and with an ideology particular to it, Al Qaeda was started in 1988 by Osama Bin Laden. It is described as a network made up of “Islamic extremist, Salafist jihadists (so much for the Wikipedia description of Salafism as focusing on preaching rather than war); it is designated as a terrorist group by many organisations and countries; it is responsible for countless attacks on military bases and civilians and promoting suicide bombings; and it seeks to create a new caliphate ruling over the entire Muslim world. It opposes secular laws in favour of the very strict Sharia Law and, like Wahhabism, it encourages separatist violence against Muslims, regarding many of them, including liberal Muslims, Shias, Sufis, and other groups as apostates and traitors.” Al Qaeda organised and carried out the attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre on 9/11, having prior to that, and on numerous occasions, declared holy war on the USA because of its presence in Islamic lands. Its reprehensible actions have seeped into the consciences of all who fear it.

The legal foundation of most of these “isms” is Sharia Law, the religious law forming part of the Islamic tradition. Like much in the Muslim world, it is interpreted and implemented differently by different sects and this creates ongoing conflict among Muslims. It is an Islamic law derived from and focusing on the moral and ethical teachings of the Koran and of Mohammed, although not a law or a rule in the Western sense, but rather a set of principles on aspects of life, including marriage, divorce, finance, and various rituals. It regulates public and private behaviour as well as private beliefs. It prioritises punishment over rehabilitation and sets corporal and capital punishment above incarceration. It is intrusive, repressive, and narrow; its brutal methods of punishment create fear and panic in those who must succumb to its justice; and it governs all aspects of Muslim life. Contrary to those who view it as archaic and barbaric, there are others who see it as “nurturing humanity … divinely revealed … and freeing humanity to realise its individual potential.” Diverse interpretation, diverse understanding, diverse implementation.

Those who interpret the Koran in one particular way (as opposed to other ways) argue that in the name of G-d and jihad, it is forbidden to kill. They say those who murder in the name of religion are not martyrs going to heaven but murderers going to hell. If that is so, will the ideologies of these groups remain viable? Or, having interpreted the Koran in another way, have these others given themselves permission within its framework to destroy the world?

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