Home » Middle East / Islam » Concerning Middle Eastern ‘Backwardness,’ Part 3: Political Islam

Concerning Middle Eastern ‘Backwardness,’ Part 3: Political Islam

No one is born a radical. One is driven to radicalism, cornered by conditions which are so extreme that they can only lead to extremism. So it has gone in the Middle East. The western world, and in particular the Americans and the British, have instituted policies in this ‘troubled’ region which have led to the emergence of radical, political Islam in two ways.

The first was as a backlash against European colonialism, and later American imperialism (defined by Gamal Nasser as: “the subjugation of small nations to the interests of the bigger ones”). The emergence of political Islam in the Middle East is a relatively recent phenomenon, and must be seen as a backlash not against Christianity, or even against western values (except when they are forcefully imposed), but against western colonialism. Islam is used as a tool to mobilize citizens of oppressed societies against external dominance. As scholar Nikki Keddie writes,

we must accept the probability that many young educated Muslims do not so much reject the West because they are Muslims but, rather, become Islamists largely because they are hostile to Western dominance. Islamists often come from the same groups and families and are sometimes the same individuals, who once were nationalists or even socialists or communists. Disillusionment with secular solutions has as much to do with practical political experience as it does with religiosity.

Political Islam is merely one form of a larger reaction against colonialism and other forms of imperialism. Khomeini’s revolution in Iran was quite popular even among non-Muslims, leftists, and various secularists in the developing world because it was seen as being anti-imperialistic.

The point is that politics is the causal factor, not religion. Religion is the form of resistance, not the driving force. The problem is not with incompatible cultural or religious values, but real political grievances, which are often expressed in violent ways. Political Islam cannot be understood simply within the confines of Islam itself, but within the wider context of the encounters between various western and Islamic societies. The current (and minority) radical elements of Islam are not part of some sort of ‘natural evolution’ of Islam itself, but are a result of these encounters.

As Keddie points out, “from the late nineteenth century until after World War II, the main intellectual trend in the Muslim world was Islamic reformism, not militancy,” and “periodic backlashes against westernized modernism tended to come in response to Western aggressiveness, as in the dismemberment between 1878 and 1882 of the Ottoman Empire and the occupation of Egypt and Tunisia by Britain and France.”

The French invasion of Algeria in 1830 led to the first jihad movement in the Middle East. Similarly, when Russia began its conquest of the Caucasus in the early nineteenth century, it led to the first jihad movement against them. The early internal jihadist movements in Sumatra and West Africa were in part reactions to the European slave trade. Dipanegara’s jihad against Dutch colonial rule in Java in the mid-nineteenth century, the Mahdist revolt in Sudan in the late nineteenth century, and the Senussi revolt in Libya in the early twentieth century, are further examples.

All of the fathers of modern political Islam were ultimately motivated by anti-imperialism. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Iranian founder of the Salafiyya movement, was a nationalist reformist, and was staunchly opposed to British colonialism. Al-Afghani’s “ideas were forged in the struggle against imperialism,” and he was “less interested in theology than he was in organizing a Muslim response to Western pressure.” He promoted pan-Islamism as a way to unite various subjugated Muslim societies to rebel against their colonial overlords.

Afghani’s student was the influential Egyptian Islamist Muhammad Abduh, who advocated a return to core Muslim values, which he saw as wholly compatible with, and conducive to modern science and reason. He believed in the right of a people to determine its own destiny, free of outside influences, and participated in the Urabi Revolt against European political influence in Egypt. Abduh’s Syrian student Muhammad Rashid Rida worked with him on the journal al-Manar (The Lighthouse), which championed political Islam as a bulwark against European colonialism.

Hasan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, was “obsessed with colonialism as a multidimensional Western ideological and hegemonic presence that has affected all dimensions of Muslim life and thought.” Sayyid Qutb, one of the leaders of the Brotherhood and personal inspiration for Osama bin Laden wrote that “the spirit of Islam is firmly opposed to the spread of imperialism,” and believed that “Muslims must be persistent in liberating themselves from the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual clutches and residues of colonialism.”

The second way in which western policies have resulted in various radicalization movements within Islam has been much more explicit and wholly intentional. Radical, violent Islamist groups have been wielded by western powers, in particular the United States, as a weapon against both Communism and nationalism. As one of the foremost experts on the modern history of the Middle East, Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi writes,

It may seem hard to believe today, given the current demonization of radical, militant political Islam in American public discourse, but for decades the United States was in fact a major patron, indeed in some respects the major patron, of earlier incarnations of just these extreme [radical Islamic] trends, for reasons that had everything to do with the perceived need to use any and all means to wage the Cold War.

Western Support for the Muslim Brotherhood

Said Ramadan, Islamist ideologue, key member of the Muslim Brotherhood before they renounced violence, and “the ideological grandfather of Osama bin Laden” was supported by the U.S. and was likely working for the CIA. The U.S. backed the Muslim Brotherhood from the 1950s onward, supporting Ramadan as he took over a mosque in Munich, which became the beacon of political Islam in the West. Ramadan and the Brotherhood “might never have been able to plant the seeds that sprouted into al Qaeda had they not been treated as U.S. allies during the Cold War and had they not received both overt and covert support from Washington.”

The Brotherhood itself had been established with a grant from England’s Suez Canal Company, and Britain often used the organization “as a cudgel against Egypt’s communists and nationalists,” “especially its underground, paramilitary arm and its assassins.” The Brotherhood, which followed the slogan “the Qur’an is our constitution,” quickly gained strength, recruiting several hundred thousand members in Egypt alone, and expanded its branches into Jerusalem, Damascus, and Amman. Hamas was initially spawned as a branch of the Brotherhood, and the Devotees of Islam was a Brotherhood affiliate which the ayatollahs of Iran grew out of. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and later merged with al Qaeda, formed from the Brotherhood in the 1970s.

Eisenhower Said Ramadan

President Eisenhower with Said Ramadan, second from the right, invited as an all-expenses-paid guest by the U.S. government to attend a colloquium on Islamic culture.

The Afghan Jihad

The most well-known form that this western support for radical Islam took was in the now well-documented CIA support for the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Contrary to popular belief and original claims that the CIA supported the Mujahideen in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the reverse was actually true – the U.S. supported the Mujahideen in order to provoke the Soviets into invading, knowing full-well that a Soviet invasion would result in countless Afghan and Soviet deaths, and hoping that Afghanistan would become the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.

American support for the Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan actually started as far back as the 1950s, and their financial support for the Islamic right’s political movement started in 1973. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Asia Foundation, which was at this time a CIA front organization, established links with, and supported various right-wing Islamist figures and organizations, and supported Islamic theology university departments against pro-Soviet student organizations.

The Soviets did not invade until December of 1979, but already in March of that year, the CIA completed its first formal proposal for direct aid to the Mujahideen, and in July, Carter signed the resolution formalizing it. In a 1998 interview with Nouvel Observateur, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski claimed that his intention all along with funding the Mujahideen had been to “induce a Soviet military intervention” in Afghanistan. Brzezinski went on to question “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?” He then dismissed the threat of Islamic fundamentalism as “nonsense.” President Carter hypocritically referred to the American-provoked invasion as “the most serious threat to peace since the Second World War.”

In 1977, Brzezinski, who wanted “to use the Islamic right as a sword against the USSR,” formed the Nationalities Working Group (NWG), dedicated to the idea of weakening the Soviet Union by inflaming its ethnic tensions, particularly with its Muslim population. Richard Pipes, who took over leadership of the NWG in 1981, predicted that with the right encouragement Soviet Muslims would “explode into genocidal fury” against Moscow. 

The CIA and MI6, with $3 billion from the U.S. government and another $3 billion from Saudi Arabia (though some accounts claim a combined total of $40 billion), trained approximately 100,000 Mujahideen from forty-three countries through Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI), in camps later to be used by the Taliban. This was called Operation Cyclone. The CIA shipped sixty Green Berets into Afghanistan to train the Mujahideen how to use stinger missiles (600 of which were “missing” in the mid 1990s), which proved decisive against the Soviets, as well as asymmetric warfare tactics such as assassination, sabotage, and car-bombs. Allegedly even Osama bin Laden himself was personally armed by the U.S. with .50 caliber high-powered sniper rifles, according to court testimony and an American gun manufacturer. The CIA, ignoring the moderate Islamic and secular Afghan forces, chose to work with only the most radical hard-liners.

 Reagan meets Afghan Mujahideen

President Reagan with members of the Afghan Mujahideen. He called them “the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers.”

Among those partnered with was the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who approved the practices of throwing acid in the faces of women who didn’t cover up and skinning prisoners alive, and who later allied with the Taliban. Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger unapologetically admitted in an interview that “we knew we were involved with Islamic fundamentalists. We knew they were not very nice people, and they were not all people attached to democracy.”

As veteran investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss reports, Green Berets and Navy SEALS also trained Mujahideen on American soil, on the east coast, teaching them how to use “sophisticated fuses, timers and explosives, automatic weapons with armor-piercing ammunition, remote-control devices for triggering mines and bombs (later used in the volunteers’ home countries and against the Israelis) [and] strategic sabotage, demolition, and arson.”

Some recruitment for the Mujahideen took place within the U.S. as well, with passports supplied by the CIA. The al-Kifah Refugee Center in New York City “doubled as a recruiting post for the CIA seeking to steer fresh troops to the Mujahideen,” and often featured “CIA-sponsored speakers” in “inspirational jihad lecture series.” According to the U.S. government, al Qaeda’s “connection to the United States evolved from the Alkifah [sic] Center.” Abdullah Azzam, a radical Palestinian Jihadist who was Osama bin Laden’s professor and would go on to found the Services Bureau, the predecessor to al Qaeda, was one of the key American officials in charge of recruitment, and did so in fifty cities in the U.S. According to Colombia professor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Barnett Rubin, Azzam was actually working for the CIA.

The U.S. also spent millions of dollars to supply Afghan children with textbooks with “militant Islamist teachings,” promoting jihad in order to encourage resistance to the Soviet presence in the country. These same books were later used by the Taliban in schools across Afghanistan.

Before the war and the rise of radical Islam in Afghanistan, it was a place where

women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was a tradition of law and order[…] Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead.

1950s Afghanistan - Biology class, Kabul University

Biology class in Kabul University in the 1950s or 1960s.

The war resulted in between 1 and 1.5 million Afghan deaths, and between fifteen and forty thousand Soviet deaths. Following the Soviet withdrawal, almost a quarter of the population were living in refugee camps. Before the war, heroin was not produced in Afghanistan or Pakistan. During the jihad, “the CIA turned the drug trade into a way of financing the Cold War,” and allegedly even tried to hatch a plan to hook Soviet troops on narcotics. By the end of the conflict, 75% of the world’s heroin was produced in the region. As Robert Dreyfuss summarizes, the war “devastated Afghanistan itself, led to the collapse of its government, and gave rise to a landscape dominated by warlords, both Islamists and otherwise.”

From a Machiavellian realpolitik perspective, supporting a morally questionable group can be seen as justifiable and strategically sound if it supports national security by eliminating or reducing a major threat, such as the Soviet Union (though it was later shown that the CIA had been intentionally exaggerating Soviet military capabilities and aggression). However, the blowback created from funding, arming, training, and helping to create a group of militants who would form, in the words of Robert Dreyfuss, the “raw material for Osama bin Laden and the fledgling al Qaeda organization that grew out of the jihad,” actually greatly decreased American national security in the long-term.

As Walter Cutler, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, recalls, “nobody was looking ahead at what would happen to these unemployed freedom fighters[…] I don’t recall any discussion about, ‘Gee, I wonder if these guys are going to pose any threat?” Richard Murphy, assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian relations during the Reagan administration, also observes that “we did spawn a monster in Afghanistan. Once the Soviets were gone [the people trained and/or funded by the U.S.] were looking around for other targets, and Osama bin Laden has settled on the United States as the source of all evil. Irony? Irony is all over the place.” Cheryl Bernard, an expert on political Islam at the RAND Corporation, says the U.S. knowingly used “the worst crazies” against the Soviets in Afghanistan. “We knew exactly who these people were, and what their organizations were like, and we didn’t care. Then, we allowed them to get rid of, just kill all the moderate leaders. The reasons we don’t have moderate leaders in Afghanistan today is because we let the nuts kill them all. They killed the leftists, the moderates, the middle-of-the-roaders.”

Not only were the ranks of al Qaeda formed from the Mujahideen, but many other terrorist groups as well. The core of the future Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf, which would later become the most violent Islamist group in East Asia, are among the recruits trained by the CIA and ISI, as are members of Laskar Jihad in Indonesia and Islamic extremists in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Chechnya, and Uzbekistan.

According to Ahmed Rashid, a leading author and expert on Afghan affairs, “The United States encouraged Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to support the Taliban, certainly right up to their advance on Kabul” on September 26, 1996, in order to establish stability which was needed for a 4.5 billion dollar oil and gas pipeline that a consortium led by the U.S.-based Unocal Corporation wanted to build. Afghanistan itself has no known oil or gas reserves, but is an ideal route for pipelines from the former Soviet republics in the region, which hold an estimated four trillion dollars worth of oil and gas, to India, Pakistan, and the Arabian Sea.

Senator Hank Brown, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Near East and South Asia at the time, welcomed the Taliban, saying “the good part of what has happened is that one of the factions at last seems capable of developing a new government in Afghanistan.” Another U.S. diplomat said in 1997, that “the Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco [the consortium of oil companies that controlled Saudi oil], pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.” The president of Unocal also said that “if the Taliban leads to stability and international recognition then it’s positive.”

Pakistan’s ISI, at the behest of the CIA, also trained and dispatched “hundreds of Mujahideen up to 25 kilometres deep inside the Soviet Union” in the 1980s which “aided the growth of a significant network of right-wing Islamist extremists who, to this day, still plague the governments of the former Soviet republics,” such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Liberation Party, Islamists in the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, and al Qaeda cells in Central Asia. The CIA also printed thousands of Qur’ans and covertly moved them until Soviet Muslim republics, in order to foment religious tension.

Israeli Support for Hamas

A less well-known and almost unbelievable instance of outside support for a violent Islamist group is how Israel has covertly supported Hamas. For a while, Israel sought to help Hamas in order to provide a check on the power of the Palestine Liberation Organization, as well as to discredit the Palestinian cause internationally, by associating it with radical Islam.

One specific example of this is how in 1983 Ahmed Yasin, the founder of Hamas, was arrested when Israeli forces discovered hidden weapons caches, but was released after having served only one year of his thirteen year sentence when he said that the weapons were only to be used against the PLO, and not Israel. Another example is how allegedly Israeli forces purposefully enabled Islamic militants to attack secular PLO forces at Birzeit University in the West Bank during clashes between rival student factions in the early 1980s.

Journalist Ray Hanania points out that Israel’s right-wing party Likud and Hamas “have benefited from each other’s extremism over the years.” Hamas would carry out an atrocity, and Sharon would hold the PLO responsible, retaliating against them. Hamas and Likud have both been opposed to peace talks, and from 1993 onwards, they would “reinforce each other’s opposition to peace talks, often taking advantage of high-profile provocations from one side or the other.”

In September 2000, Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount Islamic holy site, an act which was “calculated to provoke the Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalists.” The result was the second intifada from 2000 to 2005, and the overwhelming electoral victory of the hard-line Sharon as prime minister, thus dooming the peace process. The crackdowns of the Sharon government radicalized the Palestinians and increased support for Hamas. By 2001, 27% of Palestinians supported Hamas (up from 15% in 1996), and by 2002, 42% supported the Hamas idea of an Islamic state. In 2006, Hamas was elected as the governing party of the Palestinian National Authority.

Israel Hamas Peace

© Tab, 2006

Israel has thus far been too careful to allow the release of any sort of ‘smoking gun’ document to confirm that they did indeed directly support Hamas, but there is ample evidence from credible sources corroborating such claims.

The sources include former high-ranking Israeli officials. Brigadier General Yitzhak Segev, former Israeli military governor of Gaza Strip, is quoted in a 1981 New York Times article saying that Israel supports radical Islam, claiming that “The Israeli Government gave me a budget and the military government gives it to the mosques.” The money was used to fund Islamic religious schools, “with the purpose of strengthening a force that runs counter to the pro-P.L.O. leftists.” Former Mossad officer Victor Ostrovsky has written that “supporting the radical elements of Muslim fundamentalism sat well with Mossad’s general plan for the region,” because these elements do not negotiate with the West, and so that Israel would once again look like the reasonable party. Retired Israeli official Avner Cohen says that “Hamas […] is Israel’s creation,” and that Israel tolerated and sometimes even aided the group.

Former American officials and scholars agree. Charles Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia said that “Israel started Hamas” to “hem in the PLO.” Former ambassador Philip Wilcox, who headed the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem in the 1980s has stated that there were “persistent rumors that the Israeli secret service gave covert support to Hamas.” Martha Kessler, CIA senior analyst, says that they watched Israel “cultivate Islam as a counterweight to Palestinian nationalism,” and that “where they could fiddle around with events to elevate Islamists to the detriment of Fatah, they would.” Israel “aided Hamas directly,” because they wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO says Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 


So what is the significance following the elucidation of this long string of damning facts? This is not simply an anti-western blame game. First, this record is a powerful warning to be careful with the myopic ‘enemy of an enemy’ policy. It may seem clichéd to invoke the ‘when you play with fire, you get burned’ dictum, but it appears to apply here. Brutal policies tend to create brutal players who instigate brutal outcomes.

Second, it shows how silly the essentialist cultural and religious explanations for political Islam are. Political Islam cannot be understood merely within the bubble of Islam itself, but rather as a reaction, taking a religious tone, against political forces arising from cross-civilizational encounters involving the asymmetric application of power. Religion is the vehicle, not the driver.

Third is simply the benefit of context. With the recent demise of Osama bin Laden, Americans seemed overjoyed at the extermination of their arch-nemesis, whom they seemingly believed had been born with his trademark AK-47 in his hands. Repression leads to radicalization, and it is too easy and dismissive to speak of Good and Evil without tracing the roots of Evil.

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