Adeeb Khalid: To speak of “Islam” as a homogenous phenomenon is analogous to speaking of “Christianity” as a single whole
Adeeb Khalid is Jane and Raphael Bernstein Professor of Asian Studies and History at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, USA. A historian of modern Central Asia, he is the author of two books, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (University of California Press, 1998), and Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (University of California Press, 2007). He has lived and studied in Uzbekistan, Russia, Turkey, and Pakistan, and travelled al over Central Asia.
How do we explain the political motivations of Muslims? Today when so much of the news concerns conflicts based in and around Muslim societies, the temptation is great to simply see all the causes of those conflicts and all motivations of the actors involved as emanating from Islam itself. The motivations of Muslims are then seen as simply internally defined having no connection with the world that they are part of. Then we can safely proceed to the conclusion that all Muslims are alike because they all take their inspiration from the same scriptures, and they all represent a danger to “us.” This is the path taken by Mikhail Kalishevskii in his recent article on this site, and this is the argument of many commentators from the right (and not just the right) in Europe and North America.
Simplification has its virtues, but does it help us understand a reality that is much more complex than such arguments make it seem? Can the actions of Muslims really understood only with reference to their religion? Can the most extreme expressions be taken as proof of the basic essence of global community? I raised some of these questions in my recent book, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (University of California Press, 2007), and present some of my arguments below.
Talking about Islam is impossible without reference to the public debate over Islam that has raged since September 11, 2001. The marketplace is full of books about Islam, and the periodical press and the electronic media too have contributed their share to this debate. All shades of opinion are represented in this new literature, from somber academic tomes to sensationalist bestsellers, and everything in between. For many, the answer is straightforward. Islam as a religion is innately political, intolerant, oppressive of women, and inimical to “the West” and its values. Moreover, it is a religion that determines all aspects of its believers’ lives in a way that Christianity and Judaism do not. The political and social behavior of Muslims can be discerned from a reading of the scriptures of Islam, which are beyond the realm of human intervention or interpretation. The most extreme forms of militancy justified in the name of Islam — al-Qaeda or Hamas — are thus the true and logical manifestations of Islam. Such judgments are passed from all points of the political and cultural spectrum: the left, the secular right, the religious right, Muslims critical of their tradition, Hindu fundamentalists, friends of Israel, and Serbian nationalists all find this vision of a homogenous, hostile Islam compelling.
More sympathetic or apologetic authors, Muslims and non-Muslims, argue instead that Islam is “really” a religion of peace that has been hijacked or corrupted or perverted by “incorrect” interpretations of the militants. They seek often to posit the “real” Islam, one which is the opposite of the commonly held stereotypes, a religion that is tolerant, spiritual, and moderate. A step forward might have been the distinction, often made in public discourse since September 11, 2001, between “good” or “moderate” Islam on the one hand, and its “bad” or “extremist” counterparts on the other. Islam has two faces, one tolerant and spiritual, the other intolerant and violent. Not all Muslims are alike — there are “good” Muslims and “bad.” The problem with this binary vision is that all too often, the yardstick for measuring moderation is agreement with U.S. geopolitical goals. Muslims who agree with U.S. foreign policy goals are “good” and “tolerant”; those who do not are not. Thus, for years Saudi Arabia was routinely touted as a “moderate” Islamic state, while other, more secular states in the Muslim world end up in the “extremist” camp simply because they disagree with the foreign policy goals of the United States. Since this distinction has been invoked repeatedly to wage war on Muslim populations, its utility as a way of understanding the world is gravely limited.
These may be called essentialist arguments, in that they derive their explanation from the purported existence of a certain essence of Islam that is immune to historical change and that exists beyond the realm of society and human intervention. (Essences can be found in anything — race, culture, religion — and, as we shall see, they need not be negative.) No matter where Muslims live or what they do, the most important thing about them is that they are Muslims and that they act as such. Essentialist arguments are attractive for their simplicity, for they allow the public to make sense of a world it does not know very well. While critics have argued that many Western authors have long held essentialist views of Islam and Muslims, essentialist arguments are enjoying a boom these days. With the end of the Cold War, questions of ideology or of economic conflict have receded from the public arena, and “culture,” in all its manifestations, has come to provide explanation for all conflict, struggle, and inequality. Over the last decade, this form of cultural essentialism has been given academic cachet by two thinkers with immense influence among policy makers and the media.
The Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington claims that future conflict on the planet will take place on the lines not of ideology or national interest, but of “civilizations.” He discerns a number of discrete “civilizations” that are defined broadly by essentialized cultural features. “Islam” is one of the civilizations, and the one that, according to Huntington, most likely to get into conflict with “the West.” The proof of the existence of civilizations is in history, but the history in the book is remarkably thin. The book and its thesis have been routinely invoked since September 11, and indeed the current U.S. paperback edition of the book features a rather crude depiction of this conflict in the form the green banner of Islam battling with the U.S. flag (which presumably signifies all of “the West”). All Muslims, apparently the “good” and the “bad” both, are fated by virtue of belonging to their civilization to act in a particular way, all of it hostile to the West.
Much of Huntington’s argument about Islam comes from the work of the British-born Orientalist Bernard Lewis, who taught for many years at Princeton, and who since September 11 has become a one-man industry producing essentialist analysis of Islam and the Middle East. In 1990, the year after the Cold War ended, Lewis argued in a cover story for The Atlantic Monthly that conflict on the Middle East was part of a much broader phenomenon: “It should now be clear that we are facing a model and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations — the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide importance of both.” At issue are not policies, but a reaction — a rage — to civilizational difference. Muslim rage is rooted in Islam itself: “In the classical Islamic view, to which many Muslims are beginning to return, the world and mankind are divided into two: the House of Islam, where the Muslim law and faith prevail, and the rest, known as the House of Unbelief or the House of War, which it is the duty of Muslims ultimately to bring to Islam.” The “classical Islamic view,” and not interests and aspirations, determines how Muslims act in the world. Lewis also blurs the distinction between “Islamic radicals” and Muslims at large, implying that all Muslims, regardless of where or who they are, face the same compulsions: “What is truly evil and unacceptable is the domination of infidels over true believers. For true believers to rule over misbelievers is proper and natural …. But for misbelievers to rule over true believers is blasphemous and unnatural, since it leads to the corruption of religion and morality in society, and to the flouting or even abrogation of God’s law. This may help us to understand the current troubles in such diverse places as Ethiopian Eritrea, Indian Kashmir, Chinese Sinkiang, and Yugoslav Kosovo, in all of which Muslim populations are ruled by non-Muslim governments.” The fact that Eritrea, Xinjiang, and Kosovo were all purely nationalist struggles in which “Islamic radicals” played no part matters little to Lewis’s argument. Islam for Lewis is immutable and impervious to change brought about by history or society. The Muslim compulsion to act according to Islam is contrasted to “our secular present,” as if religious motivations are entirely absent in the conduct of affairs in the West. One might also note that such essentialist arguments are much loved by today’s Islamic extremists, who proceed from the assertion of total incompatibility between Islam and the West. Osama bin Laden and Bernard Lewis completely agree on this point.
Essentialist arguments serve to efface history. In them, civilizations become like billiards balls bouncing off each other on a table, acting and reacting, but remaining indivisible wholes all the while. Moreover, all of the behavior of a civilization is internally generated, a product of each civilization’s unique (and again, unchanging) characteristics. Essentialist arguments thus serve to hide the political or international contexts of the various phenomena they seek to explain. In the case of Islam, all explanation (and responsibility) for the political behavior of Muslims has to be sought in “Islam” itself, with the broader context of Muslims’ involvement with Europe and the United States studiously avoided. The denial of interconnections between civilizations is also necessary to create a positive image of the West, as the storehouse of the best achievements of humanity. The West comes to be identified only with lofty ideas such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and free markets; other achievements, such as colonialism, slavery, the near extinction of the indigenous populations of three continents, the industrialization of warfare, or the Holocaust, are never invoked. The “West” is just as clearly essentialized an idea as “Islam” — it too is self-contained and internally homogenous — but here the essence is entirely positive.
Like all religions, Islam is internally diverse. Individuals and groups can take vastly different, even opposing positions from within the framework of a given religious tradition. Over the centuries, Christians have used the Bible to argue for the waging of war against non-Christians and the persecution of Jews living amidst Christians; American slavery, apartheid, and Jim Crow were all legitimated on the basis of scriptural injunctions. Yet, Christians have also used the Bible to fight against slavery, to preach tolerance, and to fight for social justice and civil rights. The same scriptures that yield the doctrine of the poverty of Christ can be made to produce the gospel of wealth. These mutually opposed positions have all been explicitly and self-consciously Christian. Muslims too can and do debate among themselves and take mutually opposed positions derived from the same sources of religious authority.
To speak of “Islam” as a homogenous phenomenon is analogous to speaking of “Christianity” as a single whole that includes Catholics and Orthodox, Protestants and Copts, and countless other sects, including such marginal ones as the Mormons, the Scientologists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of course, we never do so, because we intuitively recognize that the label loses all meaning when forced on to such a diverse group. We seldom have such qualms, however, when it comes to Islam, even though the label “Islam” covers just as wide a spectrum of geographic, cultural, and sectarian diversity as the label “Christianity.” If anything, it is even more internally diverse than Christianity, which crystallized around an institutionalized Church from the very beginning. In Islam, such an institution never developed. There is no religious hierarchy and no single individual qualified to pass final judgment on questions of belief or practice. Within thirty years of the death of the Prophet, the Muslim community had split on matters of doctrine. Since then, there have been multiple and simultaneous sources of authority among Muslims. Authority is located not in church councils and such, but in individuals who derive their legitimacy from their learning, piety, lineage, and reputation among peers. This gives Islam a slightly anarchic quality: authoritative opinions (fatwa) of one expert or one group can be countered with equally authoritative opinions, derived from the same sources, of another group, or one set of practices devotional practices held dear by one group can be denounced as impermissible by another. In more extreme cases, such conflict of opinion can turn into a “war of fatwas,” fought out, in the modern age, in the press or in cyberspace. (If Islam were held in a more positive light in the West today, this diversity would be described as a “free market of ideas”!) To speak of Islam as a homogeneous entity ignores this fundamental dynamic of its tradition.
This pluralism extends to the most basic level of belief. The major sectarian divide in Islam, between Sunnis and Shi‘is, goes back to the very origins of Islam. The two doctrines evolved in parallel, and therefore it is incorrect to see in them an orthodox/heterodox divide. All Muslims share a number of key reference points (the oneness of God, loyalty to the Prophet and his progeny, the need to prepare for the Hereafter, to take a few examples), but they have been played upon in different ways by different sects and movements. Nor do the two sects exhaust the diversity, for they both have many branches and various theological and legal schools within them, while many modern ideological groups straddle the divide between the two sects.
If Islam is not homogenous, it is also not self-contained or discrete. Muslims have always interacted with their neighbors. Islamic civilization was never coextensive with Islam as a religion, but was a hybrid, multicultural venture in which Christians, Jews, and Hindus participated as central actors. If the Western tradition can now be called “Judaeo-Christian” (which both underestimates the extent to which the civilization of the West has historically been identified with Christianity alone and dispenses entirely with non-European Jews), then surely Islamic civilization was at least Judaeo-Islamic, if not worthy of an even more complicated label. This interaction has been particularly sustained in the last 200 years, when it has taken many forms. The notions of progress, the nation, and the will of the people, new means of organizing society and state power, and new means of communication all have transformed how Muslims think about Islam and the world of which they are a part. Similarly, Islamic political and religious movements today take place in an international geopolitical context in which Western powers are active agents. Whether Islamic movements react to Western military or political involvement in the Muslim world, or are, at times, even actively encouraged by the West, they are never entirely innocent of the West. “What went wrong?,” asks Bernard Lewis of the Middle East, and proceeds to give an answer that explains everything through Islam and makes no reference to the intense intertwining of the history of the Muslim world with that of the West. It is a very flimsy understanding of current realities that invokes obscure texts a millennium old but ignores the political context of today.
The classical tradition of Islam, as a matter of fact, is of singularly little help in understanding the actions of Muslims today, which have been shaped by in profound way by ideas, technologies, and modes of organization common to the modern age. Muslims relate to Islam itself is shaped by modern ways of relating to religious authority which distances Muslims from the classical tradition. The crucial concept to grasp here is that of modernity, which refers to the emergence of new understandings of the world (a hankering for certainty and classification, the disenchantment with the supernatural, and the rise of the authority of science) and new forms of organization (the modern state and its many attributes), communication (the advent of print and, more recently, of electronic media) and socialization that have transformed the world, beginning with Europe in the early modern period. Modernity wreaks havoc with the established order of things, but it does not have a fixed trajectory. It is thus different from the concept of modernization, which assumes an end-driven scheme of historical change in which certain economic changes (“development”) lead to similar social and cultural transformations (secularization, the rise of democracy, the equalization of gender roles, and so forth).
The Muslim world has not been immune to modernity. Over the last century or so, new forms of power and new epistemologies have redefined how many Muslims relate to Islam. The introduction of print and mass public education have given ever larger numbers of Muslims access to the sources of Islam, which has in turn undermined older patterns of learning and put to question the authority of the traditional guardians of Islam. Increasingly, Islamic debates have turned more and more back to the Qur’an and hadith. Scholars have called this the process of the “objectification” of Islam, in which Islam can be extracted from custom, tradition, and interpretation, and reinvented as a stand-alone object composed of certain original sources. To a certain extent, there has been a “protestantization” of Islam, in which “classical” understandings of Islam have often given way to new formulations.
This objectification of Islam has produced varied results. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an influential current of opinion called Muslim modernism argued for the complete compatibility of Islam and modernity. Progress was inevitable and desirable, and fully consonant with Islam. Indeed, for the modernists, Islam demanded progress of its followers. Muslim modernists argued for the reform of education and of family life, for changing the position of women, for new notions of public health and hygiene, and much besides — in effect, they wanted Islam and Muslims to modernize. Islam itself, they thought, was in a poor way: Muslims had allowed it to be encrusted with all sorts of alien influences. The modernists placed much of the blame for the situation on traditional elites, such as the ulama and Sufi sheikhs, who had caused the corruption of the faith. A generation later, different groups in society, faced with rather different problems but informed by the same understanding of an objectified Islam, came up with a very different argument. The modernists, they argued, had succeeded only in imitating the West and taking Islam on the path to corruption. The solution was not to make Islam accord with the dictates of the modern age, but rather to make the modern world fit the demands of Islam. In other words, modernity had to be Islamized. Muslims could succeed in this world or the next only by reinventing modernity on truly Islamic principles. We will call this movement Islamism.
Islamism is modern in that it presupposes the objectification of Islam, for only once Islam is separated from custom, tradition, and indeed history, can it become a stand-alone object that can in turn be “applied” to the practice of politics. In effect, Islam becomes a political ideology, in which all political goals and actions are to be derived from certain abstract notions embodied in the “true” scriptural sources of Islam. In 1929, Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), an Egyptian schoolteacher, founded the Society of Muslim Brothers in Egypt (the organization soon spread to several other Arab countries). The Muslim Brothers were self-consciously a modern political party that would engage in political action for the conquest of power in order to Islamize law and the state. Another major thinker of political Islam was Sayyid Abu’l Ala Maududi (1903-1979), who established the Jama‘at e Islami (Islamic Party) in north India in 1941. Although he opposed the creation of a separate state for the Muslims of India (on the principle that such a state would be a secular state, and thus no better than an independent India), he nevertheless moved to Pakistan when that country was established in 1947, and from his base in Lahore, presided over a political party that acquired a vocal presence all over South Asia and, later, in the South Asian diaspora. For both al Banna and Maududi, the goal of politics was not simply the prosperity and strength of Muslims (as most modernists and nationalists had articulated it), but the utter transformation of the individual and of society along principles to be extracted from the authentic sources of Islam.
Three seemingly disparate currents of modernity come together in the movements of al-Banna (and his more illustrious successor, Sayyid Qutb) and Maududi. First, there is a radical transformation in their understanding of religious authority, which they share with evangelical fundamentalists in the United States. For Islamists, religious authority resides in texts, which they see as transparent vessels of meaning available to readers without the help of interpretation. They thus disavow the authority of the interpretive tradition through which Islam has evolved in the world. Second, Islamist politics is part of a much broader search for cultural authenticity that has appealed to many different groups (religious, cultural, ethnic, racial) for its promise to restore purity and dignity in world made by colonialism and the oppression of others. In the present case, Islamists seek to reject all sorts of “encrustations” on an authentic tradition they seek to “resurrect.” Finally, the political goals of Islamist movements owe a great deal, in their formulation, to modern revolutionary ideologies, and to Marxism-Leninism in particular. Islamists tended to be rabidly anti-Communist in their stance because Communism was a rival ideology, one based on universal principles, and hostile to all religions to boot. That should not blind us, however, to the fascination Marxism-Leninism exercised over the Islamists and the model it provided for successful political action. The Russian revolution was, after all, the most successful revolt against the bourgeois world order the early twentieth century, and the resulting Soviet regime trumpeted its anticolonial credentials loudly. For al-Banna and Maududi, the organizational structure of the Communist Party held the key to its success, and both patterned their parties closely on the Communist model. Maududi’s Jama‘at e Islami saw itself, in Leninist fashion, as a vanguard party of committed revolutionaries, membership in whose ranks was to be carefully controlled. The ranks of member, candidate member, and supporter, and the establishment of a youth wing for work among students — these were all patterns borrowed directly from the Communist Party. The revolution for which they worked was, of course, to be an Islamic one.
For both, the goal was not just the overthrow of established “un-Islamic” regimes, but the inner transformation of individuals. This too is a modern conceit, shared by many ideologies of the modern world. In other ways too, the Islamist way of posing the question bears all the marks of the contemporary world. The struggle to remake the world through anticolonial struggle, concerns with social justice, the fascination with revolution, and an insistence of seeing politics as the primary space of action are all concerns of modern radical politics worldwide, and their appropriation by Islamists gives us some clue to the appeal of their message in the Muslim world. That appeal was not always huge. The middle decades of the twentieth century were dominated by secular nationalism in much of the Muslim world, and Islamist parties appealed only to tiny minorities. The political space for Islamism was opened up by a number of interrelated factors. The nationalist regimes failed to deliver on their promises (partly because of corruption, but largely because of global structural problems beyond their control); the 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel put the claims of secular nationalism under renewed scrutiny, especially in Arab lands. Ever larger numbers of citizens felt a more “authentic,” more moral response was needed for the crisis posed by Israel. Indeed, the conflict with Israel (whose establishment came at the expense of Arab aspirations and against the wishes of the majority of the population on the ground) has driven politics in much of the Muslim world for the last several decades. Since 1967, as the conflict has taken on religious overtones on all sides, it has provided a major boost to the fortunes of Islamist parties. Finally, we might note that the global defeat of the left and the collapse of the Soviet Union removed other alternatives for formulating an opposition to the discredited status quo.
If Islamism is modern, so are the Islamists. Both al Banna and Maududi were men of the twentieth century with little formal training in the tradition of Islamic learning. Both al-Banna and Qutb were schoolteachers; Maududi came from a learned family, but he did not attend a madrasa. He entered public life instead through journalism instead, and managed to live off his writing for much of his life. Engineers and doctors figure prominently in Islamist parties everywhere. Print and the public sphere have allowed Islamists to circumvent the entire tradition of Islamic learning. However, as parvenus, they lack the feel for the flexibility of the tradition, and take more absolutist positions than do traditional ulama. Because they see the original texts as the transparent vessels of meaning for all time, Islamists tend to denounce interpretation as evil in itself.
The Muslim Brothers and the Jamaat e Islami do not exhaust the spectrum of modern Islamic movements. The Islamic revolution in Iran belongs to a different trajectory yet again. Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, was not a lay intellectual, but a high ranking member of the Shi‘i establishment with impeccable scholarly credentials, which he used to articulate his theory of the “rule of the jurist” (vilayat-i faqih). Yet, that theory is strikingly modern, without precedent in the Shi‘i tradition. Indeed, it owed a considerable debt to the work of lay Islamist intellectuals such as Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923-1969) and Ali Shariati (1933-1977) who had combined Islamic arguments with Western critiques of modernity. Equally at home with Marx, Sartre, and Fanon, Al-e Ahmad and Shariati articulated an “Islamic” critique of modernity that was a product of Iran’s century long encounter with the West and modernity—and as such, modern to the core. It is no surprise then that the Islamic revolution resulted in the creation of an Islamic republic, complete with a constitution, separation of institutional powers, and the principle of electoral representation. Islamic movements in Turkey or Malaysia present yet other varieties of contemporary Muslim politics.
The militant groups that make the headlines today — al-Qaeda, Hamas, the many outfits in Pakistan, or the IMU — belong to a different strand of radicalism, that can be called jihadist. They have little or no political program beyond the conquest of power and the subsequent imposition of the shari‘a as the law of the land. They interpret jihad in a purely military sense, and unlike the Islamists, have no interest in the transformation of society beyond policing norms of behavior.
The genealogy of jihadist Islam is shorter still, going no further back than the 1980s, to the final drama of the Cold War, the extremely bloody proxy war in Afghanistan. Far from being the “natural” product of a coherent, self-contained civilization, “jihadist” Islam emerged in the hurly burly of the contemporary world, its birth made possible by various regimes, Muslim and non-Muslim, who each for reasons of their own, fostered the development of a peculiar blend of militancy, religious radicalism, and social conservatism that was new in the history of the Muslim world. Since “jihadist” Islam is the main declared enemy in the “war of terrorism,” and because its specter haunts the incumbent regimes in Central Asia today, its origins are well worth closer attention.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, ostensibly to help an indigenous revolutionary regime fight counterrevolution, provoked a “civil” war that transformed a great deal beyond Afghanistan. The Soviet move threatened many actors, both global and regional. For the United States, the Soviet invasion, coming on the heels of the revolution in Iran, had the potential to destabilize the American position in the Middle East and its access to the region’s oil. The conservative monarchies of the Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia, felt directly threatened by both the Iranian revolution and the Soviet advance, as did the military regime in Pakistan, which had long had uneasy relations with Afghanistan, common faith notwithstanding. The three sides came together to back the Afghan resistance. The resistance was conceptualized as a jihad against Soviet atheists, and did a great deal to heighten the profile of Islamic militancy in the region. The resistance fighters, known as the mujahidin (“those who undertake jihad”) were lionized in the West as “freedom fighters.” (Ronald Reagan, welcoming several mujahidin leaders to the White House, compared them to the founding fathers of the United States). The mujahidin were not a homogeneous group, but all of them had a strong dislike for the socialists and their largely progressive social agenda, which emphasized women’s rights to education and employment, the redistribution of wealth, and making public education free and mandatory.
The United States supported an Islamic opposition to the Soviet invasion out of doctrinal principles long held sacred. Throughout the Cold War, conventional wisdom in the West saw Islam as an antidote to Communism, and thus as a strategic asset to be cultivated by the West. The Soviets’ hostility to religion would, it was hoped, make them unpopular in Muslim countries, and also keep local socialists at bay. US government agencies spent considerable effort drawing attention to Soviet hostility to religion. The problem was that many Muslims did not see socialism and Islam to be so starkly opposed. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, a substantial current of opinion in Muslim societies held that Islam’s message was one of social justice and that socialism was inherent in Islam itself. It was only the more extremist and inflexible versions of Islam that could effectively counter Communism. The need to counter Communism with Islam thus drew the US close to the most conservative regimes in the Muslim world, whose wariness of the Soviets coincided with an implacable hostility to social or political change at home, and who used an appeal Islam to crush secular leftist opposition at home. (This was, broadly speaking, the pattern among friends of the United States in the Muslim world, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and, to a certain extent, even Turkey in the 1980s). American goals for the proxy war were modest in the beginning: they amounted largely to “killing as many Communists as possible” and making sure the Soviets paid for their misadventure. Quickly, however, it came to take center spot in the Reagan administration’s resolve to “use all means necessary” to win the Cold War. For the Saudis, who provided matching funds to the effort, the Afghan war as an opportunity to channel Islamic activism away from themselves and their patrons, the Americans. For Pakistan’s military, which had taken power in 1977, the war was a godsend, for it made it the recipient of massive military aid from the United States and financial aid from Arab monarchies. The last act of the Cold War was an American-sponsored jihad against Soviet atheism.
Political violence motivated by Islam was new then, and mostly confined to militant offshoots of the Iranian revolution. It was in the war in Afghanistan that political violence aimed at “unbelievers” was turned into a full blown form of action. Saudi money did not only arm the mujahidin, it also opened a network of schools for the sons of the refugees that poured into Pakistan. These schools purveyed a message of unbending and often bloodthirsty struggle against enemies of Islam. The war also attracted enthusiasts from all over the Muslim world, who congregated in Peshawar to fight the good fight for Islam. Al-Qaeda was to emerge from the ranks of these warriors, whose ranks included one Osama bin Laden. The Afghan war also militarized Islamic movements across the Muslim world and did much to produce the Islamist militancy that exists today. With the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, and the Soviet collapse two and a half years later, the U.S. lost all interest in Afghanistan, but the jihadist militancy that it had created (as well as the narcotics-based economy on which it was based) continued to thrive. The jihadist groups did not have to wait long before the first U.S. war in Iraq in 1991 provided them another target for their rage. Mahmood Mamdani quite correctly calls al-Qaeda and the events of September 11 the “unfinished business of the Cold War.”
Clearly, the Afghan jihad cannot be explained without mentioning non-Islamic actors and geopolitical motivations that have nothing to do with Islam. History, we find, is not irrelevant after all to explaining the political behavior of Muslims. Indeed, it is the very explanation. And if history matters, then we need to pay attention to the actual, concrete historical experiences of actual, concrete Muslim societies. The Muslim societies of Central Asia experienced the twentieth century in a radically different way than Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, and any attempt to understand Islam has to take into account their experience.