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Whither Jihad?

Islamic militancy preceded Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, it will probably outlast him, too.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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By the 1960s and 1970s, this phrase had gained telegraphic power among many Muslims because all of their other identities and associations had been so badly mauled by modernity. Al-Islam huwa al-hall can mean anything, and in the hands of militants it started to mean an ever-expanding conception of sanctified killing. 

What started out as the targeted assassination of detested local officials became, with the rise of the PLO, the killing of Israeli civilians and Jews in general. From the Iranian revolution to 9/11, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Islamic militants developed an ethical universe that allowed them to attack almost anything foreign (non-Muslim) without much fear of condemnation in the Middle East. 

This has obviously changed. The excesses of al Qaeda and allied Islamic groups in spilling blood in Muslim lands since 9/11—especially in Iraq—have created considerable unease and sometimes even fire-and-brimstone disgust among Muslims. The Great Arab Revolt is altering how Arabs see themselves. It’s still much too early to know where this awakening is going—whether it will lead to democracy or back to dictatorship—but it’s not too early to see how the turbulence that started in Tunisia has discombobulated the holy-warrior set. Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri fell silent when these popular pro-democracy eruptions started. Both Iran’s ruling elite and al Qaeda finally described the Arab Revolt, surreally, as an Islamic movement that mirrored their most cherished principles. 

It’s possible that a democratic Arab society could be fertile ground for Islamic militancy. Pakistan is an utterly broken society that has a hybrid political system allowing some democracy and a lot of (pretty religious) military autocracy. That scenario is certainly possible in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, where the country’s social and economic problems are only a bit larger than the military’s conception of itself as the backbone of the state. Pakistan has been an astonishing incubator of lethal militancy. A vibrant Hindu India has, of course, been next door, always offering an invidious comparison. With Egypt, a dynamic Jewish state is nearby to provoke feelings of inferiority and outrage. 

Yet holy warriors, both Sunni and Shiite, probably offer the best guide to how this is going to shake out. Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, lives in fear of representative government. He and the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards see democracy as the end of their world. Democracy might not make the United States and Iran allies, but it would surely end the unofficial war Tehran has waged against the United States since 1979. It’s difficult to imagine any of the terrorist apparatus that the Islamic Republic has set up surviving a free parliament, which would likely restore diplomatic relations with the United States. The pro-democracy Green Movement has made it crystal clear that it wants no part of the anti-American fundamentalist mission civilisatrice that has defined so much of the Islamic Republic’s actions under religious dictatorship. 

The Arab world is definitely trickier, since the autocracies in the region have often been supported, or at least not opposed, by the United States. But democratic Arab states would surely have great debates about the Holy Law and women, two core issues for Islamic militants, and about whether parliament or God’s law is supreme. A freer press in the Arab world is bound to push further the questions that even the not-so-free press—think the Arabic TV channels al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya—have already started to address about when jihad is lawful and who morally can be slain. These discussions may seem hopelessly crude and retrograde to Western audiences, but they are important steps in the creation of healthier, less violent mores. 

And it is difficult to imagine a functioning Muslim democracy, with an elected parliament overseeing government, running clandestine networks of jihadists. Beyond the fact that in any democracy there would be Muslims who sincerely and strenuously objected to jihadism, a simple concern for self-defense would militate against it: Would an Egyptian parliament really want the United States or Israel to bomb its military bases because Egypt was aiding Palestinian suicide bombers? Compared with what we’ve had under dictatorships, where suicide bombers against Jews have usually been called “martyrs” in the state-controlled media, a functioning democracy would increase the voice of those Muslims who have moral qualms about killing infidels, even Israelis. Democracy might not end the appeal of holy war, but it would surely diminish that appeal among the mainstream. It would likely constrict the river into a rivulet. 

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