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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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But holy war will probably continue to have traction where autocracy flourishes. Saudi Arabia, which has strenuously tried to diminish the appeal of jihadism on the home front by enlisting the Wahhabi establishment to say how bad terrorism is, at least when aimed at Saudis, may well remain the big incubator of Islamic terrorism in the Sunni world, for the simple reason that the Saudi state perpetuates an unbridgeable contradiction. The Wahhabi creed is virulently intolerant of non-Muslims and Muslims who don’t practice with the requisite rigor. It’s no accident that so many of al Qaeda’s foot soldiers have come out of Saudi Arabia—the distance between the official creed and the ethos of those who become holy warriors, or admire them enough to support them financially, isn’t great. If much of the Arab world starts going democratic, the Saudis may become even more generous to Islamists who take a dim view of representative government. Saudi Arabia could well become a robust Wahhabi police state that tortures internally the same people it supports externally. If bin Ladenism has a future in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia will likely remain its friendliest terrain. 

Iran, too, will probably remain a bastion for those who want to wage war against the United States. As long as Khamenei rules, anti-American Sunni militants will have a friend. A large number of al Qaeda warriors, including members of bin Laden’s family, fled Afghanistan for Iran after 9/11. It’s not clear where they all are now, but we can be fairly certain that they are not under house arrest. It’s a decent guess that if al Qaeda can rise again as a centralized organization, Iran will be helping the cause. 

And then there’s Pakistan, the adopted home of al Qaeda, which is de facto no longer an Arab organization. Much of al Qaeda’s ideology has been absorbed by several Pakistani holy warrior groups, most prominently the umbrella for most fervent Pakistani Pashtuns, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and the Hindu-loathing Lashkar-e-Taiba. 

With the war in Afghanistan, where the Pakistani Taliban are ethnically and spiritually joined with their Afghan brethren, the conflict in Kashmir, and the crisis of identity among Pakistanis themselves (who really are they as a people?), Islamic militancy in Central Asia has found fertile soil. Pakistani democracy offers some countervailing hope, but it is fragile and anemic—especially when compared with the Pakistani military, which has been deeply impregnated with Islamist ideology since the rule of General Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988). 

The bloodshed caused by the war since 9/11 between the army and Islamic militants who’ve gone too far in their zeal has certainly hurt the Islamist cause. But Pakistan hasn’t yet experienced the revulsion that we’ve seen in the Arab world for jihadists. The military and the civilian elite remain conflicted about who is a good Islamic militant and who is a bad one. 

Bin Laden may be dead, but in Pakistan hope springs eternal. Mainstream Islamic thought in the country still provides considerable sustenance to the spiritual descendents of al-Maududi. Mutatis mutandis, the same is true in Saudi Arabia. And in besieged Iran, where the regime is philosophically at war with the most educated members of its own society, any Sunni holy warrior who hates Iran’s enemies is likely to be viewed increasingly as a friend. 

Although some American liberals and conservatives would now like to declare the global war on Islamic terrorism over, a little bit of patience is in order. We don’t get to declare the war over. Only Muslims do. And among them, we still don’t have the necessary quorum. For far too many, jihadism still has a certain redemptive appeal.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).

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