Terror's Homebase, All Over the Map | Freedom House

Terror's Homebase, All Over the Map

The Wall Street Journal By Adrian Karatnycky
Sunday will be Easter, the holiest day in the Christian calendar. It will be celebrated throughout the world with prayers and services -- an eventful day, to be sure, and for many a profound one. But it will not have an overtly political meaning, nor will Sunday's sermons speak to ideology more than to God.

In the U.S. at least, we are so used to this division of the political and religious -- the state and the church -- that it is still something of a shock to see them conjoined, especially to murderous effect. There is today no more disturbing example of this conjunction than revolutionary Islamism, an ideology that inspires most of today's global terrorism.

It is a political creed that has appropriated religious language and sentiment in the service of a global revolution. Its watchword is "jihad," a militant struggle to be waged against the world of "apostasy, unbelief, and heresy." Two new books neatly track today's jihadist movements, describing their operations across several countries, their support by various regimes and their baleful intentions toward the West.

In "Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam" (Belknap/Harvard, 454 pages, $29.95), Gilles Kepel offers a masterly display of scholarship that describes how a radical idea spread through large segments of the Islamic world in the 1970s and 1980s. There are, he notes, scores of "Islamist" movements -- that is, movements devoted to a radically militant version of Islam -- cut from the same cloth as al Qaeda, having already wreaked havoc, imposed extreme forms of Islamic Shariah law and devoted themselves to universal Islamic rule.

Little in Common With Religion

Like communism a generation ago (especially after the Sino-Soviet split), radical Islam often divides according to the needs of its patron states. Three in particular emerge from Mr. Kepel's narrative: Iran after its revolution; Saudi Arabia, where the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect of Islam has become dominant; and the Iraq of Saddam Hussein after 1991's war. Help from these regimes has nourished struggles from Palestine to Chechnya to Bosnia to Afghanistan.

In Mr. Kepel's view, Islamism is a political ideology with little in common with religious faith. The movement adopts religious language to widen its appeal, but it often does so on shaky doctrinal grounds. In most cases, jihadist doctrine spreads in an ideological vacuum created, in part, by acute privation and educational neglect.

Mr. Kepel leads us on a breathtaking excursion. He trails the Islamist movements that have traversed Europe in recent years, founding radical communities in France, Britain, Germany and Belgium. He locates similar communities -- often more militant and less marginal -- in Africa (Sudan and Algeria), the Middle East (Palestine), South Asia (Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan) and East Asia (the Philippines). What are we to make of this? Allowing for the fact of this powerfully disruptive force, Mr. Kepel reaches an astonishing conclusion: Radical Islamism is in decline. Indeed, he asserts that Islamism reached its apogee in the late 1980s, when the Iranian fundamentalist revolution was ascendant; when Algeria's Islamists stood on the threshold of electoral victory; and when Sudan became a radicalized state with Islamists dominating the governing coalition.

Those heady days are over, however. Iran's theocracy has alienated the young, who favor a more open society. The U.S. has routed Afghanistan's Taliban. In Algeria, Islamists in the mid-1990s estranged the citizenry with their waves of terror. During the same period in Turkey, fundamentalists failed to put in place their radical program when they governed, and along the way disenchanted the country's have-nots.

Open Rebuke

In Pakistan after Sept. 11, Islamists have experienced open rebuke, falling still farther from the ascendancy they enjoyed under Gen. Zia ul-Haq in the mid-1980s. Egypt's Islamic radicals, meanwhile, have failed to mount a sustained bid for power and now settle for sporadic attacks on Coptic Christians. In Sudan, the leading radical Islamist and former parliamentary speaker, Hassan al-Turabi, is now under house arrest.

Indeed, Mr. Kepel makes a strong case that the utopian idea of jihadist Islamism has failed everywhere it has been tried. But he is on less firm ground when he writes that "the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its irrepressible might." There is extensive evidence of widespread revolutionary networks, and the three principal state funders of the radical cause -- Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- show no signs of ending their support. So even if Islamism as a whole is losing ground, the "might" of mass terror is still palpable.

Central Asia's Fertile Ground

Ahmed Rashid's "Jihad" (Yale, 281 pages, $24), another approach to this urgent subject, provides a compelling account of an Islamist movement that has spread like wildfire in Central Asia's repressive regimes. Today in Uzbekistan, for example, tens of thousands of Muslims flock to the Hizb ut-Tahrir, an underground party that advocates a global jihad. More worrying is the violent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which seeks to take power in many Central Asian states and indeed may find fertile ground in nearby Tajikistan, ravaged by civil war.

Many fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fought alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda. Presumably the U.S.-led offensive has routed them, but there is a good chance that their remnant will regroup. In the impoverished Fergana Valley, a region running through several countries in Central Asia, with a population of nearly 10 million, jihadist revolutionaries proliferate and command increasing loyalty.

This is a jihad that is much less known in the West, and Mr. Rashid, an occasional reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The Far Eastern Economic Review (both published by Dow Jones), makes it vividly real. What is most surprising is the sheer scale of the resources it commands. By Mr. Rashid's reckoning, tens of millions of dollars flow to Central Asia's Islamic radicals every year. Inevitably, impoverished residents of Central Asia are drawn to the guerrilla movement with promises of salaries of up to $500 a month, close to the region's average yearly wage.

Where does this money come from? From the opium trade, mainly, and from the Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia. Indeed, an Uzbek diaspora living in Saudi Arabia has exerted a good deal of influence there, especially through links to a former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal.

So there are grounds for worry as well as, perhaps, hope, if we take Mr. Kepel's and Mr. Rashid's accounts together. Surely we may conclude that there remain major obstacles to the democratic evolution of the Islamic world. And perhaps reasons for effortful prayer by people of all faiths, on Sunday and well after.

Adrian Karatnycky is the president of Freedom House.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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