A diplomat's scholarly account of the ongoing clash between Islam and the West.
WITH religion-driven fanaticism on the rise in many parts of the world, Talmiz Ahmad's book tracing the roots of messianic militarisms and their impact on contemporary politics is well timed. The book is meticulously researched and even-handed in its critique of the three religious tendencies involved in the clash of messianic militarisms. Ahmad, besides being a seasoned diplomat, is also a scholar on Islam and West Asia. Much of his illustrious career in the Indian Foreign Service was spent in the region. Currently serving his second stint as Ambassador of India in Saudi Arabia, he is counted among the best and the brightest in the service. He served as the spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry in the late 1990s and as the first Director-General of the reconstituted Indian Council of World Affairs in mid-2000.
The scholar in Ahmad is on view as he delves into history to bolster his argument that the fringe elements in the three religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism have been responsible for the wars and turmoil that have afflicted the West Asian region. Former United States President George W. Bush had a predilection to take the messianic interpretation of the New Testament literally; he even used the word crusade to describe the invasion of Iraq. Evangelical groups in the U.S., which have emerged with more political clout after the recent midterm congressional elections, believe in so-called New Testament prophecies that tie the fate of Israel to the end-of-the-world scenarios.
As the author points out, many right-wing Americans believe in the second coming of the Messiah (Jesus Christ) and the Millennium (a 1,000-year period in which Christ will rule on earth in his bodily avatar). The book describes in detail the pivotal role of the evangelical right wing in American politics and the beliefs that guide it.
The Israeli government justifies its land grab on the basis of the Old Testament, which talks about an Eretz Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. As Ahmad writes, the Israeli land grab has the absolute support of the American right wing, which is dominated by Christian Zionists. This group, whose influence has grown after the recent elections, believes fervently that all of historical Palestine constitutes a Jewish state. Only then, they believe, will the Second Coming happen.
In Iran there are many in the ruling establishment, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who believe that the coming of the 12th Mahdi is imminent. His reappearance, according to Shia belief, will signal the triumph of Islam. Ahmad writes in detail about the role of messianism and apocalyptic thinking in Semitic traditions. The Old Testament, for instance, says that God has sanctified the destruction of alien nations and their gods. Christian biblical messianism originates mainly from the Book of Revelations in the New Testament.
The author quotes Carl Jung on the apocalyptic vision in Revelations. Jung said that it was a terrifying picture that blatantly contradicts all ideas of Christian humility, tolerance, love of your neighbour and your enemies, and makes nonsense of a loving father in heaven and rescuer of mankind.
The author quotes the historian Alain Dieckhoff to buttress his point that Zionism, including secular Zionism, was linked to the Jewish heritage by the continuation of the messianic impulse. Many right-wing Jewish groups routinely talk about expelling the Palestinians from their land, using passages from the Old Testament to justify such a move.
Religion is increasingly providing the ideology, motivation and organisational strength for groups in different parts of the world to perpetuate violence, writes Ahmad. He notes that the number of terrorist groups linked to religion has risen dramatically since the late 1980s. Every organised religion today is imbued with a strain of violence and includes aspects that would suggest a divine mandate for destruction, he notes and argues that messianic elements from all the religions of the book are responsible equally for the escalation of terrorism-related activities. Messianic religious movements share certain common attributes: they reject all compromise with secular values and institutions; they believe that religion has a major role in the public domain; and they replace the mainstream religious traditions with what they believe is the essence of their true faith, which is at once rigid and uncompromising, writes Ahmad.
West Asia is the region where the so-called holy war is being fought today. Ahmad, however, points out that the origins of this war are not rooted in history but in the passions of contemporary politics. Many Western scholars and commentators have tried to put the blame exclusively on backward-looking Islam for the rise in terror-related incidents and the general political instability that have characterised world politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Ahmad points out that while Islamic intellectuals and thinkers were generally hostile to the West in the 19th and the 20th centuries because of its hegemonistic policies, they were also influenced by the developments in the Christian world.
After the Second World War, many of the governments in the Arab world became secular in nature and tilted to the Socialist bloc during the Cold War period. The conservative bloc of Arab countries, consisting mainly of monarchies, were Islamists and at the same time pro-West. Islam, observes Ahmad, was seen as a natural ally' by the West in the fight against godless' communism.
Things changed after the defeat of the secular Arab regimes at the hands of the Israelis in the 1967 war. The eclipse of nationalist and progressive leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser led to Islamist resurgence. The signing of a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, the invasion of Lebanon by Israel, and the diminishing stature of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) after its ouster from Jordan and Lebanon gave Islamist groups the political space they were looking for. Militant groups such as the Muslim Brothers, although suppressed, always remained an influential force in Egypt and other countries.
Ahmad emphasises that the West's support for the jehad in Afghanistan against the godless Soviet forces gave militant Islam a jump-start. The West's indifference towards the plight of ordinary Afghans after the ouster of the progressive Soviet-backed regime led to the emergence of groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The plight of the Palestinian people and the West's volte-face to the issue of Palestinian statehood was always an emotive issue in the Islamic world. But what gave militant groups even greater sustenance and encouragement was the twin American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which caused countless deaths and widespread destruction.
As Ahmad writes, the militants succeeded in their goal of spiritualising violence. A terrorist these days, writes Ahmad, is willing to do anything as he feels that he has a divine mandate. Suicide attacks can be traced back to the first century after Christ when Jewish Zealots fought against Roman occupation and to the 12th century when Islamic Assassins launched suicide attacks against the orthodox Muslim establishment in West Asia. Today, organisations such as Hizbullah and Hamas, as the author points out, justify suicide attacks on the grounds that it is a justifiable response to the specific circumstances of a foreign operation. Ahmad quotes the American historian Robert Pape on the logic of suicide terrorism. Pape has argued that the strategic logic of suicide terrorism emerges from foreign occupation.
Ahmad devotes considerable space in his highly readable book to the role played by Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, Mohammed Abduh and Rashid Rida, Islamic thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th century. These intellectuals played a role in converting Islam into a politico-religious ideology. They talked about incorporating the parliamentary system of democracy into the authoritarian Islamic world of those days. Muslim intellectuals such as Abu Ala Maududi and Sayyid Qutb, who followed them, focussed more on the fundamentals of Islam and encouraged militancy. They justified the waging of jehad, describing it as an instrument to establish God's just order on earth.
The book also deals with the resurgence of the Islamist ideology in West Asia, with particular emphasis on the Islamic Revolution in Iran that overthrew the pro-West Shah. Afghanistan and other related events that led to the rise of Al Qaeda are dealt with in detail. Western duplicity, coupled with the chicanery of many Muslim governments, had a role to play in creating this militant group. The book will be a valuable addition to university libraries and is a must-read for students of international politics.