Geopolitical Jihad

A CARTOON of the Prophet Muhammad donning explosive headgear detonated in the Islamic world--a picture telling a thousand fighting words. At least that is how many Muslims saw it, particularly those who responded to the depiction of Islam as an inherently violent religion with their own acts of violence.

Some imams and other Islamic leaders expressed frustration with the cartoon riots. Egypt's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, instructed Muslims to expect their religion to be attacked but to respond peacefully and with "wisdom and exhortation."

The response by Gomaa and others points to an emergent and overlooked global trend. Militants from the secular Fatah party, and not the Islamic-fundamentalist Hamas party, led the most vigorous protests. In addition, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt regretted, in a roundabout way, the violent response to the cartoons, accusing some politicians of striving "to distort the image of the Islamic movement--to get the people to say they are not peaceful, not democratic, against free speech."

Interestingly, you had Islamists (those that the West tends to see as the enemy) calling for calm and secularists (perceived as our natural allies) summoning religious rage in response to a perceived affront to Islam. That response highlights how difficult it is becoming to distinguish the religious from the political, and vice versa.

While many Middle East experts have pointed to the "medieval" religiosity of many Muslims, Islamists have been adept at folding modern political ideology--nationalism, self-determination, free markets--under the banner of Islam and winning at the polls as a result. The Islamist parties that have either triumphed or made electoral gains in the Middle East--Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Shi'a religious parties in Iraq--made openly political appeals for support, such as ending corruption, promoting national self-determination, improving social services. At the same time, political secularists are dredging up Islamic motifs to galvanize a sense of Islamic identity when it becomes expedient for them to do so. Those developments make it more difficult for Western policymakers and Middle East experts to keep track of and understand alliances, networks and ideologies and to define those forces in society likely to be pro-American.

The electoral ascendancy of Islamist parties highlights not only that democracy will bolster political Islam for the foreseeable future (with troubling implications for a U.S. policy that assumes the promotion of democracy will enhance U.S. interests). It also demonstrates how little support Islamic liberals have been able to gain. Reformers, as Faisal Devji from the New School has pointed out, have attempted systematically to enshrine more liberal interpretations of the Quran into law, breaking with a tendency to interpret the Quran fluidly in accordance with prevailing traditions. Many "Islamists" selectively choose which parts of the Quran they wish to emphasize, making them more Islamic radicals than Islamic fundamentalists. Reformers have been so unpopular that they have allied themselves with authoritarian (some blood-soaked) regimes, like that of Atatürk Mustafa Kemal Pasha in Turkey, Reza Shah in Iran, Bashir al-Asad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and both Pervez Musharraf and Ayub Khan in Pakistan.

The "Islamic radicals" have also been successful in rallying jihad on the tribal, but not inherently Islamic, tradition of restoring "honor." Muslims appear to have been mainly outraged by the Danish cartoons' attack on Islamic "honor" than by a perceived violation of Islamic tenets.

To many Muslims, Islam represents a sense of identity more than a religion to follow dogmatically. Last month, Iraq's Shi'a cleric (and militia leader) Moqtada Sadr dropped in on Syria's Bashir al-Asad, who is, of course, not only a staunch secularist but also the globe's last standing Ba'athist. "I will help Syria in every way. We are witnessing Islamic solidarity", Sadr told Asad.

Similarly, violent jihad directed at the West has had more geopolitical than Islamic inspiration. The rage that was born from the cartoons appears to be a strain of the same emotional tumult that gives rise to jihad. Osama bin Laden does not need the counsel of K Street PR firms to recognize the advantage of making a geopolitical, rather than religious, call to arms. As Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri put it in 2001: "The fact must be acknowledged that the issue of Palestine is the cause that has been firing up the feelings of the Muslim nation from Morocco to Indonesia for the past fifty years."

Your run-of-the-mill jihadi footsoldier does not seem driven to violence by grand visions of regional or global Islamic caliphates, as a litany of terrorism experts have contended. Also, the idea that jihadists are agitated by a hatred of freedom would hardly dignify a debate, were it not routinely advanced by the president of the world's sole superpower. Further, while many jihadists probably take solace in visions of celestial rewards, including chaste (if spirited) maidens, they are probably not driven to violence by those illusions either. Jihadists are probably motivated more by a zeal to destroy or avenge than to create much of anything, caliphates or VIP spots in paradise included. The impulse appears to be more nihilistic and, arguably, hormonal.