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Friday, 19 October, 2001, 17:46 GMT 18:46 UK
Roots of extremism
Rally for Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden enjoys fervent support
By Middle East analyst Roger Hardy

Since the attacks against America on the 11 September, the world's media have been obsessed with the Saudi-born fugitive Osama Bin Laden, Washington's main suspect in the attacks.

But while much has been written about Bin Laden's life and the Islamic network, Al-Qaeda, which he's built up, rather less attention has been paid to the roots of the particular kind of Islamic extremism which he espouses.

Osama Bin Laden is a product of the movement of political Islam, or Islamism, which first took root in Egypt in the 1920s. The Muslim Brotherhood is in many ways the father, or grandfather, of the many radical movements which exist today.

Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden: Latest exponent of a decades-old movement

It was no accident that 20th-century Islamism was born in the era of European colonialism. Egypt was under British rule, and reactions to colonialism took three principal forms - nationalist, communist and Islamist.

But the Islamists' response was distinct since, unlike their rivals, they rejected Western secularism, including the essentially secular Western concept of the nation-state.

Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Brotherhood, famously remarked: "Just as Islam is a faith and a religion, it is also a country and a citizenship."

A worldwide community

In Al-Banna's eyes, the loyalty of Muslims should not be to nation-states but to the Umma - the worldwide community of believers.

Gamal Nasser
Gamal Nasser: Champion of Arab unity

In the 1950s the Brotherhood was suppressed by Egypt's President Nasser, but not before it had spread throughout the Middle East and beyond.

In the 1950s and 60s it was Arabism - the dream of Arab unity championed by Nasser -- which captured Arab hearts. Islamism was in eclipse.

But in the 1970s it made a comeback, most dramatically with the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran. This time its impact was both broader and deeper.

By now, a certain disillusionment with the meagre fruits of independence had set in.

The nationalist governments of the Arab world had not fulfilled their promise of political and economic progress - and had proved weak in the face of Israel.

Turning point

Many see the Arab defeat by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 as a turning-point, a moment of collective self-doubt.

Sensing that their moment had come, Islamists began to advance their simple but seductive slogan "Islam is the solution".

In the 1980s Islamist opposition groups built up networks of grass-roots support and began to be seen as a political threat by governments in North Africa, Egypt and the Gulf.

In 1989 Islamists in Sudan came to power on the back of a military coup, and for a time Sudan became a magnet for militant Islamists of many countries.

Algerian police search Islamic activists
Algeria's Islamic movement was suppressed by the government

The issue of Islam and democracy was thrown into sharp relief by the crisis in Algeria in the early 1990s.

A well-organised Islamist opposition party came within a whisker of winning power through the ballot-box. But the military stepped in, cancelled the elections and outlawed the main Islamist party.

Had they won, the Algerian Islamists would have electrified the Muslim world, providing an example for others to emulate.

Instead their movement became a kind of martyr. Its failure taught other Islamists salutary lessons. They concluded that the region's secular elites would stop at nothing to keep them from taking power.

Western 'hypocrisy'

And they reflected, ruefully, that the West was hypocritical when it defended democracy and human rights.


if Islamism went onto the defensive in much of the Middle East, further east it was gaining ground

By taking the side of the Algerian generals, Western leaders had shown that democracy was a club which Islamists were not eligible to join.

Most Arab governments drew a different lesson, that if they democratised they risked losing power.

Throughout the 1990s these governments fought back and to a certain extent turned the Islamist tide. In Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Islamist opposition movements of one kind or another were suppressed.

By the end of the decade Western experts were discussing "the failure of political Islam" - the title of an influential book by the French specialist Olivier Roy.

But if Islamism went onto the defensive in much of the Middle East, further east it was gaining ground.

Asian revival

Two very different factors were at work. The collapse of the Soviet Union stimulated an Islamic revival in the Muslim republics of Central Asia.


In their eyes, the only adequate response to a global superpower was a global jihad

During three generations of Soviet rule, religion had been suppressed. Now Islam was able to emerge, a little uncertainly, from the folk museum to which the communists had consigned it.

As elsewhere, Islamic revivalism acquired political overtones. But there was a second and very different factor - the presence on Asian soil of battle-hardened "Arab Afghans".

In the 1980s, one of the last great battles of the Cold War had brought an army of Arab Islamist volunteers to Afghanistan.

After the Soviet defeat some had stayed on, others had returned home, only to discover they were viewed with suspicion.

A process of displacement took place. As the most radical Arab Islamists found themselves squeezed out by repression in their home countries, they sought refuge in Afghanistan.

The country gradually became the training ground of a new generation of radical and fiercely anti-Western Islamists.

Their acknowledged leader in Afghanistan was a young Saudi called Osama Bin Laden. He too had fought the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and, after a brief homecoming, he too had been forced to flee from his own country in the early 1990s.

After spending a few years in Sudan, he returned to Afghanistan in 1996.

Global jihad

This became the new base for his group, Al-Qaeda, a multinational network of Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, Kashmiris and others, dedicated to waging a global jihad against "Crusaders and Jews" - in other words, the United States and Israel.

World Trade Center
The 11 September attacks took the global jihad to a new level

Seen in historical perspective, Al-Qaeda is an extreme offshoot of the movement of political Islam which had emerged in Egypt in the 1920s.

But Bin Laden and his fighters broke with the Islamist mainstream in two important respects. While most Islamists believed in "revolution in one country" - usually their own - the new jihad was internationalist.

Its aim was to fight America not just on American soil, not just in the Middle East, but everywhere. In their eyes, the only adequate response to a global superpower was a global jihad.

But Bin Laden and his men also broke with their colleagues by resorting to violence against civilians on a scale which no other group had envisaged. The brutal climax of their war against America was the attack against New York and Washington on 11 September.

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