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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 November 2005, 11:14 GMT
How Islam got political: Afghanistan
By Mukul Devichand
BBC Radio Four's Analysis programme

Afghan fighters: International holy war
The growth of political Islam is one of the most important ideological events of the past century.
In these features, BBC Radio Four's Analysis programme charts the growth of this ideology - and its stunning effects around the world, including Britain.
Islam is a faith and code of conduct for over a billion people worldwide. But for some, Islam is also a political project. On these pages, you can read and hear the history of political Islam's development.

Koran and Country: How Islam got Political is broadcast on BBC Radio Four on Thursday 10 November at 8pm.

In 1989 the Soviet Army left Afghanistan - a world superpower beaten back by a guerrilla army funded and equipped by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US.

The 'infidel' communists had been defeated by the divinely-guided mujahideen, Afghan Muslims backed by Arab volunteers, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It galvanised sentiment around the world, everywhere from Indonesia to the United States," says writer and terrorism expert Evan Kohlman.

"Militant Islamists were saying 'here's our opportunity. We've been looking for a revolution that will carry the banner of Islam all over the world.'"

I was very happy to be there - it was a chance to prove to God that you were a real Muslim
Noman Benotman, Afghan volunteer
"And here it was - the first opening blow, a chance for political Islamists around the world to really win a major victory on their behalf and to start the ball rolling.

'It was the boulder that got the whole process moving," he says.

But in Afghanistan the fighting did not end with the Soviet defeat. The mujahedeen were determined to oust the Afghan communists left in power by Moscow and volunteers continued to pour in from around the Arab world.

One such volunteer was Noman Benotman who left Libya to join the jihad a few months after the Russians had left. It was a stark contrast to his life as a student in Tripoli.

Political experiment

The Mujahideen didn't just want to drive out the communists. For them, Afghanistan was a chance to make political Islam - and the dream of an Islamic state - into a reality.

Map: Bin Laden helped create Islamic regime
The mujahedeen eventually took Afghanistan's capital Kabul in 1992. But it was something of a pyrrhic victory.

Instead of founding their ideal Islamic state, a bloody civil war dragged on, with Muslim fighting Muslim and rocket attacks taking a terrible toll on Kabul's residents.

Yet despite this mounting death toll, the story of the "great Islamic victory" over the communists continued to be told around the world.

The Afghans weren't the only people arguing amongst themselves. Among the Arab mujihadeen in Afghanistan, there had been a split over what direction the jihad should now take. This was to have global repercussions.

Some argued for a course of violence and others were against it. A rift developed between Osama Bin Laden, an emerging leader from Saudi Arabia, and his former mentor Abdullah Azzam and the latter was assassinated.

The Libyan fighter Noman Benotman and the Muslim Brotherhood activist Kamal Helbawy, interviewed for the Analysis programme, both had an insider's view of the politics behind the scenes.

Mr Helbawy's job in Afghanistan had been to work with Mawdudi's followers and, as an adviser, he came to meet Bin Laden whose reputation has been forged during the defeat of the Soviet Union.

Both Mr Benotman and Mr Helbawy thought Bin Laden impressive - but they also noticed he was becoming more radical.

Bin Laden's views

Bin Laden's views hardened with the first Gulf War in 1991. He had offered the Saudi princes the services of his battle-hardened mujahideen - but the Saudis choose to invite in America.

The difference of views was there - a lot of people would like to deny it
Afghan veterans
Bin Laden never forgave them and his developing movement, 'Al-Qaeda', began to turn its sights on the Western presence in the Middle East.

But the Arab fighters who remained in Afghanistan in the 1990s did not necessarily owe allegiance to Al-Qaeda or to Bin Laden. Many remained in their national groups, setting up training camps with the aim of toppling what they saw as their own corrupt and apostate national governments.

Noman Benotman was one of the leaders of "the Muqatilah", or Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, with a camp of some 800 fighters near the Pakistan border.

Afghanistan had become a unique opportunity for groups like his to arm themselves and develop revolutionary tactics.

"Afghanistan was like a gift from the sky - it was an unbelievable chance," Benotman recalls.

"If you take it from any angle, how to recruit, kill people, develop a jihad ideology. It was all there in Afghanistan."

Other Islamist movements sought to gain influence elsewhere, particularly in Algeria and the Palestinian territories.

But for British Muslims, by far the most significant event was the break-up of Yugoslavia and the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina where they witnessed atrocities were being committed against white, European Muslims.


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