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An Alternative Explanation to Islamic Extremism - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Is it necessary for an Islamic extremist to grow a beard, shave his moustache, wear traditional dress, and use violent fundamentalist terminology in the manner of the terrorist parodied in the film Al Irhabi (the terrorist) starring Adil Imam?

I asked myself this question as I read about the arrest of Luay Sakra, a young Syrian man taken into custody last week in Turkey for allegedly planning to carry out bombings and terrorist attacks in Istanbul. I read in Turkish publication how Sakra had met Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq. He was quoted as saying he received training in explosives at a military camp affiliated with al Qaeda, in northern Iraq. Turkish security sources stated the suspect was the head of al Qaeda in Turkey. He is also believed to have played a role in the Istanbul bombings in November 2003, which killed more than 60 people.

According to news reports, Sakra told investigators he did not know Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts but would not reveal any information he had on the matter even under extreme duress.

So far, the story resembles countless other accounts of Islamist terrorists; here is a young man who received training in an al Qaeda camp. What is striking, however, is the normality of the suspect. I can imagine meeting the man in the street, watching him support his football team, or seeing him walk around Istanbul, Paris, or Beirut, with one arm around his girlfriend, a typical Latin lover!

This is because Luay Sakra is a womanizer who doesn’t pray and who drinks alcoholic beverages! He is far from being a typical terrorist as portrayed in Egyptian movies.

Let us continue our reading of the Turkish media. The police discovered large quantities of weapons stored in a house the suspect had bought with a friend in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya where they lived with three women. The Turkish Hurriyet newspaper reported Sakra admitting he did not pray and enjoyed drinking.

Let me rephrase my question: Do we have in front of us an Islamist extremist which we”ve been unable to spot? Is this a case of disguised fundamentalism or is the potential for violence and terror present in everyone, ready to come out once the individual is in crisis?

I hope no one jumps to conclusions and mentions politics and the injustice that Muslims currently experience due to the policies of the western and eastern worlds which drive a young man who cohabitates with women and drinks to attend al Qaeda military camps, meet al Zarqawi, and refuse to sell-out bin Laden.

The argument above is only a partial and superficial explanation for the rise in Islamic extremism. Those who hold such views are ignorant of many aspects of our culture.

More significantly, it is abused by some Arab writers and scholars who have a personal dislike to the west and non-revolutionary regimes in their region, especially here in London, as they seek to exploit extremism for their own ideological and intellectual gains; they want to show bin Laden is a natural response to an unacceptable political situation in the Arab world.

One finds them authoring lengthy articles condemning the loss of personal freedoms in Britain and the attack on civil liberties in the world’s oldest democracy. They criticize Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plans to combat extremism and tighten the grip on the preachers of hate such as Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Qatada. They also demand these religious figures who support al Qaeda have the right to express their views in accordance with the principle of freedom of expression.

Their logic is undoubtedly faulty. It keeps the terrorists on their side as a back up, so they can continue to write articles and make statements when a terrorist attack is carried out by a young man who lacks the critical ability to reject extremist ideologies publicized by some Islamist leaders in London.

As soon as terrorism strikes, these opportunist journalists speak out: “Didn’t we tell you? Terrorism will not cease until foreign troops withdraw from Iraq and return it to Saddam Hussein or al Zarqawi.” At times, feeling vindicated, they might denounce critics of terrorism who regard indiscriminate religious violence as an ideology. These journalists will also repeat that terrorism can only be understood in a social, political, and economic context; they will blame the occupation of Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, as well as the absence of democracy in a corrupt Arab world.

According to these men and women, politics is to blame as ideology is only a reflection of the crisis in our region! They also claim it is a waste of time or sheer ignorance to say otherwise.

This line of thinking suffers from a major fault; its authors lack an understanding of the subject they are commenting on!

They are unfamiliar with the history of modern- day Islamic movements starting with the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. In his book “Political Movements in Egypt from 1945 to 1952” Tariq al Bashri, says the group epitomized an intellectual current which sought to preservation local identity and resist westernization by relying on religious identity.

The problem which precedes the rise of the Brotherhood is due to a personal crisis when a narcissistic person feels angry and resentful at the lack of true guidance in the society around him. This sheds light on the slightly different cases of the Muslim Brotherhood, the rise of Mawdudi, the revolution of Juhaiman, the defiance of the Brotherhood in Syria, the appearance of the latter in Palestine prior to the establishment of Israel, and the series of violent Islamist actions such as: the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the attempt on the life of Najib Mahfouz, the murder of Faraj Fouda, the intimidation of Nasser Abu Zaid, the threats against al Qomni, the appearance of the burka, and the popularity of the hijab which replaced national dress form the Atlantic ocean to Afghanistan.

It also explains the infatuation and confusion of so many young men and women who listen attentively to present day preachers who instill in them a lust for a missing Islamic utopian society.

This is very different form the explanations provided by journalists in London and their supports who are absorbed in the present moment. If we were to respond to their erroneous advice, we would be stuck in a present time we have much to criticize about. No one can deny the importance of modern day politics in swaying terrorists but this is only part of a wider picture. As times change, these writers will undoubtedly latch on to another reason and use it to explain terrorism.

So far, we have been unable to address the intellectual crisis that produces men such as Luay Sakra, Ziyad al Jarrah, and Mohammed Atta, and lowers their resistance to revolutionary extremist ideologies.

The Arab world is currently suffering form an identity crisis as we have been unable to digest modernity. Sadly, this difficulty has become, for some of our wounded elites, a source of pride in our culture that has so far successfully resisted westernization.

The scene today is one of self-destruction and chaos. I fear this will remain the case for some time to come…

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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