July 30th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: In the name of Allah, the wise and the merciful

EDITORIAL: Islamist terrorism: what it signifies

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Dangers of a national ID card

BIOETHICS: Review of human cloning and embryo experimentation

DRUGS CONFERENCE: Tougher approach on drugs urged

WOMEN'S HEALTH: Conspiracy of silence about breast cancer

WORKPLACE RELATIONS: New workplace reforms: the devil is in the detail

SUGAR INDUSTRY: Ethanol coming: but nothing for farmers

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: How to help countries to prosper

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Immigration - who cleans up? / Copping payback / To be or not to be? / Terrorism as ideology

CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: The Judeo-Christian legacy

CONSERVATION: Conservation vs. environmentalism

A national ID card? (letter)

Chirac's untimely taunts (letter)

Max wrong on tax (letter)

Revenue-raising stunt (letter)

BOOKS: CIVIL PASSIONS: Selected Writings, by Martin Krygier

BOOKS: BOY SOLDIERS OF THE GREAT WAR: Their own stories for the first time, by Richard van Emden

Books promotion page

Islamist terrorism: what it signifies

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, July 30, 2005
What is disturbing about the recent London bombing is the lack of criticism by most Islamic leaders, writes Peter Westmore.

The suicide bombings on the London Underground raise serious questions for Australia, and more generally, for other pro-Western nations which have been trying to curb Islamic extremism in the Middle-East and its export to the West.

It should be said that terrorism is not new - either in the West, or in the Middle-East.

In the West, the use of terrorism as a political weapon in the modern world was formally adopted by revolutionary anarchists of the late 1800s, and is associated with the Russian, Peter Kropotkin, and the Italian, Errico Malatesta. The Anarchists' slogan, "propaganda by deed", described the tactic of using targeted bombings and political assassinations to achieve political change.

Between 1880 and 1900, anarchists perpetrated a number of assassinations of European royalty and political leaders, including prime ministers and presidents, in countries as diverse as Russia, France, Spain and Austria.

Serbian terrorist

The tactic later spread, and was employed by the Bosnian Serb, Gavril Princip, a member of a terrorist network, to assassinate the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914, triggering World War I.

It was employed selectively by both nationalists and communists in many countries, particularly in the Third World, from the 1920s onwards. In the 1970s and 1980s, terrorism was employed by left-wing extremists in Italy (the Red Brigades), Germany (the Baader-Meinhof gang), and the US (the Weathermen).

History tells us that each terrorist wave ended as a result of effective law enforcement, rather than the removal of their causes.

Its use in the Islamic world was formalised by Osama bin Laden's organisation, al Qaeda, which was established in the 1980s in Afghanistan. Its aim is to establish a pan-Islamic Caliphate - a form of government that combines both religion and state under the rule of one religious leader - throughout the world.

Al Qaeda works with Islamic extremist groups to overthrow regimes it deems "non-Islamic", and seeks to expel Westerners and non-Muslims from Muslim countries.

Over the past 10 years, it bombed US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and attacked the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, before launching its devastating attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, using suicide bombers who had hijacked four aircraft.

Numerous later attacks have included bombings in Bali, Jakarta, Israel, Moscow, Madrid, Istanbul, and Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, as well as innumerable attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda cells are believed to have several thousand members, in many countries around the world.

After the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, al Qaeda's network has been decentralised, with different cells operating autonomously. This is the reason why the British cell was able to recruit young Muslim men, born in Britain, for the recent terrorist attack on the London Underground.

What is most surprising about the British attack is the lack of criticism by most Islamic leaders. (The Internet-based Islam OnLine web site has explicitly rejected terrorism, but from most others, there has been either silence or ambiguity.)

One American writer asked, "Where are the Muslim clerics - in the United States, Europe and the Middle East - who should be joining together to make the distinction [between good and evil] with loud unanimity? Where are their fatwas against suicide murder? Where are the authoritative communal declarations that these crimes are contrary to Islam?"

In recent years, this silence has allowed terrorists to claim that they are acting in accordance with the tenets of Islam, and extremists to recruit young men to act as suicide bombers.

The problem is that there is no clear authority structure in Islam, so every mullah, the head of each mosque, has authority within the community which is recognised by others.

Unlike Christianity, which from its earliest days, has been the subject of self-examination and often fierce debate, Islam's sacred texts have never been open to interpretation; the divisions which exist in Islam are historical and structural, rather than theological.

Richard W. Bulliet, professor of history at Columbia University, identified the problem in these terms: "Today's crisis grows in part out of the structure of Islam itself - a faith without denominations, hierarchies, and centralized institutions."

He added, "The absence of such structures has been a source of strength that has permitted the faith to adapt to local conditions and win converts around the world. But it is also a weakness that makes it difficult for Muslims to come together and speak with one voice on important issues - to say what is and what is not true Islam."

If this is true, it explains why there will be no effective rejection of extremism from within Islam. This is not just a problem for Muslims, but for the rest of the world as well.

  • Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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