By Yehuda Bauer, professor emeritus at Hebrew University, is author most
recently of ‘Rethinking the Holocaust’.
November 29, 2002
The interviewer, a young Egyptian woman, Doua Amer (IQRA Arab TV, May 7),
was charming. She introduced the interview by admonishing every Muslim
woman strictly to observe the only true religion.
Then she turned to little Basmallah, aged three and a half: “Do you know about
the Jews?” “Yes.” “Do you like the Jews?” “No.” “Why?” “Because they are
apes and pigs … a Jewish woman tried to poison our Prophet Muhammad.”
A wonderful example of the kind of “humanistic” education that radical
Muslims endow their small children with.
Islam is not a murderous religion, and Muslims are no different from Christians,
Jews, Buddhists, or Confucians. But there arose among them, in the last 50
years or so, a new interpretation of Islam, a radical theology that has been
spreading like cancer among the 1.2 billion or so Muslim believers in the world,
or about a fifth of humanity. Where does it come from? What does it say?
There are conservative, “fundamentalist,” trends in all religions. They tend to be
exclusionary, arguing that anyone who does not share their faith is destined to
roast in hell. They are fanatic in their beliefs, and try to convert everyone else
to their particular dogma. They believe in the literal interpretation and absolute
truth of every word of their sacred texts.
In Christianity, there are the radical evangelical sects, and the right-wing
Catholics; in Judaism, the haredi and Zionist-religious fanatics; in Hinduism, the
radicals who want to turn Indian democracy into an exclusivist Hindu society. In
Islam, there are religious conservatives such as the Wahabis, who in the 18th
century founded the belief system governing modern Saudi Arabia.
The radical Islamists are different. They are a modern phenomenon, founded in
Egypt by Hassan el-Banna in 1928, and given an extreme ideology by Sayyed
Qutb, a man who had spent some time in the US, and had come back
convinced that the West was degenerating, and that the time had come for
Islam to conquer the world.
Qutb published his brochures in the Fifties and early Sixties, until he was
executed by the Nasserist regime in 1966 because his teachings argued against
the existence of Egyptian, and for that matter any other, Arab nationalism.
Radical, totalitarian Islamists demand that the existing Arab national states
should become Islamized, governed by religious (shari’a) law, not by
constitutions, and certainly not by democratic institutions reflecting the will of a
majority. The rulers would be those who are experts in Islamic law.
The aim is to conquer the world and make it Islamic, and an important step
towards that goal is the toppling of the existing Arab national regimes. The final
result would be a utopia of a peaceful mankind, ruled by Islamic religious experts.
Qutb also declared that the Jews were a main enemy of Islam, and should be
destroyed. The cause of all this may well be the frustration of a society that has
fallen behind because of its inability – though attempts were made to overcome
it – to change its rigid traditional and cultural patterns in order to enable
middle-class individualism to develop democratic institutions and scientific and
economic progress. The ensuing mass poverty has apparently caused members
of the intelligentsia and upper classes to develop radical Islamism, and recruit
the foot soldiers for its totalitarian agenda.
Qutb was followed by others, most of them Egyptians; however, one of
the important teachers of radical Islam was Abul Ala el-Maududi, a Pakistani
(died in 1979). The teachings spread. In Saudi Arabia, radical Islam became a
real danger for the corrupt, absolutist Saudi dynasty as it accused the ruling
family of betraying “real” Islamic values. It was out of this cauldron that Osama
bin Laden, and the 15 Saudis who were among the 19 terrorists on September
The Egyptian and most other radical Islamists are Sunni. Parallel to them, the
Khomeini revolution took place in Shi’ite Iran. Some observers believe that the
Iranian regime is moving towards moderation; yet even they will agree that the
radical conservatives are still in power and are vigorous in their attempts to
prevent any such development from taking root.
Trying to destabilize the West, Sunni and Shi’a radicals have now been
cooperating. There is no center to which all these groups owe loyalty – one of
the novel things about this phenomenon is the fact that it is the ideology that is
common, whereas the organizational structure is diffuse. There are more than a
dozen radical groups in Algeria, and an even larger number in Kashmir; but they
maintain loose associations between them, and regard each other as
brothers-in-arms; almost all, if not all, acknowledge their Egyptian, Muslim
Brotherhood, origin. Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine say so openly.
The ultimate aim of all these groups is not only, as some observers have
argued, the eviction of American troops from Islamic lands, especially Saudi
Arabia, or the annihilation of Israel – though these certainly are immediate
targets, and the problems which they represent serve as triggers for radical
Yet, if all US troops were withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, and Israel
defeated, with its Jewish population annihilated – and these are declared
Islamist aims – the main target would still remain: world conquest.
THE PAST hundred years or so has seen three mass movements aiming at
utopias that could only be achieved by world conquest: National Socialism,
Communism, and now radical Islamism (not Islam as such).
There are vast differences between them, to be sure, but there are also
some interesting parallels. All three developed (quasi-) religious ideologies with
sacred texts that were literally interpreted.
National Socialist (Nazi) ideology was believed in “religiously” by very large
numbers of people, and action was guided by its literal interpretation.
Marxist-Leninism was undoubtedly a “religious” belief system, with sacred
texts. So is totalitarian Islamism.
All three aspired, or aspire, to rule over the entire world, promising a
utopia and an apocalyptic end to history. All three were, or are, genocidal.
One may perhaps change the famous saying of British historian Lord Acton and
argue that all utopias are murderous; radical, apocalyptic, universalist utopias
are radically murderous.
The Nazis and Communists targeted Jews then, and radical Islamists do so
now, though each in different ways. The Nazis wanted to murder every single
Jew in the world. The Stalinists wanted to eliminate the Jewish people as a
people, and exile Soviet Jews to Siberia. Osama bin Laden defined his aims in
1998: to kill “Jews and Crusaders” (i.e. Christians).
What is the attitude of the West to these developments? Again, there seems to
be a parallel. In the Thirties, there was sympathy with the aims of a Nazified
Germany trying to undo the “unjust” Versailles treaty system.
In parallel, many intellectuals thought that the Soviet regime was doing
something new and positive – they were to think that way in the Fifties and the
Sixties as well.
The treatment of minorities, especially Jews, was considered to be
unfortunate, but there were excesses in every positive revolution, weren’t there?
Nowadays, there is European lip service to the need to fight international terror,
but many intellectuals and the politicians who represent their thinking in effect
defend the right of the radical Islamists to pursue their agenda – as long as they
don’t attack Europe, but keep their attacks concentrated on the almost
universally hated US, and of course Israel.
In the past, Jews were persecuted as individuals. Now it is easier because one
need not be an anti-Semite; one can simply be in favor of the annihilation of the
collective Jew, Israel.
It is wrong to see in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict either the main reason for the
rise of radical Islamism or, on the other hand, to ignore its impact on radical
Islamists. It is an ethnic, and now increasingly an ethno-religious, conflict, and
like all such conflicts between adversaries that are unable to defeat each other,
can only be solved by a compromise which at the moment the elites on both
Palestinian society is fragmented: radical Islamists, who apparently control
some 30 percent of the population, do not want any political settlement, but
call for the annihilation of Israel, a member state of the UN, and by clear
implication of its inhabitants; Israeli radicals demand, under various guises,
ethnic cleansing and deportations of Palestinians, and by implication,
The Islamic state to which radical Islamists aspire would turn Christian
Palestinians into non-citizens. Other armed militias oppose this, but have joined
the Islamists in suicide murders and terror attacks. The Israelis have responded
with (unintended but terrible) killing of civilians, demolition of houses, curfews
that prevent Palestinians from pursuing normal lives, and denial of civil rights.
The total toll of lives in more than two years of intifada is around the 2,500
mark (about the number of victims of a week’s Hindu-Muslim disturbances in
India, last month); but the issue is not the number of victims, but the damage
done to the two societies.
A political compromise, which is ultimately unavoidable, will undoubtedly help
in the fight against radical Islamism, but will most certainly not end it. The
radical Islamist attack on the Jews is a first, potentially genocidal step.
Ultimately and explicitly, as in similar previous situations, it is directed against
Western civilization as such.
If intellectual, economic and political defense against radical Islamism, and not
just military responses, is postponed because of weak-kneed Western attitudes,
the price paid later will be very high indeed, as was the price the world paid for
the rise of National Socialism and Soviet Communism, if not more so.