Militancy in the Muslim world today is driven by both internal and external factors. However, while debating the causes of this militancy, we generally tend to emphasize only their external dimensions, and, in most cases, altogether ignoring their internal dynamics.
The fact, however, is that whether it is Iraq or Pakistan, most of the violence that we see involves Muslims killing fellow Muslims. The sectarian violence in Iraq and extremist killings in Pakistan are two pertinent examples. There are many others from past times and recent history.
There is no doubt that the US invasion of Iraq and the US-led War on Terror in Afghanistan may have created an environment that has fuelled Shia-Sunni violence in Iraq and the killing of fellow Muslims by pro-Taliban militants in Pakistan. But we can also not preclude the fact that the ultimate victims of this deliberate violence happen to be the Muslims themselves.
We only have to revisit Muslim history, to know that the Muslim-on-Muslim violence is quite an old phenomenon. For instance, we see a stark resemblance between the suicide bombers of today, whose main target are generally fellow Muslims, and the Shia Assassins publicly assassinating important Sunni figures of the Abbasid caliphate in Iraq and Syria from 11th to 13th century.
Yet, nobody then focused on the internal clash within the Muslim world. Instead, most of the historical accounts that we learn from Muslim writers about the reasons for the fall of the great Muslim empire during the medieval period is that it either happened due to Crusades or the Mongol invasion of Baghdad.
The same pattern is visible in the current debate on the causes of agonizing situation in the Muslim world. The popular tendency among Muslim scholars is to see a grand Western conspiracy behind each instance of violence taking place in the Muslim, whether it is between the clashing Muslim clans in Sudan in Darfur, one of which is supported by the Islamist state, or the rival sects even among the Sunnis.
The list of Muslim-on-Muslim violence in recent history is endless, and it predates the events of 9/11. For instance, in the case of Pakistan, we can go back to early 1990s to see scores of instances of violence between rival militant organizations of the Sunnis and Shias. For eight years, Iran and Iraq, the two Muslim countries, fought a full-fledged war. Whether Iraq enjoyed the backing of the West for the purpose is a different thing, and it cannot evade the bitter fact that the victims in both cases were Muslims. Similarly, the intra-Afghan fighting that has gone on in Afghanistan since the late 1980s has also claimed primarily Muslim lives. In the process of spreading a bigoted Hanafi Sunni creed throughout Afghanistan, the Taliban victimized not only fellow Sunnis but also Shia Hazaras and Tajiks.
It is pertinent to recall here as to what Samuel P Huntington wrote in an article titled “The Age of Muslim Wars,” which was published in a special edition of Newsweek, December 2001. It was in this article that the American writer revised his Clash of Civilizations theory by see the principal cause of Muslim range within broader political context.
Huntington wrote: “Muslims fight each other and they fight non-Muslims far more often than do peoples of other civilizations. Muslim wars have replaced the cold war as the principal form of international conflict. These wars include wars of terrorism, guerrilla wars, civil wars and interstate conflicts….it is more likely that violence involving Muslims will remain dispersed, varied and frequent.
“In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, and the ensuing war produced at least 500,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of wounded. At the same time, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan generated vigorous Afghan resistance, which by 1989 compelled the Soviets to withdraw. Then in 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded and attempted to annex Kuwait, and the United States organized an international coalition, including several Muslim countries, to defeat him.
“In the mid-1990s, roughly half the ethnic conflicts in the world involved Muslims fighting each other or non-Muslims. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, 32 armed conflicts were underway in 2000; more than two thirds involved Muslims. Yet Muslims are only about one fifth of the world’s population.”
In her recent book, titled Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West, Benazir Bhutto also discusses Muslim-on-Muslim violence. She writes: “One billion Muslims around the world seemed united in their outrage at the war in Iraq, damning the deaths of Muslims caused by U.S. military intervention without U.N. approval. But there has been little if any similar outrage against the sectarian civil war, which has led to far more casualties. Benazir continues: “Obviously (and embarrassingly), Muslim leaders, masses, and even intellectuals are quite comfortable criticizing outsiders for the harm inflicted on fellow Muslims, but there is deadly silence when they are confronted with Muslim-on-Muslim violence. That kind of criticism is not so politically convenient and certainly not politically correct. Even regarding Darfur, where there is an actual genocide being committed against a Muslim population, there has been a remarkable absence of protests, few objections, and no massive coverage on Arab or South Asian television.”(p 3)
As for the future prospect of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, Benazir writes: “It is my firm belief that, until Muslims revert to the traditional interpretation of Islam — in which ‘you shall have your religion, and I shall have mine’ is respected and adhered to — the factional strife within Muslim countries will continue. Indeed, until Quranic tolerance is reestablished, the key Muslim countries of Pakistan and Iraq will not only continue to weaken them but will continue to threaten to spread inflexible and extremist interpretations elsewhere in the Muslim world. Those who reach the killing of adherents of other sects or religions are damaging Muslim societies as well as threatening non-Muslim societies.” (p 56)
In recent years, a minority of extremists in the Muslim world have deliberately started targeting their moderate Muslim fellows, while simultaneously expanding the criteria by which one can be considered an apostate, blasphemer or heretic, and thus fair game for punishment or death. In their perception, the moderate Muslims get in the way of creating a pure Islamic society. So they become not just moderate Muslims, but the infidel. And, therefore, killing them amounts to fulfilling God’s will.
The current round of the Muslim-on-Muslim violence does not seem to include instances where two Muslim states go to war with each other and is no more confined to examples of Shia-Sunni sectarianism. It is primarily between extremists versus moderates or the rest of the Muslim population.
Given that, the only way to reclaim the truly peaceful and tolerant spirit of Islam is to understand the internal clash between civilized community of majority Muslims and an uncivilized minority of extremist Muslims. The former, the general Muslim population, can hope that eventually it will be the willingness of extremists to kill other Muslims that will be their undoing, since Muslims are the victims of these attacks more than anybody else.
To conclude, Benazir is right when she writes that “the internal clash within the Muslim world is not merely over theology. The real fight is not over the succession to the Holy Prophet that divides the Shiite and Sunni communities. It is certainly not about the language of the Holy Quran. It is not really about the interpretations of Sharia. The extremism and militancy of Muslim-on-Muslim violence is a long battle for the heart and soul of the future not only of a religion but also of the one billion people who practice it. Fundamentally, it is also about whether the Muslim people can survive and prosper in the modern era or whether linkages with traditional interpretations of the sixteenth century will freeze them in the past.” (p 275)
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