The Real Roots of Islamic Extremism
BY STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
discuss this article
In the aftermath of September 11, most scholars, journalists, and other writers
repeated the long-established argument that Islamic anger at the West is a product
of Western oppression of Muslims. Time magazine proclaims that “terrorism is the
bitter howl of the victimized.”
The victimized terrorists are variously thought to be
directing their anger against Western-induced poverty;
the Western-supported rise of Israel; or the Western
imperialism that displaced the Ottoman Empire.
Many writers cite the unarguably tragic fate of
Palestinian refugees after the Israeli declaration of independence
in 1948 as the motive for acts of terrorism
against civilians in Israel and elsewhere, including New
York and Washington. And Islamic extremism is alleged
to be a product of poverty and hopelessness in the Arab
world, which are in turn blamed on U.S. hegemony and
capitalist globalization. Similarly, opponents of the war
in Iraq told us that military action to remove Saddam
Hussein would further aggravate Arab and Muslim frustrations,
spawning more suicide terror.
However, certain persistent facts undermine these
claims. To begin with, no Palestinians participated in the
attacks of September 11. Apart from the ideological
godfather of Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzamm, who
was killed in Pakistan in 1989, few people from
Palestine or Jordan have joined al-Qaida. And Azzam
himself turned to “Islamist” extremism in disgust with
the Marxist, class-driven ideology of Yasir Arafat, al-
Fatah, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who inflicted the horrors of
September 11 were subjects of Saudi Arabia. They did
not grow up in refugee camps, and they did not face
poverty or deprivation. Of the 9/11 terrorists:
- Wael Muhammad al-Shehri, age 25, was a physical
education teacher at an elementary school in the
Kamis Mushayat airbase in Saudi Arabia.
- Waleed al-Shehri, 21, was a dropout from a teachers’
college. His brothers include professional officers in
the Saudi military, including an Air Force pilot.
- Abd’ al-Aziz Abd’ al-Rahman Al-Omari, 23, was a
graduate of Imam Muhammad Bin Sa’ud University, a
prestigious religious institution in Saudi Arabia, and
was a disciple of a senior Saudi cleric.
- Fa’iz Muhammad al-Shehri was an employee of an
official Saudi relief agency.
- Mohned Muhammad Al-Shehri, 24, was a student at
Imam Muhammad Bin Sa’ud University.
- Hamza Saleh al-Ghamdi, 21, traveled extensively in
Pakistan and Afghanistan, using his family’s money,
before coming to the United States.
- Ahmed Ibrahim al-Haznawi al-Ghamdi, 24, was the
son of a leading imam, or mosque leader.
- Ahmed Abd’ Allah al-Nami, 23, was also a student at
Imam Muhammad Bin Sa’ud University.
- Majid Mishaan Moqed al-Qufi al-Harbi, 22, was a
student at the elite King Sa’ud University in Riyadh.
- Hani Saleh Hassan Hanjour was a pilot for Emirates
Airlines, headquartered in the United Arab Emirates.
His father was a military contractor.
- Satam M. A. al-Suqumi, 24, was also a student at King
Sa’ud University in Riyadh.
None of these terrorists was a product of humiliation
or deprivation of any kind.
But even if Palestinians were not directly involved in
September 11, many of them support the terror campaigns
of the Fatah al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Hamas, and
Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Are they not victims of Israel?
Do they not suffer in wretchedness, cooped up in camps?
In reality, the answer is No, for three reasons.
First, most of the Palestinian supporters of terror are
no longer refugees; they are the children and grandchildren
of the refugees of 1948. They are not people who
fled or were driven from their homes, with little or no
preparation for beginning a new life. Rather, they are
young people with the energy, and in many cases the
schooling, to improve their situation by entering the thriving
Israeli economy or by finding new opportunities outside
Israel. Many have benefited from an educational system
established and paid for by Israel, and many have
studied in the best Israeli universities.
Second, the humiliation of Palestinian refugees is now
a matter of history and legend rather than of personal
experience. Thousands of Israeli Arabs, Bedouin, and
Druze citizens have served in the Israeli armed forces.
The tribulations suffered by the original Palestinian
refugees were accutely aggravated by the unwillingness
of neighboring Arab countries to assist them, and by the
even-worse failures of the United Nations. For corrupt
Arab states as well as for the UN, it was easier to leave
the Palestinians living in camps than to offer them economic
opportunities or other means to improve their situation.
Had the Palestinians of 1948 left the camps and
reestablished themselves in neighboring countries, they
would today constitute a prosperous elite. For many Arab
states, however, that would have been inconvenient.
Third and finally, there are no refugee camps today, in
the sense of people living in tents without facilities. All of
the so-called camps are now towns with houses, electric
power, water, and other services. The so-called “refugee
camp” at Jenin, which attracted much attention last year,
is in fact a city with streets, houses, and mosques.
There is another aspect of Arab and Muslim life in
Israel and the occupied territories that goes unmentioned
in the Western media: Israel does not interfere
with the Muslim religion. It does not prevent the call to
prayer from being heard, nor does it obstruct the teaching
and practice of Islam. Under the tenets of traditional
Islam, therefore, Muslims should not object to being
citizens of Israel. Recognition of this fact was the basis
for granting full citizenship to Israeli Arabs, and it is
also the foundation of Arab participation in Israeli elections.
Israeli Arabs have the right to elect their representatives
freely — a right uniformly absent from the
rest of the Arab world.
Palestinian terrorism exists because it is in the interest
of corrupt and oppressive regimes — mainly Iraq
and Saudi Arabia, but also Syria — for it to exist. The
Palestinian cause diverts the attention of Arabs living
under tyrannical misrule from protest against their own
governments. While Israel’s leaders may be worthy of
criticism, they are not alone in responsibility for
Palestinian anger. The rise of Hamas, the Palestinian
fundamentalist Islamist movement, was in great part
stimulated by the Palestinians’ disgust with the extortion,
torture, murder, censorship, and other abuses
afflicted on them by Yasir Arafat.
What, then, of the claim that “Muslim rage” is fueled
by resentment over the decline of Islamic civilization and
the fall of the Ottoman caliphate in the face of Western
imperialism? Here again, we should examine some basic
facts that go unmentioned in the Western media.
The problems of Muslim civilization include 200 years
of domination by foreign states. From 1750 to 1950, the
major and minor European powers ruled over Arab and
Muslim lands. Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, and Italy
carved up the African Muslim dominions. Britain, Serbia,
Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Italy, France, and Russia
sliced pieces off the Ottoman empire, with Britain and
France subdividing the Middle East. Britain further subjugated
the Indian Ocean coasts of the Arabian peninsula,
along with the vast Muslim populations of the Indian subcontinent
and Malaya. Portugal and France also controlled
enclaves in India with Muslim populations. The
Portuguese and Dutch ruled with great cruelty in
Indonesia. The United States took over the Philippines,
with a substantial Muslim population, from Spain. Japan
seized Formosa, now Taiwan, which had long had Muslim
residents. Russia conquered vast tracts of the northern
coast of the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
For two centuries, the global community of Muslims
outside of Persia (now Iran), the Ottoman Empire, and
central Arabia lived under non-Muslim rule. Yet except
for occasional incidents in which foreign imperialists
acted with exceptional violence or incompetence –
including the Spanish and French in North Africa, the
British in India and Sudan, the Christian states in the
Balkans, the United States in the Philippines, and the
Russians in general – non-Muslim domination seldom
led to jihad, or military combat against the invaders.
Britain established a pattern in India: the imperialists
respected local Muslim elites and religious rights, and
Muslims generally accepted their governance.
When the greatest jihad leaders of the nineteenth century,
Abd’ al-Kader al-Jazairi in Algeria and Imam
Shamyl in the Caucasus, launched wars against the
French and Russians respectively, they maintained iron
rules of protection for Jews as well as for Christian noncombatants.
In Algeria, for example, which had large
Jewish and Christian civil communities, Abd’al-Kader
al-Jazairi made sheltering non-Muslims uninvolved in
the struggle the keystone of his jihad. And after his surrender
to the French, al-Jazairi went to Syria, where he
acted to prevent Muslim violence against Christians.
The principled jihads of al-Jazairi and Imam Shamyl,
who remain legendary heroes to Muslims everywhere,
contrast brusquely with the heartless terrorism of Osama
bin Laden. But the fact that Muslims facing humiliation
and even the threat of genocide do not automatically turn
to extremism and terrorism is most dramatically illustrated
by the recent history of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the
war that savaged that country in the 1990s, thousands of
Muslim women and girls were raped, hundreds of thousands
of innocent people were murdered, at least half a
million became refugees, and 2,000 mosques were
destroyed by Serbian forces. Yet the Bosnian Muslims
never turned to terrorism, nor even to an extremist form
of Islam. Not one Christian church or Jewish synagogue
was attacked in the Bosnian Muslim zone. The Bosnian
Muslims looked the same and spoke the same language
as their Serb foes; had they wished to carry a terror war
deep into Serbia, it would have been absurdly easy. The
Bosnian Muslims, like Abd’ al-Kader al-Jazairi and
Imam Shamyl, strictly distinguished between combatants
It is true that humiliation and oppression feed Arabs’
and Muslims’ rage, but their oppression and humiliation
do not originate primarily in Western dominance or
Israeli aggression. Algeria defeated France in the independence
war of the 1950s and 1960s, and has since
experienced no sense of humiliation by the West; indeed,
the Algerians have every right to be proud of their triumph
over colonialism. Yet Algeria was wracked by
Islamist terrorism in the 1990s. How can this phenomenon
be traced to Western evils?
Those who argue that Islamist extremism is a product
of American support for corrupt regimes have a point.
But they overlook the main source of ideology, incitement,
and funds for Islamist terror: the government of
Saudi Arabia. The rulers of the Saudi kingdom now try to
confuse Western opinion by proclaiming that they, too,
are targets of Osama bin Laden, to mask their own complicity
in his financing and organization. In reality,
Islamist terrorism is only in part a protest movement by
Saudi subjects such as Osama bin Laden who are
aggrieved at the monarchy’s alliance with the West. It is,
in much greater part, a phenomenon directly controlled
by the Saudi authorities.
Saudi Arabia is not some ineffably mysterious,
ancient, and traditional society that we must approach
reluctantly, with extreme caution, and at arm’s length –
especially when discussing the need for political change
there. And political change there probably would not
involve a shift to a more extreme Islamist regime.
Saudi Arabia may be the worst example in modern
times of a corrupt and reactionary absolute monarchy
whose rulers have great difficulty perceiving the depth of
the crisis that faces them, as well as the way out of the crisis.
The Saudi royal family can no longer rule in the old
way; and its subjects, with a growing youthful majority,
increasingly refuse to live in the old way. There is nothing
mysterious or novel about this. The same problem characterized
the regime of the Shah of Iran, who was overthrown
in 1979 by followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini
Nor does Saudi Arabia represent anything ancient or
traditional. Saudi Arabia is ruled by an alliance of the
Wahhabi sect, the official Islamic dispensation in the
kingdom, with the house of Sa’ud. This alliance, which
created the monarchy, is only 250 years old. And
Wahhabi Islam is not traditional Islam. It is an extremely
destructive, nihilistic, and radical form of Islam.
Wahhabism preaches an ultra-Puritanical way of life.
Meanwhile the Saudi elite swims in whisky. Wahhabism
claims to be the purest form of Islam, while the Saudi
monarchy depends on secular bayonets for its protection.
These mixed signals, or, more bluntly, these forms
of hypocrisy, have a deranging effect on Saudi society.
But they are also the essential source of Islamist
extremism and terrorism.
To close the gap between Wahhabi blandishments and
Saudi reality, and in a desperate attempt to recover their
credibility — particularly in the 20 years since the emergence
of Khomeini in Iran — the reactionary faction of the
Saudi monarchy has financed terrorism and infiltration in
Central Asia, Pakistan, Kashmir, the Balkans, Algeria,
Egypt, Israel, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, the Philippines,
Indonesia, and, finally, in the ultimate form of al-Qaida.
Yet Saudi Arabia has never been humiliated by the
West. Rather, its rulers have been pampered, coddled, and
bribed by the West. Its dependence on military support
from the United States, the pretext for Qaida terrorism
against Americans, is hardly new. Over its two-and-a-half
centuries of existence, Wahhabism has always depended
on its alliances with Western powers — Britain, France,
and now the United States — to protect its rule in the
Arabian peninsula. At the same time, to its own population,
the Wahhabist regime preaches a toxic mixture of
ferocious separatism, exclusionism, and violence directed
against non-Wahhabi Muslims and non-Muslims. Its
dependence on American aid has led gullible policy
experts in the West to view the Wahhabi faction around
King Fahd and princes Sultan and Nayef as allies, and to
stigmatize all opponents of the regime as extremists.
Far from being extremists, however, dissident Muslims
under Saudi rule generally call for religious liberty – to
accommodate Arab Christians now underground, the
many thousands of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist guest
workers in the kingdom, and foreign Christian and Jewish
visitors. While the right of Christian proselytism would
doubtless remain restricted under their rule, these
Muslim traditionalists see no justification for preventing
Christians from worshipping. The Saudi government
falsely claims that the exclusion of non-Muslim religious
rituals in the Arabian Peninsula reflects Islamic tradition.
But even Qatar, the only other Wahhabi state, has authorized
the construction of new Christian churches—of
which there are many in Bahrein, where Jews and Hindus
also flourish. There is a Hindu temple in Oman.
Even non-extremist Saudi subjects experience politically
induced hopelessness and frustration. But their
resentment does not flow from abject poverty. Saudi
Arabia faces great discontent among its populace. But
this discontent does not reflect a desire, except among the
clerical bureaucracy and the Wahhabi faction of the royal
family, for Wahhabism to be maintained or reinforced.
The vast majority of Saudi subjects are restive because of
First, Shi’a Muslims in the Eastern Province and southern
region are tired of the violent discrimination they have
suffered at the hands of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance.
These Shi’as are not prone to Islamist extremism.
Second, two generations of Saudi subjects are educated
and entrepreneurial. They know how the real world
works, have access to satellite television and the Internet,
and are tired of their ambitions being blocked by the corrupt
and sclerotic Saudi system. They want to live in a
modern society, such as would most resemble Malaysia
— a constitutional and parliamentary Islamic monarchy.
Third, and most significantly, non-Wahhabi Islamic
scholars, especially in Hejaz (the region of Mecca and
Medina), seek the restoration of theological pluralism.
Addressing these three sources of discontent does not
entail a bloody civil war any more than it must lead to
an extremist Saudi state. There is sufficient possibility
for a managed transition to a Malaysian model. Like
King Juan Carlos in Spain, a member of the royal family
such as Crown Prince Abdullah could sever the links
between the monarchy and Wahhabi ideology. Like the
Windsors in Britain, the Saudi royal family could retain
its wealth and even its symbolic status at the head of the
state, but without actually ruling the country. The
Malaysian model could, in these ways, emerge as the
best alternative for Saudi Arabia.
There is no reason to believe that such a regime would
reflect a more extreme Islamist position. None of the elements
that led to the establishment of the Khomeini
regime in Iran are present in Saudi Arabia. Unlike the
Iranian revolutionaries, the Wahhabis do not have a record
of real opposition to the state, nor do they have a tradition
of collective action or of political sophistication in the
management of crises, or even in the exploitation of political
opportunities that appear in times of crisis. Unlike
Iran, Saudi Arabia has produced no unifying, charismatic
figure comparable to Khomeini. And above all, Iran represented
an experiment: Iranians had not experienced
extremist Islamic rule. By contrast, Saudi subjects have
experienced it, under the reign of the Wahhabi Sa’uds —
and they are, for the most part, sick of it.
But while Saudi Arabia need not go the way of Iran
internally, the United States faces the serious threat of
repeating its Iranian error in Saudi Arabia by remaining
faithful to an alleged ally and questionable friend, and
propping up a corrupt regime even as it collapses. That
would be devastating for American credibility, and would
tragically reinforce the Islamist claim that American
power can only support oppressive rulers. U.S. intransigence
in defending the most reactionary elements of the
royal family could produce a less-repressive but much
more anti-American successor government.
Since the Treaty of Versailles that, at least arguably,
ended World War I on such humiliating terms for
Germany that it eventually led to Nazism and World War
II, “humiliation” has become a political and sociological
cliché. But the lineup of terrorists now facing the West
reverses the hierarchy of humiliation that launched World
War II. Nazi Germany was a major world power, dominant
in the European economy. And Italy and Japan were
minor powers that had been victors in the first world war,
but remained embarrassingly behind the other victors
economically. All three coveted the influence and possessions
of dominant Britain, France, Russia, and America.
All three chose war as a means of aggrandizement.
Today, the Palestinians may claim with at least some
credibility that they have been humiliated. But the Iraq of
Saddam Hussein was accommodated, not humiliated, after
the Gulf War; and Saudi Arabia has never been humiliated.
Islamist extremism exists because of the desire of
corrupt and oppressive rulers to maintain themselves in
power. Thus, we should support the democratization of
the Arab and Islamic countries. Democratization need
not involve the West imposing its political model on
these societies. Rather, the Western role should be to
sweep aside the obstacles to modernization and democratization
Above all, the liberation of these societies will be a liberation
of Islam from Saudi-style corruption and oppression.
An Islam liberated from the grip of Saudi Arabia
could correct itself and defeat extremism on its own terms.
discuss this article
Stephen Schwartz is the author,|
most recently, of The Two Faces
of Islam (Doubleday).
on your campus