In his essay, the well-known Iranian religious intellectual Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari describes the reaction to 9/11 in Iran, highlights some of the root causes of terrorism and suggests how it can meaningfully be countered
I watched the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York on 11th September 2011 on television in Iran's Evin Prison. Although I had a feeling I was witnessing an incredibly pivotal event, I did not grasp just how significant this event, which took place at the start of the third millennium, was, and that it would soon trigger other events and reactions that would shape global politics in the first decades of the new century.
Reactions in Iran
Naturally, responses to the events of 9/11 differed around the world. I would like to focus here specifically on the reactions in Iran. These unexpected and astonishing attacks were seen by the Iranian public as an appalling crime and a human catastrophe and were, for this reason, condemned immediately. At the time, the reformist, moderate government of Mohammad Khatami was in power; the parliament was controlled by a clear majority of reformists; culture, press and politics were all dominated by young intellectuals and defenders of civil society, who were in favour of an improvement in relations with the West and America.
The Iranian president was one of the first heads of government to condemn the 9/11 catastrophe. Ayatollah Montazeri, one of the country's most senior religious leaders, justified his condemnation of the bloodbath on the basis of religious scriptures. The Iranian parliament also condemned the attack.
After some hesitation and in vaguely worded statements, the conservatives and fundamentalists also added their voices to this condemnation. Using his own particular brand of speech, Ayatollah Khamenei, the leader of Iran's fundamentalists, also condemned the attacks.
The young people of Iran in particular very openly demonstrated their sympathy and solidarity with the American people and the families of the victims, which also included a number of Iranians. In a symbolic religious ceremony, young people took to the streets to demonstrate their sympathy, dressed in black and carrying candles. In these circumstances, even if there was any small extremist, anti-Western group that delighted in the terrorist attacks on America, they were not able to show their thoughts and feelings publicly.
Background to the Iranian reaction to 9/11
There are specific historical, cultural and religious reasons for these reactions in Iran and I would like to examine these in more detail now.
By nature, Iranian people do not incline to extremism. If one looks at the 3,000 years of Iranian history and compares and contrasts Iran with its neighbours, this Iranian characteristic is particularly apparent. From the start to the finish of the Sassanid Dynasty, the ancient Iranian religions of the Persian Empire rejected violence and called on their followers to show love and moderation. Zarathustra, Mani and Mazdak contributed much to the dissemination of these principles. The peaceful co-existence of a variety of peoples within the Persian Empire reinforced the spirit of tolerance and acceptance of others.
The Shiite branch of Islam was the second factor that played an effective role in this regard. Although Islam is the most political of the major religions as a result of the Prophet's ten-year rule in Medina in the seventh century, this religion is still fundamentally built on peace and co-existence. Throughout the course of history, the behaviour of Muslims remained inherently tolerant despite their early wars of conquest and internal conflicts. The links between the Shiite religion and Iranian mysticism contributed to this development. Moreover, the spread of philosophical thought in Shiite society further strengthened the inclination to moderation and peaceableness in Iran.
Another factor is the profound knowledge of Western modernism and civilisation. Even though Iranians became acquainted with Western culture later than Muslims in the Middle East and India, they were all the more open to the achievements of the modern world and accepted them more quickly. This is why it is no coincidence that the constitutional revolution of 1906, which led to the establishment of a modern, political order, was the first victorious, political-religious movement in the Middle East. This movement was of such significance that the renowned Egyptian reformer Rashid Rida welcomed it and recommended that the ulema at Al-Azhar emulate the Shiite clerics.
Islam's tradition of peace
Another relevant factor is that Islam as such, regardless of how it may be interpreted, cannot endorse the killing of innocent people under any circumstances. There is no Islamic text that backs up such an action. Yes, there were wars that were waged under the banner of jihad in the early years of Islam, and yes, the Koran called the faithful to jihad in the form of political and military resistance to enemies and warmongers. However, this jihad was intended firstly as a resistance to armed men and soldiers, not to citizens in their houses and homes. Secondly, the war adhered to specific mandatory laws that had to be observed. For example, the Koran states quite explicitly that "if they (the enemy) incline to peace, incline thou also to it" (8.61). Even the fear of an enemy ruse does not justify the refusal of an offer of peace. If a simple soldier, for whatever reason, offers protection to the enemy during a time of war, his Muslim commander must keep this promise and respect his decision. This religious commandment is a clear effort to keep peace and avoid war.
What is even more important is that it instructs the mujaheddin to leave women, children, old people, monks and the followers of other religions – in short, civilians – in peace during all military campaigns and not to prevent them from going about their agricultural business. The Islamic rule of musta'man (people who are granted security) protects the life and limb of all people and all those of other faiths for always. The Koran quite explicitly states: "Whosoever killeth a human being, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind" (5.32).
After all, even traditional, unprogressive Islam has rules for dar al-harb (the house of war) and dar as-salam (the house of peace). These rules cannot simply be broken under any old pretext. It is not clear on what religious pretext Muslim fundamentalists and terrorists lay bombs, carry out suicide bomb attacks and kill innocent, uninvolved people. For them, there are no limits to murder. They indiscriminately kill people in their mosques, homes and churches. If they would at least reveal the theoretical principles on which they base their behaviour, then we would know the religious sources they use to justify their actions. Because of the unfounded behaviour of terrorists who are ascribed to Islam, almost all Muslims in the world reject these actions; the terrorists are anathematised by the Sunni and Shiite ulema.
In Iran, young people, intellectuals and leaders of the political struggle – whether religious or areligious – have long since turned their back on the notion of violence and revolution. They endeavour to reach their democratic goals by civil and peaceful means. The reform efforts of the last decade, especially those of the Green Movement in the past two years, are perfect examples of this behaviour.
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that a small group of Iranian Muslims adhere to extremist and violent ideas. However, it is also clear that these people are associated with the ruling regime, are committing acts of violence with its material and moral support and would not shy away from committing crimes. Although they are Shiites, they resemble Sunni fundamentalists in the Arab world and are influenced by terrorist movements in neighbouring countries. For this reason, they are justifiably referred to in Iran as "Shiite Taliban" and "Shiite al-Qaeda".
The roots of terrorism
Much has been said and written about this new phenomenon and the possibilities of repelling it. However, as long as the social and political causes of this phenomenon are not acknowledged and investigated, we will never know what form defence measures should take, which in turn means that all strategies will fail. The ten-year military struggle against the Taliban and al-Qaeda and the general war on terrorism in the East and the West have not borne fruit. NATO practically admits that it has not reached its objectives in Afghanistan in the fight against the Taliban. The maintenance of the status quo is viewed as a success. Gradually, the realisation is dawning that modern weapons and traditional armies cannot inflict any damage on terrorist ideologies.
It seems to me that the error inherent in the West's analysis of the situation in general and the error made by politicians in particular is that they subjectively seek the causes of fundamentalism and terrorism in Islam and in religious teachings. They use verses of the Koran and passages from traditional texts that have been handed down from generation to generation and the Sharia – all taken out of context – to back up their arguments against the terrorists. When they come across verses in the Koran that deal with jihad, they suggest that these passages should be deleted from the text without delay. If we follow this train of thought to its conclusion, the solution to the problem lies in the publication of millions of Korans without jihad verses. After all, so the reasoning, if the Muslims were to accept this, one would have dealt with the root of the problem and put a stop to the jihadists.
However, if we look more closely, it quickly becomes apparent that this destructive phenomenon is first and foremost a social problem caused by a series of historical, social and economic factors. It will continue to exist as long as the factors that cause it continue to exist. Naturally, subjective and cultural factors that can be traced back to religion play an important role in the emergence of Islamist terrorism and extremism. These factors must also be acknowledged and combated. However, the only way to do this is to realise that it is a social and political problem that can be traced back to objective factors.
We can, of course, continue to use old means to combat terrorism and to view any change in priorities as a mistake. This would ultimately lead to defeat. However, we must understand that fundamentalists around the world – especially the groups that use violence and carry out terrorist suicide bomb attacks – are outside the control of traditional religious institutions and authorities such as mosques and recognised legal scholars. These fundamentalists do not recognise the latter's fatwas and believe that these religious leaders have allied themselves with the Western enemy or are, at best, remaining silent on their conservative beliefs in the face of foreign dominance and the enemies of Islam, which means that they should be considered traitors.
They even claim that these religious scholars have renounced their religion and must be punished as infidels (the group that assassinated the former Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, also adhered to this belief). It is no coincidence that right from the beginning until the present day (from the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hasan al-Banna in Alexandria in 1928 to the establishment of al-Qaeda by Osama bin Laden), none of the leaders and founders of extremist and terrorist groups have been clerics; many of them have even held university degrees from Western universities.
For example, Shukri Mustafa, leader of Takfir wal-Hijra, studied engineering, while Abbas Madani, leader of al-Amal al-Islami in Algeria, held a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford. Most young people who commit acts of terrorism in the West (including the nineteen terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks) either come from the West or were trained in the West and have no organisational or spiritual links to traditional religious institutes. If, once in a while, a low-ranking cleric comes to our attention, preaching extremism in a mosque, he is an exception that proves the rule.
Religion as a smokescreen
For this reason, I would like to stress that extremist groups that preach and perpetrate violence are not listening to the teachings of religion and the instructions of religious leaders. They are, in fact, much more under the influence of their social environment and family upbringing. Religion is a smokescreen for all other ideas, which are fed from other sources with particular political intent. I am not saying that these people are not Muslims; many of them are undoubtedly fanatical followers of their religion.
What I am saying is that in particular the young people among them do not have a profound knowledge of their religion and are influenced by certain social factors, which means that political groups can take advantage of their ignorance and fanaticism to their own unlawful, political ends. However, this does not mean that we should not properly investigate religious teachings and traditional dogmas. It is my opinion that a number of important factors influence this kind of Islamic fundamentalism – which is itself a modern phenomenon – in a particularly sustainable manner:
Although colonialism and colonies do not currently exist in their traditional form, the old wounds they caused are certainly far from healed. Today's generation, in particular the second and third generation of young people growing up in Western countries, do not, of course, have any direct experience of the colonial era. However, the historical awareness of their parents in India, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Iraq etc. ensure that this bitter legacy is handed down from generation to generation. After the establishment of the East India Company by the British in the year 1605, the British Empire's attempts to establish hegemony in India and in the East and Napoleon's landing in Egypt in 1798 – all of which led to colonial rule in India and the countries of the Arab world – almost all Islamic countries were ruled either directly or indirectly by Western powers such as the British, the French, the Belgians, the Dutch or the Italians for more than two hundred years. At present, the United States of America dominates and occupies part of the Islamic world in a different way. This historic event is not so trivial as to allow it to be wiped from the collective memory of those affected by it. It is no coincidence that most Muslim terrorists come from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It is a fact that ignorance, poverty and backwardness (in other words civilisational underdevelopment) are the main causes of extremism, a willingness to commit violence and criminal behaviour around the world. For this reason, there is a direct link between crime and cultural, economic and political poverty. The concentration of crime in the outskirts of major cities confirms this theory. Almost all Islamic countries – Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular – suffer from the effects of backwardness across the board. Although these countries are ruled by largely secular, non-religious regimes, and the political elite in these countries has for some time now been generally secular, Western and modern in their orientation (especially since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1924), no social, political and economic development worth speaking of has occurred there for a number of reasons (including the ruling dictatorships in these countries). The people in these countries are becoming increasingly aware of the gulf between the countries of the North and the countries of the South. They hold Europeans and Americans responsible for this state of affairs and consider their own governments and political leaders incompetent, viewing them with hate-filled mistrust.
Israel and the Palestinian tragedy
I don't think anyone doubts that the Palestinian tragedy and the foundation of the Jewish state in the Middle East sixty years ago were important factors in the emergence and spread of fundamentalist and radical thought in the Islamic world. Even a summary glance at the recent history of the region since the occupation of Palestine during the First World War, the political and military conflicts in the region over the course of the three decades that saw the arrival of Zionist and Jewish immigrants and invaders and preceded the foundation of the state of Israel in Palestine after the Second World War in 1948, and the events that followed, clearly shows the extent to which the Islamic and Arab radicalism of recent decades was shaped by these developments.
There can be no doubt that the problem of fundamentalism and radical anti-Western and anti-Israeli thought among Arabs in the region, and among Muslims in the West, cannot be solved until such time as a just peace is brought about, a peace that guarantees the basic rights of the Palestinians and the foundation of an independent Palestinian state.
If the Western states and the United Nations are not in a position to eradicate the mental and social consequences of colonialism, they should at least try to bring about real and lasting peace in Palestine and to stop Israel continuing its settlement policy. Otherwise the war on terror will lead to nothing.
The road to the future
The events of 9/11 were a major catastrophe, the consequences of which cannot be overlooked either in the United States or around the world. It seems very likely that the catastrophic consequences will continue to shape our lives in the future. For this reason, it is essential to understand the causes of this new fundamentalism among Muslims and the terrorist and criminal actions that threaten the lives of the people in the East and the West, and to describe them comprehensively and in detail in order to counter this destructive phenomenon with appropriate means. Quite apart from the fact that we are dealing not only with Islamic fundamentalists, but also with all other religious and non-religious fundamentalists too – including Jewish and Christian fundamentalists – simplification of the problem will not contribute to its solution. At the very least, the developed states of the Western world must, on the one hand, work for a just peace that is acceptable to both sides in Palestine and, on the other, stand up in a credible way for progress and real development in the Middle East, in other words for freedom, democracy and the observance of human rights. We all know that the world has become so small that there can only be security and peace for everyone or for no one.
Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari
Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari is a Shiite cleric who was imprisoned in Iran for his liberal, democratic views. He has translated texts by the Egyptian reformist thinker Hamid Abuzaid into Farsi. He is one of Iran's so-called "religious intellectuals".
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Editor: Charlotte Collins/Qantara.de