The Fatwa

Ayatollah Khomeini and the legacy of the Salman Rushdie affair. 

A frail old man, wearing a black turban and ankle-length robes, stepped out of an Air France 747 into a chill February morning. His back hunched, he clutched the arm of a steward as he took faltering steps down a portable ramp to touch Iranian soil. After 15 years in exile, Ruhollah Khomeini had come home, the 78-year-old spiritual leader of a popular revolution that had toppled the shah of Iran and humbled SAVAK, his American-backed secret police force. Several million people from all across the country thronged into the capital to welcome the ayatollah, lining the 20-mile route out to Behesht-Zahra cemetery, where many of the martyrs of the revolution were buried. "The holy one has come!" they shouted triumphantly. "He is the light of our lives!" At the cemetery Khomeini prayed and delivered a 30-minute funeral oration for the dead. Then a boys' chorus sang, "May every drop of their blood turn to tulips and grow forever. Arise! Arise! Arise!"

In the decade between Khomeini's return to Tehran and the imposition of his fatwa on Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses -- and it was almost 10 years to the day that the one followed the other -- Islamism mutated from being a minor irritant to nationalist regimes in Muslim countries into a major threat to the West. The Rushdie affair, and the fatwa in particular, seemed like a warning that the seeds of the Iranian revolution were being successfully scattered across the globe, not least into the heart of the secular West.

And yet the fatwa was an expression as much of the failure of radical Islam as of its success. In 1989, the radicals in Tehran were on the defensive. Iran had been forced, the previous year, to abandon a bitter and bloody eight-year war against Iraq that cost the lives of up to a million Iranians. Khomeini was facing increased domestic opposition from reformers such as the speaker of the parliament, Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had condemned the "shortsightedness" of Iranian foreign policy for "making enemies without reason" and was pushing for improved relations with the West.

The fatwa was an attempt by the radicals to regain the initiative. And it set a template for what was to happen over the next two decades: the political failure of radical Islam matched by an increasing turn toward violence and terrorism -- and matched, too, by exaggerated fears in the West about the threat it was facing.

Through the 1990s, Islamist parties grew in influence in Turkey, Palestine, and elsewhere, shaking the very foundations of secular government. In Algeria a vicious and bloody civil war broke out in 1991 between the Groupe Islamique Armé and the secular military government, a war that spilled over into acts of terror in France. The Taliban imposed its medieval rule on Afghanistan. The creation of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon posed a mortal threat not just to Israel but also to secular organizations such as the PLO. Radical groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir gained a foothold within Muslim communities in Western Europe. And terror worked itself into the political landscape, from suicide bombings in Palestine and Lebanon, to bombings on the Paris Métro, the attack on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and eventually the horror of 9/11.

While all this was happening, the Berlin Wall collapsed, and with it the vision of global socialism. Many young Muslims who had previously been attached to left-wing radical movements were now left politically homeless and searching for new ideological shelter. The collapse of the Soviet Union had also opened the way for the umma physically to extend its reach beyond the old Iron Curtain to embrace the new Muslim states of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans.

Many analysts expected Islamists to sweep to power across the world. The former U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Christopher Ross, who in the wake of 9/11 would become a "special coordinator for public diplomacy and public affairs," declared in 1993 that the Middle and Near East were "fated to witness a wave of Islamist revolutions, successful or failed, over the next decade." A decade later, a CIA report predicted that Islamists would "come to power in states that are beginning to become pluralist and in which entrenched secular elites have lost their appeal."

It never happened. There was no second Iranian revolution. In places like Egypt, Jordan, and Malaysia, where the Islamists once held high hopes of repeating Khomeini's success, their influence has been curtailed, admittedly often through brutal repression. Outside of the rare cases where social convulsions shaped the political landscape for a short period, such as in Algeria in 1991, when elections took place on the eve of civil war, and with the single exception of Hamas in Gaza in 2006 (and the disputed Iranian elections of 2009), no Islamist party has ever won more than 20 percent of the popular vote. Parties that have broken through the 20 percent barrier (in Algeria, Tunisia, and Turkey, for instance) have done so largely by shedding their Islamist trappings, renouncing their dreams of a caliphate, and becoming ordinary political parties with Muslim leanings -- and in the process often becoming better democrats than the secularists they toppled.

We are left, then, with a paradox. On the one hand, Western societies have become increasingly fearful of Islamic terror, and politicians and commentators often talk as if the West is under siege from radical Islam. From the Rushdie affair to the electoral success of Hamas in Gaza, from the worldwide protests over the Danish cartoons to the increasing calls for the introduction of sharia law not just in Muslim countries but in secular Western nations too, Muslims seem increasingly drawn to radical arguments. On the other hand, not only has Tehran failed to export its revolution, but Islamist parties have mostly failed to win mass support. "For all its political successes in the 1970s and 1980s," Gilles Kepel writes in Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, "by the end of the twentieth century the Islamist movement had signally failed to retain political power in the Muslim world, in spite of the hopes of supporters and the forebodings of enemies."

How can we explain this paradox? Terror is an expression of the impotence of Islamism; unable to win for themselves a mass following, jihadists have become impresarios of death, forced into spectacular displays of violence to gain the attention they cannot win through political means. Nothing reveals the moral squalor of radical Islam better than its celebration of the suicide bomber. Traditional political and military movements nurtured as their greatest asset the people who supported them. For jihadists, people are like firecrackers to be lit and tossed away.

And yet this weakness has been transformed into strength by the political uncertainty and self-doubt that has seeped into Western societies. The key question, as Bill Durodie, senior fellow in Human Security at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, writes in a 2007 essay, is not "what it is that attracts a minority from a variety of backgrounds, including some who are relatively privileged, to fringe Islamist organizations, but what it is about our own societies and culture that fails to provide aspirational, educated, and energetic young individuals with a clear sense of purpose."

The initial campaign against The Satanic Verses had minimal impact and drew little support from Muslim communities beyond Britain and the Indian subcontinent. It was Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa that drew global headlines. But the fatwa itself was a sign of weakness rather than of strength, an attempt by Khomeini to distract attention from defeat in the war with Iraq and the erosion of political support at home. In the West, it was not theological distress about blasphemy but political despair about belongingness and identity that stoked up anti-Rushdie sentiment.

One of the myths of the Rushdie affair is that the anti-Rushdie campaigners were all male, middle aged, poorly-educated, badly integrated, and devout to the point of blindness. Many were indeed like that. But many, equally, were young, left-wing, articulate, educated, and integrated. Few of these were religious, let alone fundamentalist. They were more familiar with the pub than with the mosque, had probably read Midnight's Children with more interest than they had the Quran, and were more likely to be clutching a packet of Durex than the Holy Book. Many had, like me, been involved in anti-racist campaigning in the 1980s. Many, indeed, had been my friends. And for many, Salman Rushdie had been a hero: In the early 1980s Rushdie was better known for his anti-racist rhetoric than for his incendiary assaults on Islam.

So why were people like this drawn to the anti-Rushdie campaign? Partly because of anger at the level of racism they faced. Partly because of disenchantment with the left with which many were involved. And partly because of the growth of multiculturalism as an official political policy. Multicultural policies suggested the inability, even unwillingness, of British politicians and institutions to reach out to young Asians as citizens rather than as members of a "community of communities." It suggested, too, the abandonment by many politicians of basic liberal notions of equality, individual rights, and freedom of expression. The reluctance of politicians to speak to their resentments, the aversion of many to a language of common citizenship, and the willingness to appease Islamist sentiments in the name of multiculturalism, inevitably pushed many young Muslims toward an Islamist identity, even if there was little within that identity to pull them in.

What is true of the response to the fatwa is equally true of the response to the jihad. On 9/11, the hijacked planes tore into the fabric, not simply of the World Trade Center and of the Pentagon, but also of Western self-assurance. "If a flight full of commuters can be turned into a missile of war," observed the New York Times, "then everything is dangerous." This erosion of self-belief, as much as the reality of the threat facing the West, has created a culture of fear, connecting the burning of Rushdie's book to the burning towers in Manhattan. Islam, as Olivier Roy has written, "is not the cause of the crisis" in the West; it is rather "a mirror in which the West projects its own identity crisis."

An assertive, self-confident society that possessed moral clarity about its beliefs would have little trouble dealing with the claims of fundamentalists, and indeed with the acts of terrorists. The insecurities of Western societies about the worth of basic liberal values and the emergence of fear as a dominant sentiment, have, however, made Islamists appear more potent than they are. "Vulnerability is never the best proof of strength," as the Muslim philosopher, and spokesman for the anti-Rushdie campaigners, Shabbir Akhtar put in his book Be Careful with Muhammad, mocking the doubts of Western liberals. From fatwa to jihad, Western politicians and intellectuals have not only exaggerated the threat facing their societies but have also lacked the moral and political resources to respond to it. That is the real lesson of the past two decades.



Big Brotherhood Is Watching

America's clumsy, misguided attempts to reach out to European Muslims.

In late 2005, the U.S. State Department decided that European Muslims needed America's help. Too many were living in parallel societies, cut off from the mainstream. Extremism and violence were rampant; it was no coincidence that three of the four 9/11 hijacker pilots had been radicalized in Europe or that Islamist terrorists had killed hundreds in London and Madrid. What Europe needed, the State Department figured, was help to set up an international network "to discuss alienation and extremism."

The idea was intriguing. The United States was the target of Islamic radicals, but its own communities seemed to have not produced the violence found in Europe. Experts had long debated the reasons for this. Some cited the fact that often the Muslims who immigrated to the United States either had jobs or planned to study. In Europe, by contrast, Muslims had come to work in industrial jobs that didn't exist anymore. They had working-class levels of education and lacked the skills to find new employment, leaving many frustrated, with too much time on their hands. Social services were thought to be related to the problem. In the United States, unemployed Muslims had few welfare benefits to help them out. If they wanted to survive, they had to work long hours. In Europe those who lacked employment could claim relatively generous welfare benefits and have time to indulge in extremist politics. Other explanations were batted around too: that Islamic violence was largely an Arab and Pakistani phenomenon; whereas a high percentage of Muslims in Europe had immigrated from these regions, those in the United States represented a broader array of homelands.

But no one made the single argument that informed the State Department's plan: that the United States had better Muslim leadership. A State Department-sponsored conference in November 2005 brought together 65 Belgian Muslims and U.S. tutors from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The U.S. diplomats thought so highly of ISNA that it seems to have been appointed as a co-organizer of the conference.

From a historical perspective, this was almost comical -- a case of taking coal to Newcastle. ISNA was founded by people with extremely close ties to the European leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni alliance with an influential and complex presence on the continent. The State Department was importing Muslim Brotherhood Islamists with roots in Europe to tell European Muslims how to organize and integrate. Even more interesting, some of those European Muslims invited to the conference were themselves part of the current Muslim Brotherhood network.

One participant was a Belgian convert named Michael Privot, who at the time was vice president of a Saudi-Muslim Brotherhood organization called the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations. This body was founded with direct support from the Muslim Brotherhood's umbrella organization in Europe, the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe. Privot was also vice secretary of the Complex Educatif et Culturel Islamique de Verviers, a center of Muslim Brotherhood activity in Brussels. It was also the home of one of Hamas's fund-raising groups, the Al-Aqsa Foundation (a group banned in several European countries, including Germany and Holland, for supporting terrorism). The meeting offered a chance for Muslim Brotherhood activists like Privot to meet their U.S. counterparts. In addition, the State Department helped bring Belgian Muslims to the United States -- to be trained as imams by ISNA and to participate in an ISNA summer program in Chicago. In short, it was a networking session for the Muslim Brotherhood -- paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

State Department officials acknowledged that they had invited people accused of extremism but said they did not care about track records. Instead, all that mattered were the groups' or individuals' current statements. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Tom Korologos, said, "Some of the organizations whose members participated in the Conference have been accused of being extremist. It is possible that some individual members of those organizations have made statements that have been termed extremist. Our view, however, was to base our selection on the stated policies and specific actions of organizations and individuals today with regard to harmonious Muslim integration into American and European society." And then, with a rhetorical flourish, he concluded that "four or five more conferences like this can lead to a network of moderate Muslims."

In internal communication, however, Korologos's staff revealed a less altruistic goal. In one cable sent at the end of 2006, the U.S. embassy in Brussels conceded that "the embassy's engagement with Belgian Muslims is seen by some members of the majority community, and some Muslims also, as interference in Belgium's internal affairs." This was justified, the cable concluded, not to build a network of moderates, but rather to "increase our credibility with both Muslims and mainstream Belgians with the ultimate goal of creating a more positive image of the U.S., its policies, society, and values."

In 2007, a similar project took place in Germany. The U.S. consulate in Munich actively backed the creation of an Islamic academy in the town of Penzberg. The group behind the academy had close ties to Milli Gorus -- essentially a Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood, which regularly appears on lists of extremist organizations in Germany. That is why the Bavarian state government, led by the conservative Christian Social Union, was opposed to the academy. The situation was complex -- members of the group in Penzberg seemed to make a good-faith effort to distance themselves from extremism -- but many German officials were not convinced and wanted to wait a while before accepting the group's newfound moderation. Thus the State Department's quick embrace of the group created a bizarre political constellation: The Bush administration, which had lambasted "old Europe" for being weak on fighting extremism, was actively undermining a conservative European government for being too tough on Islamists.

The embassy's actions formed part of a broader change in strategy -- but one debated largely in secret. The strategy was, as a 2006 cable from the U.S. embassy in Berlin put it, a "policy of using American Muslims to reach out to other Muslims." Though it did smack of manipulating Islam, in many ways this activity is not controversial: Why not send U.S. citizens to tell the story of the United States? The problem lay in who got chosen for this role. Just as in the 1950s and '60s, the United States opted for the Brotherhood.

The most public advocate of this new strategy was the prominent political scientist Robert S. Leiken of the Nixon Center think tank. In a widely read piece in Foreign Affairs, he and his colleague Steven Brooke made numerous sensible points. For example, they pointed out that the Brotherhood has often been treated as a monolith and that Western officials have ignored moderates in the movement.

They also noted that terrorists have often held the Brotherhood in contempt for not embracing global jihad -- thus, in the context of Middle Eastern politics, the Brotherhood is not the most extreme group. They also rightly said the United States should not be afraid of engaging the Brotherhood, or any group, if it furthers U.S. interests.

These are all valid observations, but the article misses a few key points. While it is correct, for example, that the Brotherhood does not embrace global jihad against the West, its support of jihad in Israel and Iraq means it explicitly endorses terrorism. The authors also do not seriously address the sheer volume of the group's anti-Semitic utterances over the years, up to the present. They acknowledge the existence of this problem, but more as a historical fact than a present and ongoing reality. To exemplify the Brotherhood's thinking today, the two political scientists cite one moderate sermon that they heard in London. It's worth considering that the authors were present in the mosque as the guest of the man giving the sermon; perhaps his words were tailored to please them?

Maybe most important, the article conflates the Brotherhood in the Middle East and the West. One can argue that Western countries should reach out to oppressed Brotherhood members in authoritarian Egypt. But this doesn't mean that one also has to endorse the Brotherhood's role among Western Muslims. What seems moderate in Egypt can be radical in Paris or Munich.

This endorsement of the Brotherhood began to spread beyond the State Department. The Department of Homeland Security continued to oppose the Brotherhood and made any sort of affiliation with the organization grounds for refusing a person entry into the United States. Thus Tariq Ramadan, Said Ramadan's son and a popular lecturer among young European Muslims, was refused admittance.

Besides his familial affiliations, the younger Ramadan wrote a foreword for the first collection of fatwas issued by Qaradawi's fatwa council. The merits of the department's actions can be debated -- Ramadan was hardly a terrorist, and if his views are objectionable, they should be debated, not silenced -- but in any case it was largely a rearguard action. By the second half of the decade, even the CIA was backing the Brotherhood. In 2006 and 2008, the CIA issued reports on the organization. The former was more detailed, laying out a blueprint for dealing with the group. Called "Muslim Brotherhood: Pivotal Actor in European Political Islam," the report stated that "MB groups are likely to be pivotal to the future of political Islam in Europe.... They also show impressive internal dynamism, organization, and media savvy." The report conceded that "European intelligence services consider the Brotherhood a security threat and critics -- including more pluralistic Muslims -- accuse it of hindering Muslim social integration." But the report nevertheless concluded that "MB-related groups offer an alternative to more violent Islamic movements."

The new Barack Obama administration evinced similar support. During the presidential campaign, the Obama team appointed Mazen Asbahi as its Muslim outreach coordinator, although Asbahi had extensive contacts with Brotherhood organizations and was even head of the Muslim Student Association, which was founded by people with ties to the Munich mosque that played host to radicals including planners of the 9/11 attacks. This information was either disregarded or missed when Asbahi was vetted during the campaign. He resigned in 2008 only when the facts, dug up by an online newsletter focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, were published in a national newspaper.

In power, the Obama administration has continued its predecessor's endorsement of Islamists. In January 2009, for example, the State Department sponsored a visit of German Muslim leaders to one of the bastions of the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT). The German visitors were key government officials in charge of integration or recruitment of minorities into the police. One of the briefers was Jamal Barzinji, one of the triumvirate who set up a number of key Brotherhood-inspired structures in the United States.

Like many Brotherhood-related groups, IIIT faded from public view after the 9/11 attacks but has experienced a renaissance recently. IIIT had been closely associated with a raft of Islamist organizations in northern Virginia that were raided by federal agents because of their suspected ties to extremist Islam. As elsewhere, this action followed a familiar pattern. The groups in question, including IIIT, were primarily problematic for ideological reasons -- for trying to push the Brotherhood's vision of an Islamicized society, which clearly cannot work in a pluralistic culture.

But instead of being challenged on the field of ideas, where they could easily be shown to hold beliefs antithetical to democratic ideals, they were accused of supporting criminal activities and were raided. This had a double effect: It created the strange spectacle of the legal arm of the government trying desperately to prosecute these groups while, at the same time, the diplomatic arm held them up as models of integration. The failure to convict the Muslims was seen as an exoneration, almost a seal of approval.