Terra Incognita: A new type of Islamic militancy

Islamism is beginning to produce radical fringe movements that put groups like al-Qaida to shame.

seth frantzman 88 (photo credit: )
seth frantzman 88
(photo credit: )
The sudden and bloody fighting that broke out at a mosque in the Gaza Strip on Friday is emblematic of a new phenomenon within the Islamist movement. From Gaza to northern Nigeria and Pakistan, and throughout the Islamic world, a new type of militancy has grown, one that involves extremist preachers, their followers begging for martyrdom, and self-destructive battles that result in their deaths, usually at the hands of fellow Muslims. THE PHENOMENON of extremist religious movements surrounding inspired preachers is surely not new nor confined to Islam. Revivalist Christian sects such as the Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh clashed with US police in 1993 with tragic results, and in India the Sikh leader Bhindranwale led a militant independence movement that resulted in thousands of deaths. The Ghost Dance which swept up Native American communities in 1890 was led by the Paiute prophet known as Wovoka and resulted in the Wounded Knee massacre where over 300 people died. The practitioners believed their special religious garments would repel bullets. A similar phenomenon occurred in China in 1900 when a religious society known as the Boxers produced a wave of anti-Western militancy led by men who believed their devotion could protect them from bullets. Their movement was destroyed by the intervention of European armies. A minority branch of the Islamic faith known as the Isma'ilis produced a radical sect known as the Assassins who spent the 11th and 12th centuries harassing and murdering Muslim and Christian leaders in the Middle East before being exterminated by the Mongols in 1256. In Israel's War of Independence in 1948, an extremist Muslim Brotherhood unit wearing supposedly protective garments stormed Jewish Kfar Darom in Gaza resulting in the deaths of most of its members who had travelled from North Africa. (Kfar Darom fell to the Egyptian army soon after.) Indonesia has been stricken by Islamist revival movements since the 19th century, partly sparked by the Krakatoa eruption of 1883 where thousands of people died after a volcano eruption nearly destroyed the island, which today manifest themselves in the groups like Darul Islam and Jemaah Islamiyah. Islamism it seems is beginning to produce more and more radical fringe movements that, far from being part of a unifying umbrella as al-Qaida intended, are "linked to al-Qaida" but succeed mostly in fighting Muslim governments and destroying themselves as well as civilians located near their mosques. The July 2007 Siege of the Red Mosque in Pakistan was one such example. It was led by brothers Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi, sons of a radical preacher named Maulana Qari Abdullah who founded the mosque in 1965. A series of escalating incidents led to an eight-day siege of the mosque in which 11 Pakistani special forces, 84 mosque members and 14 civilians were killed. On July 31, following days of fighting, Muhammad Yusuf of the Boko Haram sect was killed in northern Nigeria. His sect had launched a series of attacks on police stations, churches and government offices in several northern Nigerian states. More than 200 people died before the army launched an assault on the organization's mosque, capturing Yusuf who later died in custody. But the most famous example of an extremist Islamist uprising is the siege of Mecca, so well documented in a recent book, The Siege of Mecca, by Yasoslav Trofimov. On November 20, 1979 some 500 armed followers of Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al-Utaibi, a member of a leading Saudi family, layed siege to the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The standoff lasted 14 days during which 250 militants and 130 Saudi national guardsmen were killed. The leader of the group was later beheaded, along with 67 of his followers. IN THE afternoon hours of August 14, word came out of Gaza of a gun battle between radical Islamists who had proclaimed a caliphate and members of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Some 100 members of Jund Ansar Allah led by Abdel-Latif Moussa, a radical preacher at the Ibn Taymiyah mosque, were confronted by Hamas security forces that surrounded the mosque and a shootout ensued. Initial reports claim up to 24 people died, including six Hamas police officers and one civilian. The leader of the group reportedly blew himself up. All of these examples point to a new trend in Islamism. It was once thought that Islamists primarily viewed themselves at war with secular Muslim regimes. That later morphed into al-Qaida, which viewed itself as being at war with the entire non-Muslim world, inspiring such movements across the world. Now Islamists are turning on each other. The BBC described the situation, in a tongue in cheek manner, as one group "accusing the Islamist group of not being Islamist enough." The one thing that unites all of these events is disappointment with unfulfilled Islamist government, guns, mosques and preachers who seek to revive an Islamic past, whether the mahdi, as in Saudi Arabia's siege, or the caliphate, as in Gaza. A secondary problem is that it makes pernicious tyrannical governments such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Gaza's Hamas seem more benign because they are "fighting terrorism" or "they too are threatened by extremists." In fact their support, or in the case of Nigeria, the appeasement, of Islamism helps breed further radicalism. The writer is a PhD student in geography at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog