Beheadings online, fatwas online: the subterranean world of Islam’s radical fringe can be found on countless Internet sites. These technologically sophisticated fanatics are able to reach a wide audience. But that audience exists because of the deep dissatisfaction and anger of so many young Muslims everywhere. The Internet has brought together a worldwide community of the alienated and the embittered.
The West thinks that this anger is a sign of some clash of civilizations: “us” against “them,” which implies that only one side can win. But the anger of young Muslims results primarily from revulsion at their corrupt leaders, and the subservience of these rulers to the United States. It is a bitterness rooted, in other words, in material causes, not in some fanatical, irrational, and anti-democratic sentiment whose adherents must either be re-educated or crushed.
The problem starts at the top of Muslim societies, not with the disaffected at the bottom. Muslim rulers have mostly failed to satisfy the needs of their populations. At the same time, in much of the Muslim world, authoritarian regimes typically attempt to control and propagate exclusionary forms of Islamic dogma.
For many years, these regimes – whether the Shia of Iran or the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia – succeeded in suppressing pluralism and individuality. But, as their regimes increasingly came to be seen as politically illegitimate, their model of Islam was also discredited. So the disappointed and disaffected search for an Islam that meets their expectations.
For the many Web sites that attract these disaffected people, it helps that no central authority exists today for the Muslim umma (the world community of Islam). By humiliating, degrading, and outlawing any Islamic tendency that disagreed with the prevailing dogma, authoritarian regimes did not eliminate pluralism, but merely sent it underground. Today’s technology allows that underground to speak and meet.
In the face of repression, Internet Islam appears to speak with authentic authority. But Islam has traditionally always been pluralistic and tolerant of differences. The Caliph Ali Ibn Abi Talib said, “Our strength lies in our differences.” For over a thousand years, under Mecca’s traditional rulers, the Hashemite descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, all sects debated and exchanged knowledge in the Great Mosque.
Indeed, prior to Saudi/Wahhabi rule in 1932, Mecca was cosmopolitan and open. Adherents of the four Sunni schools of thought, as well as the Shia, the Zaydis, the Ismaelis, etc., and those of different origins and races – Indians, Central Asians, Persians, Moroccans, Africans, and Turks – all recognized their differences but could identify with the one source, the Koran.
But the Wahhabis tried to appropriate Mecca for their own version of Islam, and to export their exclusionary doctrine. For a while they succeeded. Today, however, we are witnessing the failure of the Wahhabi project to monopolize Islam. Fatwas of the type issued by the highest Wahhabi cleric, Bin Baz, such as the notorious one before the first Gulf War declaring the Earth to be flat, have, unsurprisingly, lost their authority and credibility. Ignorance, combined with the wider corruption and hypocrisy of the regime, emptied these religious rulings of meaning.
What has followed is the hijacking of Islam by radical angry men raised on Wahhabi dogma but disillusioned with the world they inherited. Fatwas promulgated after Bin Baz are almost always horrendous in their intolerance and virulence, and certainly appear backward and anti-modernist. They clash not only with the West, but with the golden age of Islam, when Muslim astronomers, mathematicians, physicians, philosophers, and poets flourished. Although the Internet appears to be renewing Islamic pluralism, today’s online fatwas are non-negotiable orders, not a call for fresh creativity.
Hundreds of websites now compete to be the new Mecca, the place where all devout Muslims turn for guidance. The most extreme preach the ideas of Al Qaeda and their ideological brethren. These include the haunting celebration of a young man’s imminent martyrdom by suicide bombing, while other websites, although less violent, have widened the scope of sin to include learning English, studying science, and giving women access to the Internet without a male guardian present.
Fatwas online harbor animosity not only towards the West, but also toward other Muslims. Wahhabi clerics, for example, call for jihad against the Shia “heretics” promising the rewards of heaven. Most of these fatwas have a violent streak that the Saudi establishment is quick to dismiss as belonging to the Middle Ages. The fact is, however, that these fanatics are a modern phenomenon, a creation of the Muslim world’s failed political systems, and a stark reminder of the price of long years of repression.
Far from disappearing, the repressed are returning from underground in grotesque forms to haunt the world they grew up in. No matter how much their countries’ rulers try to disown them, they cannot escape their creation. Globalization and technology have given the disaffected a new homeland to profess Islam as they see it. In that Internet world, no authority has the ability to silence or satisfy them.