October 14, 2001

A destructive subculture of hate


Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a persistent question that belabors Americans is: Why do they hate us so much? From the president to media outlets, a chorus of voices has been at pains delineating between Osama bin Laden and Islam: The former is vengeful and pre-modern, the latter peaceful and tolerant.

Such demarcations miss the point.

Bin Laden and his cohorts form a specific subculture that has been evolving in the murky terrain of Southwest Asia. Their species of Islam views violence and terror as legitimate tools against the infidel West. As such, bin Laden is not an exceptional case, but representative of a new radical religious movement. While much of the international community has focused on the Arab world, Southwest Asia has eclipsed the Middle East as the epicenter of terrorism.

During the past two decades, a pernicious subculture of religious radicalism has been permeating the theological schools (madrassahs) that form Pakistan's primary system of education. These schools feature fiery clerics exhorting the virtues of martyrdom, encouraging the exegesis of theological texts that pledge celestial rewards for suicide bombings and promising ample financial support from Saudi millionaires.

The messages of militant Islam and the lure of scholarships made such schools attractive to the impoverished youth seeking a sense of mission. Moreover, the student body was not limited to young Pakistanis but included Afghans, Chechens, Chinese, Mongolians and Central Asians. In turn, Pakistani-trained clerics and missionaries went into the former Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe to begin work among Muslim populations. An international jihad movement was gestating far beyond the glare of the international community. Among the most illustrious graduates of these centers were the Taliban.

Young men from the Afghan refugee camps, schooled in Pakistan (the very term "Taliban" refers to their student origins), were infused with religious fervor and captivated by a leadership who preached a utopia that could be created in Afghanistan under the rule of righteousness. The disciplined cadres that were produced undertook a relentless and successful invasion, gaining control of some 90 percent of the country.

The victory of the Taliban marked the first major triumph of this new form of "international jihad" - combining the foot soldiers provided by displaced Afghan refugees, the combat and organizational experience of Middle Eastern Islamist fighters, logistical support from Pakistani intelligence and funding from the Gulf Arab princely class. Whatever their shortcomings, the Taliban and their Arab compatriots soon became the purveyors of a new model of revolutionary Islam.

Into this inflamed arena stepped the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden and his terror network, al-Qaida. In a sense, bin Laden was part of a larger movement of Islamic radicals defeated and expelled from the Middle East. His wealth and charisma, however, gave that movement shape and content. The nexus between al-Qaida and Taliban is easily decipherable, as the two share an ideology and a sense of commitment. The more murky link is the one between bin Laden and Pakistan's intelligence operatives, who appreciated his assistance to their cause in Kashmir while the retired generals made ample money selling him arms. A diverse and complex network was born - based on ideological amity, strategic convenience and profit motive - and became the backbone of the most destructive, if ill-understood, subcultures of hate.

As such, America's enemies are not just the rulers of a strife-torn Afghanistan or a master terrorist, but a specific culture as well. We may dislodge the Taliban and even assassinate bin Laden, but so long as the international jihad movement is alive, Americans are at risk.

To combat this type of culturally based terrorism, the United States must compel its allies, particularly Pakistan, to close down the radical madrassahs and eliminate the financial network that sustains them. The U.S. will also have to move beyond dealing with generals and princes, and compel the region's clergy - who have long winked at their radical brethren as they used religion to legitimize suicide bombings and demonize the West - to move to the forefront of the antiterrorism struggle. Only their clergy can negate the theological arguments of the messengers of hate. If Islam is the sublime faith Peter Jennings insists it is, this will be an easy task for its clerics.

Ray Takeyh is a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the upcoming "Receding Shadow of the Prophet: Radical Islamic Movements on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century." Copyright, National Review.

Copyright 2001 Nando Media