Wednesday, January 23, 2008

COMMENT: Lessons from the Madrid bombing ...

Last night, SBSTV’s Cutting Edge documentary series featured the story of the two prime members of the terror cell responsible for the Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004.

Jamal was a drug dealer and hit man who escaped Morocco after being accused of murder by stabbing. He entered Spain using a false name and soon became involved in drug dealing and violent crime. He entered into a relationship with another drug user, a Spanish woman of nominally Catholic background. He went to prison and soon became addicted to heroin. His girlfriend meanwhile gave birth to their (illegitimate) child.

Sarhane was a middle class Tunisian who won a scholarship to study in Spain. His family in Tunis weren’t terribly religious, and Sarhane had little exposure to Islamic teaching. In Spain, Sarhane began to frequent the M30 mosque in Madrid. The imam (resident religious jurist) was Jordanian. Sarhane came under the influence of self-taught radicals who attacked the imam for refusing to sanction their violent paranoid heterodoxy that regarded anyone (Muslim or otherwise) who disagreed with them as infidels and legitimate targets.

Somehow Sarhane met with Jamal. It was also a meeting of an extreme fringe politicised Islam (free of the strictures of classical juristic authority and Sufi spiritual orthodoxy) with a violent underworld. The combination was toxic. Over 190 people died in the process.

Some days later, a package containing a video cassette was left near the M30 mosque entrance. It featured 3 men with heads covered with black cloth sacks claiming responsibility for the Madrid bombings on behalf of a group calling itself al-Qaeda in Europe (though the trial judges found no direct link between the cell and al-Qaeda). The men also had a message for the mosque parishioners: Anyone who refused to join this wacky pseudo-jihad was an infidel who could also be legitimately killed.

Could Sarhane’s tiny cell of outcasts from the M30 mosque have carried out this attack without the help of Jamal and his underworld thugs (including a fair few gangsters with no relation to any religion)? Who knows? What we do know from this is that al-Qaeda style ideology has only a tenuous relation with any religious orthodoxy.

Little wonder al-Qaeda and its fellow travellers are happy to shed blood even in mosques and shrines and even on the holiest Islamic religious days. And even threaten entire nations.

But it isn’t enough just to recognise all this. Imams and religious leaders must ensure their mosques don’t become havens for jihadist heterodoxy. And that those embracing or returning to the faith aren’t misled by the rhetoric of hate-mongers.

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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QUOTE: In fighting terror, we must stop focussing on Islam ...

London experienced the new terrorism on 7 July 2005 when four bombs were detonated around the city. In the debate and discussion that followed I noticed that there was too much focus on Islam as a religion and Muslims as a community, as if each deserved examination as a likely pathology.

... what caused the terrorism was not Islam as a religion or even the lifestyle and culture of Muslims in Britain but an ideology, Global Islamism, whose nature had to be grasped if we were to fight terrorism.

... the ideology bin Ladin has fashioned, Global Islamism, remains a powerful force that will outlive him. Al-Qaeda is a threat not because it has training camps, finance and bombs, but because it is a brand of ideology which, like a virus, can spread globally ... [I]n fighting terrorism, we need to grasp the nature of the ideology, which is easy to spread and difficult to counter.

Meghnad Desai, Rethinking Islamism: The Ideology of the New Terror (2007) IB Tauris, London; Preface.

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COMMENT: Sense and nonsense on Fethllah Gulen and the Australian Catholic University ...


Well the gloves really have been taken off in the battle between the radical fringe obsessed with finding civilisational conflict everywhere on the one hand, and the rest of the universe on the other.

It all started with an article appearing in Quadrant, authored by one Father Paul Stenhouse. Poor Mr Stenhouse was frothing at the pen at the decision by the Australian Catholic University to accept money from some allegedly secretive radical jihadist from Turkey.

And who is this nasty long-bearded beedy-eyed terror-loving mullah? It is none other then ... wait for it ... and try not to laugh too hard when his identity is revealed ... Muhammad Fethullah Gulen!

Yep, this chap who has been lambasted by Turkish Islamists for refusing to endorse Islamist parties, and who has even allegedly told his female followers to remove their hijabs to get a university education is being accused by Fr Stenhouse of being linked to his worst critics.

I'm in the process of completing the second part of a critique for the ABC's Unleashed opinion and commentary portal. The first part can be found here.

The issue has also ben picked up by The Australian here. Professor Greg Barton of Monash Unversity makes these sensible observations reported by The Oz as follows ...

But another scholar of Islam, Monash University professor Greg Barton, who has also made a special study of Gulen, has dismissed Father Stenhouse's objections.

Dismissing the article as poorly written and "not particularly well-argued", Professor Barton said the Gulen movement was marked by the commitment of its members to work hard, live modestly and to serve others, which often meant donating money to worthy causes, such as education and interfaith initiatives.

"Father Stenhouse conflates this quiescent Sufism with some of the rare examples of Sufi militantism," Professor Barton said. "For the most part, Sufis are accommodationists rather than confrontational."

"(The Gulen movement) is the antithesis of Islamist movements."


Later, in the letters section of the Higher Education section, one Ban Tzur manufactures the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood was

... an originally Egyptian Sufi movement responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel and the central inspiration for the Palestinian Hamas terrorists, for Algerian extremists, and for much else wrong with the Arab world.


It is true that the founder of the Ikhwan did attend sufi circles early in life, even writing a book of Sufi prayers (or wird). It is also true that the Ikhwan underwent a split, with some members going even further toward political extremism than even Syed Qutb.

What evidence does Tzur have that the Ikhwani Sufis were behind the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat? To be fair, Tzur would hardly have a chance to present his evidence in a letter to the editor. Perhaps he can present his evidence in this forum.

One researcher from Georgetown University (a private Catholic University in Washington DC) had this to say ...

I HAVE had several years of close association with members of the Fethullah Gulen movement, which is associated not only with the new chair at the Australian Catholic University but with many initiatives across the world promoting education and inter-religious understanding. This is no Trojan horse, as Paul Stenhouse has insisted on calling it. Indeed he might be interested to know that the movement has received a lot of criticism from Muslims who fear that it is a Christian Trojan horse. Wags in Turkey like to joke that the cardinal named in secret in 2003 by pope John Paul II was Fethullah Gulen.

A charge of naivety is the weapon of choice used against those in either religion who refuse to resign themselves to the nightmarish vision of an endless clash of civilisations but who are game enough to try something new. The ACU and the Australian Intercultural Society are to be praised rather than pilloried for this small but courageous opening.


There's no doubt that the intellectual and educational reform movement led by Fethullah Hoca has been criticised by many Muslims as being too accommodatory to Turkish secular nationalism. That regular writers for Quadrant have found cause to attack even such a harmless group is further evidence of just how nutty and tunnel-visioned the far-Right have becomde.

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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