Islam's internal conflict


After the World Trade Center terrorism, 11th September 2001, many Americans have demanded vengeance. The main target of their anger is the Muslims in the Middle East. During the conversation that followed in the aftermath, I expressed my hope that the Islamic moderates would gain control of the faith. Then someone, I’m sorry I forget who, reminded me that the moderates do have control worldwide. It is the extremists who get the press coverage. Therefore I would like to write a short piece on the internal conflict in Islam. The battle of the moderates vrs the extremists.

Background to Islam in the Middle East

Muhammad gave birth to Islam many centuries ago. Like Christianity, he supported the idea of one god, Allah. It was supposed to be a relatively peaceful religion - there are no "sermons" where he indicates that killing is good. However he could not live forever. Over time, his words were manipulated and deliberately misinterpreteded by some. My father spent many years in the Middle East, mainly the safer states in the south. However he has stories about the mullahs there, who would threaten Muslims with beatings who weren't in a mosque, when they were all called to prayer, regardless of the situation that they were in.

This might sounds irrelevant to most people but I think I should mention it. My father said that amongst the countless times he saw mullahs, there was not a single one that ever smiled.

At the centre of these problems lies the meaning of jihad. People take jihad to be a holy war. However Muhammad only said that in certain circumstances, people could resist. There are non-violent means of resisting, such as demonstration. So it strikes you as odd that a peace-loving man like Muhammad would justify violence. Whether it was because of a lack of wisdom, a great deal of anger, or a calculated attempt to have a method of fear at their disposal, members of the Islamic clergy at one point decided to reinvent the Koran to suit themselves. The Middle East was not always as violent as it was now. The fabled "Arabia" that has been the subject of many films and books, was a period of relative peace and civilisation. Arabs were peaceful traders rather than hostile fundamentalists.


Perhaps the worst instance of Islam being used as a means of repression is in Afghanistan. It was mainly the fault of the Russians. During the period of the Soviet Union, Soviet troops invaded in an attempt to expend their territory and power. A fierce fight broke out, as the Americans funded the Afghan rebels. Eventually the Russians had to withdraw, Afghanistan having turned into their own Vietnam. In the aftermath, with no form of civilian government or infrastructure left, the Taleban took over after a period of civil war and unstable government.

The Taleban was what emerged from the old guerrilla groups that had fought the Russians. Though the group as a whole did not exist during the war, its members were devote followers of Islam and had much respect from the Afghan community due to their bravery during the war. However their brand of Islam was heavily extreme. With the help of the conservative clergy, who encouraged Afghans to support the Taleban, they created a strong dictatorship. Their belief was so devout that they perceived any other religion or interpretation to be evil. Therefore they had to save Afghans from themselves. Though they brought order to Afghanistan, it was rather harsh and unforgiving.

The Taleban had a firm grip on Afghanistan, with help from Pakistan and support from many of the clergy. Their control was in part due to their regulations on women. They could not work, they had to wear veils and drab clothing. They could not be educated and had few rights. In restricting the lives of women, the Taleban automatically suppressed half the population. Very useful in maintaining a corrupt, undemocratic government.

The Taleban never had total control, however. In the north-eastern corner of the nation, General Masood opposed the Taleban for many years. He once fought the Soviets and then in the 1990s even received the backing of Russia. He enforced strict discipline amongst his troops, in contrast to some of the cruel and extreme Taleban soldiers. In early 2001 he was poised to recapture the town of Taloqan. Later in 2001 there was a suicide attack on him and he was killed. Out of all the opposition generals, he was the most liberal and his death removed one of the men best able to help govern Afghanistan.

It should also be noted that a fair number of Taleban soldiers were not actually Afghani, but Pakestani and from other Muslim nations. In some cases, Afghanis felt annoyed at these people because they feel that they hijacked their nation in fighting a war that they do not want to fight (eg. against their own people).

With the fall of the Taleban, Afghanistan is free from religious dictatorship. As an indication that religious extremists do not have a monopoly on the Islamic clergy, when the Taleban fled from the north, the local mullahs were replaced. These new mullahs may well help to reverse a breeding of hatred against other countries, though the West will have to support such attempts by helping to rebuild Afghanistan. After the interim government of Hamid Karzai was formed, there was a greater degree of stability. Every day it struggles on, but every day it survives, every battle won keeps the hope of a better Afghanistan alive.


Next door to Afghanistan and also devoutly Muslim, lies Iran. Iran is not as poor as its neighbour and there is a better infrastructure in place. However the fundamentalists still have control of the faith and country as a whole. The Ayotollah Khamenei is the absolute leader of Iran. He has control of the armed forces, Police and judiciary. He can overule any legislation the democratically elected government passes. He can arrest and execute anyone who opposes him. He is very opposed to any reform that diminishes his power or increases the civil rights of Iranians. The conservative clerics back him, many fearing that they might be brought to trial if they lost control over the country, for acts of brutality some have commited.

There is a democratically elected government, however. Despite attacks by the clerics and interference by the Ayatollah, President Khatami has been repeatedly re-elected. He has support from many Iranians who are tired of the restrictions on their daily lives. The conservative clerics would like to end the "democracy" but fear a backlash that could topple them if they did. There is also a sizeable niche of moderate Muslim clerics, who can see that Islam should not directly control people's lives and should not be used as a form of oppression. Every time Khatami wins an election, they feel more determined to regain control of the faith in Iran. Though they are careful in not exposing themselves too publicly, they are there.

In June of 2003, student protests in Tehran were quashed by militas and government forces. They were a sign of the anger amongst the younger generation with the current ruling elite - high unemployment and irritation at not being allowed to do simple things like hold a girl's hand in public.

This is perhaps the main point about theocracy. It normally removes personal freedoms that we take for granted. The main objective is to control on a moral level, holding on to power through destroying personal identity. They claim it is about morality - in truth it is about forcing their ideals on everyone.

What will happen next?

The internal conflict in Islam could well escalate. There are already two defined camps in Islam - the Sunnis and Shiites. Though the differences between Sunnis and Shiites may not directly cause a conflict, a schism could split Islam in a similar way.

Currently the moderates are resisting peacefully. It is unclear what would happen if the moderate clerics asked their flocks to rise up against the fundamentalists. This is unlikely at the moment but if the Ayatollah tried to erradicate them, it is likely that they would rise up. Such an internal jihad could suck in Muslims from other Middle Eastern countries and perhaps even from the West and Asia.

Ayatollah Khamenei is currently shrewd enough not to overeact to constant pushes by the democrats to increase their power. However he has proved that he will not tolerate such reforms before. If he were to crack down too heavily, anything could happen. He was playing with fire when he cracked down on the June 2003 demonstrations. After decades of persecution, the moderate clerics could well decide that they have had enough. It is my hope that they will regain control peacefully, else we will be witness to perhaps the most violent and bloody conflict in our world's history.

As an additional point, I'd like to apologise if I offend any Muslims. I'm just considering the other part of the equation when it comes to Islam. Some people will agree and others will not, that's inevitable. There are a lot of "if"s and "could"s in the above writeup - I'm not saying this is likely to happen.

One point about the Crusades. Though it was a silly and pointless conflict, it wasn't as simple as Christians versus Muslims. Some Muslim tribes and factions allied themselves with some of the Crusader States from time to time. Islam as it is now, was factionalised then and Muslims fought each other if they thought they could gain something from it. Such conflict between Muslims could be seen after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, in 2003.

Here's an interesting rejoinder to the statements made above. - Most Muslims identify as much with the killers involved in the WTC crash as most Christians do with Jack the Ripper.

We do not condone the taking of innocent life for any reason, and those who did this must have had a severely warped view of the world to consider so many people going about their daily lives as 'guilty'. I mourn for those lost in this tragedy, and I pray for the deliverance of those remaining in the aftermath.

I speak for all Muslims when we say that no matter how badly anyone may feel against America, that those innocents involved didn't deserve this.

As such there is no internal conflict, implied or otherwise in Islam, we Muslims have a very keen sense of justice and the scale of this horror and the shock it has given us will take a long time to work through. I would call on those other muslims who are part of the E2 community to support me here in this by stating here what they feel about this tragedy and what relation it has, if any with Islam.

It has been pointed out to me recently that the above node, is deeply offensive to Muslims, and as such may need a more rounded exploration than I have so far given it. Sadly, although I see some sincerity in the writeup above, there is also a great deal of misinformation, and perhaps misunderstanding as well. This is as good a place as any to attempt to clear this mess up.

Background to Islam in the Middle East

Mohammed was the last in a series of Prophets that included people like Moses, and Abraham, and Jesus and he established a pure form of worship based on selflessness, sincerity and commitment in the belief of God, or as He is known in Arabic, Allah. Like Christianity, and Judaism, and most other religions on the planet, Islam believes in only one divine Creator, and ruler of Reality, ie God. Islam can be translated as "submission" or "peace" both being derived from extinguishing the ego, and doing good with one's life. As such any violence or evil deed is forbidden. However the right to defend one's self and loved ones from oppression, and slavery is very much respected. Islam doesn't teach a person to turn the other cheek, Islam teaches them not to be slapped in the first place, and if they are slapped to ensure that it never happens to them again. Justice is not about being weak. Muhammad made this very clear, and his words were followed by the followers of Islam ever since he spoke. Islam has no place for hypocrisy or laziness, and your central comitment to God is very much a part of who you are, and cannot be shirked regardless of circumstance. This point is frequently misunderstood in the West, by those who assume that somehow underneath Islamic values there is some sort of western value system waiting to spring forth. Not only is this false vanity on the part of the west, most Muslims, including myself find this assumption to be quite patronising. And rightly so.

At the centre of these problems lies the meaning of jihad. People take jihad to be a holy war, and it is. However it is a war between oneself and one's animal impulses, this is known as The Greater Struggle, The Lesser Struggle is one where a person fights the impulse to be lazy or scared and fights people in the external world who would enslave or oppress them, and keep them from a Muslim life. As such most Jihad is never even connected with the western concept of violence, and never will be. It is a personal tool to purify one's mind and intent in daily life, and as such can never be used as a tool for oppression. This is another western Misunderstanding. This is bourne out by the annals of Islamic history, Muslims were by nature and deed peaceful traders rather than hostile fundamentalists like their Christian cousins. And no, at this point I won't mention the Crusades.


Perhaps the best instance of Islam being used as a means of liberation is in Afghanistan. It was mainly the fault of the Russians, who being a superpower at the time decided to Invade Afghanistan which was a peaceful, and strategically placed neighbour. During the period of the Soviet Union, Soviet troops invaded in an attempt to expand their territory and power, and also gain access roads to Iran, and Pakistan in the future. A fierce fight broke out, as the native Afghans took the full brunt of the Soviet war machine, which at the time was the largest on the planet. Seeing the strategic value of Afghanistan, and the strength of the resistance movement as it grew up there, America decided to intervene and funded and trained the resistance movement to help them remove the Russian occupation. The fighting was intense, bloody, and drawn out over decades. Eventually the Russians had to withdraw, Afghanistan having turned into their own Vietnam, being totally shocked at the strength of the resistance and their determination. In the aftermath, with no form of civilian government or infrastructure left the warring factions created a civil war to vie for power, and this continued until the Taleban - bunch of 22 year old Islamic students - outfought them all and took over, promising an Islamic state.

The Taleban was what emerged from the old guerrilla groups that had fought the Russians. Though the group as a whole did not exist during the war, its members were devote followers of Islam and had much respect from the Afghan community due to their bravery during the war. However their implementation of Islam was extreme, as it had to tie together all the various factions and bring some sort of discipline to highly trained, incredibly well armed groups with very independent mindsets. With the help of their religious background, and their war hero records, and their scrupulous record for complete honesty, and bravery, they managed to defeat or win as allies almost all of Afghanistan, and controlled roughly 90% of the territory there. Their belief was so devout that they perceived any other religion or interpretation to be misguided, or a distraction. This lead to some rather interesting moves, when they destroyed 4000 year old statues of Buddha, because (as they rightly believed) they were idols. The fact that they had no value or place in an Islamic society was lost to a West which condemned the acts, without thinking them through.

The Taleban still have a firm grip on Afghanistan. They have help from Pakistan and still have the support of the local population. Their control is in part due to their strict adherence to what they see as Islamic law, this is an important point as none of the previous factions would accept any other form of law so they had to practise Islamic Law and hold to it completely otherwise their support would dissapear. Again this point is lost to Western observers. The much vaunted oppression of women is a trade off with local custom, which is quite restrictive on women anyway. This situation is likely to improve in the future as the rulers moderate, very much like Iran did after the revolution.

As mentioned before the Taleban do not have complete control. In the north-eastern corner of the nation, General Masood (now dead) opposed the Taleban and controls just under 10% of the land there. He once fought the Soviets and now receives the backing of Russia. For this he is seen as a traitor by most Afghanis. He enforces a relatively liberal regime on his troops, in contrast to some of the Taleban soldiers who are the most disciplined on the planet. Think Dune Fremen porportions. Recently, he launched a counter-attack, pushing the Taleban back somewhat with the help of a local group in the North that betrayed an agreement with the Taliban, and tried to seceed. They failed however, and the local population, half of whom had no idea what was going on, and who to support suffered heavy losses in the crossfire between the two groups. In early 2001 he was poised to recapture the town of Taloqan, but didn't manage to. Recently there was an attack on him, which suceeded, and he no longer leads the Northern Alliance. The point here is that there is no religious difference between the warring factions, both pray side by side, and the only differences are political ones given to them by interference by outside powers. Namely the West, and Russia.


Next door to Afghanistan and also devotely Muslim, lies Iran. Iran is much better off, both economically and stability wise. The country had an Islamic revolution in the 70's to overthrow the corrupt Shah, which sent shockwaves through the imperial forces of the West, and there is a very strong Islamic influence to the government up to the present day.. The Ayotollah Khomenei was the absolute leader of Iran, until he died in the early 90's. The conservative clerics backed him, but now the country mostly supports the moderate President Khatami. The government is (and has been since the revolution) democratically elected. In recent years President Khatami has been repeatedly re-elected on his moderate platform, that seeks to improve the quality of life of his fellow Iranians. He has support from many Iranians who are tired of the restrictions placed on their daily lives by the traditionalists. There is a sizeable group of moderate Islamic clerics, who aim to balance the influence of Islam, and separate it from harsh Iranian tradition. The last major conflict Iran was involved in was with Iraq, which at that time was being funded by the West.

What will happen next?

Don't know, your guess is as good as mine. I would hope that the artificial political divisions of the Islamic world into ethnic or national groups will fade, as will some of the artificial borders in the region, but that will necessarily take time. I also imagine that as Islamic unity progresses, there will be warmer relations to the West, muslims forgive, because it is part of being good. The rest, I suppose will be history.

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