When The West Wanted Islam To Curb Christian Extremism

Islam and those who practice it were not always perceived to be such a cultural threat. Just a few decades ago, the U.S. and its allies in the West had no qualms about abetting Islamist militants in their battles with the Soviets in Afghanistan. Look even further, and there was a time when a vocal constituency in the West saw the community of Islam as a direct, ideological counter to a mutual enemy.
Turn back to the 1830s. An influential group of officials in Britain — then the most powerful empire in the West, with a professed belief in liberal values and free trade — was growing increasingly concerned about the expanding might of Russia. From Central Asia to the Black Sea, Russia’s newly won domains were casting a shadow over British colonial interests in India and the Middle East. The potential Russian capture of Istanbul, capital of the weakening Ottoman Empire, would mean Russia’s navy would have free access to the Mediterranean Sea–an almost unthinkable prospect for Britain and other European powers.
And so, among diplomats and in the press, a Russophobic narrative began to emerge. It was ideological, a clash of civilizations. After all, beginning with the Catherine the Great in the late 18th century, the Russians had framed their own conquests in religious terms: to reclaim Istanbul, once the center of Orthodox Christianity, and, as one of her favorite court poets put it, “advance through a Crusade” to the Holy Lands and “purify the river Jordan.”
That sort of Christian zeal won little sympathy among other non-Orthodox Christians. Jerusalem in the 19th century was still the site of acrimonious street battles between Christian sects, policed by the exasperated Ottomans. Russian Orthodox proselytizing of Catholics in Poland infuriated European Catholic nations further west, such as France.
Baron Ponsonby, the British ambassador to Istanbul for much of the 1830s, decided the job of thwarting Russian expansionism was a “Holy Cause.” An article in the “British and Foreign Review” pamphlet, circulated in Britain in 1836, saw the Ottomans as “the only bulwark of Europe against Muscovy, of civilization against barbarism.” Russia represented, insome accounts, a backward, superstitious society where peasants still labored in semi-slavery and monarchs ruled as tyrants, unchallenged by parliaments and liberal sentiment. The Ottomans, who were embarking on their own process of reform, looked favorable in comparison.
David Urquhart, an enterprising agent who served a spell with Ponsonby in Istanbul, became one of the most energetic champions of the Ottoman cause and Islamic culture in British policy circles. His writings on the threat of Russia shaped the opinions of many in Britain at the time, including a certain Karl Marx. And Urquhart’s time spent among the tribes of the northern Caucasus set the stage for decades of romantic European idealizing of the rugged Muslim fighters in Russia’s shadow.
Urquhart returned from his travels in Turkey and elsewhere convinced that the Ottoman lifestyle was better for one’s health. “If London were [Muslim],” he wrote, “the population would bathe regularly, have a better-dressed dinner for [its] money, and prefer water to wine or brandy, gin or beer.” He would later launch a largely unsuccessful movement to bring the culture of Turkish baths to the cold damp of Victorian Britain.
Casting his eye to the territories the Ottomans controlled, Urquhart praised the empire’s rule over a host of Christian communities and other sects — for example, the warring Druze and Maronites in the Levant, or feuding Greek Orthodox and Armenians. In a passage cited by the historian Orlando Figes in his excellent history of the Crimean War, Urquhart credits Islam under the Ottomans as a specifically “tolerant, moderating force”:
What traveler has not observed the fanaticism, the antipathy of all these [Christian] sects – their hostility to each other? Who has traced their actual repose to the toleration of Islamism? Islamism, calm, absorbed, without spirit of dogma, or views of proselytism, imposes at present on the other creeds the reserve and silence which characterize itself. But let this moderator be removed, and the humble professions now confined to the sanctuary would be proclaimed in the court and the military camp; political power and political enmity would combine with religious domination and religious animosity; the empire would be deluged in blood, until a nervous arm – the arm of Russia – appears to restore harmony, by despotism.
Flash forward to 2014, and the conversation has curiously flipped: Pundits bluster about the centuries-old war between Sunnis and Shiites. Christians are a persecuted, beleaguered people in the Middle East. Without ruthless strongmen aligned with the West, we’re told, the Muslim world would descend into a chaotic bloodbath where terrorist organizations would gain sway.
The history lesson above is not meant to denigrate the Russians… But it goes to show how much the politics of an era shape its conversation about cultures and peoples. That’s no less true now than it was almost two centuries ago.

America’s Holy Warrior

America's Holy Warrior

When Osama Bin Laden Was The Good Guy, Because He Fought America’s Enemies.

When “Mujahideen” and “Jihad” Were Kosher, Because They Were Used Against America’s Enemies.

When It Was Fine To Fight In Other Countries, As Long As It Was Against America’s Enemies

When Today’s “Terrorists” Were YesterYear Known As “Guerrilla’s”.

Anti-Soviet warrior puts his army on the road to peace: The Saudi businessman who recruited mujahedin now uses them for large-scale building projects in Sudan.

OSAMA Bin Laden sat in his gold- fringed robe, guarded by the loyal Arab Mujahideen who fought alongside him in Afghanistan. Bearded, taciturn figures – unarmed, but never more than a few yards from the man who recruited them, trained them and then dispatched them to destroy the Soviet army – they watched unsmiling as the Sudanese villagers of Almatig lined up to thank the Saudi businessman who is about to complete the highway linking their homes to Khartoum for the first time in history.

Mr Bin Laden looks every inch the mountain warrior of mujahedin legend. Chadored children danced in front of him, preachers acknowledged his wisdom. ‘We have been waiting for this road through all the revolutions in Sudan,’ a sheikh said. ‘We waited until we had given up on everybody – and then Osama Bin Laden came along.’

And ‘this job’ is certainly an ambitious one: a brand-new highway stretching all the way from Khartoum to Port Sudan, a distance of 1,200km (745 miles) on the old road, now shortened to 800 km by the new Bin Laden route that will turn the coastal run from the capital into a mere day’s journey. Mr Bin Laden has brought the very construction equipment that he used only five years ago to build the guerrilla trails of Afghanistan.

He is a shy man. Maintaining a home in Khartoum and only a small apartment in his home city of Jeddah, he is married – with four wives – but wary of the press. His interview with the Independent was the first he has ever given to a Western journalist, and he initially refused to talk about Afghanistan, sitting silently on a chair at the back of a makeshift tent, brushing his teeth in the Arab fashion with a stick of miswak wood.

But talk he eventually did about a war which he helped to win for the Afghan Mujahedeen:

‘What I lived in two years there, I could not have lived in a hundred years elsewhere,’ he said.

When the history of the Afghan resistance movement is written, Mr Bin Laden’s own contribution to the mujahedin – and the indirect result of his training and assistance – may turn out to be a turning- point… he tries to minimise his role.

‘When the invasion of Afghanistan started, I was enraged and went there at once – I arrived within days, before the end of 1979,’ he said. ‘Yes, I fought there, but my fellow Muslims did much more than I. Many of them died and I am still alive.’

Within months, however, Mr Bin Laden was sending Arab fighters – Egyptians, Algerians, Lebanese, Kuwaitis, Turks and Tunisians – into Afghanistan; ‘not hundreds but thousands,’ he said. He supported them with weapons and his own construction equipment. Along with his Iraqi engineer, Mohamed Saad – who is now building the Port Sudan road – Mr Bin Laden blasted massive tunnels into the Zazi mountains of Bakhtiar province for guerrilla hospitals and arms dumps, then cut a mujahedin trail across the country to within 15 miles of Kabul.

‘No, I was never afraid of death. As Muslims, we believe that when we die, we go to heaven. Before a battle, God sends us seqina, tranquillity.

‘Once I was only 30 metres from the Russians and they were trying to capture me. I was under bombardment but I was so peaceful in my heart that I fell asleep. This experience has been written about in our earliest books. I saw a 120mm mortar shell land in front of me, but it did not blow up. Four more bombs were dropped from a Russian plane on our headquarters but they did not explode. We beat the Soviet Union. The Russians fled.’

But what of the Arab Mujahedeen whom he took to Afghanistan – members of a guerrilla army who were also encouraged and armed by the United States – and who were forgotten when that war was over?

‘Personally neither I nor my brothers saw evidence of American help. When my mujahedin were victorious and the Russians were driven out, differences started (between the guerrilla movements) so I returned to road construction in Taif and Abha. I brought back the equipment I had used to build tunnels and roads for the mujahedin in Afghanistan. Yes, I helped some of my comrades to come here to Sudan after the war.’

How many? Osama Bin Laden shakes his head. ‘I don’t want to say. But they are here now with me, they are working right here, building this road to Port Sudan.’ I told him that Bosnian Muslim fighters in the Bosnian town of Travnik had mentioned his name to me. ‘I feel the same about Bosnia,’ he said. ‘But the situation there does not provide the same opportunities as Afghanistan.

A small number of Mujahedeen have gone to fight in Bosnia-Herzegovina but the Croats won’t allow the Mujahedeen in through Croatia as the Pakistanis did with Afghanistan.’
Thus did Mr Bin Laden reflect upon jihad while his former fellow combatants looked on. Was it not a little bit anti-climactic for them, I asked, to fight the Russians and end up road-building in Sudan? ‘They like this work and so do I. This is a great plan which we are achieving for the people here, it helps the Muslims and improves their lives.’

His Bin Laden company – not to be confused with the larger construction business run by his cousins – is paid in Sudanese currency which is then used to purchase sesame and other products for export; profits are clearly not Mr Bin Laden’s top priority.

[By Robert Fisk]