Tue, Jun 15, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Islam's radical fringe vents frustration on the Internet

In the face of repression by quasi-religious leaders reviled for their corruption and subservience to the US, young Muslims are competing to establish online Meccas of their own

By Mai Yamani


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 US. 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.

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