Islamism’s Foot Soldiers

From the February 2003 Trumpet Print Edition

Western media have milked quite a bit of drama from the story of Islamic radicals being poor, illiterate, simple, impressionable. But could such people drive a movement that seems destined to upset the existing world order? The reality is, behind the extremist groups are well-educated, moneyed and privileged individuals.

After World War II, many of the newly independent Muslim states worked to implement compulsory education and mass literacy. Some prominent analysts see the students who emerged from this education boom as leading the charge in modern Islamism.

While these radicals are bright and ambitious, they have remained on the fringe. Outside of Iran and Sudan, where the ruling class also hold religious positions, the governments of Muslim-dominated countries (such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria) are secular. And while such countries will always be cautious, even reluctant, in their alliances with Western nations, to extremists, any degree of cooperation with the decadent West amounts to a wholesale sellout of the Islamic faith.

Islamists worldwide are unified in the drive toward religious purity. Thus they share a few basic ambitions: to overthrow their corrupt governments who compromise in foreign policy; to enforce stricter Islamic law within their countries; and to expand the territory over which devout Muslims rule.

To bulk up their muscle, “Islamists have turned to two potential allies: the devout bourgeoisie, to provide the means; and the masses of the urban poor, to fill out the ranks” (National Interest, Summer 2002). Here, then is the origin of the media’s story. For among the uneducated, poverty-stricken masses, Islamists are finding a goldmine of support. As Daniel Pipes put it, the poor “make valuable foot-soldiers” (ibid., Winter 2001/2002).

Islamists can draw upon plenty of these potential foot soldiers thanks to a population boom within Muslim communities. Twenty years ago, Muslims made up perhaps 18 percent of the global population; by 2025 that number is expected to grow to 30 percent. As Samuel Huntington observes, “For years to come Muslim populations will be disproportionately young populations, with a notable demographic bulge of teenagers and people in their 20s” (The Clash of Civilizations). And, as he goes on to show, young people tend to be the primary engine of “protest, instability, reform and revolution.”

Consider too that the spartan religious education offered by Islamic madrasas, or seminaries, is generally free, unlike a regular education. The countries that devote the least amount to public education have the highest madrasa enrollment.

“In some ways, madrasas are at the center of a civil war of ideas in the Islamic world,” says Husain Haqqani, a Muslim and former madrasa student. “Westernized and usually affluent Muslims lack an interest in religious matters, but religious scholars, marginalized by modernization, seek to assert their own relevance by insisting on orthodoxy. … Poor students attending madrasas find it easy to believe that the West, loyal to uncaring and aloof leaders, is responsible for their misery and that Islam as practiced in its earliest form can deliver them” (Foreign Policy, November/December 2002).

The education these masses of people are receiving is, in an increasing number of cases, frighteningly militant.

Haqqani recently visited his former madrasa and said he hardly recognized it. He interviewed a 9-year-old student named Tahir, who told him, “The Muslim community of believers is the best in the eyes of God, and we must make it the same in the eyes of men by force. We must fight the unbelievers and that includes those who carry Muslim names but have adopted the ways of unbelievers. When I grow up I intend to carry out jihad in every possible way.” Haqqani then commented, “Tahir does not believe that al-Qaeda is responsible for September 11 because his teachers have told him that the attacks were a conspiracy by Jews against the Taliban. He also considers Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden great Muslims, ‘for challenging the might of the unbelievers’” (ibid.).

Such shallow and inflammatory ideas are finding refuge in the minds of increasing numbers of young people, much to the dismay of older Muslim legal scholars and teachers. Richard W. Bulliet, in the Winter 2002 Wilson Quarterly, says that the innovative, radical figures such as bin Laden are overshadowing the traditional teachers of a previous generation—so much so, in fact, that “the momentum seems to be with the new authorities. This has created an unusual dynamic within the Muslim world. While the new authorities seldom defer to the old [that is, the more conservative, pacifist], the old feel compelled to endorse some of their rivals’ ideas in order to seem up to date and retain influence” (emphasis mine).

In other words, to keep up with the times, even mainstream Islamic education is tending to lean toward the political—the radical. And the ranks of foot soldiers grow.