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South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)

South African Foreign Policy Monitor

Published by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)

March/April 2006

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Radicalisation of Islamic Societies Worldwide and its impact on negative Western perceptions of Islam

Victory by the Islamic militant group, Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections (2006); the bombings in London’s underground railway system (2005); clashes between Islamic militants and security forces in Riyadh (2005); favourable election results for Muslim Brotherhood independent candidates in Egypt’s 2005 elections; the assassination of Theo van Gogh (2004); the Madrid bombings (2004) killing over 200 people, the Moscow theatre attack (2002); and the rise of militant Islamic groups across Muslim societies in predominantly secular countries such as Nigeria, France, UK, Indonesia and Malaysia all point to a development that has been well-documented. Islamic radicalism is on the rise among younger generation Muslims, not only within disadvantaged communities, but within the well-off and educated middle-class.

The infamous terrorist attacks of 11 September on the US did not mark the beginning of a Western response to Islamic militancy, but they initiated a global reaction to what many in the West saw as an attack on western values and secularism. However, the US-led coalition to drive out the Taliban from power in Afghanistan; the toppling of a hostile regime in Iraq; and the sweeping arrests of suspected al-Qaeda members following the fallout of the attacks in Southeast Asia, Western Europe, North America, the Middle East and North Africa as well as in East Africa did not wipe out the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

Political leaders in both the West and the Middle East have failed to examine the underlining reasons that have helped to contribute to the radicalisation of Muslim societies in both predominantly Islamic and secular Western states. Equally important, a lack of effort and coordination by these governments to deal effectively with the root of the problems fuelling Islamic militancy in these societies have led to the increasing rate of indoctrination of Muslim youths in mosques, Islamic centres and schools. This has helped form the basis for the continued misunderstanding and a lack of sensitivity between Western secular and Islamic traditional principles.

This growing rift was recently highlighted following the publishing of the controversial editorial cartoons by Danish conservative daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. The decision by Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten to publish a dozen cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist carrying a bomb, in another portraying him wielding a cutlass, while another had him state that there is no more room in paradise for suicide-bombers, stem from the difficulty experienced by Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen in finding artists to illustrate his children’s book about the Prophet because of fear of reprisals by Islamic militants. Since then a string of newspapers in various European states, including Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and in Scandinavia, have also reprinted some of the cartoons in the name of freedom of speech.

The response by Muslims around the world was overwhelmingly critical. Islamic traditions forbid any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in any negative light. The Quran explicitly condemns idolatry, although it does not directly prohibit pictorial arts. Nevertheless, there are references in certain hadiths that explicitly condemn pictorial arts and any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in any fashion. It was no surprise that these cartoons unleashed a storm of anger and retaliatory action.

A dozen Islamic countries called on the Danish government to take legal action against Jyllands-Posten in addition to submitting a formal apology to Muslims. But the Danes remained steadfast in their support of the independence of the media and the importance of free speech and expression. The government agreed to apologise only if Muslims were offended, while refusing to apologise for the publication of the cartoons.

The initial publication of the cartoons by Jyllands-Posten and the Danish government’s failure to succumb to the pressures and demands by Islamic governments highlight two important points.

Firstly, they reflect the increasing frustration by growing segments of the population in the West with the intolerance of militant Islam and the dangers it poses to their freedom and democracy. The violent string of attacks by Islamic militants, especially since the 11 September attacks have negatively and erroneously portrayed Islam as a religion of violence with acts committed by disenfranchised and increasingly frustrated youth who have yet to assimilate themselves in Western societies, as well as frustrated Muslims in the Middle East.

The West as well as secular Middle Eastern governments fear the growing radicalisation of Muslim communities and societies. In traditionally secular states such Lebanon, Syria, Algeria and Egypt, religion is making a very strong comeback because people feel their governments’ socialist and pan-Arab ideologies have failed over the past four decades to bring about improved living conditions, economic development and political openness and because they feel that local and national governments are not responsive to their social needs. This new radicalisation is slowly creeping into schools and universities. However, government officials have argued that the increasing radicalisation reflected in a growing number of women adopting full Islamic cover and men wearing long beards is largely due to the influence of Wahhabism and Salafism from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where a number of their citizens work.

In Western Europe, second-generation Middle Easterners have been unwilling or have found integration difficult. A large number are increasingly frustrated with high unemployment, slow or poor service delivery and continual discrimination. Neighbourhoods housing large Muslim populations in France, UK, Spain, Italy and Germany are described by European security forces as hotbeds for Islamic militancy. Radical mullahs and sheiks preach hatred and violence to younger generation Muslims in their sermons. Recently, Italy and France took steps to deport radical sheiks to their countries of origin.

Secondly, the publication of the cartoons by Jyllands-Posten demonstrates a lack of sensitivity and a disregard for Islamic beliefs in the West. Western secular societies are certainly on a path of increasing friction with Islamic traditional religious beliefs that regard religion as the primary pillar of human existence and their way of life. The critical condemnation by Muslims around the world also reflects their dissatisfaction and disdain of Western liberal and secular values where religion plays a minor or even a non-existent role in society.

In order to stem the tide of Islamic militancy in their respective regions, policy-makers in both the Middle East and the West need to tackle the underlying issues that give rise to the radicalisation in traditionally secular Muslim societies and communities. The revival of Islam among Muslim populations in the past two decades is often wrongly seen as a backlash against westernisation per se. Rather, it is rooted in some of its immediate consequences.

Western governments have failed to understand the grievances that are shared by their Muslim communities in their home countries. From the first Gulf War (1990-91) to Somalia (1993), Bosnia-Herzegovina (1993-96), Chechnya (1999) and the second Palestinian Intifada (from 2000 onwards), Muslims have faced the negative consequences of Western economic and political decisions. The immediate outcry by Muslims around the world about the publishing of the Danish cartoons highlights the deep grievances of Muslims with Western policies, as well as the inabilities and incapability of Middle Eastern governments to protect the rights and address the grievances of their citizens. The widening rift between secular Western societies and Islamic militancy threatens to spread.


Hany Besada, SAIIA Researcher



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