Islamic Militancy

By Kimball, Charles | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Islamic Militancy


Kimball, Charles, Harvard International Review


Henry Munson's article ("Lifting the Veil: Understanding the Roots of Islamic Militancy," Winter 2004) makes a valuable contribution in the study of the development of Islamic militancy. He argues convincingly that US policies in the Arab world are key to understanding the widespread and growing hostility toward the United States. Munson rightly chides US leaders who play to ignorance and fear by declaring simplistically that Muslim extremists "hate our freedoms."

I agree that a resolution or, at least, substantial progress toward a more hopeful future for everyone in Israel and Palestine, should be a top priority in the long-term struggle in what is dubbed the "war on terror." Munson's plea that "defeating terror entails diluting the humiliation, despair, and rage that fuels it" is compelling.

Substantial movement forward on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential for regional and global stability. It is not, however, a panacea. Much of the anger and frustration fueling militant Islamist movements is connected to specific circumstances in distinct settings. Understanding the roots of Islamic militancy requires hard work in the dense thicket of the particulars. Iraq is not Indonesia; Afghanistan is not Algeria; Lebanon is not Libya.

Contextual analyses in particular settings reveal both distinctive histories and some common themes. Munson illustrates the point by explaining Osama bin Laden in the context of his experience in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, extensive media attention has now exposed specific elements present in Iraq, including the brutal political repression and a despicable record on human rights under Saddam Hussein, internal conflicts among and between Sunnis, Shi'as, and Kurds, and the impact of many years of economic exploitation. Egypt, too, has had a distinctive history of militant movements; to topple the regime, Islamist extremists assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981 and under the leadership of a blind cleric, Sheik Umar abd al Rahman, 12 Egyptians tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. Egyptian terrorists also attacked Japanese and German tourists in 1997, and Ayman az Zawahiri, the number-two man in Al Qaeda, is a 54-year-old medical doctor from Egypt, and Muhammad Atta, the apparent leader of the September 11, 2001, hijackers was also from Egypt. Understanding the roots of Islamic militancy across the Arab world therefore requires thoughtful contextual and historical analysis.

At the same time, we can discern several themes that connect movements across national borders. …

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