To the peoples of the Arab world, those weren’t the only crusades. In their minds, two more crusades have followed.
The next crusade was the colonial period when the Arab world came under the control of the British, French and other European powers. This frustrated Arab dreams of unity and brought a sense of inferiority as they were incapable of overthrowing the Europeans for such a long time.
The current crusade is the one that, in the eyes of fundamentalists, most threatens their way of life. It is what is often called American imperialism. Unlike the British and French, Americans have made no attempt to annex an Arab territory as a colony of the United States. Americans themselves were originally under colonial rule and fought a revolutionary war to be rid of it and replace it with the modern American republic, so Americans are not inclined to colonize as did the Europeans of the 19th century.
However, inadvertently, American culture threatens the traditional way of life of all the Islamic peoples. This is a major cause of resentment if not outright hatred toward the United States.
Partly this is the result of technological advancement. Radio and television have brought Western culture into peoples’ homes all over the world. American movies are universal; wherever you go in the world they seem to be available. The message they send is not a good one. They depict an immoral and very violent country, far from the reality of many American families—but foreign audiences don’t know that. They also depict liberated and scantily clad women and know-it-all children who show contempt for their parents—both highly offensive to Islamic values.
The pervasiveness of Western culture has only worsened in recent years with the introduction of satellite television. Now more people can watch Western movies and television shows, resulting in increased anti-Western feeling.
Additionally, people throughout the Arab world can now see nightly news footage of Palestinian suffering, for which they blame the United States. The logic is simple—Israel kills Palestinians, America supports Israel, therefore blame America.
Because America is already perceived as a violent country, it is considered responsible for the violence. Exacerbating feelings further has been American military action against Muslims, seen as an anti-Islamic stance on the part of the United States.
The fact that the United States and its allies supported Muslims against the Serbs and Croats in the Balkan wars of the 1990s is overlooked. From the perspective of many in the Muslim world, the American liberation of Afghans from the oppressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001-2002 and the Iraq war to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 were simply attacks on fellow Muslims. It should be remembered that many countries do not allow freedom of the press or the airwaves, and news there is usually controlled and heavily slanted. This is true throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Roots of Islamic extremism
Such factors have contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. It’s not a new phenomenon. As with other religions, fundamentalists come and go. This has been the case with Islam as it has been with nominal Christianity.
In the 18th century, Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792) was born in what is now Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. His followers, who form a Sunni sect, are known as Wahhabis. They are the most extreme of all the branches of Islam—violent, intolerant and fanatical. Their rise to prominence in Arabia was not the result of the European Crusades, but rather the decadence of the Ottoman Sultans. Ibn Abdul Wahhab established a state in the Arabian Peninsula that was modeled after the Ummah of the seventh century, an Islamic community that would live by the sharia, Islamic law.
Wahhabism is still the dominant religion of Saudi Arabia, and it has many followers in the Persian Gulf states. It is from this area that the terrorists came who staged the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. It has been said that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Wahhabis. Although this is an overstatement, it is true that most of the mosques in Western countries are financed by the Saudis, with the imams teaching their adherents the Wahhabi interpretation of the Koran. As early as 1801, the followers of Wahhab were killing all who opposed them—they fell upon the Shiite city of Karbala that year and killed 2,000 innocent civilians.
Fundamentalism, however, was not confined to Arabia. Later in the same century the British fought a man claiming to be the Mahdi in Sudan, another fundamentalist who wanted to unite all Arabs in a holy war against the infidels invading from the West. The British defeated him and continued to dominate the area until after World War II.
Fundamentalists strike back
Islamic fundamentalism was to affect the West again in 1979. This time the United States was the target as America’s most powerful ally in the region was overthrown by fundamentalist masses. The shah of Iran had been pro-Western and, with the help of the United States, had built up his forces to become the strongest military power in the Persian Gulf, the oil-rich area of vital economic and strategic interest to all the Western world.
The shah was overthrown by followers of the extremist Shiite Ayatollah Khomeini. Militant students took over the American embassy in Tehran and held dozens of American embassy employees hostage for 444 days. The West feared that Islamic extremism would spread to other countries in the region.
That was also the year in which the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Forces there had overthrown their king in 1973 and eventually a procommunist government took control. When this, too, was overthrown, Moscow intervened. Their intervention and a costly, protracted, demoralizing war led directly to the collapse of the Soviet Union a little over a decade later.
The United States, concerned about Soviet advances around the world, helped the Afghans rebel against Soviet domination. They began supplying arms through Muslim Pakistan to the Afghan mujahadin, the guerrilla forces who were led by Osama bin Laden. Eventually the Soviets were defeated, their country collapsed and Afghanistan came under the control of Sunni fundamentalists called the Taliban (“students,” referring to those who were taught in Islamic seminaries, or madrasas). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, vast lands in Central Asia broke away from Russia and became independent Islamic republics, thereby further increasing the number of Islamic nations around the world.
Islamic fundamentalists were quickly becoming a major force throughout the Islamic world. They especially appealed to poor people frustrated and angered by leaders who often lived a lavish lifestyle while their people suffered in poverty and oppression. Similarly, in Western nations, Islamic fundamentalists proselytize among the poor and in prisons where they have gained many recruits. Throughout the Arab world people grew tired of their dictatorial regimes that had replaced the corrupt kings. The new presidents had turned out to be no different.
Fundamentalists soon learned that power cannot always be achieved through the democratic process. In Algeria they won the election in 1992, replacing the Arab nationalist government that had led Algeria to independence from France 30 years earlier—following an eight-year rebellion. After 30 years, the economic conditions of the people had only worsened with many, ironically, having to leave for France just to survive.
The fundamentalists seemed better organized and were certainly more honest. But the military stepped in to stop fundamentalist rule. Since then, Algeria has been plagued by frequent terrorist attacks by the forces of fundamentalism, and more than 100,000 Algerians have been killed. French support for the military action only increased resentment and distrust of the West—all the Western talk of democracy seemed to count for little when it mattered.
Shifting tide against the United States
The 1990s saw rising bitterness directed at the United States, now the dominant Western force and the world’s only remaining superpower.
The U.S.-led Persian Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 received a great deal of support from other Arab nations. Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, had sent his forces into neighboring Kuwait, annexing the small oil-producing nation. His justification for this invasion went back to the days of the Ottoman Empire when what is now Kuwait was part of an administrative zone of the empire that included a large part of Iraq.
The United States and its allies defeated Iraq, but fears of Saddam Hussein remained because Iraq was known to possess weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons, and was aggressively pursuing development of nuclear weapons. By the time this fear came to a head with the 2003 Iraq War, the United States found that many allies of the first Gulf War were no longer supportive. In the interim, the world had changed.
The great turning point was Sept. 11, 2001. As with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the previous century, this was to change everything. The world has not been the same since.
Immediately following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., when terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the world was generally sympathetic toward America. But within a year after the United States responded with its war on terror, demonstrating its awesome military power in Afghanistan and looking ahead to possible conflicts with what President Bush called the “Axis of Evil,” in the eyes of many America’s role had changed from victim to villain.
Suppressed resentment against the world’s dominant superpower and fear of isolation and possible terrorism over being too closely allied to the United States contributed to international rejection of America’s role as the world’s policeman. Increasingly others, even including some Americans, began blaming the United States for Sept. 11, claiming it was a justified response to American foreign policy.
In 2003, in the eyes of many Muslims and their leaders, America was setting a precedent by invading Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. If one president could be removed, all the other leaders in the region felt they likewise could be removed by U.S. military force. Additionally, public anger at the suffering of the Palestinians had risen with access to satellite television—and especially al-Jazeera, the first Arabic-language satellite station broadcasting from Qatar in the Persian Gulf.
Islamic fundamentalism gains ground
Well before Sept. 11 the threat to the United States from Islamic terrorism was becoming apparent. An article in the November-December 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs quotes from a declaration against the West issued by Osama bin Laden and other militants.
Their demands were for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia—the land of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities of Islam. They also called for an end to the bombing of Iraq and the UN sanctions imposed against that country following the Gulf War. And, thirdly, they condemned American support for Israel against the Palestinians. (After victory in the Iraq War, the United States addressed all three grievances, announcing it would withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia, lifting sanctions against Iraq and pursuing a new peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians.)
Following Sept. 11 America suffered further setbacks as Islamic fundamentalists made additional gains in a number of countries. Pakistan’s leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a supporter of Washington’s war on terror, saw his country elect an Islamic government, although the general retained overall control of the country.
Surprisingly, almost 80 years after the overthrow of the sultan and the declaration of an Islamic republic, Turkey also elected an Islamic party majority in the November 2002 election. Other countries throughout the region likewise have experienced gains by fundamentalists.
Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1982 by Islamic fundamentalists, who 15 years later massacred foreign tourists visiting some of Egypt’s ancient monuments in an effort to undermine the national economy by destroying the tourism industry.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country, fundamentalists have been killing Christians, and in late 2002 a bombing on the Hindu island of Bali killed almost 200 Western tourists, half of them Australians. In India and the Indian-administered section of Kashmir, Muslim fundamentalists have attacked Hindus and Christians, deliberately trying to provoke conflict between Pakistan and India, two of the world’s recent nuclear powers.
In Africa, also, Islamic fundamentalism has left its mark. In Sudan, the Muslims of the north actively persecute the Christians of the south, even taking thousands of them into slavery. In Nigeria’s northern Muslim states, sharia law has been introduced, and the most popular name given to newborn boys since Sept. 11, 2001, has been Osama in honor of Osama bin Laden.
One factor in this growth of Islamic fundamentalism is the high birthrate in Islamic countries. In most economically backward countries half the people are young people, as couples tend to have six to eight children. As economic policies in these nations often restrict business activity rather than encourage it, many young people cannot find jobs.
Without a means to support a family, the young men cannot marry. The promise of instantly available young virgins upon death as a martyr in a jihad, or holy war, is tempting, so they believe they have nothing to lose in sacrificing themselves to advance Islamic aims. As an additional incentive, some Islamic governments have given thousands of dollars to the surviving family, a princely sum in the slums of refugee camps.
Dilemma for the West
However, poverty is not the main cause of the problem. Almost all the Sept. 11 suicide bombers came from affluent backgrounds, and Osama bin Laden came from one of the wealthiest families in Saudi Arabia. Many other factors have contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and subsequent terrorism, including the Israeli-Palestinian problem and the domination of American culture.
Further American intervention in the region is likely to only feed the flames of fundamentalism further in the long run. Not one country in the Arab world can be said to be politically stable. All are at risk from fundamentalists. America really is caught in a no-win situation. The U.S. military may win the wars, but America is unlikely to effectively win the peace.
A further complication for the United States and other countries, particularly those of Western Europe, is the presence of Islamic fundamentalists within their own borders, largely the result of changes to immigration laws since World War II. Interestingly, while most Western nations allow immigration from Muslim countries and allow Muslims to become citizens, no Islamic nation allows people from Christian countries to permanently enter and become citizens unless they convert to Islam. The followers of Islam are aware that their religion and Western secular liberalism are incompatible.
Further conflict between the Islamic world and the West is inevitable—and foretold in Bible prophecy, as we’ll see in the next chapter.