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Smokers’ Corner: The West’s first jihad experiment

Updated May 29, 2016 09:34am

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In his 2005 book, America and Unrest in the Muslim World, veteran ideologue of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), Professor Khurshid Ahmad, wrote that the policy of siding with Western powers (especially the US) during the Cold War was a mistake by ‘Islamic forces’.

Across the 1960s, 1970s and, a lot more vehemently, in the 1980s, various right-wing Islamic groups in South and East Asia, and the Middle East, were constantly lambasted by those on the left for taking up the West’s fight against Soviet and Chinese backed communism, and, more so, against hybrid leftist innovations such as Arab nationalism.

Although JI’s founder and scholar, Abul Ala Maududi (d.1979), had explained this as a tact partnership between ‘believers’ (Muslims and Christians) against ‘non-believers’ (the communists), many years later his contemporary, Ahmad, confessed that the idea was largely flawed.

It is interesting to note that Maududi, a prolific writer, was as suspicious of secularism as he was of communism and socialism. But he saw the mentioned partnership as one which was between Muslim and Christian powers, and not between Muslims and the secular West.


History shows that Muslims have often been involved in jihad that has been instigated by the West


Nevertheless, Professor Ahmad, in his reassessment of JI’s policies during the Cold War, lamented the folly of siding with the West. But he did not ponder whether this also meant that the Islamic groups should have sided with the Soviet Union and leftist outfits instead.

Ahmad wrote that the Islamic groups had committed a tactical error which helped the West eliminate the Soviet Union and move a lot more freely to overwhelm the economic, political and social resources of Muslim countries. It is admirable that a scholar from a steadfast politico-religious outfit would expose his party to self-criticism, but the way out from the quagmire it found itself in after the end of the Cold War is not quite as well thought-out by him as is his self-deprecation.

Ahmad advises that the Islamic community (ummah) must now “purify its ranks and become a homogenous community that can mobilise against the American-Zionist-Hindu plot (to subdue the Muslim world)”. However, he does not quite explain exactly what would be the nature of the procedure which would “purify the ranks”.

In Ahmad’s self-criticism there is an overarching mix of the tragic and the grandiose. He argues that the Islamic forces had helped an ally to wipe out Godless communism but were betrayed once the Soviet Union collapsed. The truth is, such forces were politically feeble. Weaker forces in such a context are usually willing to derive strength and power from outside after they fail to find it from within.

Thus, these forces willingly became part of the plans drawn up by the US against its main nemesis, the ‘Soviet bloc’, during the Cold War. They saw such an alliance as an opportunity to gain political prominence.

States are entirely driven by self-interest. There are no real friends, just provisional allies, and, of course, a changing set of enemies. Much of the combative aspects of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union were demonstrated by outfits (both from the left and the right) operating outside the US and the Soviet Union, but backed by the two. But self-interest was also at the heart of those fighting the battle on behalf of these two states.

When JI and other such outfits in various Muslim countries allied themselves with the US, they did so only to bolster their own standing in scenarios in which they were electorally weak or had failed to gather any mass momentum.

The Western sides of the Cold War strengthened these forces (along with conservative Muslim regimes and monarchies), so that they would not roll towards the Soviet side of the divide. This became convenient to do because, again, weaker forces are usually willing to derive power from outside after they fail to find it from within.

For example, the ‘Afghan jihad’ against the Soviets was fought and fronted by such forces. Their interest in doing so had more to do with gaining earthly political power and monetary benefits. They were bankrolled by external powers whose interests, too, were entirely their own and had nothing to do with jihad.

But the whole concept of jihad, which was so vehemently propagated during the mentioned conflict by a verity of anti-Soviet entities and funded by a non-Muslim power, wasn’t quite such a unique phenomenon. It wasn’t the first time non-Muslim powers had stirred up the idea of jihad (with the help of Muslim allies) to counter a common enemy.

The first well-documented (but largely forgotten) episode in this respect took place during the First World War (1914-1918). As war clouds began to gather over Europe in 1914, a German aristocrat and adventurer, Max von Oppenheim, arrived in Berlin after his travels to the Muslim world. He met the Kaiser of Germany and told him that “Islam can become Germany’s secret weapon”.

Hew Strachan, a professor of history at Oxford, in his book, The First World War, writes that Oppenheim convinced the Kaiser that Germany’s enemies, Britain and France, could be weakened if Germany was to secretly organise an extensive pro-jihad campaign among the Muslims of French and British colonies in Africa, Middle East and South Asia.

At the onset of the war, Germany engaged the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul and asked him to fight on the side of Germany. But the Ottoman Empire was, by then, in shambles; it was militarily weak and corrupt. Viewing the German offer as an opportunity to win back the territory that the empire had lost in the 19th century, and fill up its almost empty treasury, the Sultan agreed — but only after Germany promised to pay a hefty sum of money.

The Sultan was asked to proclaim Germany’s (and Turkey’s) war as a jihad. The Sultan did just that, followed by Turkish clerics and officials who whipped up jihadist frenzy among Turkey’s population. In his proclamation, the Sultan insisted: “Know that our state today is at war with the governments of Russia, England and France and their allies, who are the mortal enemies of Islam […]”.

Apart from sending officers to train the Turkish soldiers, Germany also published pamphlets (in French, Persian, Arabic and Urdu) which called on all Muslims to kill Christians. One pamphlet assured the faithful: “The blood of the (British / French / Russian) infidels in the Islamic lands may be shed with impunity […]”.

These pamphlets were distributed among the Muslim populations of the British colonies and were expected to trigger mutinies by Muslim soldiers in colonial armies. But the plan, on which Germany had spent over three billion Deutsche Mark, ended in tragedy. By the end of the war in 1918, the Ottoman Empire lost Damascus, Baghdad and Jerusalem; and rest of the empire’s territory was distributed among its European counterparts.

More than 240,000 Turks were killed on the battlefield for a ‘jihad’ which was mainly propagated by Germany for ambitious imperial reasons, and sanctioned by the Sultan purely for monetary gains. The empire was left penniless, Germany, too, lost badly.

The damage also included the fall of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire. Turkey became a republic, led by secular Turkish nationalists who radically abjured and discarded the fallen empire’s narrative churned out during the war.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 29th, 2016

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Comments (37) Closed



MJ May 29, 2016 09:01am

Very Insighful NFP piece!

Khurram May 29, 2016 09:24am

Can anyone explain how come Hindus want to subdue the Muslim world? I guess JI's Mr.Ahmad thinks that Pakistan-India rivalry has something to do with Islam-Hinduism rivalry, which is actually not true. India maintains cordial relations with many Muslim-majority nations including Iran, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and so on.

Padmakar May 29, 2016 09:36am

Religion is the tool for powerful to control masses.

TQ May 29, 2016 10:27am

Excellent, I sincerely hope this is printed in Urdu daily as well so that more people can read and understand what happend, and what is going on.

Basit Ali May 29, 2016 10:41am

We have been so naive that we do not know who is using us, in WW I, in cold war era, post cold war.

cc May 29, 2016 11:01am

Interesting write-up! However, the main cause for the breakdown of Soviet Union was the ‘oil glut’ perpetrated by Saudis at the instigation of US during the 80s. If the oil prices hadn’t collapsed, the Soviets could have sustained their Afghan adventure and averted the ultimate demise of USSR! For me, the origin for the squabble between Islamic nations were seeded during the 1980 Iran-Iraq conflict! Israel was used as a factor for the call for unity among Islamic Nations that now sounds very hollow!!!

Tahir A May 29, 2016 11:17am

Nadeem Bhai, your writings are so clear and succinct that unlike other authors you do not need yellow highlighters (at least so far) to express your points.

Many thanks.

wisdom May 29, 2016 11:21am

Never knew this part of WW1 history! Thanks Nadeem for that piece...

M. Malik May 29, 2016 11:46am

@Padmakar Wrong. Religion is what you believe. No one can control that.

Humanity May 29, 2016 01:14pm

The confession about flaw in theory of partnering with Christians to counter Communism is still flawed.Communism is bad but when will they look at themselves.

sohail May 29, 2016 01:30pm

The right sided with imperial powers back then, now it is the Pakistani left.

AZAAD May 29, 2016 02:00pm

@M. Malik Of course, you are right. But, there is another dimension.

Religion is often hijacked by evil people who manipulate good, decent humans to support their selfish designs. This is aided by them claiming to speak on behalf of God, whom common mortals cannot go to, for verification.

Just look around yourself. How many of us are serving unscrupulous people, believing that we are serving God?

Yes, religious tenets are written, clear and pure, but we are influenced by scholars and interpreters who are, quite often, either not entirely unselfish or are, themselves, victims of manipulation.

Faith is always pure. Organized religion is often, not.

Jawad U Rahman May 29, 2016 02:31pm

The first half was a bit repititious, but overall a very informative and brilliant article.

khoshy May 29, 2016 03:00pm

@Khurram in subcontinent, it's near to impossible to build institutions with majority rule that protects minorities, that's the main issue in hindu-muslim context. The state of Muslims in today's India is evidence of that. Same is true in Pakistan, where the challenge is to put in place muslim majority rule institutions that are inclusive for minorities. Apart from Kashmir, now there is possibly no more concern of Hind-Muslim animosity at least in Pakistan.

Nasiroski May 29, 2016 03:39pm

Unfortunately we are not as educated as Turks to make a comeback under a Ata Turk if available. Also unfortunate for Turkey their current leadership is taking them back into the dark days of inducing religiosity in state business.

Adnan May 29, 2016 03:40pm

Then Germany, followed by US and now China,strange bed fellows muslim countries have.

Dr Mazhar May 29, 2016 03:48pm

If Muslim world has true democracy, they will never fall in one's support. They need strong foreign policies, in this respect I appreciate Iran's foreign policies.

sri1 May 29, 2016 04:37pm

@Basit Ali "We have been so naive that we do not know who is using us, in WW I, in cold war era, post cold war" I beg to disagree, bhaijaan. The powers that be are completely open-eyed and wanting to be used while getting involved into each scenario. Just like the Thurkish Sultan.

Basit Ali May 29, 2016 05:06pm

@M. Malik So by your own logic no one should force their own kids to follow the religion they were born into rather go and make a choice in what you believe ...right?

Feroz May 29, 2016 05:15pm

@M. Malik I am with Padmakar. I believe in almighty merciful God, like everyone am born into one religion but think all are only powerful tools for control over masses. They breed narrow mindedness, create differences, affect social harmony and have spilled copious blood. The path to spiritual enlightenment does not need the crutch of religion.

hidayat (Cheshire UK) May 29, 2016 05:25pm

@Khurram 1971?

Citizen May 29, 2016 05:38pm

NFP that can not justify Muslim atrocities

Abraham Haque May 29, 2016 06:34pm

@Basit Ali try that in a Muslim majority country

pre-Boomer Marine brat May 29, 2016 07:41pm

Thank you VERY much for this one !!!

asad May 29, 2016 08:50pm

I always read NFP articles with interest. Its about time we realize that this muslim non muslim ,believers and infidels etc is just a propaganda these days used by powers to be to advance their own interests mostly monetary in nature. The new religion is the 'modern monetary system (i.e. new world order)'and its god is MONEY! It plays right into man's very primal and most vulnerable instinct i.e. lust for greed and power. All the traditions and religions came to tame this instinct and the struggle will continue till the end of times.

Ayub May 29, 2016 09:41pm

Excellent write-up. Now Muslims should come to senses and be careful not to get entrapped in hollow slogans of Jihadism.

TZaman May 29, 2016 10:04pm

Thank you for your plain talking narrative about bogus jihads which we have glorifying for so long. How many innocents have died believing in false religious wars? So how do we now judge these holy warlords?

Khurram May 29, 2016 10:58pm

@khoshy I understand the concerns of minorities in both countries, but that doesn't mean there is any Muslim-Hindu animosity existent around the world. What you have mentioned is a communal issue that needs attention from respective governments.

Khurram May 29, 2016 10:59pm

@hidayat (Cheshire UK) regional conflict, not a global one ...

Ashraf Quli May 29, 2016 11:53pm

@Padmakar "Religion is the tool for powerful to control masses". You are absolutely correct, this has been case for centuries.

k janjua May 30, 2016 06:28am

No matter how we put it, we are creation of our own desires, religion, cast creed, regional affiliations works as the fuel behind it

Canada For Canadians May 30, 2016 06:54am

Formula For World Peace:Lets Divide The World According To Religion-Muslims Should Live & Move In Muslim Countries, Christians Should Live In West, Hindus In India,Jews in Israel and Buddhists in Buddhist Majority Countries, Sikhs In Khalistan(Newly Created)-Exchange Populations of The World According to Religion And Then Live Happily Thereafter-No More Fights No Terrorism Only Do Business.There Will Be No Fights Nor Jihads.

dPatel May 30, 2016 07:43am

@Padmakar Your statement is correct but is incomplete because it means all religions. If you can read the article, your statement applies to the Organized Religions like Christianity, Islam etc. The eastern religions are not organized religions and the do not have army type control over the masses.

Sampath May 30, 2016 10:35am

Be it the case of individual or a group stupidity is exploited by others. If there are smart people within the group like the author warning others of their stupidity and are not listened to, this exploitation is perpetuated specially if the exploiters carry guns

RJM May 30, 2016 11:31am

This happens when you mix religion with politics. The friday sermons should be completely free of politics either national or international.

Waseem, Canada May 30, 2016 03:15pm

I agree with NFP. Few point to be noted: 1. Prior to engaging in WW I, Sultan was already overthrown by the Young Turks (a nationalist movement that led to the creation of modern Turkey at the expense of the Ottoman empire). 2. The Young Turk movement was countered by the Arab nationalist movement spearheaded by a British spy aka Lawrence of Arabia in alliance with Sharif of Mecca who aspired to be King of Arabia (north Africa and middle east). 3. In India, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, khilafat movement was started which Gandhi used for elevating his own political stature. History repeats itself because some do not learn it and repeat same mistakes with same results.

dPatel May 30, 2016 06:31pm

@Waseem, Canada Thanks for additional info on Khilafat movement that was fully supported by Ghandhiji against his non-violence policy that ended in with brutal consequences of Noakhali massacre. As you correctly wrote, people just do not learn from history and start same Khilafat movement again in name of ISIS.