This month marks a painful anniversary in modern Muslim history: the defeat of the Arab states by Israel in 1967, and the loss of al-Quds and the Masjid al-Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest site. In the subsequent four decades, not one Muslim army has successfully defended its country’s borders or the honour of its people. Instead, all they have achieved, with ruthless efficiency, is to attack the parapets of power in their own countries, banish civilian rulers, and seize control for themselves. So one is forced to ask: are Muslim armies relevant? Given the Muslims’ traditional admiration for courage and valour, the question may appear odd, but it would be wrong to confuse the courage of ordinary Muslims with that of their armies. Muslim generals like to project themselves as successors to Khalid ibn Walid or Salahuddin Ayubi, but their records make the comparison laughable.
If they had been corporations, Muslim armies would have been disbanded long ago, because they have totally failed at the task for which they were supposedly established: safeguarding their country’s borders from external aggression. Their failures are so obvious that it is incredible that few question their right to exist. In virtually every Muslim country, the army has been the most regressive of state institutions, acting as an agent for Western influence while consuming massive state resources. The argument that large armies are necessary because of the threats Muslims face is easily countered: when have these armies ever provided an answer to these threats? Has any army in the Muslim world ever defeated an enemy?
Let us consider some of the most obvious trouble spots in the Muslim world, such as Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir. Brutal wars have been waged against Muslims in these lands for many years, in some cases decades, yet no Muslim army has ever come to their aid. For decades, the Arab regimes have argued that they must spend large sums of money to acquire modern weapons for their armies to match Israel’s military might. But in every encounter with the zionists, they have been soundly defeated. If the acquisition of modern weapons has not prevented defeat, let alone succeeded in liberating Palestine, why continue to spend more money on upgrading such arsenals? During Israel’s assault on Lebanon last July, while Hizbullah fighters valiantly resisted the zionists, the 70,000 soldiers of the Lebanese army sat idle in their barracks, even after Israel bombed them. What use is an army that cannot defend itself, let alone its people?
The same can be said of Pakistan’s army, which has made a habit of invading the country’s prime ministerial and presidential compounds every few years, but has never moved to help the people of Kashmir, even though the liberation of Kashmir has been the single most important argument advanced by the army to justify its enormous consumption of Pakistan’s limited state resources. For years the military has insisted that its weaponry must match India’s, and yet there is no accounting for these resources now that all thoughts of helping the suffering Kashmiri people have been abandoned under the guise of the peace process. In Turkey too, the military wields massive political power in the name of safeguarding Kemalism, a cause that justifies repeated usurpation of the rights of the Turkish people. On what basis does it insist on imposing an ideology on the people that they do not want? Has the Turkish army ever given any better account of itself than its counterparts in Pakistan and Arab countries? And Turkey too has suffered economically because of the military’s greed for state resources.
Let us now look at areas where Muslims have successfully resisted their enemies. Lebanon stands out as the most obvious example; others include Iran, Afghanistan and Chechnya. While hundreds of thousands of Arab soldiers have failed to defeat Israel, a few thousand lightly armed Hizbullah fighters have defeated the zionists and driven them out of Lebanon – not once, but twice. In Iran, it was not the regular army but the Revolutionary Guards and the Baseej (a volunteer force) that withstood the Iraqi Ba‘athists – backed by the entire world – for eight years, driving them back into Iraq. (Only direct US intervention prevented the fall of Saddam Hussein and the liberation of Iraq in the 1980s.) When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, it was the Afghan masses that fought back; the Afghan army remained loyal to the state that had been taken over by communists. The same pattern is evident today, as popular resistance forces fight the Western invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
What these examples, and those of places such as Chechnya and Palestine, indicate is that resistance movements based on popular mobilization and support are far more effective in defending Muslims than large standing armies. In fact, the militaries of Muslim states, like the regimes themselves, have become instruments of the enemies of Islam, acting to contain and frustrate the aspirations of Muslim peoples, whether in Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt or Algeria. Some Islamic movements continue to insist that these powerful institutions should be taken as allies in the struggle for liberation and Islam. This can only lead to the defeat of the Islamic movement, as seen in Sudan. Now is the time for Muslims to recognize these enemies within, get rid of them, and take control of their own destinies.