The Chechen capital Johar-Gala (‘Grozny’) is today a burnt-out hulk, where survivors are trying to rebuild their lives in the ruins. The Russians are trying to secure the city and build workable governing institutions, while pockets of mujahideen survive in hiding, occasionally launching operations against the occupiers to try to keep the struggle alive even though retaking the city is not a realistic short-term target.
The state of the Ummah is rather more complex. Nonetheless, the parallels with Johar-Gala today are real enough. At the peak of the imperial period, virtually the whole of the Muslim world was conquered and occupied. Our social institutions and infrastructures were laid to waste, our leaders and intellectual institutions wiped out, our people left without direction, to try to survive in a world dominated by enemies. The imperial powers succeeded in doing what the Russians are trying to do in Chechnya: establish in power elites that accept the inevitability of imperial rule, and serve their masters’ purposes. And the Western imperialists succeeded so well that they were later able to withdraw their overt presence, leaving their surrogates to continue their work for them.
Despite decades of repression, the Russians have failed to break the Chechens’ resistance. And despite centuries of imperialism, the West has failed to suppress Islamic movements determined to drive them out of the Muslim world and re-establish Islamic social order. The Russians are haunted by mujahideen who are determined to fight on even though success seems unachievable. The global equivalents are the militant revolutionary Islamic movements that dominate political activism in the Muslim world, despite the West’s global war against them. Like the Chechens, however, such Islamic movements are fiercely repressed wherever they emerge: Palestine, Kashmir, Egypt, the Balkans, Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, Turkey, Uzbekistan... the list is virtually endless.
But the Islamic movement’s task extends far beyond simply defeating the enemies of Islam. In fact, that may be the easy part. The harder part is reversing the effects of years of imperial rule, removing the detritus left behind, and rebuilding Islamic societies, in the teeth of constant attack from enemies still determined to reassert their control one way or another. This is the problem being faced by Islamic movements as diverse as those in Iran, Afghanistan (the Taliban, whatever their flaws, are still an Islamic movement), Sudan (during the Turabi/Bashir period), Mindanao, southern Lebanon (under the Hizbullah) and Chechnya (during its three years of de facto independence under Aslan Maskhadov).
The difficulties of these embryonic Islamic states have been immense. The problem is that a continual struggle for survival leaves little time and space for forward planning. Even Islamic Iran has suffered because the movement was unprepared for power at the time of the Islamic Revolution. Developing an understanding of an Islamic state, and planning for the challenges such a state must face, had simply not been done. The argument that these are issues that can only be addressed once power has been achieved is only partly valid; it is also true that more planning could have been done, and needs to be done for the future.
This is an enormous task, at a time when the Ummah has suffered immense damage from the imperialist interruption of its intellectual development, and the deliberate destruction of its resources. For decades, only institutions promoting depoliticized Islam or secular politics have been allowed to develop, while others have been suppressed. The result is a gap between the political Islamic movement and Muslim intellectuals, with too many of the latter dazzled by the West and beholden to its sophisticated institutions and ample patronage. Muslim intellectuals and institutions willing to accept Western dominance find resources and opportunities; those who declare allegiance to the political Islamic movement are disparaged, marginalised and have few platforms for publishing, debating or developing their ideas.
The results are seen in the dearth of quality intellectual work within the Islamic movement, particularly in politics and social sciences. The political understanding of most activists is either rudimentary or west-toxicated, and few models have been developed for Islamic social institutions designed to operate within revolutionary Islamic states rather than pro-western nation-states. The importance of encouraging and facilitating such intellectual work within the movement must not be ignored.