Inconceivable though it may seem, the phrase "Islamic movement" has become almost a dirty word among many intelligent and committed young Muslims, certainly in western countries. Twenty years ago, in the period after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, when I first became involved in Islamic activism, young Muslims were full of hope for the future of the Ummah and the Islamic movement was seen as the vehicle for change that would transform the Ummah. In universities and dar al-ulum around the world, the most intelligent and progressive of Muslim youth were eager to be associated with this dynamic agent of change that promised to reconstruct the political norms and institutions of Muslim countries and societies in line with the Islamic values of their people. No-one expected it to be easy, but the Islamic Revolution had shown the way that movements in other Muslim countries appeared bound to follow.
Twenty years on, the world seems an entirely darker place and few would claim to have the same optimism that was commonplace back then. Of course, even then, there were voices of realism, warning that the path ahead would not be easy, even as they celebrated the successes to date, but perhaps it is not in the nature of young people to heed such voices and moderate their expectations. Few, however realistic, could have predicted the state of the world in which we find ourselves today. Despite what we knew of the US's total support for the SAVAK secret police in Iran during the 1970s, and its support for other Muslim regimes around the world, including Saddam Hussain in his invasion of Iran in 1980, the way that the US is behaving in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere now would have seemed unimaginable back then. The same is perhaps true also of the violent suppression of the Islamic movement in Algeria in the 1990s, following the military coup that cancelled FIS's victory in the country's elections in 1991.
And it is not just the enemies of Islam who appear different now. The profile of the Islamic movement itself has also changed in the eyes of people generally, including many Muslims. Then, the dominant figure with whom the movement was associated in the public mind was Imam Khomeini, a man of faith, integrity and principle whose charisma and leadership had inspired the people of Iran to rise against the Shah and take their own society and destiny into their own hands. Today the movement is associated first and foremost with Usama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Then, the images that came to mind when we talked of the Islamic movement were of crowds of Muslims taking to the streets of Iran to topple a dictatorial regime by the force of their faith; today the images that come to many minds are of violence and terrorism, bombed out buildings and crying civilians in cities around the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
We do not have to believe everything that the Western spin doctors and media tell us about al-Qa'ida to have deep reservations about much that is done in the name of the Islamic movement today. The bombings of civilian targets in Western capitals, such as the underground systems in London and Madrid, and the sectarian killings of Shi'is in Iraq, are just some of the actions that Islamic activists have carried out in the name of jihad that we cannot possibly condone. It is true that nothing Muslims have done comes close to matching the scale of the crimes committed against Muslims by our enemies in pursuit of their interests, but that is no justification or extenuation of the fact that Muslims too have been guilty of appalling atrocities. Even where Muslims have been subjected to the most intense political oppression, such as Chechnya and Palestine, we have to be clear that there can be no justification for such responses as occupation of the Beslan school siege in September last year. We can do little about the crimes of our enemies except condemn them; but those of our own people, committed by our Muslim brothers and sisters in the name of Islam, we have a duty to do something about.
It is no coincidence, of course, that this is the face of the Islamic movement that is most widely promoted by the international Western media, while the fact that Islamic movements provide, for example, the only proper community organization and social services in most Muslim countries is little known around the world. In fact, much of the rise to prominence of such elements in the Islamic movement is probably attributable to Western intervention, keen to promote disruptive and divisive elements within the movement to counter the much more dangerous trends influenced by movements such as that in Iran. Western commentators on al-Qa'ida often comment on the irony that many of its members were once supported by the CIA for its own nefarious purposes; acknowledging that that is true is not necessarily to question the motives or sincerity of the Muslims in question. But it is no coincidence that all these elements within the movement that were once cultivated by the West and its allies, such as the Saudis, were on the extreme Wahhabi and salafi wing of the Islamic movement – the sectors of the ummah that were most anti-Shi'i and therefore least likely to follow the lead of the Islamic Revolution.
But the fact that many Muslims regard political Islamic activism less than favourably cannot be attributed only to the influence of our enemies. The fact is that, at every level, many Islamic activists and supposed leaders appear to do their best to put people off, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The rigid, strident and unthinking dogmatism of so many elements within the movement is as alienating of intelligent, open-minded young Muslims as it is of others. Unfortunately, the Ummah of Islam, and therefore the Islamic movement, is no more than a cross-section of humanity as a whole. Within it we find people with every fault known to man, Arrogance and stubbornness are features of the human condition, and it is no surprise that we find them in Muslims, particularly young ones who think they know it all, as young people everywhere are prone to do. Of course, such conduct is utterly alien to the spirit and ethos of Islam, but the simple fact of being Muslim does not make people immune from it.
Such conduct is less understandable or excusable when it comes to those who purport to be leaders of Muslims, however. Unfortunately, in many Muslim communities, there are plenty of so-called Islamic leaders who draw attention because they speak loudly and provocatively, rather than because they have something to say. Such leaders, and their followers, often aim to dominate Islamic organizations and groups, and spend as much time fighting those they perceive as rivals (although they have good Islamic reasons for condemning them, of course) as they do trying to do any positive work for the movement. Even when they do try to work, their understandings are often so distorted as to be counter-productive, as is the case with the groups that proclaim the supposed hijackers of the jet airliners that crashed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon as "The Magnificent Nineteen". It is hardly surprising that Muslims and non-Muslims alike are put off by such thoughtless stupidities; and again, it is hardly surprising that many of our enemies are only too eager to promote such figures as the real face of the Islamic movement.
In truth, however, nothing that has happened in the last twenty-odd years is all that surprising. As the profile of the Islamic movement rose, it was bound to attract both the wrath and vengeance of our enemies, and those elements within the ummah who had more enthusiasm than understanding and good sense. What has happened, unfortunately, is that the true face of the Islamic movement, reflecting the genuine commitment and instinctive Islamic values of the Muslim ummah, has been lost between the strident voices of our enemies on one side and those of our own extremists on the other, both keen to drown out the small, quiet, humble voice of genuine faith and Islamic principles in between.
The Islamic movement I joined in the 1980s was not the movement that I see today, and I know that others of my generation feel similarly. I also know that there are many young Muslimstoday whose commitment and understanding are unquestionable but who doubt whether the Islamic movement today really embodies the values and principles that magazines like Crescent International claim for it.
The movement I joined was characterised by the humility and scholarship of Imam Khomeini rather than the fervour and dogmatism of many contemporary jihadists. The leaders who inspired me were those likeMaulana Maududi, Shaikh Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb and Ali Shari'ati, whose intellectualism was a central part of their Islamic commitment, and informed their political struggle, rather than something to be mocked and dismissed as an irrelevant distraction from the jihad at hand. That is not to say that jihad was not a part of the movement; but that it was understood that it was just one part of a struggle that encompassed all aspects of the social life of the Ummah and had to be conducted in accordance with the teachings and values of Islam, and the highest standards of Islamic conduct. These were men who embodied the ayah that “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah and those that follow him are firm with the kuffar but compassionate with each other” (48:29).
Most of all, of course, I and thousands like me were inspired by the work of marhoom Dr Kalim Siddiqui, who made the Muslim Institute, London, into an intellectual centre of the global Islamic movement the like of which we do not have today but desperately need. He understood that the transformation of the Ummahneeded more than just political or military struggle, but also what he called an intellectual revolution to lay the basis for the shaping of future Islamic societies and states. He understood that the Islamic movement could not be successful by jihad alone, and that the formulaic and dogmatic implementation of any traditonal understanding of Islamic social order was bound to fail in the radically changed societies of the modern world. While utterly clear on the nature of the West and the challenge facing us, he also understood that the Islamic movement needs to be proceed with humility and inclusiveness. This is the spirit we must reclaim for the Islamic movement today; anything else is to play into the hands of our enemies.