More than a year after the beginning of Pakistan’s proclaimed military campaign to wipe out terrorists and destroy terror havens in the Tribal Areas, the country is still rocked periodically by attacks (like that on the Badaber Air Force base), or assassinations (like that of Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada). Meanwhile, across the Middle East, the group calling itself Islamic State continues flexing its military might, and killing and terrorising people. And all the while, commentators and analysts across the world hold forth, ad nauseum, on the psychology and factors that have led to the rise of Islamic militancy, in general, and IS, in particular.
But there are two important events which are surprisingly little mentioned in this discourse on the rise of the militant message and its appeal to Muslims on a global level. One concerns a book while the other concerns a war, in Europe, in which ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population is now recognised to have been the stated policy of one side.
Of course the book I am referring to is Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and the war I mention is the Bosnian war.
Rushdie’s book was published 27 years ago, in September 1988. It caused a storm and Muslims in the west protested against what they saw as its blasphemous tone and content. The protests spread, like wildfire all over the world, eventually leading to Imam Khomeini’s fatwa against the author. But what was most startling for countries like Britain was how the Muslim communities’ rage erupted into street power. Suddenly young Muslims, particularly young men, born and brought up in the west felt that they had a cause, something that somehow explained their previously undefined sense of ‘otherness’ and exclusion. To many Muslims the book and the way authorities insisted on it being a freedom of speech issue was proof of how the state viewed them as second-class citizens, outsiders. Religious groups capitalised on the situation and new youth networks were created through mosques and university campuses. This mobilisation and young British Muslims’ sense of this otherness sparked a shift in community attitudes.
Then the war in Bosnia did much to fuel this sense of injustice. Fought between 1992 and 1995, this was a brutal territorial war in the wake of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and one in which Muslims were specifically targeted. This was the conflict which saw mass rape used systematically as a weapon of war, something acknowledged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia which declared that “systematic rape” and “sexual enslavement” in time of war was a crime against humanity, second only to the war crime of genocide. Bosniak women were subjected to ‘mass rape and often detained till such a time as it would be too late to terminate a resulting pregnancy. According to UN estimates between 20 to 50 thousand Bosniak women were subjected to rape.
These sorts of atrocities did much to fuel Muslim resentment. The persecution narratives of Palestine and Kashmir had begun to lose their efficacy but the Bosnia war provided fresh outrage. In a time before the Internet, many in the late eighties and mid nineties were radicalised by the circulation, or group screenings of videotapes documenting the rape and killing of the Bosnian Muslims. The fact that the Srebrenica massacre (in which over 8000 Muslim men were taken away and executed by Serb forces) was facilitated by UN peacekeeping troops further strengthened the persecution narrative. Srebrenica was “the worst massacre on European soil since the Third Reich”, yet it is something that remains strangely under-acknowledged by both Europe and the ‘free’ world.
A book and a war were just one of the many factors fuelling the Muslim rage that then burst into the 21st century and exploded on the New York skyline. In the wake of 9/11, there were initial attempts by commentators in the west to reflect upon the causes of Muslim anger, but that discourse was quickly replaced by one of waging a ‘just’ war against ‘the other’.
Nevertheless, in this now terrible conflict it is worth looking at factors other than religious theology to understand the international appeal of militant Islamic organisations.