One of the greatest pressing issues which plague this increasingly inter-connected, materialistic and complicated world is terrorism. And out of the most gruesome acts that we have seen in the recent past, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre stands out in sharp contrast. It is commonly said that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” and the book “God’s Terrorists” by Charles Allen skilfully explains this thought. It traces the growth of the Wahabi cult and the hidden roots of modern Jihad. It explains how Wahabism makes its entry into India, why the British expansionist policy of the 18th century comes into conflict with it, how this ideology gets enmeshed with the revolt of 1857 and why the terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda owe allegiance to it. It also tells us that as a theory, Wahabism has a fanaticism attached to it and in practice, it believes in an inherent hostility to people who are not strict adherents of Islam. In short, the author says that Wahabism was always rooted in violent intolerance and it appeared as a champion of the faith of Islam at a time when the triumph of the religion was not proceeding as ordained. This aspect holds true, even today.
To begin with, Wahabism is an Islamic revivalist movement, the guiding ideology behind modern Islamist terrorism. It is named after Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab [1703-1792] of Najd, Saudi Arabia who under the influence of the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyyah [1263–1328] aspired to return to the earliest fundamental Islamic sources of learning i.e. the Quran and the Hadith. The movement gained popularity and propaganda due to the financial and political support rendered by the royal house of Saudi Arabia. In terms of belief, Wahabism considers Allah as the only one to be worshipped and leaves no space for tolerance or acceptance of any other religion. Much of this notion is attributed to the experiences of Ibn Taymiyyah who witnessed a lot of Mongol attacks on the Islamic world. The motley group of people from different regions and religions during the medieval period led to a gradual inter-mingling of faiths and consequent dilution of Islam. This led a section of the Islamic society to stress the emphasis on maintaining the purity of Islam by adhering to Quran and Hadith only. Muhammad Wahab carried forward this belief and the formal seeds of Wahabism were sown.
In early 19th century, Wahabism made its entry into India as a religious reform movement whose objective was to restore Muslim power in India by overthrowing the Sikhs and the British. Saiyad Ahmad [1786-1831] of Rae Bareilley was the founder of Wahabi movement in India. He believed that India had become dar-ul-kafir [land of unbelievers] and it has to be made dar-ul-harb [land of war] by waging a war against the infidels and the British. For this purpose, he sought the assistance of the Nizam of Hyderabad, the various Pathan tribes of the North West frontier of India and even some Muslim leaders outside India. The regular organisation of Indian Wahabism was set up in Patna and initial spadework done by Vilayat Ali, whereas Inayat Ali, Titu Mir and others popularized it immensely. Since the Wahabis made vigorous preparations to wage a full-scale war against the British, they were looked upon with suspicion. In fact, during the 1857 revolt it was found that the sepoys were in constant touch with the Wahabis at Sittana and there was a supply chain by which men, money and material was being transferred between the Wahabi camp in the north western frontier and Patna. The first two Anglo-Afghan wars in 1839 and 1878 were meant to weed out the influence of the Wahabis so that Afghanistan could be used as a strong buffer state against the expanding kingdom of Russia. In late 1860’s and early 1870’s, the British crackdown increased and many Wahabi leaders were transported for life – this led to a temporary halt in the movement.
The Muslim world again joined hands after the 1st world war when they rose up against the liberal Government set up in Turkey under the aegis of Mustafa Kemal Pasha Attaturk. Soon after, in 1932 the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was carved out of Nejd and Hijaz. After the oil shock of 1973, the royal house of Saudi Arabia was awash with petrodollars and it became a financial cushion for the Wahabis. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sparked off another round of jihad wherein the Holy war was waged against the Russians. This war shaped the thought process of Osama Bin Laden, the future leader of Al Qaeda. In fact, the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990 prompted Bin Laden to defend Saudi Arabia by calling his global network of ex-Afghanistani jihadis, beginning with the several thousand Wahabi veterans now back in Arabia. However, the Saudi Government, unlike its traditional support to Wahabis, turned instead to the United States. This feeling of betrayal accompanied with his strong Wahabi convictions led Bin Laden to revisit the Prophet’s injunction that there should not be two religions in Arabia. He became a bitter enemy of the House of Saud and United States, considering them as enemies. Wahabism in the late 20th century led to the emergence of two different organisations - one tight-knit and localised, the other loose-knit and with global aspirations: the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden eventually ended up supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan and unleashing terror on the un-Islamic world via the Al Qaeda.
There are a few places in the book where the narrative becomes a bit too extended and the tone overtly pessimistic. But on the whole, Charles Allen has delivered a book which the readers will read with rapt attention. The relevance of the topic of terrorism and the long trail of history that lies behind it, makes a double delight for the audience. The concept of Jihad and the thought process entailing it, has been very aptly described by the author. And all this has been done in the backdrop of the Indian colonial setup, giving a chance to relate to the environment, ambience and surroundings of the events. On the whole, “God’s Terrorists” is a long, bloody and commandingly told story and it does what we long for history to do; tells a tale of yesteryears that throws new and uncomfortable light on the contemporary world
Indira Mukherjee is an IPS probationer of the 88th FC at LBSNAA, Mussoorie. This post is her review of the book "God's Terrorists" by Charles Allen.