Opinion

From Cold War to the violence of theocrats

Paul Trewhela

The new era of global conflict proves that it is not sufficient for the left to leave religion to itself, says Paul Trewhela.

Islamist group al-Shabab. (al-Shabab/AP)

The Islamist attack in Nairobi last weekend shows how the world has changed. A global chain of horror indicates that Africa is engulfed in a new kind of conflict, one very different from the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the context in which the struggle against apartheid took place.

During the Cold War, each of the two world powers claimed that its mode of society was the better representative of democracy. In this new age, the dynamic force of organisations such as al-Shabab, responsible for the Kenya attacks, is an ideology deeply contemptuous of democracy. Its stated aim is to establish itself as a world totalitarian dictatorship. This is a new, militant ideology in Africa, one that carried little weight in the period of the Cold War, African independence and pan-Africanism.

Al-Shabab emerged from the chaos of the Somalian civil war. It is affiliated to al-Qaeda, which Osama bin Laden founded in Sudan. So is Boko Haram, the extremist Muslim organisation caught in a bloody cycle of retribution with the central government in Nigeria and with non-Muslim citizens. 

In his 2001 article "Of sin, the left and Islamic fascism", the late British-American journalist Christopher Hitchens memorably described al-Qaeda's attack on the Twin Towers in New York as "fascism with an Islamic face". Its goal he described as establishing "the reign of the most inflexible and pitiless declension of Shari'a law".

There is much in Hitchens's interpretation of 21st century jihad as a revival of the fascist project of world totalitarian domination, with suppression of secular constitutional democracy, free speech, freedom of religious belief, a free media, the rule of law and equal rights for women.

A member of al-Shabab tweeted during the attack that they were "fighting the Kenyan Kuffar [Arabic for 'unbelievers', the source of the word 'kaffir', the most derogatory term in South African history] inside their own turf".

In this assault on an independent African country – the name of whose president, Uhuru Kenyatta, evokes the ideals of a previous generation – al-Shabab assassinated among its scores of victims the Ghanaian poet, author and statesman Kofi Awoonor, a friend of President Kwame Nkrumah, the founder of Ghanaian independence. 

Aged 78 when he was killed, Awoonor represented his country in the 1980s as its ambassador to Brazil and Cuba. Kenyatta's nephew and his nephew's fiancée were among those killed.

This violent current in radical Sunni Islam showed its power for the first time in modern history in 1979, when an uprising in Iran against the Shah resulted in a murderous theocratic dictatorship under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. 

Its first significant effect in South Africa was when Khomeini, as religious and political leader of the Shia majority in Iran, issued a fatwa, or sentence of death, on British novelist Salman Rushdie in 1988, claiming that his novel The Satanic Verses was disparaging of Islam and its founder, the Prophet Muhammad.

Rushdie had already been invited by the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw) to come to South Africa to speak about colonialism. When death threats were issued against him, Cosaw unilaterally cancelled its invitation.

As I wrote in the essay Islam, South Africa and the Satanic Verses, published in 1989 in a banned exile magazine, Searchlight South Africa, the "sudden, violent eruption of theology as an important current in world politics in the late 20th century proves that if the left wishes to leave religion to itself, religion nevertheless will not leave it alone. Thousands of socialists, left nationalists, secularists and members of the Baha'í faith murdered within prison walls in Iran before the Ayatollah Khomeini's decree of death against Rushdie are witness to a weakness of theory and programme in international political life."

I noted that the textual support for the Rushdie fatwa derived from the text of Sura 2 in the Qur'an: "Idolatry is worse than carnage." And, in Sura 9: "When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them ... make war on the leaders of unbelief." Passages such as these are taken as justification by killers of the "kuffar" (idolaters, unbelievers or infidels). 

News reports stated that the gunmen - members of the Somali Islamist military body al-Shabab, with links to the global al-Qaeda movement - "asked the victims they had cornered if they were Muslim. Those who answered yes were free to go." 

An eyewitness said shoppers were asked to prove their faith by giving the correct name for the mother of the prophet Muhammad. "If they failed to give her correct name of Amina, they were shot dead."

This is indeed a clash of fundamentals. In this new era in modern world political history, it is violent theocrats against everyone else.

Paul Trewhela is author of Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and Swapo (Jacana) 

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