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What's Worse than Violent Jihadists?

Islamist terrorist bombings in the London subways. Buddhists beheaded by fanatical Muslims in Thailand. Hurricanes and Live 8 aside, the global event horizon these days seems to encompass little else but revolutionary (actually reactionary) Islamic violence. How much worse could it get?

Much worse.

So far the bombings, attacks, murders and beheadings have been the province of mere jihadis—basically mundane, albeit dangerous, Islamic fundamentalists. Islamic fundamentalists, in a nutshell, reject modernity;1 that is, they anathematize the mainstream of Western—and, by now, global—thought which has predominated since the Enlightenment, predicated upon: a Cartesian cleavage between reason and revelation, politically-enforced separation of religion and state and optimistic (well-nigh utopian) faith in science and technology. Many Christian fundamentalists share this antipathy for modernity. But jihadis (perhaps somewhere between 1 and 10% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims) differ from Jerry Falwell in that, for them, history has taken a horrible wrong turn. The religion of the final and perfect revelation of Allah to mankind still lags, in number of adherents, to that superseded tritheism known as Christianity (with its 2 billion members). Islamic political power, regnant from Morocco to Indonesia and from the Hungarian forests to the African savanna in 1491, was first eclipsed by Europeans and now is dwarfed by the American imperium and its Cowboy Christian Caesar (triply galling to Usamah bin Ladin, as well as to Democrats and the French) and betrayed internally by faux Muslim leaders like Mubarak, Musharraf and the Saudi princes.

The cure for Islamic religious, political and cultural malaise, according to jihadi fundamentalism, is simple (albeit easier said than done): replacing fake Muslim rulers and governments with truly Islamic ones that impose and enforce shari`ah, or Islamic law. (Of course, “that depends on what your definition of ‘Islamic law,’ is.” Wahhabi? Turkish? Nigerian? Iranian?) And of course the preferred way to get such leadership in place is through regime change, whether violent (the former Taliban in Afghanistan) or more populist (the Islamic Revolution in Iran). Jihadi ideology also calls for an end to outside “imperialism”—i.e., American influence and intervention—in the Muslim world in general and the Middle East in particular (especially Arabia, the site of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina).

There is another strain of fundamentalist ideology, however, that may not be willing to wait for jihadi governments to come to power: Mahdism. Al-Mahdi is “the rightly-guided one” who, in Islamic traditions allegedly going back to Muhammad (and nowhere to be found in the Qur’an), will come before The End of time to usher in a worldwide Islamic state with a little help from his returned prophet friend Jesus.2 Mahdism is believed by many (including scholars, who should know better) to be the province only of the Shi`is, but many of the most successful Mahdist movements in history have been Sunni. Most prominent here would be Ibn Tumart’s al-Muwahhids (Almohads) who ruled from Portugal to Tunisia, 1130-1269 CE, and Muhammad Ahmad’s Sudanese Mahdists—about whom the movie Khartoum, starring Charlton Heston and Sir Laurence Olivier was made—who ruled Sudan from 1885-1898. Another famous Mahdist movement, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, was the attempt to overthrow the Saudi regime in 1979: one Juhayman al-Utaybi declared his brother-in-law Muhammad al-Qahtani to be the Mahdi and led several hundred armed followers to occupy the main mosque in Mecca (eventually all were either killed or captured and then executed). Scores of other self-styled mahdis have arisen over the last millennium of Islamic history. If nothing else, Mahdism is certainly a powerful means of expressing dissatisfaction with extant Islamic government.

And Mahdism shares many characteristics with mere jihadism, the most important of which are: a yearning (indeed demand) for Islamic law and a burning desire to restore Islamic rule to its former environs and, in fact, to engineer the creation of a global caliphate. But Mahdist movements “are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents3 but far more powerful in scope and effect.”4 Once a charismatic Muslim leader becomes convinced he is the Mahdi, all bets are off. The Mahdi (and each one is of course convinced he is THE, not simply a, Mahdi) will, according to the Islamic traditions, be directed by Allah to restore the Prophetic caliphate and, as such, is not bound by the letter of the Islamic law. For example, both Ibn Tumart and Muhammad Ahmad declared that they alone were capable of interpreting the Qur’an, so any previous opinions and commentaries were relegated to irrelevance. And of course the opposition to them by establishment religious figures—for both of these men, as do most Mahdist, led revolutions against existing Islamic governments5—only served to reinforce their Mahdist claims, since true Muslims could recognize the Mahdi. Anyone claiming to be the Mahdi, then, is largely unfettered by any norms, Islamic or otherwise. Ibn Tumart and his leadership, for example, killed tens of thousands OF THEIR OWN FOLLOWERS deemed lukewarm in their support. And Muhammad Ahmad, who had Charles Gordon decapitated and his head displayed, may have proved just as bloodthirsty had he not died of malaria some six months after taking Khartoum.

There is, today, no one claiming to be the Mahdi—at least not yet. A number of Arabic books and websites have begun speculating whether Usamah bin Ladin might be him.6 Certainly no one else in the Islamic world has the stature to even attempt such a claim. Bin Ladin’s charisma, mysterious whereabouts, ability to strike and hurt even the American imperium and ongoing criticism of existing (illegitimate) Islamic rulers may not quite qualify him for the Mahdi’s ring of power—but they get him closer, certainly, than anyone else. What if he were to seize it? No doubt the vast majority of the world’s Muslims would reject such a claim out of hand. Many who see Bin Ladin now as something of a Muslim Che Guevara would certainly renounce him as Mahdi, but the small percentage that would accept such a claim would be intensely devoted and fanatical. If that amounts to only 1 percent of the world’s Muslims, the Mahdi would have 13 million potential suicide bombers.

And make no mistake: Mahdists would have even fewer constraints on their behaviour than do jihadis. Since the end result of the Mahdi’s plans would be, they believe, a global caliphate nothing would he asked would be beyond his followers: detonating a nuke in Vegas or Manhattan, intentionally infecting oneself with plague or smallpox and then criss-crossing American aiports, suicide-bombing Christian day care centers in the Midwest. Helping the Mahdi restore Islam to planetary predominance would obtain one even more glory than the promised 72 huris in Paradise. And were Bin Ladin (or anyone else) to take power in, say, Arabia as the Mahdi, the entire world (even the French) would soon be waxing nostalgic about the Saudis.

Even if Bin Ladin eschews a Mahdi claim, someone eventually will make it. The Mahdi is often associated with a mujaddid, a “renewer” that according to other Islamic traditions will come every 100 years to reinvigorate Islam. And considering that the 16th Muslim century begins in 2076, the American tercentenary may be met with more than normal fireworks.

1 See my article “Islamic Fundamentalism,” Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism ( New York and London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 235-240.

2 Mahdism and Madhist movements are the focus of my new book Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden ( Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005).

3 Such as perceived illegitimate “Islamic” governments; a perceived diminution of Islamic norms; moral laxity of rulers and/or society; interference by foreign powers (usually, but not always, non-Islamic ones; the Sudanese Mahdi, for instance, despised the Ottoman Turks although they were Muslims).

4Ibid., p. 1.

5 Ibn Tumart led the overthrow of the previous al-Murabit (Almoravid) sultanate, while Muhammad Ahmad and his followers ejected the Ottoman Turks, Egyptians and British from Sudan.

6Holiest Wars, especially chapter 6: “Who will be the next Mahdi?”, pp. 150ff.