Why did the world attack Islam

Islam and Politics

How is the current situation in Islamic countries? Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Indonesia and Iran serve as examples.

A Muslim woman prays in Tlemcen, Algeria. (& copy ddp / AP)


Algeria is the country in the Arab world where European colonialism has left its deepest mark. The country had been under French rule since 1830, and it was only after a long and brutal war of liberation that it gained independence in 1962. One million Algerian citizens, mostly civilians, were killed in the war that began in 1954.

The intensity of the disputes was explained by Algeria's special position in the French colonial system. Thousands of French, Italians and Spaniards had settled here since the middle of the 19th century. Their descendants were not ready to give up the country without a fight, especially since Algeria was now completely part of France. The Muslim Algerians in this state always remained second-class citizens - unless they turned away from their faith and converted to Christianity. Islam thus became a distinguishing feature that differentiated the disadvantaged natives from the privileged settlers.

As early as the 1920s, Algerian nationalists were calling for the lot of Muslims to be improved. They were inspired by the so-called Salafiya, an Islamic reform movement that wanted to replace traditional popular belief with a rational Islam. Referring to the early days of Islamic history, the Salafiya declared the principle of justice to be its supreme ideal. During the War of Independence, religion became an important part of Algerian identity. And after the French withdrew in 1962, independent Algeria declared Salafiya Islam to be the official state religion.

Nevertheless, the new socialist-oriented regime felt obliged to secularism. It tried to bring Algeria to the economic and technological level of the First World by a show of strength. At the same time, a separate, Arab identity should be preserved, especially in contrast to the colonial past. Salafiya Islam, which was taught in schools, was intended to socially cushion this modernization process.

But the Algerian development model failed. The income generated was consumed by the rapid population growth and a self-interested leadership class. While the state pushed for the Arabization of society, French remained the language of the elite and thus formed a barrier to the social advancement of the following generation.

The contrast between claim and reality led to the development of a counter-model to Algerian socialism in the 1980s. Spurred on by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Islamists gained influence. When popular discontent led to unrest, the regime temporarily loosened political reins. After decades of one-party rule, the constitution was amended in 1989 and a multi-party system was introduced. But democracy did not survive the political conflicts that had built up over the years. There was also great fear in the West that the Islamists would take power in Algeria.

In fact, the Islamists of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) won a majority of the votes in the 1990 local elections. Parliamentary elections followed in December 1991. When another overwhelming victory for the FIS became apparent after the first round, the military declared the elections invalid and blocked democratic developments.

An extremely cruel civil war followed, in which a total of around one hundred thousand civilians were brutally murdered. The military always shifted responsibility for the massacres to the other side: The Groupe Islamique Armée - GIA for short - became the epitome of Islamist terrorism around the world.

But now doubts are spreading. Was it really the Islamists to blame for all the atrocities? The revelations of the Algerian officer Habib Souaidia, who joined the special forces of the Algerian army in 1989 and witnessed the beginning of the war, caused a sensation in France. After that, some of the most gruesome massacres were committed by the military. Concerned for their own benefices, high-ranking officers deliberately ignited the violence with cynical calculations in order to turn the population against the Islamists and justify the abolition of democracy. Accordingly, they saw in democracy a greater threat to their power than in the Islamists.

The West responded with relief when the military prevented the Islamists from taking power. But the country plunged into a civil war that is still not over.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a country whose rulers are under increasing pressure to legitimize themselves. This became particularly clear after September 11, 2001, when many Saudis expressed their sympathy for Osama bin Laden. The regime is faced with a strong Islamist opposition, which is sometimes more, sometimes less violent, drawing attention to itself.

But why is there an Islamist opposition here of all places? Besides Oman, Saudi Arabia is the only Islamic country in which the Koran replaces the constitution. What are the Islamists protesting against when the regime enforces Islamic criminal law with the utmost severity - one of the central demands of many Islamists?

In Saudi Arabia, Islam dominates all areas of life. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, all opposition to the regime is dressed in a religious guise. As early as 1979 fanatical Islamists stormed the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest place in Islam, and occupied it for several months. Criticism of the ruling house has increased since the Gulf War in 1991. The peaceful opposition has meanwhile moved to London, from where opponents of the regime denounce the corruption of the Saud family by fax and email. Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, has resorted to violent means to bring down the hated regime in Riyadh.

The Saudi example shows how dangerous it is for a regime in the Middle East to invoke Islam in everything it does. Because under certain circumstances this can only just arouse criticism from the Islamists, especially when the behavior of the rulers contradicts their propagated principles. The puritanical Wahhabism, which is enforced by the regime by force if necessary, does not fit into the dissolute lifestyle of some members of the ruling family.

All of this might still be acceptable if the wealth with which the country is blessed were distributed fairly fairly. But this is not the case. Even before the oil price fell in the 1980s, there were stretches of land in Saudi Arabia over which the state's cornucopia spilled only sparsely. Many of the Saudi opposition members come from these disadvantaged regions. Social justice is an ideal that plays an important role in Islamic tradition. It can potentially act as a catalyst for political protest. For many Islamists, social justice is one of the most important points of criticism of the Saudi royal family. The regime, which is primarily legitimized by Islam, is being attacked by the Islamists on its own territory. That is what makes them so dangerous.

Added to this is the monarchy's "complicity" with the West. Saudi Arabia has been one of the United States' closest allies in the Middle East since the 1950s. For a long time Washington's interest in the Arabian Peninsula was primarily for economic reasons. American companies make billions in sales from the exploitation of Saudi oil. But since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and even more so after the Gulf War in 1991, Saudi Arabia has also become an important military base for the US Army.

But it is also difficult for the Americans themselves to justify their special relationship with the Saudi ruling family to their own citizens. The strictly Islamic regime with its human rights violations and the lack of freedom of religion and expression does not correspond to American ideas of democracy. That is why criticism of the Arab partner in Washington is not welcomed - it ultimately falls back on the American government itself.


Egypt is the heart of the Arab world, in some ways even the heart of Sunni Islam. Most religious reformers, secular thinkers, but also some of the most important Islamists - militant as well as peaceful - were born, raised or taught here in Cairo. Not least because of this, the Egyptians call their capital Umm al-Dunya, the "mother of the world". Cairo already had its special reputation in the Middle Ages. In 972 al-Azhar was founded here, the oldest religious teaching center in Islam. The Azhar has earned the name of being the center of Sunni scholarship over the centuries. To this day, Muslims come from all over the world to learn the basics of the faith here. The words of Sheikh al-Azhar, the highest representative of Islam in Egypt, also carry weight in the rest of the Islamic world. His legal opinions, while not binding, enjoy greater authority than those of other legal scholars.

The development of the Azhar over the past fifty years sheds significant light on the relationship between religion and politics in Egypt. During this time, the state took full control of the official Islamic institutions. The Sheikh al-Azhar has been appointed directly by the President since 1962, making him an official of the state. And so he is usually ready to justify the regime's policies religiously. The flexibility shown by the Azhar scholars at times is astonishing. In the 1960s, when President Gamal Abd al-Nasser nationalized sectors of the economy, the Azhar sought the Prophet Mohammed to justify this policy, since he too would have put the good of the community before that of the individual. When Nasser's successor Anwar al-Sadat withdrew these measures, turned to the West and propagated the free market economy, the Sheikh al-Azhar also changed his mind. A communist was an unbeliever, it was now said, because private property was sacred to Islam. Legal scholars also found a justification in the Sharia for the peace that Sadat made with Israel in 1979. It was achieved from a position of strength after Egypt fought a victorious jihad against Israeli forces in the October 1973 war. The Prophet Mohammed acted similarly in 628 when he concluded a peace agreement with the warring clans of Mecca.

Anwar al-Sadat had the followers of Nasser, who were guided by secular and socialist convictions, persecuted and encouraged the Islamists to use this shift in power to maintain their own power. However, his turn to the West and Israel caused offense in the Islamic world and led to his murder by Islamist military in 1981. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, has ruled under martial law ever since and has kept himself in power by a little more distance from the West, on the one hand by using all means at his disposal to fight radical and moderate Islamists and on the other hand by showing indulgence towards the Islamization of public life. For example, in response to "un-Islamic" public statements, intellectuals are threatened with divorces from their spouses as apostates, and anti-Islamic publications are banned by the state censorship.


Until May 1990, Yemen, like Germany, was a divided country. The northern Yemen Arab Republic and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south reflected the greatest contrasts found in the Arab world. As far as their relationship to Islam is concerned, the two regimes pursued fundamentally different policies.

South Yemen was the only Arab country to have committed itself to scientific Marxism. By decree, the Yemeni socialists wanted to turn the traditional country into a secular people's republic. The constitution obliged the state to actively work towards equality between men and women. This included targeted training and career advancement for women. In fact, until the unification, there were more women lawyers, judges and journalists in South Yemen than in many other Arab countries. The most important partners of the People's Democratic Republic were the Soviet Union and the GDR.

The Yemen Arab Republic was exactly the opposite of its southern neighbor. By 1962, the country was almost completely cut off from the outside world. The imams, who had ruled for centuries and who determined both religious and political life, forbade even technological innovations such as radios and record players. In March 1962, Yemeni officers overthrew the Imam and introduced a republican system based on the Egyptian model. Yemen now opened up to external influences and made contact with the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the political leadership was looking for a completely different path to modernity than the socialist South Yemen. The importance of Islam for the cohesion of society was never questioned, and the Sharia remained the main source of justice in northern Yemen.

Because of the different ideological orientations of the Yemeni regimes - the south socialist-revolutionary, the north conservative-pragmatic - they repeatedly fought military conflicts during the Cold War. In the early 1980s, for example, the socialists supported a guerrilla movement in northern Yemen that wanted to bring down the regime there. At the same time, both sides negotiated again and again about a possible union, which, however, failed because of the irreconcilable ideological differences.

But with the end of the East-West conflict, the two Yemen also managed to overcome their longstanding differences. In May 1990 they united to form the Republic of Yemen. Although there were almost four times as many people in the north as in the south, they agreed on a pluralistic system in which both sides were considered equally. A democracy was born overnight that was unparalleled in the Arab world: various parties, newspapers and other civil society institutions were founded. After a transition period, the first free and secret parliamentary elections took place in April 1993.

As was to be expected, the Islamists initially rejected party pluralism, but were quickly taught otherwise, as the population enthusiastically embraced the constitution, as well as the newly won democratic freedoms.

Its neighbors, especially strict Saudi Arabia, viewed the democratization process in Yemen with suspicion. The USA also feared for the stability of their long-term partner. For this reason, after the 1993 elections, the American government warned the Yemenis against unnecessary missionary urge. Democracy is a form of government that is not suitable for every society.

What began so hopefully in Yemen ended in 1994 in a bloody power struggle. It turned out that Ali Abdallah Salih, the longtime president of North Yemen, was unwilling to share his power with the socialists. In a brief war between troops from the former North and South Yemen, the North ultimately prevailed. The socialist leadership fled the country, although the party was not banned. Since then, Yemen has developed back into a presidential regime in which democratic freedoms are increasingly restricted.


Whoever thinks of Islam usually has the Middle East and its conflicts in mind. In the West it has hardly penetrated the awareness that the numerically largest Islamic states are in South and Southeast Asia. 20 million Muslims still live in China, about as many as in Iraq. The most populous Islamic country is Indonesia. Around 90 percent of the approximately 220 million Indonesians profess Islam. But Indonesia deserves attention not only because of its size, but also because of the specific form that Islam has taken here. It shows more diverse manifestations and greater tolerance than is the case, for example, in some Arab states. In addition, a democratization process began in Indonesia in 1998, which has been pursued so far despite various difficulties. For some Muslims, Indonesia is therefore an example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

Islam in Indonesia consists of different currents. On the one hand, there are modernist groups based on the Egyptian reform theologians of the early 20th century. They understand Islam as a religion that is based on reason and has to be brought into harmony with the values ​​of modernity. Modernist Islam is primarily at home in the cities of the coastal regions.On the other hand, there is traditionalist Islam, which can be found more inland, especially on the island of Java. It is characterized by its adaptability to the Javanese customs and traditions. Both modernists and traditionalists have their own organizations that are likely to be the largest of their kind in the Islamic world. The Nahdlatul Ulama (Renaissance of the Legal Scholars), for example, which represents traditionalist Islam, has well over 30 million members. The Muhammadiyah, which represents a "reformed" Islam, has around 20 million Indonesians. Both currents are represented by parties in today's parliament, but their programs are not based on Islam.

Indonesia was a Dutch colony for a long time. In the fight against the colonizers and their Christian missionaries, Islam, similar to Algeria, had an identity-creating effect. In the constitution that the country adopted after independence in 1945, however, it played a comparatively insignificant role. The Christian minority had threatened to secede from Indonesia if Islam were too prominent in the constitution. According to the constitution, the president does not have to be a Muslim, and Sharia law only has a subordinate status.

From independence in 1945 to the beginning of the democratization process, the military played the dominant role. The severe economic crisis in Asia in 1997, from which Indonesia was particularly hard hit, finally led to the overthrow of President Suharto (1967-1998) after 30 years of rule. This cleared the way for democratization. In 1999, free elections were held for the first time since 1955. Parties that ran with an explicitly Islamic program only received around 14 percent of the vote. Experts felt that their judgment was confirmed by the fact that political Islam in Indonesia has not yet had a broad base.

Nevertheless, Indonesian democracy is in a precarious situation. The vast island kingdom is plagued by numerous regional conflicts that are a legacy of the Suharto period. Supporters of the old regime, consisting of the military and the secret service, fueled these conflicts by sending Muslim thugs into the field against Christian minorities. In doing so, they wanted to undermine the democratization process.

In the summer of 2001, however, the still young Indonesian democracy was surprisingly stable. President Aburrahman Wahid, leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama, was forced to leave office on allegations of corruption. Observers feared that his supporters could now start a bloody conflict. But the handover to Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the first President of Indonesia, went without complications.


The Islamic Republic of Iran is the only example of an attempt to systematically implement an Islamic state - Sudan is a military dictatorship, in the Taliban's "Islamic Emirate Afghanistan" the "Islamic" was limited to enforcing criminal law with extreme brutality. But as the name "republic" suggests, this Islamic state certainly contains elements of popular sovereignty. Both parliament and president are elected by the people. However, a committee of Islamic legal scholars decides who is allowed to stand as a candidate. Another commission, also made up of legal scholars, examines whether the laws passed by parliament are compatible with Islam and, if necessary, sends them back for revision. The last instance in the Islamic Republic remains the "faqih", the governor of the twelfth imam, who disappeared in 869, in whom the devout Shiites venerate the last legitimate successor of Ali, Muhammad's cousin. The governor is a legal scholar who, according to the constitution, receives his authority directly from God and stands above the president, the government, the parliament and any majority will. Ayatollah (Arabic: "Sign of God", honorary title for a high Shiite legal scholar) Ali Khamenei currently holds the office.

In Iran, political Islam has not been in the opposition for over 20 years, but has been in power. The experiences from this period teach two things: Even utopian movements that promise their followers simple solutions to difficult problems must face the realities of the present as soon as they are in power. Secondly, this results in the demythologization of this movement, which sooner or later has to put up with criticism of the discrepancy between the propagated ideal and reality.

Without wanting to, Islamism in Iran has thus encouraged a secularization of society. Many people now associate religion with the abuse of power, and if at all, they only practice their faith in private. It is not difficult to find young people in Iran who expressly regard religion as a private matter. This has led even former representatives of the Islamic Revolution to distance themselves from the regime. The so-called Islamic enlighteners are now emphatically demanding the separation of religion and politics, among other things because they are concerned about the "good reputation" of religion. Others are calling for a real democracy to be established. According to the progressive clergyman Mohammed Shabestari - who also used to be a spokesman for the Islamic Revolution - it is in keeping with Islam that rule is secular. He founds the necessity of democracy from his theology. "For the Iranian discourse," said the Islamic scholar Katajun Amirpur, "this is of enormous importance, because this is the only way that religious educators can defend themselves against accusations of being westernized and controlled from abroad."

Although Iran is a Shiite country and its Islamic enlighteners write in Persian, the discussion about an Islamic democracy is also echoed among Sunni Muslims in the Arab world. "In any case," said Amirpur, "the Iranian debate shows that there are many approaches to reinterpreting Islam. Islam does not have to be incompatible with modernity."

Reformers, personalized for example by President Mohammed Khatami, whom a majority of the Iranian population elected for a second term in 2001, and conservative forces are currently engaged in a power struggle in Iran that has so far been peaceful. If the reformers prevail, the Islamic Republic could become the first example of Islamic democracy. If the conservatives, who are still trying everything to prevent the reforms, stick to the old system, there could be another revolution - but this time an anti-Islamic one.