Terror, Islam, and Democracy
by LADAN BOROUMAND & ROYA BOROUMAND
Journal of Democracy 13.2 (2002) 5-20
“Why?” That is the question that people in the West have been asking
ever since the terrible events of September 11. What are the attitudes,
beliefs, and motives of the terrorists and the movement from which they
sprang? What makes young men from Muslim countries willing, even eager,
to turn themselves into suicide bombers? How did these men come to
harbor such violent hatred of the West, and especially of the United
States? What are the roots-moral, intellectual, political, and
spiritual-of the murderous fanaticism we witnessed that day?
As Western experts and commentators have wrestled with these questions,
their intellectual disarray and bafflement in the face of radical
Islamist (notice we do not say “Islamic”) terrorism have become
painfully clear. This is worrisome, for however necessary an armed
response might seem in the near term, it is undeniable that a successful
long-term strategy for battling Islamism and its terrorists will require
a clearer understanding of who these foes are, what they think, and how
they understand their own motives. For terrorism is first and foremost
an ideological and moral challenge to liberal democracy. The sooner the
defenders of democracy realize this and grasp its implications, the
sooner democracy can prepare itself to win the long-simmering war of
ideas and values that exploded into full fury last September 11. The
puzzlement of liberal democracies in the face of Islamist terrorism
seems odd. After all, since 1793, when the word “terror” first came into
use in its modern political sense with the so-called Terror of the
French Revolution, nearly every country in the West has had some
experience with a terrorist movement or regime. Why then does such a
phenomenon, which no less than liberal democracy itself is a product of
the modern age, appear in this instance so opaque to Western analysts?
Islamist terror first burst onto the world scene with the 1979 Iranian
Revolution and the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November of
that year. Since then, Islamism has spread, and the ideological and
political tools that have helped to curb terrorism throughout much of
the West have proven mostly ineffective at stopping it. Its presence is
global, and its influence is felt not only in the lands of the vast
Islamic crescent that extends from Morocco and Nigeria in the west to
Malaysia and Mindanao in the east but also in many corners of Europe,
India, the former Soviet world, the Americas, and even parts of western
Before the Iranian Revolution, terrorism was typically seen as a
straightforward outgrowth of modern ideologies. Islamist terrorists,
however, claim to fight on theological grounds: A few verses from the
Koran and a few references to the sunna (“deeds of the Prophet”) put an
Islamic seal on each operation. The whole ideological fabric appears to
be woven from appeals to tradition, ethnicity, and historical grievances
both old and new, along with a powerful set of religious-sounding
references to “infidels,” “idolaters,” “crusaders,” “martyrs,” “holy
wars,” “sacred soil,” “enemies of Islam,” “the party of God,” and “the
But this religious vocabulary hides violent Islamism’s true nature as a
modern totalitarian challenge to both traditional Islam and modern
democracy. If terrorism is truly as close to the core of Islamic belief
as both the Islamists and many of their enemies claim, why does
international Islamist terrorism date only to 1979? This question finds
a powerful echo in the statements of the many eminent Islamic scholars
and theologians who have consistently condemned the actions of the
This is not to say that Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy propound a
democratic vision of society or easily accommodate the principles of
democracy and human rights. But it does expose the fraudulence of the
terrorists’ references to Islamic precepts. There is in the history of
Islam no precedent for the utterly unrestrained violence of al-Qaeda or
the Hezbollah. Even the Shi’ite Ismaili sect known as the Assassins,
though it used men who were ready to die to murder its enemies, never
descended to anything like the random mass slaughter in which the
Hezbollah, Osama bin Laden, and his minions glory. To kill oneself
while wantonly murdering women, children, and people of all religions
and descriptions-let us not forget that Muslims too worked at the World
Trade Center-has nothing to do with Islam, and one does not have to be a
learned theologian to see this. The truth is that contemporary Islamist
terror is an eminently modern practice thoroughly at odds with Islamic
traditions and ethics.
A striking illustration of the tension between Islam and terrorism was
offered by an exchange that took place between two Muslims in the French
courtroom where Fouad Ali Saleh was being tried for his role in a wave
of bombings that shook Paris in 1985-86. One of his victims, a man badly
burned in one of these attacks, said to Saleh: “I am a practicing
Muslim. . . . Did God tell you to bomb babies and pregnant women?” Saleh
responded, “You are an Algerian. Remember what [the French] did to your
fathers.” Challenged regarding the religious grounds of his actions,
the terrorist replied not with Koranic verses but with secular
The record of Saleh’s trial makes fascinating reading. He was a Sunni
Muslim, originally from Tunisia, who spent the early 1980s “studying” at
Qom, the Shi’ite theological center in Iran. He received weapons
training in Libya and Algeria, and got his explosives from the
pro-Iranian militants of Hezbollah. In his defense, he invoked not only
the Koran and the Ayatollah Khomeini but also Joan of Arc-who is, among
other things, a heroine of the French far right-as an example of someone
who “defended her country against the aggressor.” After this he read out
long passages from Revolt Against the Modern World by Julius Evola
(1898-1974), an Italian author often cited by European extreme
rightists. This strange ideological brew suggests the importance of
exploring the intellectual roots of Islamist terrorism.
The Genealogy of Islamism
The idea of a “pan-Islamic” 5 movement appeared in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries concomitantly with the rapid
transformation of traditional Muslim polities into nation-states. The
man who did more than any other to lend an Islamic cast to totalitarian
ideology was an Egyptian schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna (1906-49).
Banna was not a theologian by training. Deeply influenced by Egyptian
nationalism, he founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 with the express
goal of counteracting Western influences.
By the late 1930s, Nazi Germany had established contacts with
revolutionary junior officers in the Egyptian army, including many who
were close to the Muslim Brothers. Before long the Brothers, who had
begun by pursuing charitable, associational, and cultural activities,
also had a youth wing, a creed of unconditional loyalty to the leader,
and a paramilitary organization whose slogan “action, obedience,
silence” echoed the “believe, obey, fight” motto of the Italian
Fascists. Banna’s ideas were at odds with those of the traditional ulema
(theologians), and he warned his followers as early as 1943 to expect
“the severest opposition” from the traditional religious
From the Fascists-and behind them, from the European tradition of
putatively “transformative” or “purifying” revolutionary violence that
began with the Jacobins-Banna also borrowed the idea of heroic death as
a political art form. Although few in the West may remember it today, it
is difficult to overstate the degree to which the aestheticization of
death, the glorification of armed force, the worship of martyrdom, and
faith in “the propaganda of the deed” shaped the antiliberal ethos of
both the far right and elements of the far left earlier in the twentieth
century. Following Banna, today’s Islamist militants embrace a terrorist
cult of martyrdom that has more to do with Georges Sorel’s Réflexions
sur la violence than with anything in either Sunni or Shi’ite Islam.
After the Allied victory in World War II, Banna’s assassination in early
1949, and the Egyptian Revolution of 1952-54, the Muslim Brothers found
themselves facing the hostility of a secularizing military government
and sharp ideological competition from Egyptian communists. Sayyid Qutb
(1906-66), the Brothers’ chief spokesman and also their liaison with the
communists, framed an ideological response that would lay the groundwork
for the Islamism of today.
Qutb was a follower not only of Banna but of the Pakistani writer and
activist Sayyid Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi (1903-79), who in 1941 founded the
Jamaat-e-Islami-e-Pakistan (Pakistan Islamic Assembly), which remains an
important political force in Pakistan, though it cannot claim notable
electoral support. Mawdudi’s rejection of nationalism, which he had
earlier embraced, led to his interest in the political role of Islam. He
denounced all nationalism, labeling it as kufr (unbelief). Using Marxist
terminology, he advocated a struggle by an Islamic “revolutionary
vanguard” against both the West and traditional Islam, attaching the
adjectives “Islamic” to such distinctively Western terms as
“revolution,” “state,” and “ideology.” Though strongly opposed by the
authorities, his ideas influenced a whole generation of “modern”
Like both of his preceptors, Qutb lacked traditional theological
training. A graduate of the state teacher’s college, in 1948 he went to
study education in the United States. Once an Egyptian nationalist, he
joined the Muslim Brothers soon after returning home in 1950. Qutb’s
brand of Islamism was informed by his knowledge of both the Marxist and
fascist critiques of modern capitalism and representative democracy.
He called for a monolithic state ruled by a single party of Islamic
rebirth. Like Mawdudi and various Western totalitarians, he identified
his own society (in his case, contemporary Muslim polities) as among the
enemies that a virtuous, ideologically self-conscious, vanguard minority
would have to fight by any means necessary, including violent
revolution, so that a new and perfectly just society might arise. His
ideal society was a classless one where the “selfish individual” of
liberal democracies would be banished and the “exploitation of man by
man” would be abolished. God alone would govern it through the
implementation of Islamic law (shari’a). This was Leninism in Islamist
When the authoritarian regime of President Gamel Abdel Nasser suppressed
the Muslim Brothers in 1954 (it would eventually get around to [End Page
8] hanging Qutb in 1966), many went into exile in Algeria, Saudi
Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Morocco. From there, they spread their
revolutionary Islamist ideas-including the organizational and
ideological tools borrowed from European totalitarianism-by means of a
network that reached into numerous religious schools and universities.
Most young Islamist cadres today are the direct intellectual and
spiritual heirs of the Qutbist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Iranian Connection
Banna and the Brotherhood advocated the creation of a solidarity network
that would reach across the various schools of Islam. Perhaps in
part because of this ecumenism, we can detect the Brothers’ influence as
early as 1945 in Iran, the homeland of most of the world’s Shi’ites.
Returning home from Iraq that year, a young Iranian cleric named Navab
Safavi started a terrorist group that assassinated a number of secular
Iranian intellectuals and politicians. In 1953, Safavi visited Egypt at
the Brothers’ invitation and presumably met with Qutb. Although Safavi’s
group was crushed and he was executed after a failed attempt on the life
of the prime minister in 1955, several of its former members would
become prominent among those who lined up with the Ayatollah Khomeini
(1900-89) to mastermind the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Khomeini himself first took a political stand in 1962, joining other
ayatollahs to oppose the shah’s plans for land reform and female
suffrage. At this point, Khomeini was not a
revolutionary but a traditionalist alarmed by modernization and anxious
to defend the privileges of his clerical caste. When his followers
staged an urban uprising in June 1963, he was arrested and subsequently
exiled, first to Turkey, then to Iraq. The turning point came in 1970,
when Khomeini, still in Iraq, became one of the very few Shi’ite
religious authorities to switch from traditionalism to totalitarianism.
Much like Mawdudi, he called for a revolution to create an Islamic
state, and inspired by Qutb, he condemned all non-theocratic regimes as
idolatrous. His followers in Iran were active in Islamist cultural
associations that spread, among others, the ideas of Qutb and Mawdudi.
Qutb’s ideology was used by Khomeini’s students to recapture for the
Islamist movement a whole generation influenced by the world’s
predominant revolutionary culture-Marxism-Leninism.
Khomeini became a major figure in the history of Islamist terrorism
because he was the first truly eminent religious figure to lend it his
authority. For despite all its influence on the young, Islamism before
the Iranian Revolution was a marginal heterodoxy. Qutb and Mawdudi were
theological dabblers whom Sunni scholars had refuted and dismissed. Even
the Muslim Brothers had officially rejected Qutb’s ideas. As an
established clerical scholar, Khomeini gave modern Islamist
totalitarianism a religious respectability that it had sorely lacked.
Once in power, the onetime opponent of land reform and women’s suffrage
became a “progressivist,” launching a massive program of nationalization
and expropriation and recruiting women for campaigns of revolutionary
propaganda and mobilization. The Leninist characteristics of his
rule-his policy of terror, his revolutionary tribunals and militias, his
administrative purges, his cultural revolution, and his accommodating
attitude toward the USSR-alienated the majority of his fellow clerics
but also gained him the active support of the Moscow-aligned Iranian
Communist Party, which from 1979 to 1983 put itself at the service of
the new theocracy.
Khomeini’s revolution was not an exclusively Shi’ite phenomenon. Not
accidentally, one of the first foreign visitors who showed up to
congratulate him was the Sunni Islamist Mawdudi; before long, Qutb’s
face was on an Iranian postage stamp. Khomeini’s successor, Ali
Khamenei, translated Qutb into Persian. Khomeini’s own interest in
creating an “Islamist International”-it would later be known by the
hijacked Koranic term Hezbollah (“party of God”)-was apparent as early
as August 1979.
The Islamist “Comintern”
As these ties suggest, Islamism is a self-consciously pan-Muslim
phenomenon. It is a waste of time and effort to try to distinguish
Islamist terror groups from one another according to their alleged
differences along a series of traditional religious, ethnic, or
political divides (Shi’ite versus Sunni, Persian versus Arab, and so
on). The reason is simple: in the eyes of the Islamist groups
themselves, their common effort to strike at the West while seizing
control of the Muslim world is immeasurably more important than whatever
might be seen as “dividing” them from one another.
The Lebanese-based, Iranian-supported Hezbollah is a case in point. Its
Iranian founder was a hardcore Khomeini aide who drew his inspiration
from a young Egyptian Islamist-an engineer by training, not a
theologian-who was the first to politicize what had been a purely
religious term. A closer look at the organization reveals the strong
influence of Marxism-Leninism on the ideology of its founders and
leadership. The group’s current leader, Mohammad Hosein Fadlallah,
influenced by Marx’s and Nietzsche’s theories on violence, has
openly advocated terrorist methods and tactical alliances with leftist
organizations. Hezbollah is a successful creation of the Islamist
“Comintern.” “We must,” says Sheikh Fadlallah, “swear allegiance to the
leader of the [Iranian] revolution and to the revolutionaries as to God
himself,” because “this revolution is the will of God.” One
indication of the extent of this allegiance is the fact that all the
negotiations over the fate of the hostages held in Lebanon ended up
being carried out by Tehran. Similarly, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary
Guards boasted about having sponsored the attack against French and
American peacekeeping forces in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s chief military
[End Page 10] planner, Imad Mughaniyyah, is an Arab who operates from
Iran. Western intelligence agencies suspect that Hezbollah has been
working with bin Laden on international operations since the early
1990s. Hezbollah’s terrorist network in Lebanon contains both
Shi’ite and Sunni groups, and there is also a Saudi Arabian wing that
was involved in the Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 U.S. troops
Also inspired by the Iranian Revolution was the independent Sunni
terrorist network that later became the basis of al-Qaeda. The Tehran
regime began forming propaganda organs to sway opinion among Sunni
religious authorities as early as 1982. Among the supranational
institutions created was the World Congress of Friday Sermons Imams,
which at one time had a presence in no fewer than 40 countries. The
overarching goal of these efforts has been to mobilize the “Islam of the
people” against the “reactionary Islam
of the establishment.” For a variety of reasons this network has
remained loosely organized, but all of its branches spring from and are
fed by the same ideological taproot.
The influence of Iran’s Islamist revolution was also cited by the
members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who gunned down President Anwar Sadat
in October 1981. Their theoretician was an engineer, Abdessalam Faraj,
who was also fond of quoting Qutb to justify terror. The
conspirators-including the junior army officers who did the actual
shooting-were inspired by the Iranian model, and expected the death of
Sadat to trigger a mass uprising that would replay in Cairo the same
sort of events which had taken place two years earlier in Tehran
(where the Iranian authorities would subsequently name a street after
Sadat’s killer). Among those imprisoned in connection with the plot was
a Cairo physician named Ayman al-Zawahiri. He became Egyptian Islamic
Jihad’s leader after serving his three-year prison term, met bin Laden
in 1985, and then joined him in Sudan in the early 1990s. Zawahiri, who
would become al-Qaeda’s top operational planner, is reported to have
said publicly that Osama is “the new Che Guevara.”
The Islamization of the Palestinian question is also partly due to
Khomeini’s influence on the Palestinian branch of Islamic Jihad. Its
founder was another physician, this one named Fathi Shqaqi. His 1979
encomium Khomeini: The Islamic Alternative was dedicated to both the
Iranian ruler and Hassan al-Banna (“the two men of this century”). The
first press run of 10,000 sold out in a few days. Shqaqi, who was of
course a Sunni, had nonetheless traveled to Tehran to share the Friday
sermon podium with Ali Khameini, denouncing the Mideast peace process
and accusing Yasser Arafat of treason.
Distorting Islam’s History and Teachings
As these examples show, such distinctions as may exist among these
terrorist groups are overshadowed by their readiness to coalesce and
collaborate according to a common set of ideological beliefs. These
beliefs are properly called “Islamist” rather than “Islamic” because
they are actually in conflict with Islam-a conflict that we must not
allow to be obscured by the terrorists’ habit of commandeering Islamic
religious terminology and injecting it with their own distorted content.
One illustration is the Islamists’ interpretation of the
hijra-Mohammed’s journey, in September 622 C.E., from Mecca to Medina to
found the first fully realized and autonomous Islamic community (umma).
Despite a wealth of historical and doctrinal evidence to the contrary,
half-educated Islamists insist on portraying this journey as a
revolutionary rupture with existing society that licenses their desire
to excommunicate contemporary Muslim societies in favor of their own
radically utopian vision.
The Islamic Republic of Iran also rests on heterodoxy, in this case
Khomeini’s novel and even idiosyncratic theory of the absolute power of
the single, supreme Islamic jurisprudent (faqih). It was not a
coincidence that one of the first uprisings against Khomeini’s regime
took place under the inspiration of a leading ayatollah, Shariat
Madari. Officials of the regime have admitted that most Iranian
clerics have always taken a wary view of Khomeinism. It is important to
realize that the religious references which Khomeini used to justify his
rule were literally the same as those invoked a century earlier by an
eminent ayatollah who was arguing for the legitimacy of parliamentarism
and popular sovereignty on Islamic grounds. Koranic verses lend
themselves to many different and even contradictory interpretations. It
is thus to something other than Islamic religious sources that we must
look if we want to understand Islamism and the war that it wages on its
own society, a war in which international terrorism is only one front.
In a brief article on bin Laden’s 1998 declaration of jihad against the
United States, Bernard Lewis showed brilliantly how bin Laden travestied
matters not only of fact (for instance, by labeling the invited U.S.
military presence in Saudi Arabia a “crusader” invasion) but also of
Islamic doctrine, by calling for the indiscriminate butchery of any and
all U.S. citizens, wherever they can be found in the world. Reminding
his readers that Islamic law (shari’a) holds jihad to be nothing but a
regular war and subject to the rules that limit such conflicts, Lewis
concluded, “At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and
murder. At no point do they even consider the random slaughter of
What gives force to the terrorist notion of jihad invented by the
Iranians and later embraced by bin Laden is not its Koranic roots-there
are none-but rather the brute success of terrorist acts. Bin Laden has
spoken with particular admiration of the Iranian-sponsored suicide truck
bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines and others in Beirut on 23 October
1983, precipitating the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon. Bin Laden was
also not the first to think of setting up training camps for
international terrorists-the Tehran authorities were there before
A Friday sermon given in 1989 by one of these authorities, Ali-Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani, then president of the Islamic Parliament, reveals
better than any other the logic of Islamist terrorism. Attacking the
existence of Israel as another front in the pervasive war of unbelief
(kufr) against Islam, Rafsanjani added:
If for each Palestinian killed today in Palestine five Americans,
English, or French were executed, they would not commit such acts
anymore. . . . [T]here are Americans everywhere in the world. . . .
[They] protect Israel. Does their blood have any value? Scare them
outside Palestine, so that they don’t feel safe. . . . There are a
hundred thousand Palestinians in a country. They are educated, and they
work. . . . [T]he factories that serve the enemies of Palestine function
thanks to the work of the Palestinians. Blow up the factory. Where you
work, you can take action. . . . Let them call you terrorists. . . .
They [the “imperialism of information and propaganda”] commit crimes and
call it human rights. We call it the defense of rights and of an
oppressed people. . . . They will say the president of the Parliament
officially incites to terror. . . . [L]et them say it.
There is no reference here to religion; Rafsanjani’s appeal is purely
political. The West’s offense he calls human rights; against it he urges
Muslims to wield terror as the best weapon for defending the rights of
an oppressed people. Rafsanjani, moreover, proudly commends “terror” by
name, using the English word and not a Persian or Arabic equivalent.
Thus he employs the very term that Lenin had borrowed from la Terreur of
the French Revolution. The line from the guillotine and the Cheka to the
suicide bomber is clear.
With this in mind, let us look for a moment at the French Revolution,
where the modern concept of political terror was invented, to find the
explanation that the Islamic tradition cannot give. When it announced
its policy of terror in September 1793, the “virtuous minority” which
then ran the revolutionary government of France was declaring war on its
own society. At the heart of this war was a clash between two
understandings of “the people” in whose name this government claimed to
rule. One was a group of 25 million actually existing individuals, each
endowed with inherent rights. The other was an essentially ideological
construct, an abstraction, an indivisible and mystical body, its power
absolute. The Terror of the French Revolution was neither a mistake nor
an unfortunate accident; it was meant to purify this mystical body of
what the terrorist elite regarded as corrupting influences, among which
they numbered the notion that individual human beings had unalienable
The spokesmen of the Islamist revolution echo the terrorists of Jacobin
France. The denigration of human rights marks the spot where the
internal war on Muslim society meets the terrorist war against the West.
Suffice it to hear bin Laden’s comments on the destruction of the World
Trade Center: “Those awesome symbolic towers that speak of liberty,
human rights, and humanity have been destroyed. They have gone up in
smoke.” Every Islamist terror campaign against Westerners during the
last 20 years has had as its cognate an Islamist effort to tyrannize
over a Muslim population somewhere in the world. Think of the ordeal to
which the Taliban and al-Qaeda subjected the people of Aghanistan, or of
what ordinary Algerians suffered during the savage Islamist civil wars
of the 1990s. Or think of the state terror that daily labors to strangle
any hope for recognition of human rights in Iran. To explore fully this
correlation between terror against the West and tyranny against Muslims
would take a separate essay. Yet we can get an idea of its nature by
considering the first instance of Islamist terrorism against the United
States, the 1979 hostage-taking in Tehran.
Holding Democracy Hostage to Terror
As they released the hostages in January 1981, the Tehran authorities
crowed over their victory, which Prime Minster Mohammad Ali Rajai called
“the greatest political gain in the social history of the world” and an
act that “had forced the greatest satanic power to its knees.” At first
glance this claim might seem foolish, for the United States had said no
to the revolutionary government’s demands to hand over the shah and
unfreeze Iranian assets. But a closer look shows that the Iranian
Islamists had in fact scored a big political and ideological victory
over both the United States and their domestic opponents, and thus had
ample cause for jubilation.
The seizure of the U.S. embassy took place at a time when Khomeini and
his allies had not yet consolidated their tyrannical regime. An Assembly
of Experts was drafting the
constitution of the Islamic Republic. Opposition was gaining strength
daily in religious as well as in moderate secular circles. The
Marxist-Leninist left, angered by a ban on its press, was growing
restive. Open rebellions were breaking out in sensitive border regions
populated by ethnic Kurds and Azeris. By sending in its cadres of
radical students to take over the U.S. embassy and hold its staff
hostage, the regime cut through the Gordian knot of these challenges at
a single blow and even put itself in a position to ram through its
widely criticized Constitution. Rafsanjani’s assessment of what the act
meant is instructive:
In the first months of the revolution, the Washington White House
decided in favor of a coup d’état in Iran. The idea was to infiltrate
Iranian groups and launch a movement to
annihilate the revolution. But the occupation of the embassy and the
people’s assault against the U.S.A. neutralized this plan, pushing the
U.S. into a defensive stand.
One could describe this version of the facts as a parody: the U.S.
government in 1979 clearly had neither the will nor the ability to stage
a coup against the Islamic Republic. But totalitarians typically speak
an esoteric language of their own devising. Those who administered the
Terror in revolutionary France painted some of their country’s
best-known republicans with the label “monarchist” before sending them
off to be guillotined. The Bolsheviks called striking workers and the
sailors of Kronstadt “bandits” and “counterrevolutionaries” before
slaughtering them. In 1979, promoting human rights was a prominent
aspect of how the United States described its foreign policy. By
Rafsanjani’s logic, therefore, any Iranian group that spoke of human
rights was thereby revealing itself as a tool of the United States.
And indeed, as muddled negotiations over the hostages dragged on, the
administration of President Jimmy Carter dropped any talk of supporting
democracy in Iran -the very cause for which Carter had taken the
risk of ending U.S. support for the shah. Meanwhile, the revolutionary
regime began using the Stalinist tactic of claiming that anyone who
spoke in favor of a more representative government was really a U.S.
agent. With the hostage crisis, the Islamist regime was able to make
anti-Americanism such a leading theme that Iranian Marxists rallied to
its support, while Moscow extended its tacit protection to the new
After the failure of the U.S. military’s “Desert One” rescue attempt on
25 April 1980 and eight more months of negotiations, the United States
at last succeeded in obtaining the
release of the hostages. To do so, it had to agree to recognize the
legitimacy of the Iranian revolutionary regime, and it had to promise
not to file any complaints against Iran before international
authorities, despite the gross violations of human rights and
international law that had occurred. Though these concessions may have
appeared necessary at the time, in retrospect we can see that they
emboldened the Islamists to sink to new levels of hatred and contempt
for the West and its talk of human rights. For had not the revolutionary
students and clerics in Tehran forced the Great Satan to abandon its
principles and brought it to its knees?
The terrorists accurately assessed the extent of their victory and drew
conclusions from it. They used terror to achieve their goal, and upon
the continued use of terror their survival depends. “[America] is on the
defensive. If tomorrow it feels safe, then it will think to implement
its imperialistic projects.” Among these projects are human rights,
which a representative of the Islamic Republic denounced before the UN
Human Rights Committee as an “imperialist myth.”
From the taking of the hostages in Tehran in 1979 until the terrorist
attacks of last September, Western policy makers too often implicitly
downgraded the claims of justice and shirked their duty both to their
own citizens and to the cause of human rights by refusing to pursue the
terrorists with any real determination. Considerations of “pragmatism”
and “prudence” were put forward to justify a sellout of justice which,
in one of the cruelest ironies revealed by the harsh light of September
11, proved not to have been prudent at all.
Since the impunity granted to the hostage-takers of Tehran, terrorist
outrages have increased both in frequency and in scale. In addition to
all the questions raised about security measures, intelligence failures,
accountability in foreign-policy decision making, and the like, the
atrocity of September 11 also forces citizens of democratic countries to
ask themselves how strongly they are committed to democratic values.
Their enemies may believe in a chimera, but it is one for which they
have shown themselves all too ready to die. In the mirror of the
terrorists’ sacrifice, the citizens of the free world are called to
examine their consciences; they must reevaluate the nature of their
loyalty to fragile and imperfect democracy. In particular, the strongly
solidaristic networks that the Islamist totalitarians have created
should make citizens in democratic societies ask how much they and their
governments have done to help prodemocracy activists who have been
persecuted for years in Iran, in Algeria, in Afghanistan, in Sudan, and
elsewhere. Unarmed, they stand on the front lines of the struggle
against terror and tyranny, and they deserve support. Here is a moral,
political, and even philosophical challenge upon which the minds and
hearts of the West should focus.
Whither the Muslim World?
Islamist terror poses a different but no less grave problem for those of
us (including the authors of this essay) who come from Islamic
countries, and it carries a special challenge for Muslim intellectuals.
Public opinion in the Muslim world has largely-if perhaps too
quietly-condemned the massacres of September 11. In Iran, young people
poured spontaneously into the streets, braving arrest and police
violence in order to hold candlelight vigils for the victims. But there
were also outbursts of celebration in some Muslim countries, and
sizeable anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan. Perhaps more
disturbing still have been the persistent and widespread rumors going
around Muslim societies that somehow an Israeli conspiracy was behind
the attack. The force and pervasiveness of this rumor are symptoms of a
collective flight from an uncontrollable reality. It is true that the
Palestinian question is a painful and complicated one that requires an
equitable solution. But it is equally true that reaching for foreign
conspiracies has become an easy way of evading responsibility for too
many of us from Muslim countries.
For the last several centuries, the Islamic world has been undergoing a
traumatizing encounter with the West. Since this encounter began, our
history has been a story of irreversible modernization, but also of
utter domination on the one side, and humiliation and resentment on the
other. To Muslim minds the West and its ways have become a powerful
myth-evil, impenetrable, and incomprehensible. Whatever the Western
world’s unfairness toward Muslims, it remains true that Western scholars
have at least made the effort to learn about and understand the Islamic
world. But sadly, the great and brilliant works of the West’s
“Orientalists” have found no echo in a Muslim school of “Occidentalism.”
We have been lacking the ability or the will to open up to others. We
have opted for an easy solution, that of disguising in the clothes of
Islam imported Western intellectual categories and concepts. In doing so
we have not only failed to grasp the opportunity to understand the West,
we have also lost the keys to our own culture. Otherwise, how could a
degenerate Leninism aspire today to pass itself off as the true
expression of a great monotheistic religion? The Islamists see
themselves as bold warriors against modernity and the West, but in fact
it is they who have imported and then dressed up in Islamic-sounding
verbiage some of the most dubious ideas that ever came out of the modern
West, ideas which now-after much death and suffering-the West itself has
generally rejected. Had we not become so alien to our own cultural
heritage, our theologians and intellectuals might have done a better job
of exposing the antinomy between what the Islamists say and what Islam
actually teaches. They might have more effectively undercut the
terrorists’ claim to be the exclusive and immediate representatives of
God on earth, even while they preach a doctrine that does nothing but
restore human sacrifice, as if God had never sent the angel to stop
Abraham from slaying his son.
Our incapacity to apprehend reality lies at the root of our paranoia. If
we were to take a clear and careful look at the West, we would see that
it draws its strength from its capacity for introspection and its
intransigent self-criticism. We would know that Western culture has
never stopped calling on us, on the figure of the stranger, to help it
understand itself and fight its vices. When it could not find the other,
it invented it: Thomas More imagined a faraway island called Utopia to
mirror the social problems of his time; Michel de Montaigne couched his
criticisms of French politics in the form of a conversation with an
Indian chief from Brazil; and Montesquieu invented letters from a
Persian tourist to denounce the vices of Europe.
Had we had our own eminent experts on Western civilization, we might
know that the West is a diverse, plural, and complex entity. Its
political culture has produced horrors but also institutions that
protect human dignity. One of these horrors was the imperialism imposed
on Muslim and other lands, but even that did as much harm to the
Europeans themselves as it did to us, as anyone familiar with the
casualty figures from the First World War will know. Our experts might
have helped us understand that Qutb and Khomeini’s denunciations of
human rights were remarkably similar to Pope Pius VI’s denunciation of
the French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789. We might have
grasped that, not long ago, Westerners faced the same obstacles that we
face today on
the road to democracy. Citizens in the West fought for their freedoms;
in this fight they lost neither their souls nor their religion. We too
must roll up our sleeves to fight for freedom, remembering that we are
first and foremost free and responsible human beings whom God has
endowed with dignity.
[LADAN BOROUMAND, a former visiting fellow at the International Forum
for Democratic Studies, is a historian from Iran with a doctorate from
the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. She is the
author of La Guerre des principes (1999), an extensive study of the
tensions throughout the French Revolution between the rights of man and
the sovereignty of the nation. Her sister, ROYA BOROUMAND, a historian
from Iran with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, is a specialist in Iran’s
contemporary history and has been a consultant for Human Rights Watch.
They are working on a study of the Iranian Revolution.]
[We would like to thank Hormoz Hekmat for his useful comments and
critiques and Laith Kubba for providing some useful information.]
1. Bernard Lewis, The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1987), 133-34.
2. On the heterodoxy of the Islamists’ references to Muslim
jurisprudent Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), see Olivier Carré, Mystique et
politique: Lecture révolutionnaire du Coran par Sayyid Qutb, Fr’ere
musulman radical (Paris: Cerf, 1984), 16-17. On Ibn Taymiyya’s theology
and life, see Henri Laoust, Pluralisme dans l’Islam (Paris: Librairie
Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1983).
3. This account of the Saleh case is based on reports in Le Monde
(Paris), 8 and 10 April 1992.
4. For an overview of the career of Islamist terror networks, see
Xavier Raufer, La Nebuleuse: Le terrorisme du Moyen-Orient (Paris:
Fayard, 1987); Roland Jacquard, Au nom d’Oussama Ben Laden: Dossier
secret sur le terroriste le plus recherché du monde (Paris: Jean
Picollec, 2001); Yossef Bodansky, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on
America (Rocklin, Calif.: Prima, 1999); Gilles Kepel, Jihad: Expansion
et déclin de l’islamisme (Paris: Gallimard, 2000); and Yonah Alexander
and Michael S. Swetnam, Usama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida: Profile of a
Terrorist Network (New York: Transnational Publishers, 2001).
5. To confront Western colonialism, Muslim intellectuals and
religious scholars such as Sayyid Jamal al-Din ‘al-Afghani of Iran and
Muhammad Abduh of Egypt concluded that a reformation and a new
interpretation of Islam were needed in Muslim societies. The reforms
that they advocated were aimed at reconciling Islam and modernity. They
sought to promote individual freedom, social justice, and political
liberalism. After the First World War, however, this movement was
succeeded by one that was hostile to political liberalism. On Afghani,
see Nikki K. Keddie, An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and
Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal al-Din ‘al-Afghani (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1983). On Abduh, see Yvonne Haddad,
“Muhammad Abduh: Pioneer of Islamic Reform,” in Ali Rahnema, ed.,
Pioneers of Islamic Revival (London: Zed, 1994), 31-63.
6. This section draws on David Dean Commins, “Hassan al-Banna
(1906-49),” in Ali Rahnema, ed., Pioneers of Islamic Revival, 146-47; as
well as Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (London:
Oxford University Press, 1969). See also Gilles Kepel, Muslim Extremism
in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
7. Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, 29.
8. The widespread but mistaken impression that a Shi’ite cult of
martyrdom serves as a religious inspiration for suicide attacks is one
of the illusions about themselves that the terrorists skillfully
cultivate. It is true that Shi’ites revere Hussein (d. 680 C.E.), the
third Imam and a grandson of the Prophet, as a holy martyr. Yet Shi’ite
teaching also enjoins the avoidance of martyrdom, even recommending
taqieh (“hiding one’s faith”) as a way of saving one’s life from
murderous persecutors. Moreover, Sunnis are not noted for devotion to
Hussein, and yet when it comes to suicide attacks, there is little
difference between the Sunnis of al-Qaeda and the mostly Shi’ite cadres
of Hezbollah. There are striking similarities between the Islamist
justification for violence and martyrdom and the discourse of German and
Italian Marxist terrorists from the 1970s. On this subject see Philippe
Raynaud, “Les origins intellectuelles du terrorisme,” in François Furet
et al., eds., Terrorisme et démocratie (Paris: Fayard, 1985), 65ff.
9. On Mawdudi, see Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, The Vanguard of the
Islamic Revolution: The Jama’at-i Islami of Pakistan (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1994); and Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr,
Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1996).
10. Olivier Carré, Mystique et politique, 206-7.
11. Muhammad Qutb, Sayyid Qutb’s brother, was among the Muslim
Brothers who were welcomed in Saudi Arabia. He was allowed to supervise
the publication and distribution of his brother’s works, and became
ideologically influential in his own right: the official justification
for the Saudi penal code uses his definition of secular and liberal
societies as a “new era of ignorance.” Exiled Muslim Brothers became
influential in Saudi Arabia. Wahabism, the intolerant and fanatical
brand of Islam that prevails in Saudi Arabia, was not in its origins a
modern totalitarian ideology, but it provides fertile ground for the
dissemination of terrorist ideology and facilitates the attraction of
young Saudis to terrorist groups. See Olivier Carré, L’utopie islamique
dans l’Orient arabe (Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des
Sciences politiques, 1991), 112-14; and Gilles Kepel, Jihad, 72-75.
12. Banna’s followers recalled that he often said, “Each of the
four schools [of Islam] is respectable,” and urged, “Let us cooperate in
those things on which we can agree and be lenient in those on which we
cannot.” Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, 217.
13. Mawdudi, The Process of Islamic Revolution (Lahore, 1955).
14. See Baqer Moin, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah (London: I.B.
Tauris, 1999), 246.
15. Cited in Olivier Carré, L’utopie islamique dans l’Orient arabe,
16. Cited in Olivier Carré, L’utopie islamique dans l’Orient arabe,
17. Olivier Carré, L’utopie islamique dans l’Orient arabe, 232.
18. The then-head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen
Rafiqdoust, said that “both the TNT and the ideology which in one blast
sent to hell 400 officers, NCOs, and soldiers at the Marine headquarters
have been provided by Iran.” Resalat (Tehran), 20 July 1987.
19. On 22 March 1998, the Times of London reported that bin Laden
and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had signed a pact the previous
February 16 to consolidate their operations in Albania and Kosovo.
Roland Jacquard adds that in September 1999, the Turkish intelligence
services learned of an Islamist group financed by bin Laden in the
Iranian city of Tabriz. See Roland Jacquard, Au nom d’Oussama Ben Laden,
20. The first conference on the unification of Islamist movements
was organized under Iranian auspices in January 1982. See the speeches
of Khamenei and Mohammad Khatami (who is now the elected president of
the Islamic Republic) in Etela’at (Tehran), 9 January 1982.
21. Xavier Rauffer, La Nebuleuse, 175.
22. Charles Tripp, “Sayyid Qutb: The Political Vision,” in Ali
Rahnema, ed., Pioneers of Islamic Revival, 178-79.
23. Gilles Kepel, Jihad, 122-23.
24. Roland Jacquard, Au nom d’Oussama Ben Laden, 76.
25. Gilles Kepel, Jihad, 187 and 579.
26. As reported in Jomhouri-e Islami (Tehran), 5 March 1994 (14
esfand 1372), 14 and 2.
27. Reported in the daily Khalq-e Mosalman, 4 and 9 December 1979.
28. M.H. Naïni, Tanbih al-Omma va Tanzih al-mella 5th ed. (Tehran,
29. Bernard Lewis, “License to Kill: Usama bin Ladin’s Declaration
of Jihad,” Foreign Affairs 77 (November-December 1998): 19. Bin Laden’s
declaration of jihad mentions Ibn Taymiyya’s authority and yet clearly
contradicts the latter’s ideas on jihad. Ibn Taymiyya explicitly forbids
the murder of civilians and submits jihad to strict rules and
regulations. See Henri Laoust, Le traité de droit public d’Ibn Taimiya
(annotated translation of Siyasa shar’iya) (Beirut, 1948), 122-35.
30. See “Declaration of war against the Americans occupying the
land of the two holy places: A Message from Usama Bin Muhammad bin Laden
unto his Muslim Brethren all over the world generally and in the Arab
Peninsula specifically” (23 August 1996), in Yonah Alexander and Michael
S. Swetnam, Usama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida, 13.
31. In 1989, the vice-president of Parliament, Hojatol-Eslam
Karoubi, proposed the creation of training camps for the
“anti-imperialist struggle in the region.” Quoted in the daily
Jomhouri-e Eslami (Tehran), 7 May 1989, 9.
32. Jomhouri-e Eslami (Tehran), 7 May 1989, 11.
33. In this connection, it is worth noting that after the end of
the Terror, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was not
officially restored to constitutional status in France until 1946.
34. Howard Kurtz, “Interview Sheds Light on Bin Laden’s Views,”
Washington Post, 7 February 2002, A12. Bin Laden gave this interview to
Tayseer Alouni of the Arabic-language satellite television network
al-Jazeera in October 2001.
35. Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Enqelabe va defa’e Moqadass
(Revolution and its sacred defense) (Tehran: Press of the Foundation of
15 Khordad, 1989), 63-64.
36. Russell Leigh Moses, Freeing the Hostages: Reexamining
U.S.-Iranian Negotiations and Soviet Policy, 1979-1981 (Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), 174-75.
37. In an interview that ran in the Tehran daily Jomhouri-e Eslami
on 4 November 1981 to mark the second anniversary of the embassy
seizure, student-radical leader Musavi Khoeiniha remarked that the
neutralization of Iranian liberals and democrats was the
hostage-taking’s most important result.
38. Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Enqelabe va defa’e Moqadass, 64.
39. . Amnesty International Newsletter, September 1982. The
representative was Hadi Khosroshahi, another translator of Sayyid Qutb.
Boroumand, Ladan and Roya Boroumand. Terror, Islam, and Democracy. Journal of Democracy 13:2 (2002), 5-20. Copyright National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reproduced with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press. Any use of this article requires permission from The Johns Hopkins University Press.