(Note from Author: The most appropriate title of the article should have been "Modernization of Islam" as the article primarily deals with the modernization of Islam only and there is no discussion on any religion other than Islam)

First published in Global Times, December 15, 1995. (Please click here to download original article in pdf)

The U.S. has sowed the seeds of the next Cold War by employing the low-cost war strategy in Afghanistan. Although a rise in Islamic fundamentalist movements worldwide was inevitable, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan only hastened the process, writes Susmit Kumar.

Susmit Kumar (Ph. D)

In the early 1980s, Iran was the only Islamic country aggressively trying to export Islamic militancy to other Islamic countries. It could attract only a few Shiites for training in Iran, however. For belligerent Muslims of Egypt, Pakistan, India, Algeria, Sudan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, opportunity knocked elsewhere: in training and munitions obtained from the United States.

Having learned a bitter lesson from its anti-communist crusade in Vietnam, by 1979 the U.S. Had changed tactics. Instead of sending its army to Afghanistan, the U.S. gave several billion dollars worth of the latest arms and ammunition to Afghan Mujahideens (”strugglers”) to fight the Soviet military and end its invasion of Afghanistan. Light anti-aircraft missiles like Stinger worked wonders and forces the Soviet army to withdraw in 1989. Although the U.S.'s low-cost war tactis worked in Afghanistan – a war which probably did its bit to conclude the collapse of the Soviet empire – in my opinion, by giving the latest arms, ammunition and military training to a hard-core group of Islamic militants in Afghanistan, the U.S. sowed the seeds of the next Cold War.

Thousands of Muslims, both Afghanistani and from other Islamic countries who went to Afghanistan to fight the holy war, received modern military training in training camps in Pakistan run with U.S. monetary and logistic support. They also obtained unused modern arms and ammunition, including anti-aircraft missiles. The training camps near the Pak-Afghan border, originally opened to train Afghan Mujahideens during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, are still active. Islamic militants from  the world over receive terrorist/militant training to export the Islamic revolution to countries and regions like Egypt, Algeria, Chechnya and Kashmir. This recently caused Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to blame Pakistan for training Egyptian Islamic fundamentalists. And the Russian government has accused Sudanese, Iranian and Yemeni Muslims of fighting with Chechen rebels for an independent Chechnya. In addition, an increase in military manpower and firepower of the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government army was said to be due to the participation of well-trained Afghan veterans fighting in the name of Islam.

The U.S. is trying its best to close down these training camps by employing a carrot-and-stick policy towards Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto government. Despite having serious differences with Pakistan on the nuclear issue and over the purchase of nuclear-capable M-11 missiles from China, the Clinton government is trying to entice Pakistan to stop exporting Islamic militants. The U.S. recently sold up-to-date arms and ammunition worth U.S.$ 368 million in a one-time waiver of a law prohibiting arms supplies to Pakistan due to its refusal to cap its nuclear program. But the Bhutto government has no control over these military camps. The camps are run by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA, which is outside Bhutto's control. ISI earns several billions of dollars per year in drug deals and is not dependent on government for its finance.

Islamic militants trained in these camps disperse worldwide to fight in the name of the Islamic Jihad (holy war). They have become the torch-bearers of Islamic militant movements throughout the world. By hijacking movements from local Muslims they fight the jihad on their own terms.

Reports state, for example, that Islamis groups who started the anti-India movement in Kashmir six years ago have been sidelined by Afghan and Sudanese militants and have lost control of their movement. The recent kidnapping of five westerners in Kashmir by Al Faran is a case in point. Native Kashmiri Islamic militant groups do not want to lose western countries' support for their cause, however, and, along with the Pakistan government, condemned the kidnappings. Despite their condemnation and request for unconditional release o f the westerners, Al Faran has refused to release any hostages and brutally killed the Norwegian hostage. In an unprecedented move, all native Kashmiri militant groups called for a one day general strike in Kashmir to protest the killing.

Other reports state that Iran, in addition to Sudan, is exporting the Islamic fundamentalist movement. Iran-trained clerics are reported to be behind large scale demonstrations by majority Shiites against Sunni rulers in Bharain. Egyptian President Mubarak has blamed Sudan's radical fundamentalist Islamic government for the abortive attempt on hi s life a few months ago in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The Growth of Islamic Militancy

Most countries with Muslim majorities have laws based on Sharia (Islamic rule), and follow the Koran and the Hadiths – traditions concerning the acts and sayings of Prophet Mohammed. Saudi Arabia, guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest ci ties, follows the Sharia word for word. They have harsh rules even for petty criminals – amputations or hundreds of lashes are given even for petty crimes. Other states like Pakistan have also recently introduced the Sharia as law for criminal and civil cases. Pakistan has a western type democracy, but introduced law based on the Sharia to appease hard-line Muslims.

The 1979 overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran by Islamic c lerics was militant Muslims' first major victory worldwide. The U.S. and its western allies were shocked to see the fall of the Shah regime and took alarm at the possibility of Islamic militancy in other countries having sizable Muslim populations. The result was a policy of containment against Iran's export of Islamic militancy. The West got their opportunity to contain and weaken Iran when Iraq invaded Iran over a waterway dispute in 1980, providing arms and ammunition to Iraq over the eight year war period. In addition, the West tried to divide Islamic countries by portraying the Iran-Iraq war as a war between Shiite Iran and Sunni Iraq (Shiites and Sunnis form Islam's two main sects). Most important Islamic states, like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are Sunni dominated; in Iraq, though Shiites are in the majority, the ruling elite us Sunni.

Despite the war, Iran tried to export Islamic militancy, but could attract only a small number of Shiite Muslims from other countries to receive training. This started to change in the mid-1980s.

At that time Iran succeeded in establishing the paramilitary Shiite group Hezbollah (the Party of God) in Lebanon's Bekka Valley. After the establishment of Sudan's Islamic regime in 1989 and the collapse of Afghanistan's communist regime in 1992, Iran and its ally Sudan attracted both Shiite and Sunni Muslims from throughout the Muslim world to militant training camps in Iran, Sudan and the Bekka Valley.

The U.S. Trap

Iraq, after Turkey, used to be the most secular state in the Islamic world. But,  under pressure from the Israeli lobby, the U.S. trapped Iraq by first giving it a green signal to invade Kuwait and then afterward destroying its army and economy. A few days before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the U.S. ambassador met Sadam Hussein and told him that the U.S. would not do anything if Iraq took action against Kuwait for solving its border dispute, knowing through CIA spy satellites, that Iraq had deployed a huge army along the Kuwaiti border.

Iraq would have been a natural ally of the West like Turkey in fighting the rising Islamic fundamentalist states – a vital fact if these countries become a big threat to world peace. It was primarily Iraq who helped the West stem the rise of Islamic fundamentalists by waging the war with Iran.

Formation of Islamic Fundamentalist States

The growth in Islamic fundamentalist movements worldwide is inevitable. Iraq only delayed this growth by its war with Iran. Large scale unemployment and acute poverty, coupled with corruption in high places, produce the militancy, and are not stopped by war. Previously, these conditions were responsible for the rise of communist movements in countries like India, Vietnam, Yemen, Chile and Nicaragua. Nowadays, the unemployed and poor masses are swayed to militancy in the name of religion: Hindu parties Shiva Sena and Bajrang Dal in India, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, Hamas in Palestine, the Islamic Group in Egypt, and An-Nahda (Renaissance) in Tunisia among others exemplify this trend. Bal Thackeray, head and founder of Shiva Sena, the fundamentalist Hindu party controlling Bombay, the financial capital of India, says that he would like to be India's Hitler. Thackeray has threatened to prevent Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca if Hindu pilgrims to the Amarnath Cave in heavily Muslim Kashmir are injured (all Indian Muslims going to Hajj in Mecca fly from Bombay). The trend of religious militancy is especially dangerous in Islamic states because Islam and its holy book Koran do not differentiate between state and mosque or between politics and theology. It is a general feature even in India (12 percent Muslim) for clergy to give a political lecture after Friday prayer.

Rulers of Islamic states like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain, Jordan, etc. have two options to stem militant Islam's rise – (i) the can suppress fundamentalist movements ruthlessly, or (ii) they can allow some form of democratic dissent as a safety valve for the angry population. In my opinion, both will have the same effect – a rise in Islamic militancy. If rulers use harsh methods to try to suppress fundamentalist movement, the ranks of hard-core militants would swell and burst the bubble of existing rule has happened in Iran in 1979. If rulers try to give selected democratic rights to the population, Islamic militants could win elections hands down by exploiting the unemployed and poor in the name of religion, who would see militants as saviors from corrupt regimes.


The Islamic Salvation Front, and Islamic fundamentalist party poised to win Algerian elections a few years ago, is an example. The armed forces has to intervene in January 1992 to annul the elections, and arrested the Islamic Front's top leaders to stop Algeria's conversion into a theocracy. Although, France, the former colonial ruler of Algeria, and other western countries are trying to stop the rise of hard-line Islamic clerics to power in Algeria by providing monetary and moral support to the military rulers, it is just a matter of time before the military caves in to the country's popular Islamic fundamentalist movement. Algeria's economy is collapsing: sometimes government employees do not receive their paychecks for several months, and commodity prices are skyrocketing. The military regime is fast losing its support among the masses due to large scale corruption in its ranks and utter disregard of human rights in taking ruthless measures to curb militancy. Since 1992, more than 20,000 persons have been killed by Islamic militants and the army, After Algeria caves in to Islamic militants, neighbors Tunisia and Morocco will quickly follow suit.

Saudi Arabia and Other Islamic Countries

The main boost to Islamic militancy worldwide will come with the fall of oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is already the most fundamentalist Islamic state in the sense of following the Sharia. No other religious books or observances are legal on Saudi Arabian soil. U.S. Army personnel in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf crisis were not allowed to perform Christmas rites and had to do so on U.S. aircraft carriers. Women are not allowed to drive automobiles. Despite having such tough Islamic laws, Saudi rulers are western allies because they are dependent on the West for their personal survival. Though there is no visibly significant Islamic militant movement in Saudi Arabia like those in Egypt, Jordan and Algeria, the fall of Saudi Arabia to Islamic militants could be sudden and quick.

The main reason for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy will be its lavish spending habits and the drastic fall in oil prices. Due to the decline in oil prices, Saudi Arabia's per capita income fell to about $7,000 in 1993, a far cry from the $17,000, in constant dollars, in its oil boom days of 1981. The oil price drop has added to the staggering cost of the 1991 Gulf War to create huge budget deficits. Saudi Arabia's foreign reserves, about $120 billion in the early 1980s, are down to about $15 billion today. Some western analysts predict that Saudi Arabia will have to borrow about $30 billion from abroad in the next three years to meet payments. Saudi rulers are trying to curb budget deficits by introducing taxes and cutting welfare expenditures but they are afraid of taking drastic measures that might create unrest. Common people, with unemployment at about 25 percent, are fed up with the large scale corruption and lavish state-subsidized lifestyles of the royal family, which consists of about 5,000 princes. Saudi rulers are taking ruthless measures to curb dissent, and in the last 12 months more than 1,000 dissidents have been arrested. Islamic preachers openly denounce the Saudi ruling family for corruption and un-Islamic behavior. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent embargo on the sale of Iraqi oil, Saudi Arabia increased its oil production to offset the loss of Iraqi oil in the world market. But, as the United Nations eases economic sanctions against Iraq, Saudi Arabia will have to scale down its oil production to previous levels; this will further waken the fragile Saudi Arabian economy. Then, it will just be a question of overthrowing the monarchy, after which militant rule will be fueled by Saudi Arabia's rigid Islamic fundamentalist constitution.

The fall of Saudi Arabia to Islamic militants will have a domino effect on other Middle East and north African Islamic countries, especially in smaller countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates. The fall of less fundamentalist countries like Egypt and Jordan will take time. These countries have some democratic procedures and militants have participated in the political processes for quite some time. Also, their constitutions are not as rigidly Islamic as Saudi Arabia's and their constitutions provide some rights to minorities, like Christians in Egypt.

Cold War Between Islamic and Christian Civilizations

Many Muslims in the last few years have become anti-western. Radical Islamic groups conjure suspicions of  a western conspiracy to subjugate the world, especially Middle East countries with their huge oil reserves, vital to Europe and Japan. Radicals allege that the Kuwaiti crisis and the World Trade Center bombing in New York were hatched by western countries in order to weaken the Islamic world. A Beirut newspaper reported that humanitarian UN relief projects among starving Somalians were an excuse to reshape politics in the Horn of Africa and Central Africa. The Serbian “genocide” of Bosnian Muslims and the UN arms embargo against the Bosnian government have been seem by Muslims as western countries' conspiracy to eliminate the Bosnian Muslim population and to demoralize the Muslim world.

Islamic radicals see the Cairo UN Population Conference and satellite dishes as western cultural onslaught on Islamic traditions and values. They claim that holding the Conference in a Muslim country was a conspiracy to check Muslim population growth worldwide by rising issues like birth control. The proliferation of satellite dishes which can receive TV broadcasts from as far away as the U.S. – has angered radical Islamic clerics. They see this technology as an enemy of Islam that can erode family structures and social values. The Iranian government has banned satellite dishes and made it a punishable offense to own one. Iran also banned unregulated music and songs during family ceremonies: people who want musing during ceremonies like marriage have to take government permission; the government has also published a list of permissible songs.

In line with this regulation, many Muslims take the West's policies to be conspiracies to control the Muslim world and its oil, and to erode Islamic social and family values. The U.S. Has tried its best to ease the tensions. During President Clinton's visit to the world's most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, in 1994, he gave his main public speech at Jakarta's main mosque. The U.S. also kept a blind eye toward arms and ammunition supplies to the Muslim-dominated Bosnian army by Iran and other Muslim countries despite the UN arms embargo. And, the U.S. and Germany prepared the ground for a treaty between the Croatian and Bosnian governments to fight the rebel Bosnian Serbs. They also gave a green signal for the Croatian military onslaught on rebel Serb strongholds in Krajina in order to ease tensions in Bosnian Muslim enclaves and to force rebel Serbs to come to the bargaining table.

If the Dayton agreement fails to secure peace on the Balkans, the situation in Bosnia could deteriorate due to intervention by Iran, Sudan, veteran Afghan Mujahideens and other radical Islamic groups. They may even not like seeing a peaceful settlement, and might keep the Bosnian conflict alive to turn this conflict into a larger conflict between the Islamic world and the West. Also, they see Bosnia as their gateway to Europe from whence they can export their militancy to the West.

Sharia and the New Ottoman Empire

In a recent much publicized Muslim conference in Britain, radical Islamic groups asked British Muslims to consider themselves “Muslims in Britain” and not “British Muslims”. These groups talk about forming an Islamic empire like the Ottoman Empire, to be ruled by an Islamic Caliph who would guide and control all Muslims. The fall of Algeria, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries to Islamic militants will give impetus to these radical forces, and form a momentous challenge to the modern democratic concepts of the western world.

Prophet Mohamed was a remarkable person who created a mass movement in the Middle East in the Seventh Century that culminated in a unified Arabian state. Some Sharia laws formed then, however, need to be modified, taking into consideration socio-economic and technological advances made since. The Sharia is undemocratic, with no minority rights, and is anti-secular. Yet, countries like Pakistan, which claim to have a western-style democracy, are amending their constitutions to incorporate original Sharia laws under pressure from radical Islamic clerics who manipulate the poor and uneducated in the name of religion. Recent constitutional amendments there have made minorities like Christians, Ahmediyas (a Muslim sect) and Hindus second class citizens. According to Sharia laws in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Pakistan and several other Islamic countries, a non-Muslim victim is entitled to only a fraction of the compensation (ranging from one-half in Pakistan to one-tenth in Saudi Arabia) granted by law to a Muslim in a similar case. A person found preaching a religion other than Islam can be put to death in Saudi Arabia, and imprisoned in Morocco.

The Sharia does not necessarily unite Muslims, however. Saudi Arabia recently publicly beheaded a number of Turkish Muslims under its law against drug smuggling; Saudi authorities claim to derive this severe law from the Sharia. Turkey, though an Islamic country, has warned Saudi authorities against any further beheadings of Turks. North Yemeni troops, after defeating the South Yemeni government in the 1994 civil war, looted fellow South Yemen Muslims, claiming that Prophet Mohammed sanctioned looting a defeated enemy's property and auctioning their women and children as slaves. North Yemeni “Afghan” leader Sheikh Abdel.Mejid Zendani stated, “Our fighters belong to the army of Mohammed. Whatever they do is in strict accordance with the rules of war as stated by our blessed Prophet and not by Jews and Cross-worshippers who draft international law.” The free interpretation of Sharia to suit dominant interests and give them a religious color is typical.

If oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia fall to radical Islamic militants, Islamic clerics would try to establish an Islamic empire like the old Ottoman Empire founded during 14th and 15th centuries. From here they would try to control the world economy by raising oil prices like they did in the mid-1970s. The economies of Japan, India and West Europe, which depend on Middle East oil, would suffer most. The U.S., Russia and China, who have sufficient oil reserves, would not suffer so much from rises in their oil prices, but since they export to western and Third world countries, oil price rises there would also have an immense impact on their economies.

Apart from rising oil prices, we could see large scale terrorist suicide bombings in Europe and countries like India, In the last Cold War, between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, we saw only two major conflicts – the Korean and Vietnam wars. We saw no direct confrontation between Superpowers in Europe because of the notion of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Both Superpowers accumulated thousands of nuclear warheads and never used them.

During a coming Cold War, western and other oil-starved countries like India will be forced to invest heavily on scientific research to harness cheap unconventional energy sources like wind, solar and fission energy. We will see tremendous scientific innovations in these fields during this period.

China's Pivotal Role and a Third World War

In this future Cold War, much will depend on China. The Chinese attitude in turn will depend on the type of person who gets control of the country in the post-Deng era. If a non-military person, possibly more inclined toward further economic liberalization, is at the helm, then, although post-Deng China will be the main arms supplier to radical Islamic states, it will stay neutral in this conflict in the UN Security Council. If so, the UN will try to establish an economic embargo against Middle Eastern and North African radical Islamic states and isolate them, which will create tremendous hardship for the peoples there.

After several years of this, when ordinary people fail to find relief from radical Islamic regimes, they will force a change in leadership and we will see the emergence of a number of Mustafa Kemals1. These Kemals will bring drastic social and religious changes, and the West will help them financially. Hence, if China is neutral, the collapse of radical regimes will occur without large scale bloodshed and South and East Asia will be relatively free of the upheaval of war. Deteriorating economic conditions in present day Iran are only a precursor for future radical Islamic states in the Middle East and North Africa that can manifest this scenario.

If a pro-military person comes to power in post-Deng China, however, China might actively intervene as radical Islamic states and the West, including Russia, confront each other. This conflict could very well turn into the Third World War, including Indo-Pak, Indo-Chinese, Vietnamese-Chinese and Japanese-Chinese war theaters, in which nuclear weapons could be used.

China is now in the primitive stage of developing Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which the U.S. And Russia will be able to neutralize. This war will certainly fragment China, however, and the U.S., Russia and their western allies will divide the country into a number of states; Tibet will become an independent country. We might see a fragmented Pakistan, too, with an independent Kashmir formed by the merger of Indian Kashmir and Pakistani Kashmir. After losing Kashmir, India will help, or force, Sindh to get independence from Pakistan's Punjabi dominated army.

A Bright Future

Although fundamentalist Islamic stated and powerful Islamic clerics in those states will be the losers of a (Cold or Third World) War, Islam as a religion will emerge victorious and shed its Seventh Century image, becoming a new 21st Century religion more tolerant to women and non-Muslims. In the same way two world wars changed the socio-economic and political environment of Europe, this War will change the Middle East and North Africa, which resembles late 19th and early 20th Century Europe.

1 Mustafa Kemal, Turkish leader who assumed the leadership of Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the first World War, palyed a dominant role in transforming radical fundamentalist Islamic Turkey into a modern secular republic.

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