Monday, August 28, 2006

A transnational umma: reality or myth?


In the four years since 9/11 much has been written, in the west and in the Islamic world, about the emergence of a new “transnational” and militant Islam, a community of jihadis who operate independently of states, recruit from many countries, and whose operations are not confined to any particular state. Al-Qaida, for example, has had fighters from dozens of countries – from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Morocco, to Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines and Pakistan (and, on occasion, Britain, France, and Australia also).

In one sense, there is nothing particularly Muslim about this phenomenon. The facility of virtual and physical movement today means that many ideas, symbols, and causes are transmitted globally and near-instantaneously. British surprise that the 7 July bombers were “homegrown” missed the fact that there very few purely “homegrown” things left – and that, in any case, at least one of the bombers had been exposed to Pakistani Islamist, if not al-Qaida, influence.

Yet there is clearly some truth in the claim that the present form of Islamic militancy has distinct, novel features. The decentred structure of al-Qaida is very different from the hierarchical system of interwar world communism or from traditional guerrilla groups such as Ireland’s IRA, the Kurdish PKK, Lebanon’s Hizbollah or Palestine’s Hamas; and its ability and willingness to hit targets in the United States, western Europe, the middle east, Africa and southeast Asia all seem to reinforce this “transnational” model.

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