For the Islamist doctor, terror is healing
Stephen Schwartz and Irfan Al-Alawi say that radical Islam is less the product of extreme deprivation than of the thwarted aspirations of the Muslim middle classes and professionals The car bombs in London and Glasgow show that a global counter-offensive against the war on terror is well underway. Although Iraq is the main zone of conflict, Saudi-financed Wahhabi radicals — known to polite Western journalists as 'Sunni insurgents' — seek to export `al-Qa'eda in Iraq' everywhere throughout the world.
But with the British car-bomb campaign a new element has emerged. For the first time in Europe doctors are among the suspects. One of them, Mohammed Asha, is described as a 'brilliant' neurosurgeon from Jordan; another, Bilal Abdullah, is an Iraqi doctor. The phenomenon of the radicalised professional broadens a hitherto limited field of inquiry for terror investigators. Our organisation, the Centre for Islamic Pluralism, has recently completed a study, 'Scientific Training and Radical Islam', in which we analyse how the professionals in a number of scientific disciplines are transformed into bloodthirsty extremists.
There is no doubt about the special role played by radicalised professionals — mainly doctors and engineers — in the rise of Islamic extremism. This first came to the attention of the world with the infiltration of Egyptian medical and related professional associations by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), culminating in the 1990s. Doubtless the most infamous representative of this trend was the Egyptian second-in-command of al-Qa'eda, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri — a physician from a family of doctors and pharmacists. But the MB also has immense influence among Palestinians through its offshoot, Hamas, as well as in Jordan and even in Iraq, where its front, the Iraq Islamic party, serves in the Baghdad government.
Why do doctors in Muslim countries sacrifice their long years of rigorous education in the ethics of 'doing no harm' and embrace such brutalising concepts as 'death to unbelievers'? To Western medical and scientific personnel, who are taught to guard human life and to base their researches and healing on reason, the violence and contempt for life exhibited by al-Zawahiri and his colleagues in al-Qa'eda are both frightening and puzzling. How, it is asked, can a person trained to heal, according to a scientific discipline, behave with such ruthless contempt for life?
Our study, focusing on Arab and Pakistani doctors (the latter both at home and abroad) revealed that throughout much of the Islamic world, medicine and religion are bound together in a manner that has largely disappeared in the West. For Western doctors, medicine may draw on religious ethics; but for Muslim doctors, it draws on religious ethics and on the Islamic view of the universe. Furthermore, many Muslims associate healing with their religious leaders, and in the more traditional Islamic countries the imam is typically the first (and often the last) person consulted by the ill, and prayer or faith-healing prescriptions are the only therapies.
Muslim Brotherhood literature such as the work of Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) propagates the view that Islam and science are inextricable from one another, and that a fundamentalist view of religion will lead to a revival of Muslim science, such as existed in the Islamic golden age, more than half a millennium ago. For this reason the MB now targets professionals.
Furthermore, the political success of the Egyptian Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah is seen in some quarters as a product of their capacity to provide medical and other social services in countries where state budgets are grossly inadequate and corrupted. Islamists have been quick to understand this dynamic as a means to manipulate the masses. Many observers claim that Hamas gained its strength st the ballot box on the back of its social services. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its splinter groups, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EU), gained a high profile among the poor by providing health care in exchange for opportunities to recruit neighbourhood youth in extremist ideology. Al-Zawahiri is a product of EU; the road from his conception of 'Islamic free clinics' to al-Qa'eda was not long.
Osama bin Laden used his personal wealth to build schools and hospitals in Sudan, and thereby gained credibility as a benefactor and provider of healing services. But it should also be noted that, by contrast, the Indonesian Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a Sufi and traditionalist body with 40 million members, operates large and successful networks of schools, hospitals and community rehabilitation projects without recourse to extremist ideology. NU 'good works' are Islamic, but not Islamist, and they deserve greater attention from those in the West hypnotised by the public welfare programmes of groups like the Egyptian MB and Hamas.
Meantime, however, professionals and other 'privileged' people play a more important role in the Islamist counteroffensive against the West than `the Muslim street'. In the Muslim world the ordinary peasant or labourer is chiefly concerned with supporting a family and gaining economic stability; it is only after he has some economic security that the Muslim may turn to radical religion. The West has got radical Islam wrong: it is less a product of misery and the sense of extreme oppression than of the thwarted aspirations of the Muslim middle classes.
The arrested doctors in the latest bombing outrages may turn out to be in the same class as the al-Zawahiri medical clan, as was another Palestinian physician, Abdullah Azzam. This was the man who was the mentor of bin Laden in the creation of the Pakistan-based Maktab al-Khidamat, or Services Institute, which co-ordinated extremist ideological indoctrination among Muslim volunteers in the Afghan struggle against the Russian invasion. Azzam was supported by the supreme Wahhabi clerical class in Saudi Arabia, and the Maktab alKhidamat was turned into al-Qa'eda in 1988 by bin Laden, who had arrived in Afghanistan three years earlier. Azzam travelled extensively in the United States between 1985 and 1989 collecting donations for the Afghan cause, using his medical credentials as a basis for his appeal. He was murdered in Pakistan in 1989.
There are many more 'killer doctors' in the world of extremist Islam. In our study we have documented notable cases in the US, where the phenomenon of radical Muslim doctors is well-known. These individuals suffer from divided minds, in which their professional duties clash with their ideological fantasies. They are driven not by faith, or by training, or by professional standing or aspiration, but by an ideology of fundamentalist separatism. Ideology unites them — but they are alienated from the reality of authentic religiosity as well as personal ethics and professional fulfilment.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director and Irfan AbAlawi is international director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism, in Washington and London. They may be reached at www.islamicpluralism.org.