WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- Diverging tendencies appear to be emerging in radical Islam today, each fighting a jihad that is quite separate from the other.
On the one hand, you have those waging jihad, or holy war, against America, while on the other, there are those fighting purely territorial wars, such as the Palestinians and the Chechens, and who have no interest in making enemies of the United States.
During a recent trip to the Middle East, I was stunned when a high-ranking official from the militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas with whom I was meeting, told me he felt no belligerency whatsoever toward the United States. "We are not against America," he said matter-of-factly. "Our struggle is with Israel, not the U.S. I have no hate for America," he added. The U.S. State Department regards the group as a terrorist organization.
This statement is a far cry from Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terror outfit, believed to be responsible for the horrendous slaughter of nearly 3,000 Americans in the attacks against the twin towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon in northern Virginia.
If Hamas bears no grudge toward America, bin Laden on the other hand has clearly "declared war on America." Hamas, for its part, has restricted its fight, aiming its hostility exclusively at Israel. It is true that some Westerners have died in suicide attacks carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Israel, but they were not directly targeted.
Advocating the violent spread of Islam are the "Umma Islamists," those fighting for the greater Islamic nation. They include extremist militants such as the Taliban, bin Laden and his al Qaida organization, and radical Pakistani groups such as the Jami'a Islamia and the Hizb ul Tahrir. These militants are propelled by strict Wahabist Islam; they have been mostly schooled in madrasas, (religious institutions) and recruited to fight "the infidels." Among them are also a number of European and American Muslims, such as those found among the captured Taliban in Afghanistan.
In essence, these are the ones looking at the larger picture, so to speak, fighting for the Umma -- the Islamic Nation, and not for any single country, as is Hamas.
For instance, the radical Pakistani Islamists who kidnapped and killed Wall Street correspondent Daniel Pearl, were all educated in Britain, where they had lived for many years. They spoke English, not Arabic or Urdu. The al Qaida terrorists who hijacked the airplanes that flew into buildings on Sept. 11, 2001, did not go to fight in their native lands, but instead chose to come and die in the United States.
What drew tens of thousands of Islamist activists from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world to Afghanistan was the concept of creating a true Muslim caliphate that would serve as a base of operations from which they could to expand and spread their Islamist theocracy to the rest of the world.
From a geographic point of view, Afghanistan was ideally situated. It offered the perfect base in Central Asia from which an Islamic revolution could springboard and gradually go after the "Stans," the former Soviet republics (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan), and eventually Pakistan, and elsewhere. An Islamist Afghanistan also offered a safe haven from which the Islamization of the West could ultimately be carried out, and from where Islamist jihadis could travel to help their brethren in places such as Chechnya or Indonesia.
"Islamist fundamentalists in this respect have replaced proletarian revolutionists," said Olivier Roy, an author and contemporary political scholar on Islam at the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques in Paris.
"The targets remain the same. American targets, U.S. embassies, etc.," said Roy, speaking this week at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "The 'usual suspects' -- American imperialism -- are also the same."
Much as Marxist revolutionaries in the 1960s and '70s where fighting to spread universal communism, so too are today's Islamists engaged in a conflict that far transcends national borders. This explains why those fighting for the Umma, or the greater Islamic nation, are "not concerned by the Middle East crisis," explains Roy.
To them, the Middle East is more of a territorial dispute, than one dealing with theology. Yet, some, like bin Laden, use the Palestinian conflict to further their cause in the hope of recruiting followers and gaining sympathizers.
The reverse is also true. Individual Arabs do not feel directly concerned by the Islamists' struggle. For one, Arab regimes in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and most of the Gulf emirates are secular. This would also explain the apathy from the "Arab street" that accompanied America's invasion of Afghanistan. The great popular uprising that was widely predicted by a number of pundits who were gazing at their political crystal balls after Sept. 11, 2001, simply failed to materialize. However, it would be safe to predict the same apathy will not prevail in the event of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The reason being that an individual nation would be attacked, rather than an ideology with which few in the Arab world can relate. (Also, Saddam has more recently turned to Islam, hoping to harness more support against the United States).
Now on the other hand, you have the regionalized groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, fighting for a specific cause. They, for the most part, make no claims about "spreading a universal Islam," a la bin Laden and the Taliban, but instead limit their struggle to a specific geographic area.
"I am very realistic about the situation," admitted Usama Hamdan, a Hamas official, during several hours of conversation with this reporter a few weeks ago. "I know that the Palestinians are not all going to turn suddenly religious. The most we can hope for is to win about 40 percent of the vote, and have our say in running the government."
Hezbollah, the militant Shiite organization in Lebanon, quickly realized they could not impose their beliefs on the rest of the country, and contended themselves with keeping within their geographical areas. Similarly, the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution failed to export itself.
The gap between umma Islamists and more regionalized Muslims remains a wide one. Roy, the French author and expert on Islam explains it thus: "Traditional Islamic culture was the primary target of the Islamists." The Taliban, as do the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia, hope to control every aspect of everyday life. For them, there is no room for anything outside religion. "These people were opposed to the very concept of culture," says Roy about the Taliban.
"Bin Ladenism is what the hard core of Iran's Islamic revolution aspired to but never attained -- a jihadist "virtual umma," -- to borrow from the Franco-Iranian scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar -- a nationless community of suicidal believers who can strike the "Great Satan" from any corner of the globe," writes Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Ultimately, the West tends to blend those who aspire to create a "virtual umma" -- the bin Laden's extremists who regard America as a sworn enemy -- with territorial Islamists. The fact is the two groups are fighting very different jihads.
(Claude Salhani is a senior editor with UPI in Washington who spent 15 years as a correspondent in the Middle East. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org)