The Mumbai terrorist attacks have opened a new chapter in the war against terrorism. They remind us that Islamic radicalism owes more to classic Leninist thinking than to the Koran. This wasn’t some desperate move to make a statement. It was a carefully planned operation, under the command of sophisticated leadership—the group responsible had links to al-Qaida, according to many reports—in order to achieve a strategic, indeed worldwide, goal.
Before the attacks, India and Pakistan were on the verge of concluding an alliance against their de facto common enemy, Islamic radicalism, under the guidance of the American government. In reviving Indians’ fears that they were once again under attack from Pakistani security forces, the Mumbai atrocities may well disrupt the projected alliance. Further, the attack on Mumbai took place in advance of decisive provincial elections in India: vociferous Hindu nationalist parties will undoubtedly exploit anti-Muslim feelings for political gain. The timing of the Mumbai attack, like that of al-Qaida’s Madrid bombing in 2003, confirms the broader Islamist-terror movement’s sophisticated strategy.
Since the beginning of its operations, al-Qaida has sought to conquer a country, not just to secure a base for its military operations but also to serve as the model for the future society it wants to build. This geographical ambition is a moving target, as Osama bin Laden and his followers have shifted from Saudi Arabia (the ultimate prize) to Sudan, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan. In al-Qaida’s perception, the impending presidency of Barack Obama may open new possibilities in the region. Thus the importance of keeping India at bay. After securing a territorial base, al-Qaida leaders would be—so they think—in a better position to promote the supposedly perfect Islamic society that they like to sell to the rest of the Muslim world. This would be the first step toward the grand revolutionary ambition of reestablishing the caliphate—a global dominion led by one enlightened man, with the Koran functioning as the constitution. Their proclaimed revolutionary and metaphysical mission may explain why radical Islamist groups find it so easy to recruit suicide bombers, just as the Bolsheviks and the Russian anarchists once did.
The Islamist strategy depends in no small part on a crucial evolution in the Muslim world. Since Islam’s territorial expansions ceased in the sixteenth century, Muslims everywhere (and especially in India) have combined Koranic teaching with their own local traditions. To be a Muslim in India does not exclude attending Hindu ceremonies, for example, and Muslim prayers are often dedicated to some local saint. But this geographically rooted and syncretic Islam is being displaced. Regional differences are disappearing, influenced by migrations to Arab states in order to find work; by urbanization, which cuts ties to the old mosques; and by a new global Islam, broadcast by television and the Internet. Thus a young, uprooted Muslim worker in Mumbai shifts from his traditional village Islam toward a more radical and internationalist version. Ten years ago, Indian Muslims would not often (as they do now) show concern about Middle East conflicts; they would not dress in Arab garb; they would sing on religious holidays in the Indian Sufi tradition; they considered multicultural and democratic India their country; and they had no strong sympathy with their poor and chaotic Muslim neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Though one shouldn’t sentimentalize the history of India, where religious coexistence has not always been easily achieved, conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in poor Indian villages until recently had more to do with competition for scarce resources than with religious differences. Indeed, no nation in Asia offers Muslims as much freedom and opportunity as India. Still, in the large Indian Muslim population (between 100 and 200 million—nobody knows for sure), al-Qaida will be able to find enough disgruntled teenagers to convert into suicide bombers and agents of destruction. As its economy rapidly shifts from rural conservatism to rapid urbanization and development, India has become the perfect hunting ground for Islamist recruiters.
Indian political leaders would rather deny this new reality than acknowledge its sobering implication: that while the economic success of recent years has brought increased prosperity, it has also disrupted the relative harmony between the nation’s traditional religions. There is neither an easy solution to this problem nor an easy way to win the war against radical Islamism. But the Mumbai attack confirms that the war is real and that it is global. No nation where Muslims live is safe from radical Islamist interventions.