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Mujahidin

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Mujahidin

    Many people associate the term mujahidin with Muslims who take up arms to defend their land against injustice caused by foreign powers or oppressive governments. The Arabic word is often translated as “warriors of God” or those who “engage in jihad.” Although the term mujahidin does not have an inherent connection with war, groups have fought under this designation in places as diverse as Albania, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Kosovo. This entry focuses on Iran and Afghanistan, two countries where mujahidin were particularly active during the late 1900s.

    Redefining Islam.

    The Holy Warrior Organization of the Iranian People, better known as the Iranian Mujahidin, has functioned as the main opposition to the Iranian government for more than 30 years. Combining aspects of Shi'ism and Marxism, the movement interprets Islam—particularly the Qur'an and hadith—as a divine message for political, social, and economic revolution. Although the mujahidin reject the atheistic position of Marxism, they support its stance against imperialism and capitalism.

    A group of graduates from Tehran University founded the Iranian Mujahidin during the mid-1960s. Many of them had also studied the Qur'an under Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani , a leading Iranian cleric and political activist. The young militants opposed the government of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi , calling him an oppressive tool of the West. Inspired by guerrilla movements in Cuba, Vietnam, and Algeria, the mujahidin especially admired Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara. Interpreting Islam as a socialist creed, the Iranian Mujahidin promoted armed struggle to free the people from political and economic injustice. Although the movement consisted mainly of college students, it also attracted teachers, engineers, and other professionals.

    The Iranian Mujahidin interpreted Islamic teachings in accordance with their ideology. They argued that the early Shi'i martyrs had died for social equality and described military jihad as “liberation struggle.” They referred to an imam as a “charismatic revolutionary leader,” rather than a religious leader. Although devout Muslims, the mujahidin opposed traditional Shi'i religious leaders. They believed the traditional clergy had sapped Islam's revolutionary power.

    In 1971 the Iranian Mujahidin launched a guerrilla campaign. They assaulted the government with a series of bombings and armed attacks. But the government fought back, and in 1972 , the shah (king) imprisoned one of the movement's most important leaders, Mas'ud Rajavi . Arrests, executions, and gun battles claimed the lives of other key figures and members of the mujahidin. The movement suffered a major setback in 1975 , when some members renounced Islam in favor of Marxism and formed a sepa-rate organization.

    In 1978 the government released Rajavi from prison. Regrouping his followers, he then helped to remove the shah from power during the Iranian Revolution. The mujahidin wielded substantial political influence in the young Islamic republic. Iranian voters backed mujahidin candidates. The organization's supporters included trade unions, professional organizations, and regional parties. The movement's newspaper had a wide circulation, and the mujahidin used its popularity to push for sweeping social changes.

    Although the mujahidin followed the practices of Shi'ism, they opposed the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime. They criticized the idea that the clergy had the divine right to rule and condemned Khomeini's attitude toward women and his interpretation of shari'ah. The ayatollah responded by restricting mujahidin activities. In 1981 Khomeini declared the mujahidin to be “enemies of God” and ordered his forces to eliminate them. Iranian police arrested, tortured, and executed members of the movement. Despite a counterattack by the movement's followers, more than 9,000 mujahidin died in Iran between 1981 and 1985 . Rajavi and other leaders fled the country, and with the support of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein , they established military camps in Iraq. Following the U.S. overthrow of Saddam's regime in 2003 , the mujahidin organization entered a new phase as an opposition movement labeled a terrorist organization.

    The Power of Perseverance.

    The rebel fighters who resisted Soviet control of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 are perhaps the best known of the mujahidin. In 1978 a coup led by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan brought a communist government to power. This regime met with strong resistance from most Afghans, and the following year it fell apart. Shortly afterward, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to maintain communist rule. To defend their country and Islam, religious leaders launched a popular uprising against the Soviets. Afghans who had fled into exile in Pakistan, as well as thousands of young Muslims from other parts of the Islamic world, rushed to Afghanistan to support the uprising. Among the volunteers was Osama bin Laden, a recent college graduate from Saudi Arabia. Throughout the struggle in Afghanistan, bin Laden helped recruit soldiers and played a role in financing their training.

    The resistance fighters received military and financial support from the United States, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. Although the Soviet forces had superior weapons and controlled the air space, the rebels remained an elusive foe. Eventually, the two sides reached a stalemate, as the Soviets dominated the cities and the guerrillas occupied the mountainous rural areas.

    The Afghan movement was affiliated with numerous political parties, ethnic groups, and sectarian organizations. Two rival alliances consisting of Islamic conservatives and radicals emerged. By the mid-1980s, they formed a single coalition and created a council with decision-making power, which enabled them to better coordinate their operations.

    The mujahidin also obtained more advanced weapons, including U.S. antiaircraft missiles. As the rebels gained ground, Soviet casualties mounted. Public support for the war waned in the Soviet Union. In 1988 Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev decided to withdraw his forces from Afghanistan. The following year, after a decade of struggle, the mujahidin took control of most of the country.

    The rebel victory did not, however, inaugurate a period of stability. The communists still clung to power in the capital city of Kabul, and the mujahidin continued to fight them. Finally, in April 1992 , the mujahidin captured Kabul and declared Afghanistan an Islamic state.

    War had devastated the country, crippling economic production and killing more than one million Afghans. In the face of such troubles, the mujahidin failed to create a new Islamic political system. Instead, rival groups seized control of sections of the country, enabling the Taliban to seize power in 1994 . See also Afghanistan; Bin Laden, Osama; Jihad; Iran; Qaeda, al-; Taliban.

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