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Nuclear weaponsWhere did the idea of an ‘Islamic bomb’ come from?

By Malcolm M. Craig

Published 10 February 2017

The heavily freighted idea of an “Islamic bomb” has been around for some decades now. The notion behind it is that a nuclear weapon developed by an “Islamic” nation would automatically become the Islamic world’s shared property – and more than that, a “nuclear sword” with which to wage jihad. But as with many terms applied to the “Islamic world”, it says more about Western attitudes than about why and how nuclear technology has spread. It’s true that prominent Muslim figures spoke rhetorically about a “bomb for the ummah”. But this was never more than rhetoric. Leaving aside all nuclear matters, internecine and sectarian differences and conflict mean that global Islamic political unity is unlikely in the extreme. The Islamic bomb has always been a convenient device with which to elide complex problems of religion, politics, and nuclear weapons. And sadly, it still is. Those who still casually bandy the term about would do well to think about where it really comes from.

The heavily freighted idea of an “Islamic bomb” has been around for some decades now. The notion behind it is that a nuclear weapon developed by an “Islamic” nation would automatically become the Islamic world’s shared property – and more than that, a “nuclear sword” with which to wage jihad. But as with many terms applied to the “Islamic world”, it says more about Western attitudes than about why and how nuclear technology has spread.

The concept as we know it emerged from anxieties about proliferation, globalization, resurgent Islam, and conspiracies real and imagined, a fearful idea that could be applied to the atomic ambitions of any Muslim nation or non-state group. It looked at Pakistan’s nuclear program and extrapolated it to encompass everything between the mountains of South Asia and the deserts of North Africa. And ever since it appeared it has retained its power to shock, eliding terrorism, jihadism, the perceived ambitions of “Islamic” states, and state-private proliferation networks into one fearsome term.

It has also made a useful avatar for all sorts of specific threats – Muammar Gaddafi’s anti-Western “fanaticism”, Saddam Hussein’s socialist Ba’athism, the Iranian Mullahs’ revolutionary Islamic ideology, contemporary fundamentalist terrorism, and Pakistan’s military-Islamic thinking.

But of course, the Islamic bomb idea is part of a web of complex geopolitical ideas. International terrorism, the rise of modern political Islam, and Western interventions all muddle the issue. And oddly enough given the way it’s used today, the term in fact began its strange life outside the West.

High hopes
The connection between religion and the bomb was in fact first explicitly made in 1970s Pakistan, where leaders Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Muhammad Zia ul-Haq both saw nuclear weapons as a means to enhance the country’s status within the so-called “Muslim world”. Yet Pakistan’s atomic program was at its heart a nationalistic security project, not a religious one.

The term “Islamic bomb” didn’t appear in the Western news media until around 1979, when the Iranian Revolution set outsiders worrying about the potential intersections between nuclear weapons, proliferation and Islamic politics. At around the same time, India was mounting a campaign against Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions; its government and media duly began deliberately stoking fears of a pan-Islamic nuclear threat originating with Islamabad. Israel’s government, too, made it clear that it believed an Islamic bomb was imminent.