How to end the curse of Islamic Terrorism
London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 21 Oct 2017 - Ghassan Matar
History takes no prisoners. It shows, with absolute lucidity, that the Islamic extremism ravaging the world today was borne out of the Western foreign policy of yesteryear. The cover photo of an article in the Independent shows just how wrong that policy was.
Gore Vidal famously referred to the USA as the United States of Amnesia. The late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai put it a little more delicately, quipping, "One of the delightful things about Americans is that they have absolutely no historical memory."
From 9-11 to 7-7, to Madrid and Boston, Paris, Nice, Berlin, Brussels, onto the summer’s massacres in Kenya and Nigeria to the acts of terrorism in Algeria, Mali, Russian Chechnya and China’s Xinjiang Province and the latest barbaric act in Mogadishu, runs the constant threat of fundamentalism.
Terminology in this area can be inflammatory, but definitions are important. Fear of being branded as a racist in addition to political correctness has neutered our ability to understand the problem or even address it.
Islamists are grouped within terrorist organizations like Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Abu Sayyaf, Al Nusra and The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. These may differ on ideological detail, but they share the same goal and the means to that end.
These groups, along with the majority of Salafists and Wahabists are entirely open about their objectives and means to those ends. Subtler, but equally extreme, is the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood plots a subtler form of ‘creeping’ Islamization. This is an approach mastered by Turkey’s President Erdogan who has been prepared to camouflage his party’s true objectives within a secular society. In his words, democracy is “just the train we board to reach our destination.”
Its flag is hardly a masterpiece of restraint. Within a number of inflammatory phrases including “Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; Qur’an is our law; Jihad is our way; Dying in the name of Allah is our greatest hope” it references Sharia Law, Jihad and the words ‘and prepare’ (referencing a Surat in the Quran: “And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah”).
In a nutshell, the wars over state, territory, and politics that defined the Cold War era have given way to cosmic battles between “good” and “evil” – between a West apparently keen to defend secular, democratic values and its twisted opponents who prefer the idea of autocratic Islam.
This simplistic view of the new geopolitical landscape is deeply problematic. It overlooks the key role that the West played in nurturing radical Islamist groups, precisely as a means of isolating and undermining secular movements that were judged by Western governments to be too uppity or dangerous.
Over the past 80 years and more – from Egypt to Afghanistan to Palestine – powerful governments in the West and their allies in the Middle East helped to create radical Islamic sects as a bulwark against secular nationalist parties or pan-Arabism. They gave the nod to, and in some instances funded and armed, Islamist movements that might challenge the claims of local anti-colonial, liberationist, or communistic outfits.
In other words, there is a deep and bitter irony in the West’s current claims to be standing up to evil religious sects in the name of universal values. It was precisely the West’s earlier disregard for secularism and democracy in the Middle East, its elevation of its own powerful interests over the needs and desires of local populations, which helped to give rise to a layer of apparently “evil” radical Islamism. What we have today is not a World War between a principled West and psychotic groups from “over there,” but rather the messy residue of decades of Western meddling in the Middle East.
The U.S. was by no means the only one to pursue such a strategy. Echoing the U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Israel in fact supported Hamas -- now its sworn arch-enemy -- when the Islamist group was first forming in the 1980s. Israel backed Hamas' militant founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in order to undermine the secular socialist resistance of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
"Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel's creation," a former Israeli government official told the Wall Street Journal in a 2009 article titled "How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas."
It is not a coincidence that most of the secular countries in the history of the Middle East have been socialist of some sort. In contrast, the most reactionary countries -- the countries where women are not granted equal rights and where the rule of law is based on Sharia -- have frequently tended to be close Western allies. Why?
The West was much, much more interested in preserving capitalism than it was in allowing secularism, gender equality and relative economic equality to flourish under socialism even though the latter would have been cheaper and produced the result the West seeks now.
In this context it is hardly surprising that Al Qaeda and Hamas were formed as offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether they are formally affiliated to Al Qaeda or the Brotherhood, Islamists are a violent, aggressive and ambitious groups, sharing core goals and philosophies.
Their threat was best illustrated in a video posted online by a U.S. citizen brandishing a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a bayonet, who joined Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria: “This is a message to people in the West from the Mujahideen... We are coming to kill all the infidels in the West and beyond to spread Allah’s law (Sharia) and the book of Allah (Quran) and to raise them to the highest level. We came to kill anyone that stands in our way. The flag that says that ‘there is no God but Allah’ will be raised over Parliament Buildings and in capital cities around the world... and bring Islamic law to control all the world.”
Since the dawn of time, the world has witnessed conflict, and since the onset of organized religion, it has played host to sectarian violence. But why is Islamism currently growing so fast, and so widely? The reasons are political and economic.
It preys on the young, the poor, the disaffected and the needy. And a perfect storm of demographic and economic factors makes this a time of unimaginable poverty across the globe. By offering an identity, financial incentives and eternal rewards in the afterlife, it addresses those groups in terms that are direct and appealing.
The Arab Spring clearly illustrates this. It began as a direct result of the global economic crisis. Specifically, it was triggered by a Tunisian vegetable trader who set himself alight when confronted by the police. He was frustrated by injustice, and because he had no way of protesting against the restrictions on his trade.
His personal suffering mirrored that of millions affected by the economic crisis around the world. In democracies, these met with protests, hostility and, eventually, with the opportunity to effect change at the ballot box. But in the dictatorships of the Middle East and North Africa, the totalitarian grip was tightened. Political protests and mass gatherings were banned. With no infrastructure supporting democratic parties or the quiet peaceful majority, a vacuum was created for the brilliantly organized and well-funded Islamist groups to take control.
This process has been facilitated by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, nursing an inferiority complex, with funds to burn and a political advantage to be exploited. It is no secret that Saudi has long been an enclave of extremism.
A regional pro-democracy revolution was anathema to the authorities in Riyadh and Doha. Similar events in Eastern Europe twenty years earlier had led to a domino effect of tumbling dictators. And so the revolution was hijacked in its bud.
This is not a new theme. Saudi Arabia with the help of the CIA, funded the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, the Madrasas in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the Taliban. Al Qaeda developed from the Mujahedeen. There can be no doubt that Saudi and US money has fundamentally developed the potency of Islamic fundamentalism.
Ever since the Arab Spring, regional powers have sought to use their influence to gain power ‘democratically’ throughout the Middle East and North Africa by replacing dictatorships with theocracies. This is both politically and economically prudent (Islamist rulers have complete control of their followers and require little in the way of funding, as demonstrated by the support of the Taliban in Afghanistan).
Meanwhile, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia called on Muslims to burn churches. Clerics on state-backed satellite television incited sectarian hatred and violence, calling for Jihad against all ‘Infidels’, ‘Apostates’ and anyone else not in agreement with their modus operandi. Videos were posted online calling for Jihad against Shias, Alawites, Christians and Jews and showing the murder of those who do not share their perverted ideology.
This incitement from the Gulf was backed by money. Salafist groups have been funded and armed largely by Saudi Arabia; the Muslim Brotherhood by Qatar and Turkey (in addition to groups such as Al-Nusra in Syria where the fiercest fighters were required to topple the regime in the shortest time possible).
This division between Saudi and Qatar highlights their struggle for regional control since the start of the Arab Spring. Qatar promoted the idea of the ‘moderate’ Muslim Brotherhood in contrast to the Saudi-backed Salafists who have not used the art of ‘“Taqiyya,” or ‘concealment’ of their Islamist objectives.
This funding has long been augmented by the misuse of Zakat. One of the five pillars of Islam, Zakat is intended for charity. But in States where political gatherings and fundraising are banned, the disaffected and needy have been targeted within religious places of worship where they are ripe for brainwashing and recruitment. ‘Charitable’ donations have been re-directed by clerics of questionable morals, to the direct benefit of Islamist groups, and this religious funding is outside government interference. This is not a problem confined to the Middle East; Islamic Charities have misused Zakat around the world with some high-profile cases in the United States.
And so, a revolution where people sought a genuine representative democracy has morphed into a hotbed of extremism across swathes of the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, Islamism has flourished, gathering support, offering great rewards, and with the organisation and funds to present a visible alternative to State repression.
But as liberals and democrats, we cannot rest our hopes in the hands of Islamists, nor in the vicious dictatorships whose very actions created this mess in the first place. Nor can we hope that arms and air strikes can do any long-term good.
What can we do?
In order to defeat extremism, we need to understand the rise of militant Salafi groups like ISIS and al-Qaida; in order to wrap our minds around their heinous, abominable attacks on civilians in the U.S., France, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria, Turkey, Yemen, Afghanistan and many, many more countries, we must rekindle this historical memory.
- Where did violent Islamic extremism come from? this is the question no one is asking -- yet it is the most important one of all. If one doesn't know why a problem emerged, if one cannot find its root, one will never be able to solve and uproot it.
- We must be transparent and consistent in our relations with states that endorse terror. Currently we Condemn the regime in North Korea whilst engaging diplomatically and economically with ‘our friends’ Saudi and Qatar. This is no way to react to their role in the region. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
- We must be realistic about the best ways to counter the threat of terror. Islamism comes in so many forms, and from so many directions, that it is difficult to fight with force alone. It dwells in the shadows, amorphous and immeasurable. There is no army to attack, ambassador to threaten, or border to defend. Sending more troops to Afghanistan, Somalia, Niger or anywhere else will do more harm than good.
- We must cease to make pointless and more inflammatory remarks. One good example is US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton’s remark in 2011 whose answer to the ouster of Mubarak was to call for strikes against Iran. In other words, to add a further hundred million Muslims to the roster of terrorists. Another is Trump diverting attention from the failure of the war on terror by calling for more terror. Another is Tony Blair's appearance before the Chilcot enquiry in which he strongly argued for attacking Iran while facing condemnation for attacking Iraq.
“Iran is under the control of a fanatical regime that seized power in 1979 and forced a proud people to submit to its extremist rule. This radical regime has raided the wealth of one of the world's oldest and most vibrant nations, and spread death, destruction, and chaos all around the globe.”
- We must close all borders to all nations who harbour or support Islamic Extremists. This should include deporting any refugee who expresses any sign of Islamic extremism, no matter how trivial. Politicians need to stop worrying about their careers and focus on the greater good of their country. This does not mean providing refuge to genuine refugees.
- We should forbid political discourse in all places of worship.
- We should kill political correctness and allow people to speak their minds no matter how unpalatable it is.
- We should stop listening to quango think tanks and begin paying attention to the real experts or locals. When Gaddafi warned Europe that it will be black, they did not heed his warning. Instead they supported or remained silent as he was sodomized with a sword and murdered, against all international law, resulting in a mass exodus of migrants across the Mediterranean.
- The United States and the United Kingdom must accept that their forays into Afghanistan and Iraq have failed and stop doubling down on this failed strategy which has bankrupted the US and increased terrorism 1000-fold.
- The entire Western world should immediately stop selling weapons to any country in the Middle East including Israel. The US should stop supporting Israel militarily and should force Israel to come clean about its Nuclear Weapons.
- Countries like Germany, Sweden and Norway whom have borne the brunt of the exodus of refugees must speak up against the United States and the UK making it clear to them that they must take responsibility for their actions; maybe if the price is high enough, they would cease their follies.
- The West must immediately stop supporting and propping up the regimes in Egypt, Jordan and redirect any investment into civilian projects such schools and hospitals.
- The West must resolve the near century old Palestinian suffering and force Israel to accept a two-state solution without any pre-condition, after all, Israel only exists because of American military and financial aid.
- We must fight in other ways. Economics has exasperated the extremist influence, and economics can defeat it. Economic growth ended dictatorships in South America and South-East Asia.
- We can invest in the grass roots of society, training individuals not just in specific trades but in the ways to build a peaceful, democratic and civil society. The annual cost of keeping the US army in Afghanistan has been $100bn per year. Imagine if half that amount had been used to create a peaceful, prosperous democracy. The costs of the War on Terror have now surpassed $4.7 Trillion and that is the US alone and excludes externalities, the erosion of civil liberties and the money spent on internal security. Just a fraction of this money could have provided schools, universities, hospitals, factories and an infrastructure to support desperate people across the whole of the Middle East and North Africa. It could have acted as more than a catalyst towards peaceful, democratic change; it would have transformed the region in ways that would have side-lined extremism in its entirety and benefited the US economy as well as increasing the influence of the United States in those countries.
Barack Obama once wrote of the Audacity of Hope. The catalyst of hope is opportunity. If we can help finance the flight from poverty, the strongest magnet of extremism will have been nullified. Financial investment that facilitates self-sufficiency will produce spectacular returns. It will cease the incessant flight from poverty, a demand for Western exports and, crucially, breed healthy cynicism in the face of preachers of hate.
Peace and prosperity will enhance our safety, wherever we are. They will annul the allure of extremism and as people cease to run from violence and poverty the emigration crisis will disappear. That’s the potential of Western involvement and investment.
The alternative is to allow regional players to continue to dominate the region through investment in and the aggressive promotion of Islamism is an appealing message for the many young, disenfranchised people in the region and beyond. Islamism simply fills a void that is so clearly avoidable.
There is no other way to defeat the cancer of Islamic Extremism. After all, if it tastes bad, it must be good for you. The old adage of a “Taste of one’s Medicine” is very relevant here. The origin of the adage is a tale where a cheat sells a medicine that does nothing, then gets sick and people give him his own medicine. This will not be an easy win nor a quick one. Islamism is well-funded, well-organized and well-represented. We must recognize its power and potential, and we must put in place long-term plans to neutralize its appeal.
Eighty years ago, in Germany, Adolf Hitler was taking advantage of economic failure to develop and export an ideology based on racial superiority. The parallels between Islamism and Nazism are stark. We cannot ignore the lessons of history by tolerating terror until it is too late.
Both are expansionist and focused on the building of vast empires. Both believe those territories to be rightfully theirs. Both desire the extermination of opponents and those who do not share their narrow and twisted ideologies.
In Islamic history, jihad as an international violent phenomenon had disappeared in the last 400 years, for all practical purposes. It was only revived with American help in the 1980s. When the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, Zia ul-Haq, the [U.S.-backed] military dictator of Pakistan, which borders on Afghanistan, saw an opportunity and launched a jihad there against godless communism. The U.S. saw a God-sent opportunity to mobilize one billion Muslims against what Reagan called the 'Evil Empire.' – What a mistake.
If we truly want to end the abominable acts of violence perpetrated by extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaida, we should take to heart the simple yet profound counsel of Noam Chomsky, a modern-day Cassandra: "Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it."