Pathology of Islamic extremism—political, economic, social

Dhaka,  Fri,  21 July 2017
Published : 12 Jun 2017, 19:42:14
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Pathology of Islamic extremism—political, economic, social

Without the Soviet Union as its prime enemy, the United States could not but elevate Islam as a challenger, against an environment independently labelled on the intellectual front as representing 'a clash of civilisations', writes  Imtiaz A. Hussain in the first of a six-part series assessing the origins, on-goings, and outcomes of Islamic extremism
With the Manchester and London terror incidents reaffirming Islamic extremism to be far from exhausted, it is perhaps time to rethink the nature of the beast since, apparently, proper prescriptions still remain evasive. Islamic extremism is being used in this series to refer only to unlawful attacks on innocent human beings, oftentimes through barbaric, beastly means, in the name of Allah. A murder can also do the same; but what distinguishes murder from terror is the latter's larger targeted group, the indiscriminate intent, and an evil social message.

From the most dramatic of these Islamic terror attacks, 9/11, the dominant prescriptive mode has been to go and bomb a few neighbourhoods in one Muslim country or another, or kill the terrorist point-blank as punishment, often out of fear. Oftentimes, the target is correctly identified, as was the case of Osama bin-Laden in Tora Bora in late 2001, though, as bombings in Syria constantly reveal, collateral damages include innocent civilian casualties. Though bin-Laden narrowly escaped then, the organisation he led has both diversified its membership ever since and been supplanted by even more treacherous groups, such as those representing Islamic State (IS). Whether they are locked and lost in Afghani mountains, Mosul's labyrinthine downtown, or the deserts around Raqqa gets to the heart of the prescription problem: they represent birds of too many different nationalistic feathers to easily be eliminated by air-force retaliation or a military battle-cry.

Political, economic, and social viewpoints have increasingly demanded attention, symbolising the increasingly missing message. This 6-part series is driven partly by that thought: increasing metropolitans and societies face a Damoclean future with too many innocent lives being lost to an ecliptical enemy in whose name the virtues of Islam get soiled with every new incident. To not step up and stop this rot becomes a duty dereliction. 

Accordingly, the series will address, in the following order, what seem to be the self-evident, yet curiously neglected, springboards of the malaise: the political, economic, and social sources of Islamic extremism as we know it today, that is, in the post-Cold War era, each in one complete article (the 'political' in two), followed by a "where do we go from here" conclusion.

The adjective 'increasing' was used multiple times in the last paragraphs deliberately: to simply reiterate how the well-known springboards are not mysteries to anyone familiar with the Islamic battlefronts, indeed the need to respond to their continued neglect, which complicates and compromises much more of our stable future than it should, grows in urgency.

Going back to just 9/11 suffices to capture the missing variables, but spreading the net farther backwards to encompass at least the consequences of four other overlapping developments helps capture the full picture better: the Khomeini revolution; Soviet Union's Afghanistan invasion; the Iran-Iraq war loosening whatever intra-Arab stability that existed; and the Cold War evaporation elevating democracy as a Middle East wedge.

The first was the dramatic collapse of the millennia-old Persian monarchy in January 1979. It was not just the fall of Mohammad Reza Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty, reinstalled as he was by an Anglo-American coup in 1953 and secured ever since by the United States, but a tenure during which landowners were evicted through the White Revolution during the 1960s, skirts were institutionalised in place of the traditional 'chador' for Muslim women, and opposition was quashed with as much facility as, in contrast to today, the absence of a global democracy advocate (the United States was then a big fan of dictators). The weapon was as simple as cassette messages, circulated no less from as far away as Paris. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was not just a victim of that White Revolution, but his message completely took Iran back to traditional times: bars were closed, western styles and artifacts were draped, burqa-clad women reappeared, and civilian government yielded to theocratic leaders. Dubbing the United States the 'Great Satan', a scriptural reference, he (a) broke one authoritarian pillar of the U.S. Cold War security regime; and (b) mobilised the only people across the entire Middle East to loudly chant 'Great Satan' as a slogan without fear of their own authoritarian leaders gunning them down.

Amid this remarkable rupture, needless to say, opportunistic Soviet Union decided to apply the hitherto European Brezhnev Doctrine into Afghanistan. Proclaiming any local problem faced by a communist movement to be a general problem in the communist world, the doctrine, and Afghanistan's invasion, created other U.S. paradigms. Mobilising Islamic jihadists for counter-offensive purposes, under U.S. training, Pakistani platforms, and Saudi support was critical to them all. One off-shoot was the Taliban of 9/11 infamy; and as it drove into Kabul, the accidental alignment with Osama bin-Laden's al-Qaeda pointed directly at a third pre-9/11 event of importance.

It was the meeting of minds of Arab leaders, led by Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and the United States, not as much as to confront Soviet expansion (Saddam's Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party was close to the Soviet Union), but against Khomeini's Iran. Although the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s sprang for a number of other reasons, Arab support, buoyed by U.S. assistance, helped Saddam contain Iran's Islamic fundamentalism. Yet, it was this very alliance, especially the stationing of U.S. troops in Islam's holiest lands, within Saudi Arabia, that irked bin-Laden badly. As a footnote, Donald J. Trump's recent Saudi visit confirmed Iran to still be the U.S. nemesis.

Without any planning and relying largely on circumstantial twists, Khomeini's 'Great Satan' characterisation was globalised, not by Iranians or Shi'ites, but by Sunni extreme factions fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Once the Soviet Union evaporated and Soviet troops left Afghanistan, it was simply a hop-skip-and-jump for these extremists to target the United States. Not only did the seeds of Islamic extremism and jihadi movements sown in the 1980s begin to sprout far and wide, but since circumstances were proving to be more than a hand-maiden, one more twist elevated them into prominence as the gravest post-Soviet U.S. threat, ready to pounce on any or all other western countries.

That fourth and final event just turned out to be the passage of the Cold War rivalry and the emergence of a 'New World Order' U.S. mandate, meant to corral dictators. Without the Soviet Union as its prime enemy, the United States could not but elevate Islam as a challenger, against an environment independently labelled on the intellectual front as representing 'a clash of civilisations'. When Saddam went a step too far through his 1990 Kuwaiti invasion, the United States found an opening to start democratising those very Muslim dictators it badly needed during the war. In turn, galvanised jihadi movements gravitated into Iraq as seductively as bees to a hive. Whetted by experiences inside Iraq (ISIL: Islamic State of Iraq and Lebanon), Afghanistan (al-Qaeda, Taleban), and elsewhere, Islamic extremism arose as the most unpredictable U.S. threat steadily from the 1990s.

How this happened unravels in the next four pieces in this series, leaving for the fifth to rethink a policy response. Suffice to say extremist leadership was already shifting downwards from the top, and laterally through transnational affiliations at the societal level to indicate the gathering storm. Like 9/11, a few more fuses dotted the landscape, but the growth at the extremist-base, and the sharpening social divisions this entailed, exposed a number of long-neglected features of enormous and increasing consequences. Profiling them next continues this discussion.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd
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