Why Radical Islam is Growing and How to Deal with It
Tue 4th Jun 2013
After the 9/11 tragedy and the response that followed, there has been a surge in the radical Islamist movement and its threats have become more potent than before. The rise of this movement is hardly puzzling given that it emerged in Muslim vs. Non Muslim conflicts that reigned in the 1940s. While this movement became well known in the 80s, ‘globalised Jihadism’, as it is known in its contemporary form, has existed for little more than a decade and only emerged after the 9/11 attacks.
Popular explanation for this phenomenon is that the values espoused by Islam and the spread of the Wahhabi movement are the foundations of radical Islam. Indeed, the radical movement is a product of national and international politics facilitated by transnational conspiracies. In an Op-ed, Paul Berman rightly contends that radical Islamism is not a heap of medieval prejudices; it draws inspirations from the totalitarian regimes of 20th-century Europe and its sundry versions from local and religious roots.
From its local roots, radical Islamism is partly a creation of the class war that exists in many Western states. Mohammed Kattib in the globalization of jihad; writes that - “North African immigrants felt trapped in the lower levels of French society. They felt left out of the French mainstream and denied its opportunities. This feeling and the conditions of poverty in which they live fuelled their hatred of the French state and the symbols of its wealth. The extremists were able to exploit this situation and transform it into a conflict between Muslims and Europeans, even though it was entirely devoid of any religious overtones or context”.
Explaining its roots in the politics of the 20thcentury, Bernard Lewis in the roots of Muslim rage, explains that “following the collapse of the Nazi regime which had initially sparked a mood of anti-Americanism, another philosophy, even more anti-American, took its place—the Soviet version of Marxism, with a denunciation of Western capitalism and of America as its most advanced and dangerous embodiment”.
While the Marxist philosophy and many imported ideological sentiments did provide expression for the anti-Western and anti American movement, Lewis notes that they did not cause the rejection of the West by Muslims in Islamic states. Indeed, Western philosophies had been nowhere more accepted than in the Muslim world.
One of the driving forces of the radical movement and of hostility towards the West is America’s support for the state of Israel – which more often than not contradicts the principles of international law. To the radical movement, this flagrant support for Israel, seen as their ‘oppressor’, has undermined the authority and integrity of the United States because such support is seen as unjust and thus justifies the need to work against the peace and interests of the United States and its allies. Yet, all this does not sufficiently explain the roots of the Jihadist movement. Thomas Hegghamer in his seminal work explains that the source of global jihad can be traced to the transnational war and the conspiracies that took place in the 70s which sparked the surge of volunteering that gave birth to the pan-Islamic identity movement.
Hegghamer notes that elite international Islamic organisations and Muslim regimes seeking political relevance propagated an alarmist discourse about external threats to the Muslim nation and established a global network of Islamic charities. This "soft" pan-Islamic idea enabled Arabs to invest in the Afghan war in the 80s for the recruitment of fighters in the name of inter-Muslim solidarity. The Arab-Afghan mobilization in turn produced a movement of foreign fighters and Mujaheedin who still exists today.
“This explains why a majority of al-Qaida operatives began their militant careers as war volunteers, and most transnational jihadists today are by-products of foreign mobilizations”. The 9/11 attack and the response of the West through the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture and illegal detention of suspects in Guantanamo Bay and the drone strikes against ‘America’s enemies’ have also sparked a revival of the extremist movement who perceive that the west is waging a war against their religion, culture and interests. Some of these radicals and many Muslims in war torn areas allege that their territories are occupied, their children are killed, their men are illegally detained, their women are raped and their mosques are desecrated while their resources are taken away.
All this is happening at a time that the mood of anti -Western sentiment has reached new heights – not only by aggrieved Muslims but equally by other regimes and cultures from around the world. It is in the wake of 9/11 and the response of the West that jihadists have found a new voice through the revivalist movement in the form of global jihad to express their hatred for the domination and aggression of the West.
In its new form, radical Islamist movements have become a global phenomenon whose threat is no more limited to the West. A group called the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) has emerged representing interests from jihadist groups in West African states. In North Africa, a group called AQIM is increasing its threat level and al-Qaida is becoming sophisticated in its operations in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.
While al-Qaida may have been quashed and destabilised, its existential threats are as potent as before; the group and other radical movement may use more sophisticated methods like chemical weapons in their next operations which may be a major attack. The movement aided by their accomplices may someday hijack nuclear facilities in a way that no Western security or defence apparatus can calculate. They may wage a cyber war by compromising the security of the global web and may fight the war of intellect by disrupting communication infrastructure which has many lives tied to it.
There is a need for a change of approach to curb the continuous threat of this movement and the solution must start from the West. It will require the United States to denounce any act of terrorism no matter who commits it - whether the Palestinians or Israel. In the new approach, the US must be impartial in the Israeli/Palestine affair and should show its support for the creation of a two state solution. The policies of the US must be even-handed and must do away with the notion of ‘Israeli Exceptionalism’, and America must promote the moral and democratic value of equality by ensuring that what is good for Israel is also good for the people of Palestine.
President Obama’s recent proposal to close Guantanamo Bay and be more selective in the use of drone strikes is a welcome idea but the change of approach must not stop there.
The US must embrace a more transparent and strategic approach and must eliminate all forms of ruthlessness and aggression.The drone strikes and the Guantanamo experiment may have shown positive results but there is no evidence that such results can be sustained for a long time. Drones can kill the terrorists and erase their camps but cannot eliminate the motivation and ideology that breeds extremism and radicalism.
America and the West will also have to do more careful listening to the voices of moderate Muslims whose brand and philosophy of Islam preach peace and unity - not to the voices of the far right and hard-line Islamophobic experts and militant movements who claim to represent the voice of moderation and expertise. As is equally needed in Europe, the American government will have to tone down the voice of far right extremist groups whose actions could trigger a new war at home and abroad.
European countries like France and the UK should review their foreign policies and, more importantly, their approach to counterterrorism. Terrorists and members of the radical movement have continued to point to the foreign policy of Europe and America as basis to justify their acts – and a review of such policy will help to eliminate the jihadist’s ‘noble desire for justice’ and their base hunger for vengeance which feeds the continuous acts of aggression.
In the wake of the murder of a British soldier in London, the British Home Secretary Theresa May proposed the snooper’s charter as a control measure to reduce the activities of extreme Islamists on the internet and on the streets of the UK by banning the preaching of hate. This type of kneejerk response to existential threats posed by jihadists will not succeed because the phenomenon of global jihad is a product of hard-line ideological sentiments and the best antidote is to tell counter narratives and wage a response through acts of diplomacy and intelligence.
Western governments including the United States, UK and France must limit their support for rebels in Syria. The rebels in Syria are awash with weapons and the continuous proliferation of weapons aided by any support from the West will not serve the best interest of Syrians and of the West in the long term. Bashir Al-Assad may be responsible for crimes against humanity but the West should steer clear of aggression and follow a path to peace instead.
Essentially, attending to the issue of class war which exists in the form of social cleavages, racial tensions and hostility to immigrant communities in Europe will help to give less justification to acts of extremism and violence by citizens who feel aggrieved with the establishment.
Countries with emerging jihadist threats should also be careful in their use of force. Recently, the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in towns and suburbs where the extremist Boko Haram group operates. In the crackdown the state military is fighting the Boko Haram movement with heavy force but such approach can hardly win the war. Lessons should be learnt from the Iraq and Afghanistan incursions or from the internal strife caused by popular revolutionary armed groups and rebels in countries like of Mexico, Columbia and the Congo. These countries have waged military wars on local rebel and extremist groups but decades on the groups are still mounting huge resistance and regrouping with bigger force.
In curbing the continuing threats posed by the radical jihadist movement, the rhetorical voice of ‘war against terrorism’ must be met with public diplomacy. Britain has fought many wars, such as in Ireland and Malaysia, and in each case, the terminology of ‘emergency’ has been preferred to ‘war’ because the use of emergency when used in its proper sense provides scope for the armed forces and other apparatus of state security to operate within a peacetime framework of civilian authority – which allows for minimal force to be used in a way that civilian society is not disturbed.
Of particular essence is the need for states with radicalist threats to build bridges with moderate Islam as the understanding and experience gained from such cooperation can be used to precede other forms of international diplomacy as relates to the rising tide of global jihad.
The West must also start to engage with different ideological movements to understand their needs and motivation and must stop its top down imposition of democratic values on states whose culture it does not understand. Instead, a bottom-up approach supporting civil society and promoting stable economic and political institutions might work.