By Harlan Ullman
January 22, 2015
While it can be argued that economic desolation is not the root cause of religious extremism, clearly it plays into the hands of those attempting to manipulate others to support a particular cause
Are we, meaning the billions of citizens on earth today, faced with an enduring war in and with Islam and Islamists? Or have seemingly exploding and spreading conflicts in what has been properly called the crescent of crisis, extending from the Bay of Bengal in the east to the Levant and Mediterranean in the west, become a temporal phenomenon that in due course will topple of its own weight? The answers to these questions obviously will have profound consequences on the future geostrategic landscape.
The emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda, the Islamist State (IS) and other Islamist groups has put these questions into sharp perspective. The persistence of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with Saudi Arabia’s support and export of Wahhabism, have made the issue of violent extremism of vital importance. The attacks of September 11 and the US’s intervention first into Afghanistan and then Iraq conspired to accelerate the forces and influence of violent Islamist extremism. While the ghastly events in Paris earlier this month provoked oceans of condemnation, the long arm of this perversion of Islam shows that this struggle is far from over.
In one sense, little of this is really new. As Lenin crisply observed, “The purpose of terror is to terrorise.” Religion, terror and violence have interacted, sadly, for millennia. The history of religion-inspired wars is well known, preceding by centuries the deaths of Christ and 600 years later of Mohammed (PBUH). Similarly, the spread of Islam after 632 AD and its dominance of much of the known world for 800 years are well recorded. One defining difference, however, is that, unlike Christianity, Islam has never undergone a reformation.
Put another way, the nuclear division between Sunni and Shia denominations following Mohammed’s (PBUH) death might have made future reform impossible, unlike Martin Luther’s schism with Catholicism in the early 16th century. That Islam is practiced in many different ways also makes reform elusive. A further and perhaps immovable obstacle is how the Quran has been adapted or twisted to fit many different versions of Sharia law.
The Quran does mention punishments for blasphemy. Over centuries, however, Sharia law was used to impose strict political control and to counter opposition under many guises. Hence, Saudi law still imposes harsh punishments from beheading to the lash. The Afghan Taliban’s Sharia law outlawed kite flying as an abomination against Islam. Reversing or changing the interpretation of Sharia law into a single, approved code could prove as difficult as King Canute’s attempts to turn back the tides.
What has turned Islamists into such dangerous and vicious adversaries fundamentally arises from the combination of failed and failing government and economic disadvantage at a time when diffusion of power and globalisation have empowered people and groups at the expense of states. One result has been the fuelling of deprivation and frustration whether for reasons of dignity, equality, access or empowerment. While it can be argued that economic desolation is not the root cause of religious extremism, clearly it plays into the hands of those attempting to manipulate others to support a particular cause.
The tragic case of the impoverished Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire in desperation is overwhelmed by many more who have become suicide bombers. The prospect of an eternity in heaven for martyrdom provides an outlet and excuse to perpetuate the most extreme aspects of violence. And the excruciating dilemma of how non-Muslim states and publics can deal effectively with Islam without provoking and producing a countering backlash has yet to be resolved. Answers could rest in linking NATO, the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) including its observers (that include India, Iran and Pakistan) to complement the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the World Muslim League. Nigeria, Indonesia and Iraq, with large Muslim populations, must also participate. The purpose would be to address the fundamental causes of radicalism to develop solutions to be implemented within and outside the world of Islam.
Discouraging the formation of a new, separate body is easy. Who wants another international organisation? The potentially un-resolvable religious, strategic, ideological and economic interests and differences among potential members — Iran and Saudi Arabia, and India and Pakistan are prime examples — could be self-defeating.
But unless or until strong coordinated action follows, the clash of violent Islamists with modernity and civilisation will continue. Given the internet and the power to persuade and disrupt via it, do not expect any real solutions anytime soon. To quote a past US defence secretary, this will be a long, hard slog.
Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and senior advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council. His latest book, due out this fall, is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of an Archduke a Century Ago Still Menaces Peace Today