By Akbar Ahmed
In the past several weeks President Donald Trump has ordered major military strikes in the Muslim world. Amidst an intensifying campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Trump bombed a Syrian army base in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons, and in eastern Afghanistan dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in the American arsenal against ISIS targets. These followed other significant operations in Muslim countries such as the January Navy Seal raid in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of up to 30 civilians and a Navy Seal and a strike in Mosul that killed up to 200 people-the Washington Post described it as "potentially one of the worst U.S.-led civilian bombings in 25 years." The ongoing armed drone campaign continues in places like Pakistan and Yemen and Trump has deployed US regular troops to Somalia for the first time since 1994 to support operations against Al Shabab.
In taking these steps, Trump has indicated he is escalating the US "war on terror" that has raged globally since 9/11. The problem is that US actions since 2001 have only exacerbated the levels of violence in Muslim societies. Only by understanding what has gone wrong and how to resolve it will Trump be able to succeed in his goal of wiping ISIS and similar groups "off the face of the earth."
In my 2013 book The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, I analyzed the war on terror, which I found to be centered on tribal societies in the Muslim world that often exist at the periphery of central states. People in these societies are organized into tribes and clans tracing descent from common ancestors, are governed by councils of male elders, and live according to a code of honor that includes hospitality and revenge. On many issues such as the rights of women, tribal customs frequently trump Islamic teachings. The tribes live in often inaccessible areas like mountains and deserts at the interstices between states and highly value their independence and preserving their traditional way of life. I examined 40 such societies in the book including the Yemenis, Somalis, Kurds, Berbers in places like Algeria and Morocco, and, in Pakistan, the Pukhtun and Baloch.
For decades and sometimes centuries these tribes have been engaged in battles against the encroachment of the centralized state, which seeks to control them. Central states have widely treated tribal societies brutally, seen them as second-class citizens, and often denied them their cultural and linguistic rights.
After 9/11, the US and its allies identified terrorists living in these very communities and allied with central governments in order to target and destroy them. Too often, however, central governments used the pretext of the war on terror and the substantial levels of military and financial assistance they were receiving from the US to settle scores with the tribes, which they often viewed as uncivilized and backward.
Into this morass stepped the US, particularly with the weapon that symbolized its involvement in the war on terror-the drone. This tool of modern warfare could strike from the sky and instantly kill tribesmen who were often retroactively described as terrorists, but our research and collection of testimony from people from these societies confirmed that many of those killed were innocent civilians.
Tribesmen say, "every day is like 9/11 for us." One day they are attacked by their own central government, the next by militants from within their own tribes, and the next by the US through weapons like the drone.
While the drone is the symbol of the modern warfare employed by the US, I used the symbol of the thistle to represent tribal societies. The reference came from Leo Tolstoy's novel Hadji Murad, where he compares the Muslim tribes in the Caucasus fighting to preserve their independence against Russia to the thistle, which can prick the person trying to pick it.
The current state of these Muslim tribal societies is tragically one of constant violence and conflict. The chaos has created a vacuum that has been filled by militant groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Boko Haram. These groups have systematically and savagely targeted the old pillars of authority- tribal leaders, imams, and central government representatives and offices; nothing is sacred---neither schools nor shrines. In the book, I analyzed the actions of the militant groups, who claim to speak for Islam but instead are expressing a mutated version of tribal culture, particularly the code of revenge, under which they justify many of their acts.
President Trump must learn from what has gone wrong. First of all, he must resolve his ignorant view of Islam that reduced Muslims to enemies, which was seen in his stated desire to ban all Muslims from the US. Then he must understand the relationship and differences between center and periphery in the Muslim world and how tribal societies function. He must use weaponry with full cognizance of the consequences, namely the danger of triggering the mutated code of revenge which only leads to more death and killings. Central governments must treat tribal peoples with respect and dignity and give them their full rights. Without these steps the cycle of violence will continue.
Akbar Ahmed is an author, poet, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland.