By Fareed Zakaria
Sep. 08, 2014
Watching the gruesome execution videos by ISIS, I felt some of the same emotions I did after 9/11. Barbarism is designed to provoke anger and it succeeded. But in September 2001, it also made me ask a question, “Why Do They Hate Us?” I tried to answer that question in an almost 7,000-word essay for Newsweek that struck a chord with readers. I reread the essay, to see what I got right and wrong, and what I’ve learned in the last 13 years.
First, it’s not just Al-Qaeda. I began by noting that Islamist terror is not the isolated behaviour of a handful of nihilists. There is a broader culture that has been complicit, or at least unwilling to combat it. Things have changed on his front but not nearly enough.
Second, it’s not an Islam problem but an Arab problem. In the early 2000s, Indonesia was America’s biggest concern because of a series of terror attacks there after 9/11. But over the last decade, jihad and even Islamist fundamentalism have not done well in Indonesia – the largest Muslim country in the world, larger than Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and the Gulf states put together. Or look at India, which is right next door to Ayman al-Zawahri’s headquarters. Very few of its 165 million Muslims are members of Al-Qaeda. Zawahiri has announced a bold effort to recruit Indian Muslims, but I suspect it will fail.
Third, one must look at Arab political decay. The central point of the essay was that the reason the Arab world produces fanaticism and jihad is political stagnation. By 2001, almost every part of the world had seen significant political progress – Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, even Africa had held many free and fair elections. But the Arab world remained a desert. In 2001, most Arabs had fewer freedoms than they did in 1951.
The one aspect of life that Arab dictators could not ban was religion, so Islam had become the language of political opposition. As the Westernized, secular dictatorships of the Arab world failed – politically, economically and socially – the fundamentalists told the people, “ Islam is the solution.”
The Arab world was left with dictatorships on the one hand and deeply illiberal opposition groups on the other – Hosni Mubarak or Al-Qaeda. The more extreme the regime, the more violent was the opposition. This cancer was deeper and more destructive than I realized. Despite the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and despite the Arab Spring, this dynamic between dictators and jihadists has not been broken.
Look at Syria, where until recently; Bashar Assad was actually helping ISIS by buying oil and gas from it and by shelling its opponents, the Free Syrian Army, when the two were in battle against each other. Assad was playing the old dictator’s game, giving his people a stark choice – it’s either me or ISIS. And many Syrians (the Christian minority, for example) have chosen him.
The greatest setback has been in Egypt, where a nonviolent Islamist movement took power and squandered its chance by overreaching. But not content to let the Muslim Brotherhood fail at the polls, the army displaced it by force and moved back into power. Egypt is now a more brutal police state than it was under Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned, its members killed and jailed, the rest driven underground. Let’s hope that 10 years from now, we do not find ourselves discussing the causes of the rise of an ISIS in Egypt.
What did I miss in that essay 13 years ago? The fragility of these countries. I didn’t recognize that if the dictatorships faltered, the state could collapse, that beneath the state there was no civil society, and in fact, no real nation. Once chaos reigned across the Middle East, people reached not for their national identities – Iraqi, Syrian – but for much older ones – Shiite, Sunni, Kurd and Arab.
I should have paid greater attention to my mentor in graduate school, Samuel Huntington, who once famously explained that Americans never recognized that in the developing world, the key is not the kind of government – communist, capitalist, democratic, dictatorial – but the degree of government. That absence of government is what we are watching these days, from Libya to Iraq to Syria.
In a previous column, I reported incorrectly that 70 percent of Iraq’s battalion commanders were replaced during the 2007 surge of U.S. forces in Iraq. According to the former administration official quoted in the column, 70 percent of the commanders of Iraq’s police commando battalions were replaced, not of those in the army overall.
Fareed Zakaria is published weekly by THE DAILY STAR.