By Manuel Almeida
19 October 2014
The tens of thousands of jihadists and would-be-jihadists that have flocked to Syria, coupled with the rise of ISIS, have placed the public debate about radicalism on the spotlight. This is the case in Western countries worrying about returning jihadists, but also inevitably in Arab countries where discussions about militant Jihadism alternate with broader debates on possibly the worst crisis the region has faced in everyone's living memory. In the same way that the question "why do they hate us" marked the debate in the U.S.-post 9/11, the plainer question why do they hate seems to be marking the debate everywhere.
The most common answer I have come across points the finger to the main geographical source of the problem, the Sunni communities of the Arab world. After all being a Sunni is generally a requisite to join ISIS or other jihadist groups. Radicalism has taken over much of the Sunni armed rebellion against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and a sizeable chunk of the disgruntled Sunni minority in Iraq has either joined or sided with ISIS. It has been forgotten that Iraqi Sunnis, starting in Anbar province, fought al-Qaeda successfully and then were abandoned by the U.S and the sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki.
It is obvious that Sunni communities face a radicalism problem. Some influential mosque and online preachers keep encouraging young and susceptible people to commit to a distorted version of jihad. Wealthy and non-wealthy individuals and groups around the world continue to provide funds for the likes of ISIS. The very closed and conservative nature of much of the region’s Sunni majority states, societies, and education systems, often so difficult for outsiders to grasp, also plays a role. So do repression, intolerance, sectarianism, and youth unemployment.
A lot remains to be done to tackle radicalism within Sunni communities. The issue has been at least partially acknowledged in the Arab world, with a few pockets still in denial or in the process of reckoning. Yet to place the blame entirely on a sort of malaise generated by Sunni Arabs alone is to overlook many other important drivers of radicalism.
The lessons of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union that gave rise to a new generation of militant transnational jihadists continue to be overlooked. Turkey, like Qatar a new player to the “game’’ of using Jihadism as a tool of foreign policy, has considerably misplayed its hand in Syria. In its eagerness to get rid of Assad, it opened the way for jihadists to flow into Syria, thus helping to prop up the radicals that joined ISIS and undermined the influence of the moderate opposition.
Keeping Radicalism Alive
Iran and Israel, the two arch-enemies who constantly grumble about the threat of Sunni radicalism, have done plenty to keep it alive. Prominent Iranian leaders such as former president Mohammed Khatami may well boast about the dialogue between civilizations and cultures, but Iran continues to pursue an overtly aggressive foreign policy. The aim of cultivating proxy Shiite militias across the region, that in some cases (Lebanon, Iraq) have outgrown national armies, only reinforces radical and sectarian tendencies. It also undermines the already fragile sovereignty of various Arab states. The massacres of Sunni civilians in Iraq at the hands of these Shiite militias, a common practice during Maliki's reign, are ongoing.
Iranian attempts to uphold Assad's regime, no matter the human and material cost, is the best terrorist recruitment tool. Iran's disregard for the nefarious consequences of steering radicalism even leads it to back Sunni groups such as Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Israel has undercut every U.S. attempt to help secure a peace deal with the Palestinians and opposes the idea of Palestinian statehood, while it presses forward with settlement building. Israel’s intransigence has given the various radical groups in Gaza a reason for being. More often ignored is that Abdullah Azzam, Osama Bin Laden’s mentor, was Palestinian, or that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of ISIS's predecessor al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, grew up in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan.
Then with great power comes great irresponsibility. In its inglorious efforts to return Russia to an imagined splendour of the Cold War era, Vladimir Putin has buoyed Assad, who has used all means at his disposal to burn Syria to the ground to remain in power. These means include killing civilians with chemical weapons and releasing hundreds of jihadists from Syria's prisons so he can claim to be the moderate.
Unfortunately the U.S. has in some occasions given continuity to the dark era of European imperialism in the region, most notably in Iraq. This feeds into the idea, cherished by radicals and none-radicals, that the main factor behind the crisis of the Arab world is foreign interference. Successive U.S. governments have been unwilling or unable to get Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians and recognize Palestinian statehood. The U.S. has also repeatedly failed to seize the opportunity to normalize ties with the Iranians, greatly contributing to strengthen the hard-line factions within Iran.
As the anti-ISIS coalition contemplates how to shift away Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders' support for ISIS and the world worries about returning jihadists, it is about time for a collective recognition of responsibility for the region's radicalization problem. This could be the first step to a drastic change of course.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant focusing on the Middle East and emerging markets. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science, and is the former editor of the English edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.