By Ziauddin Choudhury
February 7, 2015
There are at least four hostilities that are currently ongoing in different parts of the globe, waged by militants in the name of Islam – in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, and Nigeria. In two of these areas – Syria and Nigeria – the militants have seized control over a sizeable territory and established their own rebel governments; in the other two, the groups do not have a defined territory of their own but have acquired sufficient power to fend off authorities who are in legal control of the countries they are fighting within.
And then there are armed groups in several other Muslim countries who wage war from time to time to make their mark in the causes they believe in. For the uninitiated, it would appear there is a common goal among these geographically-dispersed groups of launching a worldwide Islamist movement through militancy, and an Islamist government where possible. In reality, it is not.
For starters, the militants who are currently waging a war in Syria and have been able to seize territories in civil war-torn Syria and Iraq calling it Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have no affiliation with the militants fighting in three other countries.
The ISIS militants are Sunni Muslims who would chop off the heads of Shia Muslims as happily as of non-Muslims who they say they are fighting. In Pakistan, the holy wars are waged by the Taliban, officially called Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TTP), mostly concentrated in the northwest territory of Pakistan.
TTP Talibans are no closer to ISIS militants in character and strategy than the countries they operate from. The group in Yemen technically is an off-shoot of al-Qaeda, the militants purportedly behind the terror attacks in different parts of world (including Europe and USA), who so long seemed to be more interested in harassing governments and countries they are opposed to than in establishing a government of their own. The militants who stand out most in atrocities, nefariousness, and ferocity operate under the name of Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Despite their geographic dispersion and apparent diversity in background and character, there are two common factors that cast them in unity. The first is their stated goal of establishing Islamic governments and society, starting with the host countries and then in others.
The second is Sunni affiliation of all four militant groups that are patently hostile to the Shias. Irrespective of these common characteristics, each group has adopted different strategies and tactics to achieve their goals. The rub lies in the difference in each group’s interpretation of Islam and Sharia laws.
ISIS, which has officially declared itself to be a state, has named the territory it occupies as the new caliphate and its commander as the caliph. It has demanded that all Muslim countries accept the suzerainty of the caliphate and pay obedience to it.
It has also declared a war against governments that are opposed to it, including Syria and Iraq, and of course those countries which are deemed by it as enemies of Islam. Strangely, but not illogically, it is also opposed to Shiite Islam, because in their version of Islam only Sunnis are the pure followers of the religion.
Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan is an umbrella organisation of militants whose stated objectives are to change the Pakistani state into an Islamic state based on their harsh and rigid interpretation of Sharia laws. It fights its war with volunteers drawn from the local seminaries and arms and ammunitions that the group has been able muster locally from war booties.
TTP is mostly an insurgency that operates within Pakistan territory without global ambitions like ISIS, but it has expressed its sympathy and support whenever a militant group attacked western interests. Like ISIS, the group and its leadership entirely consist of Sunni Muslims who do not consider Shias to be part of the Islamic brotherhood.
Boko Haram (literally meaning Western education is forbidden) was founded as a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist sect advocating a strict form of Sharia Law and developed into a Salafist-Jihadi group in 2009, influenced by the Wahhabi movement. Boko Haram seeks the establishment of an Islamic state in Nigeria.
It opposes the Westernisation of Nigerian society and the concentration of the wealth of the country among members of a small political elite, mainly in the Christian south of the country.
Al-Qaeda, which began as a radical Islamist movement in the last two decades springing from the Middle East, probably had the biggest influence in the growth and development of similar radical movements in many Muslim and non-Muslim countries.
The movement believes that to restore Islam, a frontline movement is needed to establish “true” Islamic states based on Sharia and rid the Muslim world of non-Muslim influences. Despite being the parent radical Islamist group, al-Qaeda is currently fractured and the factions operate in different countries under local leadership such as Yemen, Egypt, and Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, although the current Islamist wars are conducted by disparate groups with no apparent coordination or an overarching objective, to the outsiders, including the overwhelming majority of Muslims, the radical wars are viewed under one umbrella – radical Islam.
And there are good reasons for this broad brush treatment. One, to this day, the Muslim countries have not unified to counter this image with any meaningful effort. Two, Muslim societies have not addressed the issue of radicalism among their youth seriously. Three, Muslim countries have failed to address sectarian and religious rifts in societies, often stirring them instead of preventing.
These failures have happened because most Muslim countries have governments that pay lip service to democracy, do not have transparency in governance, and lack rule of law. Absent any opportunity to participate in the governance process or elect people of their choice, people turn to radical measures to change their societies. In religion, they find an easier way to show their defiance, because they could then justify their actions as legitimate holy war to establish the rule of God.
It is not too late to turn the tide. For the immediate future, the Muslim countries need to unite to bring down the warring militants starting with Syria. For the longer term the Muslim countries need to bring all their citizens within the government process with rights for all including rights of free speech, rights of movement, and rights to justice, irrespective of religious or sectarian affiliation.
Governments need to educate their youth through curriculum and training true teachings of religion, tolerance, and mutual respect. Results may not appear right away, but a start is better than none at all.
Ziauddin Choudhury is a political analyst and commentator.