Unintended Consequences | The Nation


Unintended Consequences

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Much of the American political class remains obsessed with Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Yet even with the Administration's gift of the invasion of Iraq and the terrorism it has helped generate, it is not clear how much ground, if any, bin Ladenism has gained in the region since 9/11. How serious is the threat today?

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: Political Islam remains important, but radical fundamentalism devoted to terrorism against the US is widely in decline, with the single exception of US-dominated Iraq. One must distinguish Muslim political parties like Dawa in Iraq or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which will peacefully contest elections, from radical Sunni fundamentalist groups like Al Qaeda or Algeria's Armed Islamic Group. The fundamentalist movements that aimed at violently seizing power were strongest in the 1990s in Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Gaza, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Everywhere they have been largely defeated. The Algerian civil war of the 1990s left the secular-leaning government victorious over the Armed Islamic Group. The Mubarak regime in Egypt jailed some 30,000 radicals and killed 1,500 in running street battles, devastating them. The military government in Sudan broke with Hassan Turabi and his radical fundamentalists. Saudi Arabia, after long underestimating the danger, has now moved effectively against Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda never had significant popularity in most of Afghanistan and is in great disarray.


: The threat today is more serious than it was before the war in Iraq but hardly the principal challenge some say it is. Jihadi movements in different countries are now more likely to identify with one another, because they feel commonly persecuted. But if the US ceased its attacks on Muslim populations and was seen as a more just international actor, most movements would lose much of their recruiting base. Al Qaeda initially sought to expel the US from Saudi Arabia, and now it has been able to make the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan its cause as well. Though there are elements in the jihadi universe who are motivated purely by hate and the desire for war, the principal cause of jihadi extremism is American policy in the Muslim world.


: I believe that Al Qaeda and its allies remain a major threat. While it cares about Islamic issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iraq, it is hard to imagine that any realistic and fair outcome of these issues would satisfy its aspirations. In that sense the conflict with this group is zero-sum, and that makes it very dangerous.

But the mistake made in the approach to terrorism is not in characterizing Al Qaeda. It is in realizing that the fight against Al Qaeda requires a strategy toward the majority of Muslims who are not allies of Al Qaeda but who have come to dislike the United States even more than they fear Al Qaeda. This is the danger, and one can see it from public opinion surveys I have been conducting (with Zogby International) in a number of Arab countries. Particularly troubling is the public's view of American intentions. That the vast majorities think the primary US objectives in Iraq are controlling oil and helping Israel is not new. What is distressing is that majorities now add to oil and Israel the belief that the US intention is "to weaken the Muslim world." This may be in part responsible for the rise of what I call "Islamic nationalism." In 2004 "Islamic identity" trumped "Arab identity" and identification with the state in four of the six countries I surveyed. This does not appear to be as much a rise in puritanical religious belief as it is in Islamic nationalism. For example, when asked if they supported women working outside the house, majorities in every single country stated that they supported women working either always or when economically needed. When asked whom among world leaders they admired most, none of the religious fundamentalists made the top three. In fact, the top-two vote getters were the late pan-Arab Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and French President Jacques Chirac, most probably because of their perceived defiance of the United States.

But unfortunately, Osama bin Laden still has his supporters and appears on the list of top five in several countries. The real danger these findings suggest is not only in bin Laden's ability to recruit but also in reducing the incentive for others to fight him. If the war on bin Laden is perceived to be primarily a war between the United States and Al Qaeda, even those who reject Al Qaeda's ways may not be rooting for the US--let alone be willing to actively cooperate with us.


: There has been, in my opinion, a considerable hyping of the "terrorist threat" in order to keep Americans in a state of fearfulness. Accusing one's political opponents of being "terrorists" whose claims and movements "we" in the "civilized world" cannot therefore afford to engage politically is an old rhetorical device used to uneven effect by numerous colonial regimes over the decades. In apartheid South Africa, let's remember, the regime used its claim that the ANC was merely a bunch of "terrs" (as they called them) to justify its policies of refusing to talk to the ANC and of conducting an aggressive war against it and its supporters. But finally, after three decades, reason prevailed, and the bosses of apartheid decided that just possibly it might be worthwhile to negotiate with the ANC--even as the ANC continued attacks on both white and black civilians within South Africa.

We need to be able to confront today's anti-"terrorist" prop-aganda with this history in mind. We need to stand on the solid principle that all politically motivated actions that harm noncombatants--whether undertaken by governments, militias or shadowy underground networks--are equally deplorable. We need to shift the discourse from one of "terrorism/antiterrorism" to one of strict respect by all sides for international humanitarian law. In that way, the claims raised by groups now labeled "terrorist" can be considered on their own political merits. Some of these claims have some merit and should be engaged. Some have none at all.

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