Tuesday, November 17, 2015

How the West Created Islamic Extremism

While we hear bellicose statements from Republicans and much scapegoating of refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks last week, there is far too little reflection on how and why ISIS and Islamic extremism has grown and spread.  A book review in the New York Times looks at the rise of ISIS.  A piece in Huffington Post looks at the roots of Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia and how that country more than any other has exported virulent extremism more than any other, including Iran, the favorite bogey man of Republicans and the far right.  Sadly, much of such analysis ignores the role that the West - translate the United States - has played in creating the conditions for ISIS to flourish not to mention funding some of the early movements that have evolved into Al Quaida and now ISIS.  A piece in Salon looks at America and its allies' role in creating this nightmare.  Here are excerpts:

History takes no prisoners. It shows, with absolutely lucidity, that the Islamic extremism ravaging the world today was borne out of the Western foreign policy of yesteryear.

Gore Vidal famously referred to the USA as the United States of Amnesia. The late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai put it a little more delicately, quipping, “One of the delightful things about Americans is that they have absolutely no historical memory.”

In order to understand the rise of militant Salafi groups like ISIS and al-Qaida; in order to wrap our minds around their heinous, abominable attacks on civilians in the U.S., France, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria, Turkey, Yemen, Afghanistan and many, many more countries, we must rekindle this historical memory.

Where did violent Islamic extremism come from? In the wake of the horrific Paris attacks on Friday, November the 13, this is the question no one is asking — yet it is the most important one of all. If one doesn’t know why a problem emerged, if one cannot find its root, one will never be able to solve and uproot it.

[W]e must delve into the history of the Cold War, the historical period lied about in the West perhaps more than any other.

How the West cultivated Osama bin Laden

We needn’t reach back far into history, just a few decades.  A much-circulated photo of an article published in British newspaper the Independent in 1993 exemplifies the West’s twisted hypocrisy. Titled “Anti-Soviet warrior puts his army on the road to peace,” it features a large photo of Osama bin Laden, who, at the time, was a close Western ally.

The newspaper noted that bin Laden organized a militia of thousands of foreign fighters from throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and “supported them with weapons and his own construction equipment” in their fight against the USSR in the 1980s. “We beat the Soviet Union,” bin Laden boasted.

The mujahedin, this international Islamic extremist militia organized and headed by bin Laden, is what eventually morphed into both al-Qaida and the Taliban.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was blessed with the power of prophecy, but cursed in that no one would ever heed her warnings. Eqbal Ahmad, the late political scientist, historian and expert in the study of terrorism, was a modern-day Cassandra.

In a speech at the University of Colorado, Boulder in October 1998, Ahmad warned that the U.S. policy in Afghanistan would backfire:
“In Islamic history, jihad as an international violent phenomenon had disappeared in the last 400 years, for all practical purposes. It was revived suddenly with American help in the 1980s. When the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, Zia ul-Haq, the [U.S.-backed] military dictator of Pakistan, which borders on Afghanistan, saw an opportunity and launched a jihad there against godless communism. The U.S. saw a God-sent opportunity to mobilize one billion Muslims against what Reagan called the ‘Evil Empire.’

“Money started pouring in. CIA agents starting going all over the Muslim world recruiting people to fight in the great jihad. Bin Laden was one of the early prize recruits. He was not only an Arab. He was also a Saudi.
“Saddam was defeated, but the American troops stayed on in the land of the Ka’aba [the most sacred site of Islam, in Mecca], foreign troops. He wrote letter after letter saying, ‘Why are you here? Get out! You came to help but you have stayed on.’ Finally he started a jihad against the other occupiers. His mission is to get American troops out of Saudi Arabia. His earlier mission was to get Russian troops out of Afghanistan.”
For bin Laden, Ahmad added, “America has broken its word. . . .“They’re going to go for you. They’re going to do a lot more,” Ahmad warned, three years before the 9/11 attacks. “These are the chickens of the Afghanistan war coming home to roost.”
We now know that Ahmad was right. But, like Cassandra, the powerful ignored his sagacious admonition, and suffered the horrific consequences.

Extremist “freedom fighters”

In the 1950s and ’60s, Afghanistan was a somewhat secular country in which women were granted relatively equal rights. What turned Afghanistan into the hotbed for extremism it is today? Decades of Western meddling.

Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. government supported and armed bin Laden and his mujahedin in Afghanistan, in their fight against the Soviet Union. President Ronald Reagan famously met with the mujahedin in the Oval Office in 1983.

Those “freedom fighters” are the forefathers of ISIS and al-Qaida. When the last Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1989, the mujahedin did not simply leave; a civil war of sorts followed, with various Islamist militant groups fighting for control in the power vacuum. The Taliban came out on top, and established a medieval theocratic regime to replace the former “godless” socialist government.  

This Cold War strategy ended up being successful: After the fall of the USSR, the secular socialist groups that dominated the resistance movements of the Middle East were replaced by Islamic extremists ones that had previously been supported by the West.

It is not a coincidence that most of the secular countries in the history of the Middle East have been socialist of some sort. In contrast, the most reactionary countries — the countries where women are not granted equal rights and where the rule of law is based on Sharia — have frequently tended to be close Western allies. Why? The West was much, much more interested in preserving capitalism than it was in allowing secularism, gender equality and relative economic equality to flourish under socialism. 

[T]he reality is the Middle East was significantly more progressive and secular during the height of the Cold War than it is today. That’s not a coincidence. The U.S. and its allies destroyed secularism as part of their larger Cold War strategy.

The Cold War bites back

This Cold War strategy continues to bite back today, and hard. Because of this policy, we have now ended up with capitalist dystopias like those in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the UAE — filthy rich oil states where businessmen are drowning in money while the migrant modern-day slaves upon which their economies are built die in droves, and theocratic monarchies imprison or even behead anyone who challenges the regime.

The Gulf states remain some of the most reactionary and extremist countries on the planet, and they happen to be close Western allies. Saudi Arabia, in particular, is the fountainhead of militant Sunni Islamism — and yet the Obama administration has done more than $100 billion in arms deals with the Saudi monarchy in just five years.
[M]odern Sunni extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaida are “a product of Saudi ideals, Saudi money, and Saudi organizational support.” Government cables leaked by WikiLeaks demonstrate that the U.S. is well aware that al-Qaida and other Salafi groups are supported by rich Saudis. 

[I]t is now widely acknowledged that the illegal U.S.-led war in Iraq — a catastrophic occupation that led to the deaths of at least 1 million people — destabilized the entire Middle East, creating the extreme conditions in which militant groups like al-Qaida spread like wildfire, eventually leading to the emergence of ISIS. The former head of intelligence for the U.S. Central Command and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, agrees. U.S. policies in Iraq “absolutely” strengthened Salafi militant groups like al-Qaida, Lt. Gen. Flynn conceded. “We definitely put fuel on a fire,” he lamented. 

Saddam Hussein was the first Frankenstein’s monster U.S. policy created in Iraq, al-Qaida was the second, and now ISIS is the third.

Blaming Islam is projection

The pundits in the West blaming Islam for the rise of extremism are projecting their own countries’ crimes onto the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

The kinds of people who blame Islam and Muslims for the spread of extremism are the kinds of people who have utmost faith in Western empire. . . . . they, deep-down, believe Western empire to be fundamentally rooted in good will, in humanitarianism, in progress, in the proselytizing of civilization.
This is the same logic that justified genocidal European colonialism, Western expansionism and Manifest Destiny, and the White Man’s Burden. And it is this same logic that promotes militarist policies and anti-Muslim and anti-refugee bigotries in response to Islamist militants’ attacks — only serving to further fuel the fire of extremism.

“Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it.”
ISIS needs to be stopped.  But the West needs to defeated it without continuing the very policies that have fueled its rise. 

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