How Islamic ‘Islamic terrorists’?

It was bloodcurdling!

On Friday night when I saw on my television screen Islamic State terrorists mowing down unsuspecting Parisians, chills ran down my spine. Those Muslim killers, most of them French-born, slaughtered 132 people and wounded 350 others.

The same kind of horror had also struck me when I saw mangled bodies of Pakistani children and women crushed by bombs from American drones. It did, too, when I struggled to keep my eyes on the pictures of a pyramid of naked bodies in Iraq’s Abu Gharib prison; of a naked man cowering before a howling dog, its leash being held by a smiling American soldier; and other Iraqi prisoners tortured by CIA interrogators, limping or nursing their wounds.

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, anguishing over the Paris carnage, are making clarion calls for not only the obliteration of the IS but also the defeat of “radical Islam.” Rep. Peter T. King, Republican of New York, has reiterated his earlier calls for greater “surveillance” of American Muslim communities.

“We have to find out,” he said, “who the radicals are. We have to find out what’s going on in the mosques, which are often incubators of this type of terrorism.”

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson excoriated President Obama for refusing to call the Paris tragedy an act of “radical Islamic terrorism.”  Governors of more than half of American states have announced they would not accept Syrian refugees because those refugees may include Muslim terrorists. And the socialist French President Francois Hollande has declared “war against terrorism … against radical Islam.” A Fox News commentator echoed demands from an assortment of American media pundits and politicians to organize a global coalition to stamp out, not just the IS, but “radical Islam.”

Is the West really at war with “radical Islam”? And can Hollande and the proposed global coalition accomplish what George W. Bush’s “global war on terrorism” could not? The GWOT, which raged for a decade in many Muslim societies, did “smoke out” Al Qaeda from its caves in Afghanistan’s Hindukush Mountains, as Bush had vowed to do. But his administration could not have been gloating over its “mission accomplished” when it saw Al Qaeda, chased out of Afghanistan, was mushrooming in at least three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe.

Anti-Western terrorism did not exist in Iraq until the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of that country.

During my four research and reporting trips to Iraq in the 1990s and earlier, I came to know of Iraqis as among the kindest and most hospitable people anywhere. In 1991 Alexandra Avakion, a New Yorker working as a photographer for the Sunday Times of London, told me that she felt “embarrassed by [Iraqis’] generous hospitality” to her.

“Our [trade] sanctions have devastated the Iraqi economy,” she added, as we were traveling in a car from Baghdad to to Babylon. “A half-million children have died of malnutrition because of [the sanctions]. If they had done this to America, I would’ve thrown stones at Iraqi visitors to America.”

Well, cruelty can be infectious. The IS was born of the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq. The unwarranted and foolish American invasion and occupation of that country triggered mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing of its Sunni Arab minority by its Shiite majority, whom the Bush administration had brought to power in Baghdad. Outrage and anguish over the American and Shiite cruelties and injustices drove many Sunni Arabs into an alliance with Iraqi soldiers and commanders thrown out of their jobs by the American occupation force. And they formed the IS to avenge the nightmare they were suffering from the American invasion and the Shiite pogrom.

Similarly, Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group in Lebanon, was born in 1982 to resist the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian terrorist organizations were created to fight the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Many of these militants are practicing Muslims, some belonging to the obscurantist Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam. Some are secular. They all say their struggle against their transgressors is their religious duty.

Historically, Muslims – religious and secular – have invoked Islam to inspire their coreligionists to join their movements against foreign aggression or domination. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a thoroughly secular and Anglicized Muslim statesman, harped continually on Islam to galvanize Indian Muslims behind his struggle to create the “Muslim homeland” of Pakistan.

“God is one,” Jinnah thundered before a mammoth Muslim crowd in 1946 in my hometown of Sylhet, Bangladesh. “We have one Quran. Our Umma [the global Muslim community] is one. O Muslims, unite like one man. Nobody on earth can stop your march to Pakistan.”

Pakistan would be created a year later.

An uncle who had attended that rally, told me years later that many in the crowd knew that the leader of the Pakistan movement almost never practiced Islamic rites and drank alcohol every day, even though drinking is strictly forbidden by Islam. Yet his references to Pakistan and Islam “made the crowd jump and spin, throw their umbrellas into the air, and shout ‘Allahu akbar’ [God is great]. Some cried out of joy.”

Mahatma Gandhi, the would-be father of Independent India, was an Oxford-educated barrister like Jinnah. Unlike Muslim Jinnah, however, Gandhi was a deeply religious Hindu. And he had proclaimed that his goal was to make India a “Ram rajya,” a Hindu holy land.

Many societies have summoned their religions or secular ideologies to perk up what essentially have been ethnic, nationalist, anti-colonial and expansionist movements. Struggles against foreign occupation and domination, in particular, have almost always been waged in the name of religions, traditions and cultures. How different is the IS’s ‘Islamic’ campaign against the French and American aggression and hegemony from George W. Bush’s declaration that the 9/11 terrorists “have attacked our freedom”? Or Tony Blair’s assertion that Al Qaeda wanted to “change our way of life”? The IS’s use of the Islamic label for its fight against foreign aggression and domination is as misleading as Bush’s and Blair’s invocation of their secular values in waging war against a Muslim country.

IS terrorists remind me of my boyhood hero Khudiram Bose. Khudiram was a young anti-colonialist activist in India, who belonged to a radical Hindu nationalist group, the Jugantar. He was hanged by India’s British colonial establishment in 1908 for accidentally killing two British women in the town of Muzaffarpur in Bihar state. Hindu nationalists had been angered by a British magistrate’s harsh prison terms and death sentences to their fellow anti-colonialist activists. The Jugantar had assigned Khudiram and Profulla Chaki, another militant, to kill that magistrate when he would be traveling to a club in Muzaffarpur. One day when the magistrate’s special carriage arrived at the gate of the club, Khudiram threw a bomb into it. But that day two British women, instead of the magistrate, were taking that carriage to the club. Both were killed.

Half a century later I, a Muslim boy in a neighboring state, would be chanting the widely popular Bengali-language song, extolling the Hindu nationalist’s “martyrdom”:

“Ekbar biday de ma ghure ashi

“Hasi hasi porbo phnasi dekhbe bharatbasi….”

(Farewell, Mother! Here I go on my journey/I will be putting on the hangman’s noose, smiling, for all India to see….)

Many places, schools, and monuments in eastern India have since been named after Khudiram. During our 1981 visit to the Victoria Memorial Museum in Kolkata (Calcutta), my wife and I saw Khudiram’s portrait hanging on a museum wall, alongside those of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, and other leaders of the Indian Independence movement. On my visit to the Victoria Museum last year, however, I did not see Khudiram’s portrait on that wall. Times have changed. India is now fighting militants struggling for the independence of Kashmir, Assam, Jharkhand, and other territories, and Indians call them terrorists. Also, since 9/11 Indian governments have been supporting the U.S. “war on terror” and, in return, the United States has denounced Kashmiri insurgents as terrorists.

The IS terrorists who enacted the Paris massacre obviously were riled by France’s recent military intervention in Syria and also, perhaps, by stories of French colonial occupation of their country after World War I. For many Syrians, the French have been the most hated Western nation. In the Syrian countryside, you can still hear anecdotes of French colonialists’ racial hubris and brutality. Pierre Janaszak, a radio presenter in Paris, saw a terrorist shooter on Friday yelling: “It’s the crime of [French President Francois] Hollande. It’s the fault of your president. He shouldn’t have attacked Syria.”

All the same, I call the Paris shooters terrorists, as do about everybody else. But given the source and nature of their violence, what would you call the Boston Tea Party, the Massachusetts Minutemen and the Sons of Liberty who fought the British during the American Revolutionary War? How would you label the bands of privateers who, during the Revolution, chased and bombed British navy ships from their bases in Boston, Portsmouth, Salem, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and elsewhere?

Americans and Europeans must, of course, fight the IS and other terrorist groups that may be attacking or threatening to attack their countries and people. But the West needs to remember two things. One, these terrorists are no more fighting for Islam than America was fighting for democracy in Iraq. Secondly, bombing from the air, putting American boots in Syria or Iraq, or outsourcing the anti-IS war to Kurdish guerrillas could heighten, rather than diminish, the terrorist threat to the West. It would be profitable to remember the lessons of the U.S.-led war on terror during the last 14 years.

If anything can effectively tackle the terrorist threat against the United States, Europe – and indeed Israel – that would be acknowledging and addressing the source of the menace: foreign aggression, occupation and hegemony.

♦ Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog Muslim Journey (http://muslimjourney.com), is an international affairs commentator in Washington.

ISIS could trigger Arab revolution

On the darker upper strip of my computer screen I saw my eyebrows rising, as I read, for the first time, President Obama’s mission in Iraq and Syria. Now, as his aides and spokespersons drone on and on about that mission, I get ticked off or, alternately, amused.

Can the United States and its allies really “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL)?

Personally, I deplore this war because of the deaths and devastation it’s going to cause, and the piles of dough we, American taxpayers, are squandering on it. So far the war’s price tag is estimated to be $1 billion a month. It’s likely to rise.

Yet I also see the war having a far-reaching, liberating effect on Arab societies. I see it reviving and strengthening the Arab Spring, which Arab monarchies and dictatorships had foolishly thought they had behind them. More on this in a minute.

Meanwhile, I’m afraid Obama isn’t going to “destroy” ISIS. Remember his repeated vows to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al Qaeda during the Afghanistan war? Thanks mainly to that war, Al Qaeda and its many affiliates have mushroomed in the Middle East, North and West Africa, and elsewhere. If Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam had any lesson for the United States, it’s that conventional military establishments, however powerful, can’t defeat modern guerrilla forces that are ready to die to end their oppression and avenge their subjugation and humiliation.

Afghan Mujahedeen taught this lesson to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, then the world’s largest conventional military juggernaut. The Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian guerrilla groups in Gaza have driven it home to Israel, the superpower in Middle East.

Ignoring these glaring lessons and lurching into a new war in the hope of stamping out the world’s most powerful Muslim guerrilla force is just insane. Albert Einstein defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

The gruesome atrocities that ISIS has committed against civilians in Iraq and Syria are indeed heinous and inhuman. They’re repugnant to Islamic tenets and principles. Beheading innocent civilians, killing Yazidis and Christians or converting them to Islam by force are certainly not part of the “jihad,” struggle authorized by Islam, they claim to have waged.

Islam sanctions two kinds of jihad. The greater jihad,  jihad al-kabir, is the struggle to resist one’s own immoral impulses and actions. The lesser jihad,  jihad al-saghir, is armed struggle to defend one’s community or territory against outside aggression. ISIS obviously has proclaimed the lesser jihad against the Shiite government and militias in Iraq, the Alawite government in Syria as well as America and its allies. Islam would probably support its armed struggle if it is, or was, meant to resist the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Shiite pogrom against Sunni Arabs in Iraq or the suppression and oppression of people by the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria.

But Islamic law strongly prohibits its inhuman atrocities against civilians, mentioned above. These crimes belong to the categories of the brutal torture, murder and humiliation of mostly innocent Muslims in Abu Gharib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere by American forces. They’re as barbaric as American soldiers peeing on Afghan Muslim corpses, or Israelis slaughtering Gazan children.

In any case, the more America and its allies beat up on ISIS, the more it will attract recruits and monetary support from fellow Sunnis from around the world. Already, some 3,000 American and European Sunni youths and many thousands more from the Muslim world have joined the guerrilla organization. I expect the trend to accelerate in the months and years ahead.

It reminds me of a comment an Iraqi friend made to me during one of my three research trips to Iraq. In 1991 Subhy Haddad, a veteran Iraqi journalist, was working for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. I had him over for lunch at Baghdad’s Sagman Hotel, where I was staying.

Between bites on his eggplant Domla – eggplant with meat, vegetables and spices stuffing – Haddad said I wouldn’t be able to interview some of the Shiite intellectuals and politicians I had on a list. About half of them had fled to Shiite Iran to escape then Sunni Arab President Saddam Hussein’s persecution. If Sunni Arabs (as different from Sunni Kurds) ever got knocked out of power, he continued, Shiites would wreak vengeance on them. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs “would then turn to their fellow Sunnis in the region” for support. Iraqis, he added, were “more loyal to their ethnic groups than to Iraq.”

I remembered Haddad when successive Shiite governments in Baghdad and their brutal militias began slaughtering Sunni Arabs after the United States had overthrown the Saddam regime. Many of those persecuted Sunni Arabs joined Al Qaeda in Iraq to resist the U.S. invasion and the Shiite pogrom. ISIS has resumed that struggle and strengthened it manifold.

That the United States sired ISIS is missing from American discourse on that militant group. Senator Carl Levin was a rare exception. “ISIS did not exist before our invasion of Iraq,” said the chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee at a hearing on the issue. “They are a consequence of our invasion of Iraq.”

Levin echoed a chorus of voices from politicians and pundits in the Middle East. ISIS is “the product of foreign invasion,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

And America’s expedition against ISIS is going to produce the same results as did its war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan: spread and bolster the movement, aggravating threats to American security.

If the Sunni Arab militancy in Iraq and Syria has alarmed the United States, it has spawned panic among Arab monarchies, which are its next targets. In fact ISIS, the Al Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist militant groups already are calling for the ouster of repressive Arab monarchies. No wonder five of those monarchies – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates – have jumped on America’s anti-ISIS bandwagon in a desperate effort to save their thrones.

The thousands of Arab youths from Persian Gulf countries who are honing their fighting skills in this war will one day return home. They will almost inevitably revive and fire up the simmering revolutionary movements against their tyrannical monarchies, the most formidable they ever faced.

I don’t expect many of these anachronistic power structures to survive another Arab generation.

  • Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He covered seven Middle Eastern countries as a newspaper reporter and conducted fieldwork in five as a research fellow for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.

 

 

Syria ‘extremists’ scare off U.S.?

 The Obama administration knows by now that Russia will not let any action against the murderous Syrian dictatorship get the green light from the U.N. Security Council.  In response, the administration is taking baby steps to help the Syrian uprising, dedicated to overthrowing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

These steps include sharing intelligence with the rebels and increasing the supply of communications gear.  The administration is still unwilling to provide the rebels with heavy arms or help create a “safety zone” in Syria. The main reason, as anonymous White House aides tell the media, is the feat that “extremists” could rise to dominate post-Assad Syria.

The Assad regime will go sooner or later, but the United States needs to be seen actively supporting the Syrian opposition for its own interests.  The Arab Spring is drawing the curtain on the era when America dominated the Middle East by standing on the shoulders of tyrannical dictators and monarchs.   In the years ahead, the security of American interests in that region will depend on the goodwill of its populist and democratic Arab forces.

Besides the Islamist bugbear, a pie-in-the-sky desire to choreograph Syria’s political future is hobbling active American support for the opposition. It’s a lingering Cold War mentality, which the administration shares with many American scholars and experts on the Middle East.

These experts included most of the panelists at a  seminar on  Capitol Hill in Washington on the Syrian crisis. They sounded the alarm that American arms and aid could fall into the hands of Salafists and other “extremists.”  And they called for a strategy that would help set up a secular, pluralist democratic regime in Syria. The lone dissenting voice on the panel was that of my friend Leon Hadar. I have always admired his insights.  Hadar advised against “trying to micromanage” Syrian politics over which Americans would have “no control.”

The seminar was organized by the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council, and it reminded me of another forum the MEPC had hosted on the Hill during the run-up to the Iraq war.  At that 2003 seminar, too, most of the panelists explored options to make sure secular democracy thrives in Iraq after the dictator Saddam Hussein was  overthrown.  The proposed options included bolstering Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. As we found out later Chalabi or his INC had no foothold inside Iraq. Thanks to his neocon promoters, however, the INC reaped millions of American tax dollars for its non-existent democratic movement in Iraq.

Interestingly, this week’s Capitol Hill panel included a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, Radwan Ziadeh, who admitted that his anti-Assad group hasn’t gained much public support in Syria. He blamed it on the insufficiency of foreign assistance and asked for  $45 million in monthly aid.

In any case, the assumption behind the thrust of the experts’ arguments about Syria this week was the same as those about Iraq nine years ago:  Secular Arab democrats would ally with American and Israeli secular democracies, while Islamists would oppose them.  Obviously, America’s bitter experience in Iraq has made little contribution to the thinking of these experts.  In Iraq, the U.S. invasion has turned a staunchly secular autocracy into a pseudo-democratic theocracy. It has transformed an implacably anti-Iranian regime into one that is allied to Iran, America’s and Israel’s archenemy in the Middle East.

It’s about time American policy makers and intellectuals review the myth that Islamists or Muslim “extremists” are innately anti-American.  Sunni Muslim “extremist” Mujahedeen fighters, including Osama bin Laden, were America’s allies during the 1980s war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In Iraq, Shiite Muslim “extremist” Mahdi Army militia joined the American battle to overthrow the Saddam regime.

Muslim political activism, secularist or Islamist, revolves around what the activists believe to be the interest of their societies or communities.  Bin Laden, who sided with the United States in the anti-Soviet Afghan war, sponsored the 9/11 attacks on America because he and other Saudi Islamists were  outraged by the deployment of American troops  in Saudi Arabia, following the 1991 Operation Desert Storm.  I learned this during two research trips to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s .  Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps reminding his American interlocutors that 15 of the 19 September 11, 2001, plane hijackers were Saudis.

Many Arabs resent America’s wishy-washy role in the Arab Spring and continued support for repressive autocracies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.   They see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit with Egypt’s Islamist President Muhammad Mursi as recognition of a fait accompli. The administration should reverse course on Syria and get on with organizing international action outside the United Nations to rid Syria of its monstrous dictatorship.

The effort should be conducted through the Friends of Syria group and begin with supplying the rebels with heavy arms and other necessary equipment through the Saudis, Qataris and others.  A safe haven for the rebels and civilian refugees should be created inside Syria alongside its Turkish border, under NATO air cover.  The campaign against the Syrian regime will require outside financial assistance, which should be provided to opposition forces struggling in Syria, and not to organizations outside.

Meanwhile, in the interest of better understanding between America and Islam, U.S. policy makers should revisit the main lesson from U.S. experience in the Muslim world.   Muslims, secular and Islamist, have no quarrel with America when its policies accommodate their interests. They resist, often to the bitter end, those American policies and actions that hurt their interests and their dignity.

  •  Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog site Beyond Freedom