Chasing the Islamic State: Is the West set to miss the iceberg?
Arhive | 15.06.2015 | OPINION

Chasing the Islamic State: Is the West set to miss the iceberg?

Hasan ABDULLAH - Expert on Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic State (formerly ISIS) and various regional groups including those operating in India, Central Asian states, etc.

The rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq & Sham (ISIS), which now calls itself the Islamic State, took many across the world by surprise. Since then, there have been territorial gains and losses, leading many commentators to hasty conclusions and ultimately to policy paralysis.

Following the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the American administration was quick to announce victory. There were claims that the Taliban and Al Qaeda had been defeated and would not rise again. It took a few years for reality to sink in and for the United States to realise just how deep it had gone down the quicksand. Similarly, the post-2003 Iraq experience had not been too different. Flowery pronouncements of victory turned into nightmare.

The West’s overreliance on conventional military might seems to be ignoring the very nature of the conflict today. And that is providing an edge to the likes of Islamic State, Al Qaeda and others.

Having spent a considerable time in Al Qaeda camps on both sides of the Durand Line and having researched in intricate detail their inner workings, it has been interesting to note that one of their most effective tool of radicalisation and recruitment this decade has been, believe it or not, reports of a prominent American think tank, the Rand Corporation.

Rand Corporation reports such as «Civil democratic Islam, partners, resources, and strategies», divides Islamic groups into several categories ranging from Secular Muslims to militant Islamists and proposes a divide & rule policy as the way forward.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that groups such as Al Qaeda and Hizb-ut-Tahrir have used Rand Corporation reports to bring on board new members from a diverse Muslim pool, including from the traditionally not so radical Barelvi Muslim community. A case in point is two brothers the author met in Miranshah, North Waziristan, who hailed from a wealthy Memon, Barelvi Muslim business family of Pakistan's economic hub Karachi. The two had been the first ever in their family to embark on the jihadi course. The person who had played the most pivotal role in radicalising them had taken them through the stated Rand Corporation report to show «how they had been dividing and ruling Muslims when their problem was not with extremists or moderates but in fact with Islam’s governance».

Furthermore, the contention from the West has been that members of groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are merely a fringe with their interpretation of Islam based on the misguided teachings of Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam or the 20th century radical Egyptian preacher Syed Qutb. The slightly more intellectual ones trace back the roots of Islamic radicalism to Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab, an 18th century scholar from Arabia. Such a narrative obfuscates reality and allows groups like Al Qaeda, Islamic State and others to turn the Western narrative on its head and recruit even more people by simply bringing forth textual references that go as far back as the 7th century – the very inception of Islam. These textual references make clear the case for Islam itself as a confrontational and expansionist ideology that rejects any pluralism.

In addition to the obfuscation of reality, the current Western narrative on Islam provides the more radical groups with space to maneuver, go underground when needed and operate under different banners while exploiting the legal loopholes. For instance in post-911 Pakistan, the Musharraf government had threatened the mainstream religious-political party Jamat-e-Islami with a ban after it emerged that many of its members had been sheltering Al Qaeda fugitives. It is pertinent to mention here that Jamat-e-Islami describes itself as an Islamist party that believes in change through democracy and non-violence.

There is a clear pattern for those who can muster the courage to shelve erroneous narratives based on political correctness: Islamist violence is deep-rooted and finds legitimacy from a theological and historical narrative that goes back fourteen centuries.

Once the actual Islamic threat has been acknowledged, policy-makers would need to present the antidote. It is fundamentally a clash of worldviews: This world vs the «Hereafter». Economic prosperity vs a detachment from this world. The right to live and enjoy as one deems fit vs the compulsion to live by perceived divine laws. As the global leader, one that does not shy away from foreign interventions where it suits her, the United States needs to go beyond talk of buzzwords like freedom and democracy. It needs to push forth a uniform development agenda while at the same time establish moral high ground by shunning some of its most shameful double-standards. It speaks of freedom while it continues to support some of the most brutal dictators and enemies of human development and emancipation. Realpolitik is not a good enough cover for such extreme duplicity.

The CIA director John Owen Brennan has recently been quoted in the media as having said that the Islamic State is here to stay for now. He is right. But assuming that the problem is confined to a group or two instead of the very ideology that gives birth to them will not get the world anywhere. The writing is on the wall. Acknowledge the problem and act now or be prepared for brutal times ahead.

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