To defeat jihad, support liberal forces in the Muslim world

To defeat jihad, support liberal forces in the Muslim world

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Hamas’s devastating surprise attack into Israel and the world crisis it has unleashed have dramatized the extreme danger of complacency towards safe havens for terrorists, a lesson that was supposed to have been permanently burned into our consciousness after 9/11.

More than two decades of traumatic experience have proven that the threat they pose must be taken with equal seriousness, whether they are located next door or beyond distant mountains and deserts.

Yet, on a deeper level, the scale and severity of the atrocities has starkly revealed that the wider phenomenon of which they were a manifestation — Islamic extremism — is a growing and potentially permanent global force. It obviously has not been defeated or even weakened in the multiple wars waged since the 9/11 attacks on America.

The only way to defeat jihad is to understand what mistakes the U.S. made in those conflicts, which President Biden referred to in his address to the nation without naming them. That understanding must begin with coming to terms with how this plague arose in the first place, and end with a compelling vision beyond mere military force to counter it.

Although the crisis has produced much discussion of the need to balance Israel’s right to self defense with the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and the evocation of past traumas endured by both peoples, the attack of Oct. 7 was not just another bloody turn in the long unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet its supposedly “unprecedented” nature was actually a characteristic outburst of jihadist fury, showing the same utter lack of limits in targeting masses of civilians as 9/11, the genocide committed by the Pakistani army in Bangladesh in 1971, the Taliban’s brutality throughout its reign in Afghanistan and the depredations of the Islamic State at its height.

In all these cases, the ideological and psychological justifications used was that all is permissible — and even compulsory — against those deemed to be the enemies of God. 

How could a faith whose founding prophet laid down the stricture, “There shall be no compulsion in religion,” be used to inspire such contradictory and monstrous behavior? Besides the enduring possibility that the message of any beneficent faith can be distorted by fanatics, a particular, tragic historical trajectory over the last century has yielded continuing catastrophe in our time. And alas the U.S. and other liberal, secular, modern, Western nations have played a strongly enabling role in this drama.

At the end of World War I, the British hero T.E. Lawrence offered a vision to guide Muslim peoples as they struggled forward into the hazy light of the postwar world. He counseled that they should embark on a “return pilgrimage,” exchanging “an ideal for an ideal, a belief in liberty for their past belief in a revelation.”

This was not a call to renounce their faith, but to reconcile Islam with modernity. And for much of the 20th century, the most dynamic leaders from Egypt to Afghanistan heeded it in everything from economic development and legal reform to education and women’s rights. This program made great strides toward liberating the region from arcane ways of life and thought that kept people poor, ignorant and fearful of new ideas and those who were different.

There were, however, two violent holdouts amid this brightening landscape. Their malign and powerful influence was eventually to prove decisive in driving back progress across the Muslim world.

Saudi Arabia has thrown its financial might, and Pakistan its military might, into opposing modernizing socio-economic transformations that would harm their feudal elites. Under the battle-cry of “Islam in danger,” these closely aligned Sunni theocratic regimes intensely diffused religious hatred at home and abroad among the poor, ignorant, and fearful, who would benefit most from such transformations.

In both cases, the British are partly to blame. In the Middle East, Britain blocked the creation of a cohesive Arab state under the rule of the forward-looking and secular Hashemite dynasty in the 1920s. In the case of Pakistan, Britain undermined the progressive and inclusive Indian independence movement in the 1940s by partitioning that country along religious lines.

The first mistake allowed the Saudis, with their vast oil wealth, to propagate their fanatical Wahhabi version of Islam through the mosques, religious schools and Islamist parties they funded in Africa and Asia — among them the Muslim Brotherhood, which later begat Hamas.

Ringed as it was by secular states opposed to its own Islamist “Ideology of Pakistan,” that state’s ruling military sponsored militant groups to crush domestic dissent and use as proxies against India and Afghanistan. Washington put up no serious opposition, as Pakistan was regarded as a key ally in the Cold War.

After 9/11, America’s fundamental mistake was in refusing to recognize that permanent victory over jihadism required a break with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in order to resume the modernizing agenda in Muslim lands, not a “war on terror” that only targeted the effects of those nations’ vast poisoning of minds. Our state of denial extended even to subsidizing Pakistan as it continued to support the Taliban, which is now predictably back in Kabul.

As dangerous as the present crisis is, it offers still another propitious opportunity to
relaunch the “return pilgrimage” toward liberty, offering the peoples of the Muslim world
a credible alternative to jihad that is rooted in the necessities of modern life.

Washington must jettison the unsustainable foreign policy orthodoxy of trying to achieve stability by working exclusively through the region’s allegedly friendly despots and getting them to normalize relations with Israel

Deradicalization will never come at the hands of historic radicalizers. The only answer to Muslim rage over Gaza that will avert a vast increase in jihad is to commit to a better future not only for the Palestinians but for the Muslim world as a whole once the war is over.

While continuing to urge Israel to shift to a more restrained and focused war effort,
and vowing to take the lead in post-war reconstruction, the Biden administration must
stop limiting its diplomatic outreach to emirs and foreign ministers, meeting instead with responsible opposition figures, civil society leaders, religious moderates, feminists and dissident journalists, even if they are in exile.

Washington should announce that it favors a far more equitable distribution of political and economic power in Muslim lands, beginning with political democratization and extending to the distribution of wealth derived from oil and other natural resources.

A deft combination of focused hard power and pragmatic soft power is needed. Honest self-criticism is the only way for the U.S. to project a strength providing something true in which people in other nations can believe — liberty.

Vanni Cappelli, a freelance journalist, is the president of the Afghanistan Foreign Press Association.

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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