150222- Yes, It Is Islamic Extremism—But Why?
I applaud President Obama’s efforts to avoid provoking further Islamophobia in America. But I part company with him in his well-intentioned efforts to avoid using the term “Islamic extremism.”
This is not about blame, it’s about analysis. In simplest terms, right now, these particular extremist movements—ISIS, al-Qa’ida and their clones, are based primarily in the Middle East. That is a fact, and it is important to understanding this specific problem. It is essential to finding the beginnings of a way to deal with it. Dealing with it also requires simultaneous deep American acknowledgment of its own extensive responsibility for these phenomena. But describing it all generically, as simply “battling extremism,” misses the character of the full immediate regional crisis at hand. In the case of ISIS and related violent jihadi movements, it is indeed “Islamic extremism,” or “Muslim extremism,” or “Middle East extremism.” These particular non-state movements do not happen to be Protestant, or Catholic, or Hindu, or Buddhist. They are Muslim.
Now, I am not remotely an Islam-basher. As my writings over the years indicate, I have been outspoken in my efforts to disconnect Islam as the cause of confrontation between the West and the Middle East. In 2010 I published a book called “A World Without Islam.” The book’s argument in a nutshell was that if there had never been a religion called Islam, or a Prophet Muhammad, the state of relations between the West and the Middle East today would be more or less the same. The argument seemed counterintuitive, but it sought to make a key point: there are a dozen good reasons why there is bad blood between the West and the Middle East today, without any reference to Islam or to religion.
Most of these reasons are well known: the Crusades (a western economic, social and geopolitical adventure), imperialism, colonialism, western control of Middle Eastern energy resources, imposition of pro-western dictatorships, endless western political and military interventions, redrawing borders, western creation of the state of Israel, US invasions and wars, biased US policies over decades towards the Palestinian issue, etc., etc. None of this relates to Islam. But the pushback from the region today is increasingly articulated in religious and cultural terms, i.e, Muslim or Islamic. This is not surprising. Every grand struggle seeks to articulate its cause in the highest possible moral terms, including the Christian Crusades, or communism and its “struggle for the international proletariat.”
Whatever the root causes, Islam has now ultimately become the primary banner of resistance to numerous groups; its mobilizational power draws on the highest values able to stir Muslims. Cultures in conflict routinely reach out to their religions to symbolize them. This ISIS-driven extremism reflects much of the larger political and social pathology that haunts large parts of the Muslim world today. And the West bears an abundant share of that overall responsibility for this state of affairs.
ISIS is through and through a self-proclaimed Islamist movement. In many senses it represents established Wahhabi theology in its rigid, ahistorical interpretations of Islam. But it adds savage, capricious, sweeping and often distorted religious justification for its violence; it justifies its acts in narrowly selective religious terms that indeed do not represent what most Muslims anywhere believe reflects the spirit or essence of their faith. It feeds off deep regional discontents—radical conditions that spawn its radical responses. There is little doubt that a great deal of this “perfect storm” was made possible by America’s invasion of Iraq and the western-backed civil war in Syria. And Afghanistan. And Yemen. And Somalia. To identify the issue as Muslim extremism is not to identify Islam as the source of extremism, but to identify its locale and its specific cultural-historical background that are key to understanding how to change things.
If we unpack the East-West problem into its concrete, non-religious component parts as above—colonialism, wars, oil, imposed authoritarian leaders, etc.—the issue ceases to be abstract or religious. These specific factors are all susceptible to treatment, understanding, negotiation. Religion is not. But extremists on all sides—the Islamic fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, Zionist extremists, neoconservatives—all love the “eternal-ideological-clash-between-Islam-and-the-West” argument. You can’t do anything about that, you see, it is deeply cultural and ideological, indeed theological and implacable—you just have to face the need for “generations of western war in the Middle East to destroy it.” So goes the argument we’ve all heard.
Extremism anywhere is a problem. It affects all societies at different times and places. Nearly every country and civilization gets its turn at extremism over the ugly history of humanity and its wars—America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Russia, China, Japan, South Africa—the list goes on. Western history—for all its accomplishments—has been right up there at the front of the pack in shedding global blood. (And remember Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”? Would he have nuked the Soviet Union?)
Nobody denies that a security issue exists for the West—the reality of deadly violence in western cities by a small handful of extremists, often psychotic and with criminal records, who are killing civilians in the name of some Islamic justification. Just a handful has sufficed to create a furor in the western media and psyche, non-stop. But security issues also exist for Middle Easterners—for Muslims—themselves. Let’s not forget one Arab leader’s comment to an American: “Your 9/11 is our 24/7.” In other words, the one-time horror of 9/11, and of a few subsequent lesser scale terrorist attacks in the West, mercifully do not constitute part of daily life in the West. But such lethal violence is indeed a part of the daily life across so much of the Middle East today, where death from the skies—a form of terror—from American warplanes or drones is commonplace. Or it is unleashed via the chaos of new civil wars in countries whose regimes the US overthrew.
So it’s not about blaming the West, or blaming Islam. It’s about identifying the sources of violence—on all sides—that brought us to where we are today. The West has much to answer for. And here too it is important for Muslims to contemplate what further actions they need to take on their side under these desperate conditions to help overcome this impasse, including drawing on the contributions of Muslims in the West. Only then can West and East identify the paths that will slowly begin to lead us out of this mess we have all landed ourselves in.
Graham E. Fuller is a former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, Adjunct Professor at Simon Fraser University, and author of numerous books on the Middle East and Islamic movements. His first novel, “Breaking Faith: A Novel of Espionage and an American’s Crisis of Conscience in Pakistan,” will be out in March 2015.