WHILE AMERICA MOURNS the slaughter of 49 innocent people in Orlando, Florida, by an ISIS-inspired Muslim man, the CIA director warns that more of this kind of tragedy may be in store for the West. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams and other terrorist groups are throwing evermore killers into the West, John Brennan said.
He also told the Senate Intelligence Committee that ISIS already “has a large cadre of Western fighters who could potentially serve as operatives for attacks in the West.”
What’s going on!
Six weeks ago the man who leads the State Department’s counterterrorism programs assured us, a group of journalists, that while “it’s understandable that [people] would be worried” about terrorist attacks in America, “chances of you dying in a terrorist attack are very low.” Justin Siberell said the United States has put in place programs in many countries, which are “addressing the roots of radicalization [of Muslim youths] and disrupting the recruitment into terrorist organizations,” and that supposedly had lessened the threat from ISIS and other terrorist groups.
When I mentioned to Siberell that I saw units of ISIS and Al Qaeda mushrooming in different countries, he said those were “highly localized” events, and that the Obama administration was working with the countries involved to “develop the tools” that would “help governments better address these threats.”
The diplomat apparently was trying, pathetically, to cast a smokescreen around the administration’s dismal failure to “destroy” anti-Western terrorist groups that it promised over and over to accomplish. That failure was glaring at us in Orlando, San Bernadino, Boston, Paris, Brussels, London, Madrid and other Western sites.
So why is it that terrorism has so blatantly defied the West’s anti-terrorism wars, diplomacy and surveillance programs? As I see it, the medicine isn’t working or is aggravating the affliction because the prognosis isn’t right. The West, especially America, attributes Muslim terrorism to one expression of Islam or another. Some folks also link Muslim terrorism to poverty, backwardness, autocratic repression and other problems plaguing Muslim societies.
President Obama is being roasted by Republicans for not calling Muslim violence against the West “radical Islamic terrorism,” as they do. The president’s main argument against using an Islamic label on terrorism is that that would alienate many Muslims around the world. Deep down, he believes that some strands of Islam are indeed fueling murderous proclivity among some Muslim youths. He told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic that “the real problem” fomenting Muslim terrorism is “the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.”
Obama seems to be oblivious to the fact that Islam has been going steadily through religious and social reforms since the late-colonial era, but it’s not following the path that Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli did a half millennium ago. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation broke away from the long-established Christian doctrines and tradition, while Islam has been reforming and evolving from its core beliefs, values and epistemology.
My grandfather was a traditional Muslim cleric who got up at 3 a.m. every night and prayed till sunrise and devoted the last 23 years of his life in prayers, teaching children the basics of Islam and building and managing a tin-shed mosque in the hill town of Haflong in northeast Indian state of Assam. My father, an Islamic scholar and political activist, was deeply concerned about the plight of impoverished and repressed Muslim minority in British India. He worked simultaneously with a Muslim clerical organization and Mahatma Gandhi’s Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress to struggle for the liberation of Indians from British colonial rule. I’m a Western-educated secular Muslim, but I defend and take pride in Islamic principles of community, charity and justice. And I seem to have inherited from my father concern for Muslims and lower-class Hindus in India and Bangladesh. Like most other Muslim families around the world, mine has been evolving, peacefully and steadily, from our Islamic religious and cultural roots.
I don’t believe that Westerners who view Islam as an inherently obscurantist and violent religion, offshoots of which are breeding terrorists, are innately hostile to Muslims or their faith. I see most of them unfamiliar or inadequately familiar with Islam and Muslim values and worldviews. As we have seen in the past, encounters with unfamiliar people and cultures often breed many Americans’ hostility toward those people and their values. Remember the days Americans thought Jews were “greedy,” Irish “dirty,” Germans “swarthy,” Poles “stupid,” and Italians “mafia,” and denounced Chinese as harbingers of “yellow peril”? How many Americans today use any of those labels for any of these racial and ethnic categories? For most Americans and other Westerners, Muslims are the new kids on the block or the horizon. No wonder they’re “terrorists.”
Yes, for several decades now a bunch of Muslim terrorist groups from across the Mediterranean and their fellow travelers in the West have been committing acts of terror against Westerners. And Westerners, unsurprisingly, are anguished and enraged by these terrible incidents. What surprises me, though, is that most Western politicians and intellectuals who blame Islam and or some of its strands for terrorist acts don’t seem ever to ask of themselves this question: Why did Muslims in developing countries admire America and view it as the only good Western country when European nations had colonized and plundered their lands and slaughtered and persecuted them? The Muslim world then was more deeply steeped in Islam, more impoverished, far more backward, and lived under as brutal kings and dictators. Muslim admiration and good will for the United States was fostered, mainly, by the US abhorrence of European colonialism. That good will turned into gratitude after Woodrow Wilson announced his Fourteen Points, an outline for peace negotiations at the end of World War I, which underscored the “right of self-determination” for colonized peoples. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the would-be founder of Pakistan, was so taken with Wilson’s anti-colonial stance that a decade later, in 1928, he outlined a 14-point demand for political and cultural rights of British Indian Muslims.
Anti-American sentiments in the Muslim world have been fueled, as I mentioned elsewhere, by America’s economic exploits and military invasions and incursions in many Muslim countries. The exploitation of mineral and other resources in Muslim countries began with the 1944 Anglo-American Petroleum Agreement, dividing Middle Eastern oil between the United States and Britain. And it continues. America’s military, intelligence and diplomatic offensives in the Muslim world date back to 1948, when the Harry Truman administration became the first in the world to recognize and support the state of Israel, set up by European Jews on the land they had ethnically cleansed of more than 700,000 of its native Palestinians. Muslim grievances against America deepened through the overthrow or destabilization of democratic and other Muslim governments by successive American administrations, who installed or supported repressive pro-American dictatorships and monarchies. U.S. military aggression and interventions in Muslim societies reached a high watermark with the outright invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
As during the Crusades and the colonial era, Muslims have always proclaimed the sanction of their faith in their struggle against foreign aggression and hegemony. But ever since the Crusades, the sources of their hostilities with Western countries have, almost always, been Western aggression, exploitation or hegemony, not Islam or any of its theological branches. The same is the case with anti-Americanism, smoldering today around the Muslim world, strands of which have, deplorably, degenerated into terrorism.
Yet most, but not all, American and Western politicians and pundits fail to see the connection between Western policies and actions and Muslim hostility toward the West. Many of us know, and in fact several American politicians, including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), have said publicly, that ISIS was born as a Sunni Arab response to America’s invasion of Iraq and replacement of its Sunni Arab regime with Shiite ones. Under Shiite governments, Sunni Arabs in Iraq have been slaughtered, persecuted, thrown out of their jobs and driven away from their homes and lands. Two days ago Iraq’s Shiite government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, with American-trained, equipped and guided troops and American air support, completed the war in mostly Sunni Fallujah against Sunni guerrillas from ISIS. The devastating U.S. bombardment and Shiite ground war have all but emptied Fallujah of its population, who have fled into intense suffering. I’m afraid many of the thousands of Sunni Arab youths who have fled Fallujah will join ISIS to try to avenge their travails on America.
At last month’s State Department briefing, I asked Siberell if he thought U.S. invasion of Iraq, support for its Shiite regime and military interventions in other Muslim countries had contributed to the emergence of ISIS, Al Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist organizations.
“I reject the suggestion,” replied the terror-fighting diplomat, “that the United States is responsible for all these different terrorism movements you’ve mentioned.”
America’s refusal to take a hard look at the sources of terrorism and its bombing of Muslim countries and demonization and witchhunt of Muslims are only helping to strengthen and multiply terrorist groups. The CIA’s Brennan wants us to brace for more acts of terror by these groups without saying what we or our government can do about them. I wonder how long this self-destructive amnesia has to continue before American political elites, especially policy makers, begin to take a bold and honest look at the real causes of the horrible tragedies being unleashed by vengeful terrorists.
- Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, is the host of the blog ‘Muslim Journey,’ (https://muslimjourney.com).