From Peshawar To Paris: 5 Takeaways That Matter More Than Your Prayers
NEW DELHI: I have been thinking about Paris. I have wanted to say something, in the form of a Facebook post or Tweet, but stopped myself because a day before I was thinking of Beirut but didn’t feel compelled to take to social media as 43 people were killed in an Hezbollah stronghold of the Lebanese capital. I did write about Beirut however, as I write on militancy and terror in South and West Asia and Africa for this publication.
As I tried to gather my thoughts following the brutal attacks in Paris that have claimed over a 129 lives, I saw a familiar scene play out on social media and the news. “This is not Islam,” Muslims and others rushed to defend a religion that has been butchered to fit a perverse ideology that should claim no religion. “Perhaps the world will unite against terrorism finally,” others quipped. #PrayForParis trended across social media, as images, poems, letters went viral.
Governments responded in predictable patterns as well. Poland moved to reject migrant quotas. Headlines indicated that the United States-led coalition will be rethinking their strategy in Iraq and Syria, with greater involvement and boots on the ground being real possibilities.
All of the above -- the prayers on social media, the need to (yet again) disassociate these brutal crimes from Islam, and the response of violence to beat back violence -- perpetuate a vicious cycle where tragically, changing profile pictures in solidarity while our governments pump in more and more money to send in fighter jets, drones and soldiers is becoming humanity’s reality.
As I tried to make sense of what I was feeling, I revisited an article I wrote in the wake of the horrific attacks on an army run school in Peshawar almost a year ago. In that article, I outlined five points that demonstrated why nothing was going to change whilst we were #PrayingForPeshawar. The points in their entirety apply to Paris, as they do to Beirut, Baghdad, Sanaa, Tripoli, Al Raqqah, Kabul… the list goes on. They are:
One| “Terrorism” has no religion
Every time there is a terror attack, Muslims -- whether government officials speaking on behalf of a country or individuals tired of having to explain themselves -- come out with statements dissociating their religion from the crime at hand. The world has grappled with terror for decades now, and it should be obvious that a minority acting in the name of Islam have nothing to do with the religion they claim to profess.
Terror has come to be associated with Islam, and I refuse to use the word “terrorism” because it remains the most misunderstood term in the English language. The Isla Vista shootings, the Santa Monica shootings, the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings -- were not acts of terror, but the Boston bombing, or the Sydney Cafe Siege, were. The difference in the attacks? The religion of the perpetrators.
Let’s stop the hypocrisy. Terrorism has no religion. Violence is condemnable whether carried out by Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists or Atheists. Please stop asking Muslims to constantly apologise, and recognise that their religion has nothing in common with the faith of gunmen that kill innocent people in the name of a God.
Two| The flawed strategy in addressing “terrorism”
As I woke up to news of the Paris attacks, I saw countless posts on social media expressing hope that the Paris attack can finally serve as a wake up call for the world to tackle terrorism.
What is that something? Greater involvement in wars (that are not termed wars cue perfected military doublespeak)? The world’s response to “terrorism” has been through increased military action. The US has bombed its seventh country -- Syria -- in the span of six years, using AUMFs that relate to the war on Al Qaeda and the war on Iraq as legal ratifications for doing so. The fact that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Al Qaeda and that Syria is not Iraq doesn’t figure.
The US is also bombing Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. All because of, you guessed it, “terrorism.” The problem with this strategy can be evinced by the example of the rise of the Islamic State.
The US has begun bombing Iraq, because of the Islamic State. As the Islamic State began gaining ground in northern Iraq, the US and its allies were quick to (and correctly may I add) attribute this rise, in part, to the divisive politics of the Iraqi state. Pressure mounted on Prime Minister Nouri-al-Maliki to resign.
Whilst it is true that Maliki and his Shia dominated administration in Baghdad pursued discriminatory policies, the US, ironically but not surprisingly, played an instrumental role in Maliki’s rise to power in the first place, in addition to consistently supporting Iraq’s divisive politics. This includes siding with the Iraqi government’s military crackdown on Anbar last December and the decision to clamp down on protests in Falluja using the rouse of “anti-terrorism.” Falluja was the first city to fall to IS militants at the beginning of last year.
More importantly, whilst sectarianism is certainly a factor in the rise of IS -- through which the discontent in Iraq has channeled itself -- it is a factor that was not all that important in Iraq prior to the US invasion of 2003. When the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, a need emerged to replace the security vacuum with a new political elite. The main opposition to Hussein at the time were ethno-sectarian parties, and the US brought these factions to power cementing identity politics in the region.
Fanar Haddad, of the Middle East Institute in Singapore, points out that the politicians who came to power post 2003, were not politicians who happened to be Shia, but rather, Shia politicians with a fundamentally Shia-centric ideology and political outlook.
Further, post 2003 institutions came to be organised along sectarian lines. For instance, the Iraq Governance Council, which served as the provisional government of Iraq from July 13, 2003 to June 1, 2004 was formed along ethnic lines -- comprising of 13 Shias, five Sunnis, five Kurds, one Turkmen and one Assyrian.
In today’s Iraq, the Prime Minister is a Shia, the speaker of Parliament a Sunni, and the President a Kurd.
This creation of identity-based politics, paved the way for sectarian identity to become a key political factor. Prior to 2003, although a limited notion of a Shia identity and a Kurdish identity did exist in Iraq, there was no concept of a homogenous Sunni identity. The divisive policies of the Iraqi state -- facilitated by the US -- have paved the way for the emergence of a Sunni identity.
It is this emergence of a Sunni identity rooted in the notion of victimhood, that made the emergence of IS in Iraq possible. The group has existed under various names, first coming into existence in early 2004 as the Jam??at al-Taw??d wa-al-Jih?d, or "The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad" (JTJ). The founding ideology of the group was based on resistance to American intervention in Iraq, with foreign fighters allegedly playing a key role in the establishment of its network. At this point, the group was led by the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
The group soon after swore allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, and changed its name to Tan??m Q??idat al-Jih?d f? Bil?d al-R?fidayn, or "The Organization of Jihad's Base in the Country of the Two Rivers.” At this point, the group came to commonly be known as “Al Qaeda In Iraq” although it never formally went by that name.
In 2006, the group merged with a number of other militant groups, to form the "Mujahideen Shura Council," which later that year, following the death of Zarqawi at the hands of US forces, organised itself into the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) or the Dawlat al-?Iraq al-Isl?m?yah.
In September 2013, the group overran the Syrian town of Azzaz, with the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights labelling the group as the “strongest group in Northern Syria” by November 2013.
As the group expanded from Iraq into Syria -- establishing a stronghold in Ar-Raqqah province -- it renamed itself the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant", or the "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” in 2013, under the supervision of its current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who took over in 2011. The name change was based on the Baghdadi’s intent to merge ISI with the Syria-based Nusra Front. Nusra Front and Al Qaeda leaders immediately rejected the merger.
The group has often been referred to as an Al Qaeda offshoot, but the exact nature of its relations with the Al Qaeda are not clear. In recent months, both groups have made statements disassociating themselves from the other, with ISIL leader Al-Adnani saying, “the ISIL is not and has never been an offshoot of Al Qaeda.”
When the group captured Mosul in June last year, the international community was taken by surprise at the strength of a relatively unknown Iraqi group. IS’ gains in Iraq are directly linked to its operations in Syria, where it had come to control large swathes of territory in its fight, along with other groups, against Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad.
The advance of anti-government forces in Syria, was made possible in turn, by the United States and allies’ assistance to Sunni rebels, who share with the US the objective to topple Alawite leader Assad. The US greenlighted Turkish and Saudi aid to anti-Assad rebels, supplied these groups with material and financial assistance, and used the CIA to train rebels at a secret base in Jordan.
This not to suggest that the rebels in Syria present a homogenous group, as there is considerable infighting, with the IS militants facing setbacks at the hands of the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army, for instance. However, affiliations change rapidly, and the IS group -- when it was known as Al Qaeda in Iraq -- had expressed solidarity with the rebels in Syria, following which the US immediately increased aid to anti-Assad forces. The aid began as non-lethal aid, but following a June 2013 White House statement that said there was reason to believe that Assad had been using chemical weapons against rebels, the US decided to extend lethal aid to anti-Assad militias. The total aid given by the US to rebels in Syria, according to USAID figures, amounts to over $1 billion.
The United States’ dual policy -- of complicit support and aggressive resistance, simultaneously -- has shaped new West Asia, which in turn, is characterised by the factors that are invoked to explain Islamic State’s rise: growing sectarianism, the absence of an Arab governance model, and an emerging security vacuum in the region.
Three| There can be no “Global War Against Terror”
As much as the US and others would like you to believe that they are fighting a global war that will result in peace for humanity, the truth is that there is no global terror. Although there has been an organised effort to manipulate the teachings of Islam to condone violent action, the fact that no group can agree on what this means proves that it’s all a farce. Al Qaeda hate the Islamic State who hate the Free Syrian Army who hate the Afghan Taliban who hate the Pakistani Taliban who hate the Haqqani network… with factions within militant groups often functioning independently and at variance with the so-called group directive.
The point that I am trying to make is that terror cannot be fought globally, but locally, by addressing root causes that stem from alienation, which in turn provides potential for radicalisation. Let’s be clear, Paris 2015 would not have been possible if there weren’t enough alienated and radicalised locals willing to turn the gun on the state from within the country’s borders.
Four| History repeats itself
To beat back the Russians in Afghanistan, the US trained, supported and funded the Mujahideen -- who eventually organised themselves into the Taliban. Cut to decades later and the US is fighting those same militants, as Afghanistan burns to the point of no return.
The US is repeating the same mistake in Syria, where in a bid to topple Assad, it is propping up anti-Assad militias. Like demonstrated above, the IS too, initially benefited from this aid, and groups that are as extremist in their ideology and as brutal in their tactics, continue to receive this support.
Five| Accentuating long-term costs for short-term gains
The current strategy, the world over, to deal with militancy accentuates long-term costs for short-term gains. For instance, Nigeria defeated Boko Haram when it killed its leader Mohammed Yusuf. However, since the root causes -- alienation stemming from poverty, lack of education, etc. -- were not addressed, fighters regrouped in 2010 and hit back far more violently, with Boko Haram cementing themselves as the biggest security risk in Nigeria.
Similarly, President Obama had declared the Al Qaeda “defeated.” The result -- the Islamic State. A large number of the Islamic State’s top cadre are former Al Qaeda militants, or former officials in Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Instead of encouraging and undertaking military action, the solution, in part, lies in capacity building, but that’s a whole other article. Capacity building, however, is not on the agenda at all.
Till we see this change in strategy, we can continue issuing condemnations that will lead to nothing. We will continue to #PrayForParis and #PrayForPeshawar and others that follow, in the same tired, repeated and ineffective pattern.
(Follow @Gayeti on Twitter)