The beheading of British aid worker David Haines on September 13 was the latest monstrosity carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). For British Muslims, it was doubly distressing that this evil act was carried out, apparently, by a British Muslim. The Muslim community here unanimously condemned this barbarism.
From a moral and theological point of view, an entire community or religion should not be blamed for the actions of a crazy few. But all too often, when people see evil emanating from some Muslims, the potential is there to unfairly put the whole community in the dock.
There are now fears that ISIL’s extremism is fuelling Islamophobia and a far-right backlash in the UK. While others have denied there is a growth in the actual number of far-right activists, most observers seem to agree that there is a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment across the UK. This is a big worry for Muslims and a huge burden on our social and political leadership. And of course ISIL’s rise also re-emphasises the danger of sectarian tensions within the Muslim community. Thankfully, David Haines’ brother, Mike Haines, quoted verses from the Quran and made it clear by saying: “The Muslim faith is not to blame for ISIL, nor is it the fault of people of Middle Eastern descent.”
ISIL has, in fact, created a global crisis and presented world leaders with a challenge they cannot afford to ignore: They must hold their nerve and the civilised world needs to find creative, political, and more importantly, human ways of solving this problem of nihilism in our midst. For that is what ISIL is, a nihilistic movement that is the enemy of hope and togetherness.
How the global community handles this barbarity is a big question. Certainly Muslims worldwide have unanimously rejected ISIL’s publicity-seeking terror antics, endlessly repeating that it is a million miles away from Islam’s teachings.
When citizens see only limitless injustice orchestrated by their corrupt and incompetent leaders, sustained by foreign players, the result is a vicious circle of despotism and violence. In an inter-connected global village with instant communication, no country can remain insulated from another.
The easiest option for some trigger-happy leaders would be to bomb ISIL into the stone age. This may temporarily halt or reduce its power, but it will come back again or re-emerge in another name.
Violence in the Middle East will not simply go away without ethical politics in the region. We must not forget how al-Qaeda emerged in the 1990s, due in part to a political vacuum in Afghanistan; the result was the Taliban regime that gave shelter to the terrorist group.
It is now clear that the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a recipe for the influx of al-Qaeda into Iraq that has now morphed into the more vicious ISIL. With swaths of land in Iraq and Syria under its control, it has plunged the Middle East into an even more serious predicament than before – one in which the viciousness of al-Qaeda and the Assad regime is all too easy to forget.
Common sense and natural wisdom suggest that a replay of the post-9/11 knee-jerk reactions, and another display of “shock and awe” firepower by the US and its allies, would be the worst step: This will give ISIL the propaganda coup it needs and deepen the crisis for all involved.
US President Barack Obama has at least grasped that reality and said that US forces will not fight another ground war in Iraq. This is a welcome declaration, but there are big holes in the US-led strategy in the current crisis. With the United States’ resumption of “the long war” in Iraq and possibly in Syria, a new open-ended “war on terror” (WoT) appears to have started.
By waging this endless war, the US appears to be digging its heels in the Middle East sand. Gone are the days when the world sighed with relief at Obama’s declaration in 2010 that the “war on terror” was over. Very few people now believe him.
The Middle East needs some respite from violence. The US can be a catalyst for this if it decides to become a fair player in the region, with a consistent people-friendly policy. By siding with authoritarian regimes depending on military might alone, the US has so far made things worse in this region. It is an irony that western democracies have one rule, a robust democracy, for their own people but different ones for others.
You can kill terrorists through fire power, but slaying the demons of terrorism needs something more – a human dimension in politics, as well as accountability, and allowing local citizens a stake in their public affairs.
When citizens see only limitless injustice orchestrated by their corrupt and incompetent leaders, sustained by foreign players, the result is a vicious circle of despotism and violence. In an inter-connected global village with instant communication, no country can remain insulated from another. By ignoring others’ peril, we sow the seeds of our own peril at a future stage.
There are positive examples of global cooperation. Powerful and rich countries – governments and private citizens alike – have dug deep to help fellow human beings in developing countries. Britain leads in this area, devoting up to 0.7 percent of its GDP to foreign aid.
Why can’t this happen in the political field of weaker countries? Why do the powerful nations often go “fishing in the muddy waters” in other parts of the world? The rise of ISIL could have been thwarted if the US had insisted earlier on a non-sectarian inclusive government in Iraq and if mainstream political opposition to Syria’s brutal regime had received timely support. No wonder some cynics and conspiracy theorists can feel free to accuse the US and its allies of giving ISIL a free hand, so that the terror group can then be used as a bogeyman to continue a long war in the Middle East.
The emergence of violent extremism and nihilism in some parts of the Muslim world is primarily due to the failure of politics, exacerbated by the harmful influence of foreign powers. Although al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, Boko Haram and ISIL speak in the language of Islam, they have emerged in an authoritarian, corrupt, and incompetent political system.
We are in the midst of a generational and geopolitical crisis in the Middle East. Until the Arab world can institute minimum democratic accountability and establish basic rights for its people, the region will remain unstable and a breeding ground for violence. As it stands, this will not happen until the US and its close allies stop supporting or propping up brutal regimes.