Obama’s short memory

If it’s not religion, what’s driving the kind of violent extremism that we’re witnessing today?

Barack Obama
Obama emphasised how law enforcement should avoid profiling and stigmatising Muslim Americans, writes Bishara [AP]

US President Barack Obama checked most of the boxes as he spoke about the ways and means to tackle violent extremism during a special conference on the topic in Washington, DC.

He stressed once again that the United States is not at war with Islam. And made clear that violent extremism is not unique to any particular religion, region or culture.

To his credit, Obama did not succumb to the growing pressure by his domestic detractors who demand that he refer to the Islamic or Islamist specificity of today’s terrorism.

Instead, the president emphasised how law enforcement should avoid profiling and stigmatising Muslim Americans that are part and parcel of American society.

He expanded on the ideological, economic, political and communitarian solutions to radicalisation. And he underlined why Middle Eastern regimes must forgo sectarian policies that lead to alienation, marginalisation, and ultimately, to extremism.

Obama then emphasised, rather astutely, the need for more – not less – justice and democracy to treat the root causes of violent extremism.

Obama: US at war with those who have perverted Islam

And yet, the president neglected to mention the most important of all reasons for the present radicalisation in the Muslim world.

Obama said nothing about how proxy and other western wars have created the fertile grounds for the type of extremism that has been evolving and spreading in the Arab and Muslim world.

How the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan coupled with US/Saudi intervention on the side of the mujahideen led to the creation of al-Qaeda. 

Or, how the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, coupled with Iran’s interference, prepared the ground for the creation and expansion of ISIL.

Is the president ignorant of these blatant historic developments? Is he in denial? Or is he simply shifting the blame elsewhere?

Paradoxically, it was Obama who opposed the “stupid” Iraq war when he was senator, and worked to pull out US troops when he became president.

So why didn’t he elaborate on the effect of war on radicalisation?

Is it because he’s been repeating the same failed military policies by ordering air strikes in Iraq and Syria without even the trappings of a comprehensive strategy to create the necessary circumstances for a better outcome?

Islam and war

There is no denial that much of today’s violent extremism in the world originates from the Middle East and Muslim world in general. That’s a fact.

And that’s why the president’s “goodwill” defence of Islam against accusation of violent extremism is not convincing unless he goes beyond the generalities of ideology, poverty, injustice and social media.

The question is: Why since its inception 14 centuries ago, the Muslim world did not generate or incubate the kind of violent extremism that we witness today?

If it’s not religion, as the president argues, and I concur it is not, what drives it?

The short answer: continuous war, occupation and oppression.

The Middle East makes up for 5 percent of the world occupation but accounts for at least a quarter of its violent conflicts.

The US, along with its NATO allies, have played a major role in much of these wars over the past many decades, directly or otherwise.

Alas, just as violent extremism haunts the region today, so does war waged by the same powers along with their regional clients, both feeding into a vicious cycle of violence and radicalisation.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.