George Bush’s War of Terror wasn’t meant to take very long, even though the ‘mission’ was the total destruction of ‘evil’, ‘evil’ being equated interchangeably with Islamic Fundamentalism, the Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, the Baath Party and the Taliban. When the fighting dragged on a little longer than expected, it was given out that total victory was just around the corner.
Now that we have Obama in the White House and Obama being one of those nice, I-Will-Always-Say-The-Right-Thing sort of chaps, the sound bytes floating around are very different. There is talk of making peace with Islamic fundamentalists wherever they agree to live and let live. Just as the passion for casting Iraq and Afghanistan in the western mould has dimmed, we are told by various commentators and columnists that there is nothing wrong in letting Islamic hardliners control areas which have traditionally followed Islamic laws and practices.
In Iraq, the coalition troops have started making preparations to depart, with the British already on their way out. Iraq is slowly being painted as a success, though I wonder what sort of success it is to replace the secular Baathists with a Shiite party that has close ties to Tehran. In Afghanistan, the coalition troops have proved to be not much different or even nicer than the Soviet forces who were there from 1979 to 1989. Hind helicopters have been replaced by unmanned drones, but nothing else has really changed. Having made all the mistakes that the Reds made, the Americans and their friends are wondering if the tactics that worked in Iraq can be used in Afghanistan. In all probability they cannot since Afghanistan is a very different kettle of fish.
In both countries, the search for ‘moderate Taliban’ goes on.
Pakistan has gone a step ahead and struck a deal with the Taliban in Swat much against the wishes of the Yanks and other western powers giving the Taliban sway over that region. Even though western diplomats are seriously pondering how they can make peace with the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, they disapprove of Pakistan taking an apparently easy way out by making peace with the ‘not-so-moderate’ Taliban. They contend that peace deals merely allow the Taliban hardliners to buy time. I do think that this western point of view has some merit in it. Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan isn’t ‘lost’ territory and can’t be given up to fundamentalists in the faint hope that they will not use Pakistani territory to launch attacks a la 9/11. More importantly, the loss of Pakistan to the Taliban will be a devastating blow to not only the western world, but to the whole world.
As if they were determined to prove western fears to be true, the Taliban has not been content with merely getting authority over Swat. Baitullah Mesud’s men have been setting up parallel courts instead of just taking over the existing judicial infrastructure and painting it a Shariah green. The alternative Islamic courts being set up in Swat have been awarding punishments, as is to be expected, in accordance with the Shariah. A few days ago, a video of an young girl being flogged by the Taliban was widely circulated, disabusing anyone of any secret notions of a gentle Taliban.
To be honest, when I started writing this article, I titled it, Can We Live with the Taliban? That was over fifteen days ago and since then I have changed direction. The video of the seventeen-year old girl being flogged was the proverbial last straw. There can be no doubt in the mind of any sane person who has seen that video that the Taliban must be fought until they are defeated. If only we could believe that the Taliban would be content with control over their traditional heartlands! But no, there is no guarantee of that sort. There never was any. Here’s a beautiful article by Jawahara Saidullah on this point.
How can we fight Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban? Should democratic governments resort to tactics that are as dirty and violent as that used by the Taliban? This question brings to my mind the image of a mud-wrestling match between a man and a pig. The man assumes that he will win since he is stronger than the pig and he can and is willing to get as dirty and muddy as the pig. However he loses out in the end, because unlike the man, the pig actually enjoys getting muddy and dirty. The dirtier it becomes, the more the pig enjoys the wrestling match. The same is the case when fighting Islamic fundamentalists. The more vicious the tactics become, the more the Taliban seem to enjoy it. After all, martyrdom takes them straight to heaven and into the arms of 72 virgins.
To fight Islamic fundamentalism, one needs to understand the combination of causes that have facilitated the rapid expansion of Islamic fundamentalism beyond its traditional heartlands. In my opinion the main reason is the sense of injustice felt by the common Muslim on the street. They have been constantly told by their preachers and their rulers that the rest of the world has conspired to cheat them of Palestine, a land that was under Muslim domination for well over 1,000 years. They are told that the oil wealth of the middle-eastern states belongs to the entire Ummah, but they see little evidence of it in their daily lives. They have corrupt rulers who are propped up and kept in power by western countries for their own selfish reasons. As a result they have little say in their own governments. Amidst all these injustices arrive the fundamentalists who have a panacea for all of the Ummah’s problems. Islamic fundamentalists are (they don’t just appear to be) much more dedicated, selfless and democratic than the powers they seek to replace in countries like Pakistan and Egypt. So what if the fundamentalists preach a very puritanical and harsh form of Islam? When the fundamentalists practice what they preach and promise the earth (and heaven), they win more than a few supporters.
I don’t think that the core of Islamic fundamentalism is substantially bigger or denser than the fundamentalist core in other religions. There have been periods when Islam was the epitome of enlightenment and Christianity was wallowing in darkness. Currently, circumstances have conspired to enable Islamic fundamentalism to spread its wings and attract a greater percentage of followers that what one finds in other faiths.
The biggest handicap faced by the forces fighting Islamic fundamentalists is that they are bogged down by too many vested interests. Very little is being done to staunch the flow of funds from private donors in wealthy nations like Saudi Arabia to fundamentalist causes. The donations given may not be meant for direct terrorism per se, but sponsoring the spread of the Wahhabi form of Islam does make it easy for fundamentalists to make converts. Nothing is being done to force US client states like Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Kuwait to usher in real democracy. And most importantly, no American leader will even consider whispering to Israel that it might be a good idea to vacate the occupied territories and create a viable Palestinian state!
Further US policy continues to be very short-sighted. Take the case of Pakistan for example. It was used as a tool to fight soviet forces. Dictators like Zia-ul-haq and Musharaff were tolerated and even helped to stay in power. After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Asif Zardari was preferred over Nawaz Sharif solely because Sharif is unlikely to toe the American line as compliantly as Zardari. The USA didn’t seem to mind the fact that Zardari had little intention of reinstating the deposed judges or that in the long run, Sharif is a much better bet for stability in Pakistan.
I believe that rather than look for moderate Taliban, the rest of the world ought to look for and support democratic groups among Muslims irrespective of whether they are moderate or fundamentalist. Further, undemocratic groups like the various royal families of the Middle East, should not have any support, irrespective of whether they are fundamentalist or they patronise the casinos of Monte Carlo and Macao.
I don’t think there can be a quick fix solution to the problem of Islamic fundamentalism. In the short term, Islamic fundamentalism should be treated as a serious law and order problem. In one of my previous posts, I had argued that even the suspension of civil rights may be justified in places like Swat, if the alternative is to lose control of such region altogether. I continue to hold that view.
As long term goals, it is necessary to address the Palestinian issue and bring democracy (even a fundamentalist version of it) in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern states if violent Islamic fundamentalism is to be contained. Since the Al Qaeda is Sunni, it is tempting to say that the Shiites should be played against the Sunnis, but I don’t think such a strategy will work in the long run. What’s more, Bahrain’s rulers must be persuaded to grant the majority Shia more rights and ultimately become a democracy, which will result in a transfer of power from the ruling Sunnis to the oppressed Shia. Spreading democracy and addressing genuine global Islamic grievances like the Palestinian issue are the only way by which Islamic fundamentalism can ultimately be defeated.