by Imran Khan
According to a recent poll, four-fifths of Britons think the “war on terror” is being lost. That is not least because the battle for the hearts and minds of people in the Muslim world is being lost.
The fundamental mistake made after 9/11 was that any stirrings of a debate addressing the root causes of the terror were ruthlessly suppressed. (To explain and understand the cause is not to justify the consequence.) Rather than addressing the known political causes, the terrorist attacks were portrayed as a religious struggle: radical Islam v the west.
This was an anomaly. How could Islam, a religion as peaceful as any other, be pitted against the west? Millions of innocent people were killed in the last century, from Nagasaki to Hiroshima, from Vietnam to Iraq, by acts of governments that were secular by law yet publicly upheld Christian values. Yet Christianity was never put under focus or stress.
Al-Qaida was supposed to have conducted the 9/11 attacks because it deplores western values – its freedom, its democracy – and desires the establishment of a global empire of Islamic emirates. But as Robert Fisk makes clear in his book, The Great War for Civilisation, Osama bin Laden’s rage against the US arose from its support for Israel, the Saudi monarchy, and the garrisoning of US troops in the land of Islam’s holiest sites.
The very deliberate policy of converting political struggles into religious ones had a very specific purpose: to induce fear of an impending threat to western way of life from encroaching radical Islam so that the population of the west would fall in line behind Bush and his neocon policies.
Radical Muslims – and now “Islamic fascists” – were as deadly as communism and Nazism. Unless the American public blindly supported every Bush policy in countering terrorism, the whole of western civilisation was imperilled.
Such was the post-9/11 hysteria that few dared cast aspersions on Bush’s decision to attack Afghanistan less than four weeks later. War became the first option, rather than the last resort. Shrouded in the thick mist of propaganda, people were made to forget that not one Afghan was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Only when Iraq was invaded did people in US and the rest of the world began to realise that the war on terror was a smokescreen to further the “project for the new American century”, which neocons conceived in the mid-90s.
Other stakeholders hastened on to the bandwagon, and Muslims who were involved in genuine liberation struggles were suddenly deemed terrorists by various regimes. No longer were the Palestinians struggling against foreign occupation: Sharon was stamping out Islamic terrorism. Meanwhile, Putin was fighting al-Qaida in Chechnya; suddenly little was heard of the near-genocide that was taking place there, with 20% of the population killed and another 30% exiled. India, too, was fighting Islamic militants in Kashmir. Yet the Kashmiri struggle for freedom dates back to the mid-19th century.
Suicide bombing became associated with Islam. Apparently the lure of houris was a considerable incentive for Muslim terrorists to self-immolate. It was forgotten that before 9/11 almost 70% of suicide attacks in the world were conducted by the Hindu Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. A few weeks ago, when the Tamil Tigers honoured their suicide bombers publicly, calling them the “black tigers”, no one tried to discern answers for their desperate acts in Hinduism.
The third set of stakeholders to board the bandwagon was an assortment of autocrats, dictators, and monarchs in the Muslim world who were keen to receive US patronage for their undemocratic regimes. They swiftly metamorphosed into “moderate Muslims” – despite their ghastly human rights records – and assumed the role of bulwarks against Islamic extremism. Not long ago, these unrepresentative heads of Muslim states were fighting the communists, standing side by side with the US to protect the free world.
This mother of all spin doctoring had a vast fallout. First, in the western countries, despite Bush and Blair insisting that their war was against radical Islam, the message to the man in the street in the west was that Islam and terrorism were synonymous. In the US in particular every Muslim became a potential terrorist. It did not matter if they were moderate, conservative or liberal – everyone was lumped together.
The second, and potentially far more dangerous, fallout was that the war on terror was perceived as a war on Islam. And Muslim societies began to radicalise as anger and hatred toward the US soared. Al-Qaida and its affiliates became the chief beneficiaries of this ignorant conflation of genuine freedom struggles with terrorism. At the same time, anger against the pro-US Muslim governments was in the ascendant. Today, in elections in any Muslim country, no party aligned with the US can win. In the Pakistani elections in 2002, in the two provinces that border Afghanistan the anti-American religious parties swept the board.
The third fallout has been the total collapse of US credibility in the Muslim world. The nonexistence of WMDs was the first blow. Then came the prisoner abuse at Guantánamo bay, Bagram, Abu Ghraib and other detention centres. The eventual justification advanced for attacking Iraq was that it had been done in order to introduce democracy. Yet dictators of every hue were being propped up in the other Muslim countries.
Before George Bush visited Pakistan earlier this year, he breathtakingly said he endorsed General Musharraf’s “vision for democracy”. It is important to bear in mind that apart from Burma, Pakistan is the only country with a serving general at the helm.
But the final straw has been the US’s blind support for Israel during its attack on Lebanon – while the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, Amnesty International and almost every human rights organisation, has blamed Israel for war crimes. As Israel targeted civilians and the Lebanese infrastructure, the US was dispatching armaments to its ally via Britain.
So when the recent plot to blow up the airliners from Heathrow was uncovered, it was greeted with complete scepticism in Pakistan, especially since the intelligence had been furnished by the Musharraf government. The biggest winner from the war on terror has been Musharraf, who has aligned himself with the US as a frontline state, and been rewarded by gaining legitimacy in Washington’s eyes for his military dictatorship.
Since 9/11 he has supposedly captured hundreds of al-Qaida terrorists. Yet never has there been any independent inquiry into any of these captures or killings. In 2004, the Pakistan army killed 70 people in south Waziristan, claiming they were foreign militants with links to al-Qaida. Within weeks it emerged that those killed were all local tribesman. Each time Musharraf has visited the US, or a senior US official has visited Pakistan, security forces always capture or kill some “high-value” al-Qaida target. When George Bush visited Pakistan he was given a special gift: in the name of the war on terror, the security forces killed 140 tribesmen.
After the 7/7 attacks in London, 200 students from various madrasas were locked up, even though Pakistan had no demonstrable involvement whatsoever in those acts. Hence the cynicism regarding the Heathrow scare, which is being seen as yet another attempt by Musharraf to prove his indispensability to Bush, while Bush and Blair can at the same time frighten their people into abiding their policies.
Terrorism is an age-old phenomenon and cannot be eliminated by rampaging armies, no matter how powerful. It can only be contained by a strategy of building democratic societies and addressing the root causes of political conflicts. The democratisation part of this strategy demands a strategic partnership between the west and the people of the Islamic world, who are basically demanding dignity, self-respect and the same fundamental rights as the ordinary citizen in the west enjoys.
However, this partnership can only be forged if the US and its close western allies are prepared to accept and coexist with democratic governments in the Islamic world that may not support US policies as wholeheartedly as the dictators do in order to remain in power.
I’m afraid one day it will have to be acknowledged that the roots of this violence, like, those of all terrorism, lie in politics. And so does the solution.