My take on the Islam conversation

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I always try and push Rula Jebreal’s work on Ramel. I have consulted and coached her before and we share many of the same beliefs on Islam and the Middle East. America has been losing the war on terror and its costs, consequences and failures can be marked by the fact that killing Osama bin Laden did very little in curbing the trajectory of the conflict. Moreover, the devastation to American pockets, lives and, not to mention, the devastation in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan as well is overwhelming. Rula points out that it was only when jihadists began disseminating well-produced videos that showed the decapitation of American captives that the US decided to turn its attention back to Iraq and Syria.

The crucial point is that, despite military strikes which followed, no one is talking about how we got here. And if they are talking about it, then they are blaming it on Islam. The problem with this argument is that pointing to Islam hasn’t yet helped the situation. In fact, blaming the religion of 1.8 billion people just seems reductive. Rula is correct to point out that it is more comfortable to blame the overwhelming violence on a theological phenomenon rather than the direct result of Western miscalculation. In the Arab world, ISIS’ version of Islamism is viewed as a result of the Iraq War. Rula and many experts on the Middle East look at American intervention as tantamount to the destruction of a country. Iraq’s institutions were destroyed and so were its security forces. The vacuum left in its wake drew in Islamists from all over the world.

Rula points out that Al-Qaeda was never in Iraq before the US-led invasion but that the group moved in right afterwards. ISIS did the same thing when the Shiite-led government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki alienated the Sunnis. After the US left, Maliki treated the same Sunnis who helped him get rid of Al-Qaeda in 2008 as a threat to his regime and to his own power. Maliki antagonized the Sunni communities just enough to give ISIS a reason to thrive. Syria is no less complicated. The secular rebels in Syria had no shot against their rival Islamist rebel groups. ISIS was better funded, had better weaponry and had a narrative which grew from the US bombing them instead of the tyrannical Assad. Especially because their funds have been raised by US allies.

We keep saying that the problem is Islam, but the people paying the highest price by the Islamists are Muslims. The problem is that we keep undervaluing mistakes we have made. The prisons and torture chambers throughout the Arab world have been the beginnings of political Islam. Whether they were propagated by Mubarak’s henchmen or the Saudi royal family’s or Gaddafi’s or Assad’s or even the United States’. Ultimately, when you read history, you see that modern jihadists like Sayyed al-Qutb and Ayman Al-Zawahiri were radicalized in Egyptian prison. Rula recounts how Abu Musab al-Zarqawi lost his toenails in a torture camp in a Jordanian prison years before he became the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi spent four years in Camp Bucca under American custody in Iraq. The prisoners from Abu Ghraib were transferred to Camp Bucca after the abuse scandal broke. In fact, James Gerrond, the former Camp Bucca compound commander, has come out and said “[we] had created a pressure cooker for extremism.”

Rula is simply trying to point out that we Americans are deeply complicit in the problems that are going on in the Middle East. The only way to correct the problems is to acknowledge what has actually happened so we quit blaming the wrong variables. How we have treated detainees, the Arab world and Muslims is an attractive and realistic part of Islamist propaganda. In fact, ISIS made sure to run a strike on Abu Ghraib to free all of the detainees–if that wasn’t symbolic then what is? Also, why do you think American captives in ISIS’ beheading videos are in American-style orange jumpsuits? They are portraying Guantanamo. The fact is that air campaigns and sanctions only substantiate the propaganda of Islamism. We are a lot of the reason anger exists and why that anger is folded into ideology which is comfortable and familiar in the region. To make things even more complicated, there are competing demands between the very rich Gulf states, Israel and the secular dictators of the region. What about how business interests file in?

Islam might be an issue, sure. It has gotten more fundamental in the last 30 years without a doubt. But it is certainly not the only variable and it is definitely not the most compelling one if the Middle East is to be de-mystified. ISIS and Al-Qaeda draw their religious rhetoric from Wahhabism, a theology that not only predates them but also defines the boundaries of the Saudi Arabian political state. Jebreal points out that Washington looks to Saudi Arabia as a key “moderate” ally even though the kingdom is extreme, puritanical and dangerously sectarian in its policies. In fact, much of its theological rhetoric is closely comparable to ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Also, just trace the money; “Saudi Arabia has funded enterprises in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.” Moreover, which other country beheads as often as Saudi Arabia does?

If we support dictators, then we isolate the moderate secular liberals. The problem is that we keep supporting them which means that Islamists, who were once sidelined, are now the pulse of the revolution. When the democratic space opened during the Arab Spring it was evident that political Islam was a popular player in the game. It has deeper roots than most other liberal parties. I believe that integrating Islam into the political system is going to be necessary. It is part and parcel of the democratic space and suppressing it is tantamount to suppressing democracy. So, I agree with Rula, as I usually do. America’s intellectuals and our media resources bear a responsibility to question what has failed and why it has failed. Blaming Islam is self-serving, so let’s challenge ourselves to be productive about the conversation so we can change the outcome.

To read Rula Jebreal’s take go to Salon.




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