This is a time for deep reflection on the causes and possible outcomes of the rise of religious extremism. That is what I will undertake in this article. More will follow in the weeks and months ahead. My purpose is to build a strong case for the adoption of a different approach from the one the European nations seem inclined to follow as a result of a series of acts of violence that shook France in 2015 and continue to hurt Russia.
The rise of the Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has brought to the surface a number of underlying forces in the world of Islam. This particular group, as well as some of its predecessors, is not necessarily fighting the West. Its campaign should not be interpreted in Huntingtonian terms. It is not a “clash of civilisations” as foretold by the American political scientist Samuel P Huntington in a book that carried that title.
According to him, there were two world cultures that were bound to clash. One was democratic and essentially secular in approach towards governance the West had developed over a couple of centuries. The other was Islam in which the individual counted much less than the community of which he or she was a part. That community was to be governed not by laws written by men and women but by those sent down by God. The scripture was the only Constitution the Muslim community needed but it could not be changed.
These two systems were bound to clash, said Huntington. Francis Fukuyama, Huntington’s protege, carried the argument further. In a powerful and influential book, The End of History, written soon after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the American sociologist suggested that the Western style of governance had won by beating Communism as an alternative system. The Cold War that lasted for almost half a century was won by the West and the demise of the alternative system meant that history of ideological conflicts had come to an end.
Looking at the rise of religious extremism from the prism of conflict will prolong the struggle launched by the rise of the IS and make it even more brutal than it is today. The IS’s campaign of terror is not directed at the West even though in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian plane in the Sinai, Peninsula that is how it was generally interpreted. Upon investigation it turned out that the plane was destroyed by an improvised explosive device smuggled aboard by some people working at the airport. They were prepared to help the IS carry out an operation against Moscow. The Russians, it seemed, were targeted because of the heavy bombardment by them of IS positions. But the Paris attacks and the destruction of the Russian plane were only sideshows. They were part of the expected response from a group of people who were governed not only by what they believed were the teachings of Islam. They were acting according to what was expected from those with strong roots in tribal cultures. As the Pakistani-born anthropologist, Akbar Ahmed, has pointed out in his powerful book, The Thistle and the Drone, militants’ several actions in which violence was used as a means of communication were dictated not by religious beliefs but by the strict requirement of tribal societies. In these, revenge was part of the code the people were expected to follow. Revenge was the reason for two other high-profile terrorist attacks, one in Peshawar, Pakistan, in December 2014 and the other in Paris in 2015. In tribal cultures, the extent of revenge must match the damage inflicted by the act being avenged. The Russian bombing was hurting the IS and hence it chose to target the sector of the Russian economy that was doing well even in the face of the sanctions imposed by the West.
In most of the commentary that appeared in the West, the IS was viewed in terms of a challenge to the West. There was an emerging agreement that the only way to meet it was by the use of force — a great deal of it. Paris and Moscow came together in developing that approach. Both capitals saw the problem in terms of the presence of Islam in their midst, which had not come to terms with the governance cultures in the two countries. The Russians had dealt with this issue by the use of force. As some of the Western biographies of Vladimir Putin, the long-serving Russian president, have suggested, the world view of this important world leader was shaped in part by the challenge posed by Chechnya, a Russian republic with a Muslim majority. Russians effectively adopted a scorched earth policy, devastating the capital of Grozny and even taking hostage the families of jihadists. They were now advocating the same approach in dealing with the recent acts of violence committed by the IS. The approach did not work in Chechnya if we factor in its international consequences. It won’t work now.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2015.
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