That a terrorist threat forced the U.S. to close 19 embassies and consulates – mainly in Islamic countries – reveals that the decade-long “war on terror” has been ineffective. It’s time to re-examine that policy.
The war in Afghanistan and the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have failed to destroy Al Qaeda. Nor has Osama bin Laden’s elimination led to Al Qaeda’s demise.
When Al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan, it successfully reconstituted itself, creating small cells with bases of operation in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Spread over such a large area, destruction of Al Qaeda by military means is virtually impossible and a change in policy is necessary.
Washington’s support for the ruling elites in most Islamic countries, regardless of how they treat their people, fuels Islamist terrorism and is partly the cause of it.
In the context of America’s deadly confrontation with the Soviet Union, that policy was understandable. It was also feasible as the international community lived in a vastly different world. After World War II and the onset of the Cold War, most of the Islamic nations had just emerged from colonial rule. The mostly illiterate and poor people knew only the harsh treatment of colonial authorities. They had neither experienced nor had access to the ideas of democracy and the rule of law. When the colonial era came to an end, the colonial authorities’ local cronies inherited state powers and continued that same oppressive system.
To contain Soviet influence in the Third World – most Islamic nations being a part of it – the U.S. offered economic assistance to it. The effort increased the power of established elites. Their improved economies enabled them to purchase better military equipment and they used the emerging educated class to professionalize their police and military forces. In the absence of a process of democratization, the improvement of the security sector strengthened the dictatorships.
All that changed with the advent of mass migration, satellite television and the Internet. Those transformations together with economic globalization altered human society in ways unimaginable a mere generation before.
The cultural borders that had remained fairly intact began to crumble. Satellite television brought living conditions of advanced societies into the living rooms of the poverty-stricken masses in developing countries. The Internet spread information to the furthest corners of the globe.
Migration from the less fortunate parts of the world to the well-to-do nations of the West took on unprecedented volumes.
For the first time, large numbers of Muslims settled in Christian Western Europe and North America. Suddenly, planet Earth appeared much smaller and a global community of people took on its very initial and yet imperfect form.
Due to these extraordinary changes, average Muslims understood for the first time the extent of their backwardness and dependence on advanced nations. The psychological impact was dramatic and devastating.
Convinced that they were God’s chosen people, most Muslims lived with a notion that the rest of humanity was inferior to them. When they realized the misery their corrupt governments had brought upon them, anger overcame them and they determined to free themselves from their hated rulers. They gradually included the U.S. in their hatred as they perceived America in league with their reviled leaders.
If the U.S. fails to convince Muslims generally and the Arab nations specifically that it is not an enemy of Islam, Islamist terror could continue to haunt it for a long time.
For more than a decade, America has tried the military route. No doubt, it has kept America safe. But it has failed to snuff the life out of Islamist terrorism. It’s time to rethink the policy.
The main causes of terror are abject poverty, utter hopelessness and lack of freedom. Americans find these deficiencies deplorable and are willing to assist people suffering from them.
Washington should heed this sentiment and establish relations with the people in those countries rather than prop up their corrupt and oppressive regimes.
It’s a remarkable fact that in the relatively recent past a vast majority of people in the Muslim world held the U.S. in high esteem. Perhaps with a change in the U.S. approach, it one day will again.
Letter by Nasir Shansab, Non-student from Washington, D.C.