What is the source of Islamic extremism? Critics point to the religion itself: As Sam Harris claimed on Real Time With Bill Maher in October, Islam is “the mother load of bad ideas.” “That’s just a fact,” Maher responded.
This view of Islam, as a fundamentally backward religion, is woefully simplistic and ignorant, and affords those making the criticism the opportunity to ignore the responsibility they have for their own governments’ foreign policies and roles in, ironically, strengthening Islamic extremism.
A brief history lesson and a hard look at inconvenient facts would seem to be in order. The simple truth is that, were it not for Western intervention and Western support for Islamic extremists in the Middle East over the last several decades, the region would be much more secular today.
In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower noted in internal discussions that “we have a campaign of hatred against us, not by the governments but by the people” in the Middle East. The reason, explained a National Security Council report issued that same year, is because Arabs believe “the United States is seeking to protect its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress” and “desires to keep the Arab world disunited and is committed to work with ‘reactionary’ elements to that end.”
The “reactionary” elements the report refers to are dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia, a US ally. After the death of King Abdullah, he was mourned the world over by supposedly democratic-loving governments. Barack Obama issued a statement explaining that he “always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship.” The United Kingdom ordered flags to be flown at half-mast.
Abdullah, of course, presided over a horrible human rights record. And according to Hillary Clinton, as revealed in cables released by WikiLeaks, “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” More recently, donors in Saudi Arabia funded ISIS in Syria, to which the government turned a blind eye.
The relationship (which is sustained through huge arms sales) dates back several decades. First backed by Britain, the Saudi government became the center of and inspiration for the reactionary Wahhabist strain of Sunni Islam. One of the purposes of the US-Saudi relationship was to serve as a counterweight to the secular nationalist Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, “an extremely dangerous fanatic,” in the words of the secretary of state at the time, John Foster Dulles. Nasser was pursuing an independent course who sought to maintain control of Egypt’s oil resources, an intolerable outcome for Western powers.
Later, the United States would prop up the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt for several decades. Though ousted in the 2011 Arab Spring, the United States is now supporting the new military government, which overthrew Egypt’s democratically elected president in 2013.
According to a report issued in 2004 from the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.” The report notes that “there is one overarching goal” Islamists share; namely, “the overthrow of what Islamists call the ‘apostate’ regimes: the tyrannies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan, and the Gulf states. … The United States finds itself in the strategically awkward–and potentially dangerous–situation of being the longstanding prop and alliance partner of these authoritarian regimes.”
By supporting these governments, the United States is helping sustain Islamic extremist movements, both directly and indirectly. Directly, because propping up these governments allows them to spread their dangerous ideologies. Indirectly, because supporting them breeds resentment in the region.
Another government that received the ire of the West for taking control of its own resources was Iran. The democratically elected and secular prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company there. So, the United States and United Kingdom decided to orchestrate a coup against him in 1953. The shah (“king”) was installed as dictator and presided over a secret police unit known as SAVAK, which engaged in widespread torture. This set the stage for the takeover of Iran by Shiite fundamentalists in 1979.
Also in 1979, the Carter administration began funneling aid to the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Contrary to popular belief, this was not done to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet rule. In fact, aid was first ordered to the mujahideen six months before the Soviet invasion. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, “we knowingly increased the probability that they [the Soviets] would” intervene. Brzezinski believed that “this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.”
Aid was funneled to the most extremist factions possible. One warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, received more aid than any other, despite his known penchant for throwing acid in women’s faces.
In any case, after the Soviets withdrew, aid continued to the mujahideen, for the purpose of overthrowing the Afghan government, the most progressive in Afghanistan’s history. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), in power from 1978 to 1992, instituted widespread reforms, including the emancipation of women, land reform, the cancellation of peasant debts, and the building of schools and clinics.
After the PDPA collapsed in 1992, Afghanistan fell into chaos, setting the stage for the takeover of the Taliban in 1996.
Meanwhile in Pakistan, where the aid program (known as Operation Cyclone) was organized, the Reagan administration was supporting a brutal dictator known as Zia-ul-Haq, an Islamic extremist who had come to a power in a coup in 1978, overthrowing a secular government. Zia carried out an Islamization project in Pakistan, with the building of hundreds of madrassas that preached intolerant variants of Islam and declaring judicial decisions must be based on Sharia law. The Reagan administration funded Zia’s government with $5 billion ($2 billion of which was military aid), as well as a further $3 billion to fund the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The stalwart US ally, Saudi Arabia, agreed to fund the mujahideen dollar for dollar for whatever the United States spent.
After Saddam Hussein (a US-backed dictator in the 1980s) invaded Kuwait in 1990, Osama bin Laden tried convincing the Saudi government to allow him and his mujahideen forces to defend Saudi Arabia. He was rebuffed, and the Saudis instead decided to allow American troops to be stationed on their soil. This incensed bin Laden, who was exiled from Saudi Arabia after speaking out against them.
In 1998, bin Laden issued a fatwa, explaining his reasons for wanting to attack the United States: First, the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia and US support for that government, which uses its oil wealth to enrich the ruling class there by exporting it to the West. Second, US aggression against Iraq. The United States ignored any potential diplomatic settlements of the conflict that led to the Gulf War. During the war itself, civilian infrastructure was deliberately targeted. Harsh sanctions were placed on Iraq after the war, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children. And third, support for Israel’s colonization program of Palestine.
Israel is an interesting case. It maintains a brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, including an illegal settlement expansion program. The United States bankrolls these activities, and continues to block a diplomatic settlement of the conflict. Hamas, the fundamentalist group that Israel now complains about, was actually founded with the help of the Israelis for the purpose of undermining secular Palestinian factions.
The US is virtually alone in the world in its support for Israel, and earns much contempt for it. As Michael Scheuer, a former CIA intelligence officer and Chief of the Bin Laden Issue Station, explains, “our relationship with the Israelis … cause[s] us to have dead Americans and extraordinary expenses in fighting the Muslim world.”
More generally, Scheuer argues that the reasons Islamic terrorists attack the United States have nothing “to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but everything to do with U.S. policies and actions in the Muslim world.”
After the 9/11 attacks, (which bin Laden explained happened because “you attacked us and continue to attack us”), the Bush administration launched its disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, falling right into Al-Qaeda’s trap. Bin Laden’s strategy was to provoke the United States into invading Muslim countries, arousing Muslim anger and forcing the United States into a long war of attrition, which, eventually, bin Laden hoped, would bankrupt the United States and force it to leave the Mideast forever.
According to the Chicago Project on Security & Terrorism’s Suicide Attack Database, before the United States invaded Afghanistan, there had only been one suicide attack in its history. Since 2001, there have been over 1,000 such attacks. Tens of thousands of civilians have died in the war. Opium production is now at an all-time high, a reversal from the late 1990s when the Taliban had eradicated cultivation.
The invasion of Iraq precipitated a huge increase in worldwide terrorism, as could have been predicted. Before the US invasion in 2003, there had never been a single suicide bombing in Iraq’s history. Since that time, there have been over 1,700 such attacks. In fact, the invasion resulted in a 607 percent increase in terrorist attacks worldwide. A survey conducted by PLOS Medicine found that the war killed approximately half a million Iraqis. Another survey put the number killed at over one million.
From of the ashes of Iraq arose ISIS, which is now spreading its destruction across Iraq and Syria. Graham E. Fuller, a former senior CIA analyst, explains that “the United States is one of the key creators of this organization. The United States did not plan the formation of ISIS, but its destructive interventions in the Middle East and the war in Iraq were the basic causes of the birth of ISIS.”
After all of this–the millions dead, the destabilization of multiple countries, the invasions and bombings, the overthrow of governments, the inevitable rise of Islamic extremists as a reaction to Western interventions–you would think the West would have finally learned its lesson.
But you would be wrong.
In 2011, NATO bombed Libya to oust the secular government of Muammar Gaddafi, using the Arab Spring movement there as a fig leaf (meanwhile, the Obama administration ignored Arab Spring movements in allies Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which were crushed by force). According to a study from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, “NATO’s action magnified the conflict’s duration about sixfold and its death toll at least sevenfold, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors.”
The conflict in Libya soon spread to Mali. According to the Belfer study, “After Qaddafi’s defeat, his ethnic Tuareg soldiers of Malian descent fled home and launched a rebellion in their country’s north,” a rebellion soon hijacked by Islamic extremists. Weapons from the destabilized Libyan state found their way into extremists’ hands in Mali. Indeed, the weapons may have tipped the balance in favor of the Islamic extremists. In 2013, France began bombing Mali, apparently under the strange impression that yet more violence would solve the problem.
After the uprisings in Syria in 2011, the Obama administration dedicated itself to undermining the secular government of Bashar al-Assad, putting itself on the same side as jihadists. Military aid was funneled to the “moderate” rebels (who are actually not so moderate). Although the Obama administration has now publicly backed off from demanding Assad’s ouster, it is now training a “moderate” rebel force for the purpose of going after ISIS–even though the rebels would rather fight Assad.
When ISIS invaded Iraq, it gained a huge stockpile of weapons. The weapons came from none other than the United States, which had armed the Iraqi government with said weapons.
This insane cycle of violence seems set to continue. The US and its coalition are bombing Iraq and Syria on a regular basis. Drone strikes have recently targeted Pakistan and Yemen. Yet more reactions on the part of Islamic extremists are inevitable. When will enough be enough?