Terrorism in the current era has an unusually Arab flare. The region in the status quo is plagued by politically-motivated violence in the name of Islam. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace in the 2014 ranking on the Global Terrorism Index, 82% of all fatalities from terrorism occurred in four Middle Eastern countries and one African nation. In addition, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and Boko Haram caused 66% of all fatalities from terrorism. An example of this modern trend: ISIS and Al-Nusra in Iraq and Syria have disrupted the political order of the region, tearing the ahistorical barriers of two countries apart. What results from this is an unstable fluctuation of power between extremist groups and repressive political leaders that is not present in other Muslim regions.
Interestingly enough, the appeal of terrorism doesn’t register in many other nations with large Muslim populations. According to a report by the Pew Research Center on June 7th, 2013, 62% of all Muslims live in the Asia Pacific region including India and Indonesia. Fareed Zakaria of CNN News on October 9th, 2014 explained that these nations “do not fit these caricatures” of Islamic extremism. In fact, when looking at the principles of Islam, within excerpt 5:48 and 2:256 of the Quran itself, the primary obligation of Muslims is to “compete” with so called “non-Muslims” in “good works”, and religious differences should not be a source of violence. In other words, terrorism is an Arab or Middle Eastern problem and is not due to the innate characteristics of Islam itself. A question then arises from the information presented: what are the roots of terrorism in the Middle East? The answer to this question lies in an integrated analysis of political repression, counterterrorism strategies, and merging of religion in the political sphere of society.
Terrorism in the Middle East gains ground ideologically when the actions of foreign and domestic actors involve repression of Islamic groups. Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation reviewed the ideological reasons behind the growth of al-Qaeda Central in his book The Longest War, concluding that the growth of al-Qaeda terrorism was in part fueled by key failures in US foreign policy – including the war in Iraq and US backed dictatorships, which included the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein. The idea that arises from this is that repression and marginalization of the civilian population is a key factor in giving terrorist organizations the ideological support to function.
When political repression accelerates terrorism, US methods of counterterrorism only make the problem worse. Prominent methods used during the Bush and Obama administration are the use of covert operations, including drone warfare, to take out terrorist cells, and the use of torture and imprisonment to extract information on terrorist attacks. However, journalist Michael Scahill, in his book Dirty Wars, refutes any notion of the effectiveness of these tactics in achieving the goal of counterterrorism. He explains that these tactics only strengthen the reserve of terrorist cells to continue fighting what is termed a war for the preservation of Islam. The reserve of the terrorist organization grows with support from the civilian population, as they are often victims of these tactics of covert warfare. To provide an example, a study of classified information by the Joint Chief of Staff at the Department of Defense found that drone warfare killed 10 times more civilians than jet planes in the war on terrorism. So it is clear, based on conventional counterterrorism strategies, that our focus on winning the battle between the terrorist organizations fails to win the war on terrorism, which can only be won by appealing to the civilian population.
But the appeal to the civilian population of Islam in the Middle East spans back to the original principles created by the Prophet Muhammad in the writing of the Quran. The enforcement of those principles was different from other monotheistic religions because of the original union of politics and religion in the hands of a single caliph. Due to this distinctive pattern of origins, the great Islamic historian Bernard Lewis, in his work Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East, held that what resulted from this union was a continued struggle between authoritarian political leaders and their people over the standing of the leader’s legitimacy. If you look to the differences between Catholicism and Islam, Catholicism had a separate religious hierarchy that articulated religious principles in the form of a set belief system. With Islam, the opposite was the case. There was no formal hierarchy within Islam that taught individuals what the religion formally stood for. As a result, information on “true Islam” could only be found at an individual or group level and not at an institutional level. The conception, then, of a world order by extremist groups in Islamic society is one in which society returns to the principles outlined by true Islam in the form of a modern caliphate as argued by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. With this in mind, terrorism is a product of the perception of repressive authoritarian leaders failing to follow the undefined principles set by Islamic law.
With the roots of terrorism in the Middle East in mind, the question that arises is what can we do to address these complicated institutional problems? The answer is that the United States and the international community must be meticulous with terrorism rather than tough on terrorism. It must involve a focus on supporting domestic institutions that can be inclusive of all members of society. Nation building can only be effective when foreign actors understand the complex dynamics of Middle Eastern society. Our nation building does not reflect this. According to the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace the United States nation building success rate is 26%. However, the biggest effort in winning the war on terrorism has to be fought by moderate Muslims that will combat terrorism at a societal level rather than solely from an external level. Fear not though, for there is cause for optimism. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, tens of thousands of moderate Muslims and leaders of secular Muslim states have gathered in Paris to protest terrorism and extremism. The final word of caution is that it must be the role of the international community and the leaders of the moderate Muslim community to continue the momentum in this war on terrorism.