Sohail Mahmood discusses the misguided US Global War on Terror, the failure of Arab and Muslim leadership to ensure the wellbeing of their people and stand up to Israeli and US aggression, and the subsequent rise of extremism. In part because of the growing strength of Arab and Muslim local media, radical groups like Hezbollah and Hamas have become the voice of the Muslim people to express their anger, despair, and disillusionment. In Mahmood‘s opinion, the only way to fight fundamentalism is to reform the governments of the region, and change the failed Global War on Terror into a movement of respect for Islam, and support for moderation, democracy, and growth.
Sohail Mahmood is the Associate Dean of the Department of International Relations at Preston University in Islamabad. With a Ph.D. in Political Science from Northern Arizona University, he is one of the leading experts in the world on Musharraf and Pakistan and has published dozens of books and articles on the issue.
EVER SINCE THE TERRORIST ATTACKS OF 9/11, the US has waged a relentless Global War on Terror (GWOT). After five years, this war has become a global mess and recent changes in US leadership indicate that the US public is tired with its current administration and desires a new approach to the international problem of terror.
In the opinion of many, the GWOT translates into a global war against radical Islam. The US in bent on curtailing, if not actually destroying, all radical Islamic movements perceived as inimical to its global hegemonic interests. This includes, among others, Hezbollah of Lebanon and Hamas of Palestine. The US also wishes to curb the influence of these organizations because of their connection to Iran, which many perceive as a radical Islamic state.
WAR IN LEBANON
In July 2006, war broke out in South Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah. After more than a month of fighting, nearly 1,200 people had been killed, widespread destruction had wracked the southern parts of the country, and about 1.5 million civilians had been displaced. Nearly 157 Israelis were also killed during the war. Finally, the cease-fire, which came into effect on August 14, brought the fighting to a halt.
What did Israel achieve in its aggressive invasion of Lebanon? Hezbollah still exists, and is growing stronger by the day. And unfortunately, the conflict in southern Lebanon will not be the last Israeli-Arab conflict in the region. With a continuing Arab sense of disenfranchisement, rising fundamentalism, and the popular belief that Israel is the culprit and occupier of Arab land, a new round of conflict is certain to take place. There is some evidence that Israel has threatened a second invasion of Southern Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Islamic radicals are asserting their new popular standing in the region. As Hamas is the legitimate government of the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah has victoriously emerged emboldened by its war with Israel. And the recent pressure tactics of Hezbollah in Lebanese domestic politics are an indication of its new-found strength, and determination to continue its Jihad against Israel with the full backing of Iran and Syria. Yet unlike Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah has not directly threatened American interests in the region. Why then did the US back Israeli action in Lebanon? Why does the US want to stop Hezbollah? After all, Hezbollah, in many Muslim eyes, remains a fully legitimate Islamic movement fighting for the rights of the Lebanese. Hezbollah and Hamas have great public support among the Arabs and Muslims of the region, as well as numerous other countries outside the Middle East.
Yet even those countries, which support Hezbollah and Hamas, are not standing up to defend the Palestinians and the Lebanese against Israeli aggression. Arab and Muslim leaders are simply too weak, fragmented, disunited, and intimidated to take any tangible action against Israel. As far as the Muslims are concerned, their leadership has failed them. In the opinion of many, there is no alternative but to meet Israeli aggression with force. However, the Arabs states have little capacity to mount a serious challenge to Israel, and satisfy themselves with spoken condemnations. Their words almost never translate into action. The only country that has decided to oppose the perceived Israeli aggression is the Islamic republic of Iran.
Given the vast resources of the Arab and the Muslim world, the present Arab and Muslim state of affairs is needlessly tragic.
THE MEDIA’S INFLUENCE
The media in the Muslim world is gaining more and more importance in shaping regional politics, and public opinion. Hezbollah has gained a voice in local radio and television networks like the Pakistani Geo and Arab Al-Jazeera, which have shown the suffering of Lebanese Arabs in way that has had a lasting impact on the Middle Eastern mindset. The media coverage of the War in Iraq has also bred both fear and loathing for the American military in the region.
The populace in the Middle East has never been angrier with the West. Ordinary Arabs and Muslims have turned against the US and Israel in a decisive manner. For all intents and purposes, the media is reinforcing the image of the US as an enemy of all Muslims and an unquestioned ally of the Israelis.
The policy of democratization that was supposed to go along with the US War on Terror has not fulfilled its promise. Were fair and free elections to be held today in most Muslim countries, almost every government would fall apart. Hence, some very valuable US allies would be ousted. Perhaps that is why the US is not pursuing its policy in the Muslim world.
And so, the US has lost its credibility throughout the Middle East. Its support of Israel as well as its occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq have made the US an enemy to the countries of the region. There is empirical evidence to suggest that most of the Arab and Muslim populace support Hamas and Hezbollah’s efforts against Israel. And the continuing violence of American and Israeli forces has done nothing but give more support to these Islamic radical movements. As the Arab governments are weakened, intimidated, and turn to appeasement strategies, radical groups have emerged to occupy the void. These groups serve as the voice of the suffering masses, choosing violent Jihad as a manner of expressing their feelings of despair, disillusionment, and anger. If the radical groups are successful in inciting a massive popular movement against Israel, the geopolitics of the region may be changed forever.
WAR FOR MINDS
The Global War on Terror is misguided in its disregard for the complexities of radical Islamic movements. The only thing, which can defeat these radical groups, is justice. The West must prove its respect for Islam, must back moderate Muslim governments, encourage democracy in the Middle East, and give Muslim countries room to grow. This war is not an external arms race, but an internal war for the minds and hearts of the people. Outside force will not help in resolving the matter.
President Bush’s administration has completely missed the mark in his war on terror. Addressing Muslim concerns is essential in order to end the terrorist attacks. The present Muslim leadership is also to be blamed for the presence of Islamic radical movements today. They have failed to bring wealth and wellbeing to their people. The Muslim leadership must collectively rise up to the challenge of meeting genuine Islamic grievances with justice and dignity. They must also learn toleration of moderate Muslim voices and reform their states and societies by promoting the rule of law and genuine democracy. Authoritarian ruling structures need to end and be replaced by popular rule. Political reform is badly needed in this part of the world in order to solve the problem of radical violence done in the name of Islam. Nothing else will do.
In the meantime, we can expect more radical outbursts of the sort that we have become accustomed to seeing in past years.