Bolster secularism among Muslims

Last Updated 10 January 2010, 16:46 IST

Throughout the 19th century Britain and Russia competed for control of Afghanistan and Persia in a conflict dubbed the ‘Great Game’. Today there is another ‘Great Game’ in play.This involves the US drive to eradicate Muslim militancy. The Bush administration called this endeavour a ‘war on terror’; the Obama administration has tried to avoid such terminology but it is seeping back into usage. The Bush failed and Obama is certain to fail. Indeed, Barack Obama is likely to compound the damage done by George W Bush.

Obama, his experts and generals do not understand any more than their predecessors what they are confronting even though the US and its allies are largely responsible for the rise of Muslim militancy. Its roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood, established in Egypt in the 1920s. The Brotherhood was a religious revival, reform, and liberation movement all rolled into one. It tried and failed to oust Britain from Egypt and Palestine but its adherents fanned out across the Arab world to found branches of the movement and reached out to disaffected Muslims in the world-wide community.

Root cause

The extended Brotherhood was courted by the US and other western powers after secular nationalist army officers overthrew Egypt’s king and launched an endeavour to achieve Arab unity, which was seen as a challenge to western control of strategic West Asia and a threat to Israel. The US encouraged Saudi Arabia to use its influence and oil money to promote Muslim piety and political identity with the aim of undermining secular pan-Arab nationalism. The Saudis built mosques and provided them with clerics trained by the Saudi puritanical religious establishment, seeding the world with rabble rousing preachers who spread the message of resistance — through holy ware or jihad — to western political and cultural dominance.

Between 1979-89, the US and Saudi Arabia jointly raised an army of holy warriors, mujahideen, to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Some veterans of this campaign went back into their home countries and raised the standard of revolt against secular regimes. Others joined former mujahideen commanders, like Osama bin Laden, to wage jihad against the West. The objective was to punish it for its support of Israel against the Palestinians, conquest of Iraq, war in Afghanistan, and backing for authoritarian pro-western regimes.

The new version of the ‘Great Game’ is far more dangerous than the 19th century original because it has a world-wide dimension. The West’s rulers simply do not comprehend what they have done and make no effort to address Arab and Muslim grievances. These multiply with every Israeli bombing of Gaza and every US strike on Afghan, Pakistani or Yemeni villages. Arab and Muslim alienation has become so deep and widespread that it is almost too late to address its causes.

Due to pressure from pro-Israeli lobbies, western leaders refuse to pressure Israel to end its occupation of Palestine. It is no coincidence that Humam Khalil Balawi, the young man who blew up US CIA agents and his Jordanian handler in Afghanistan; Nidal Hasan, the US doctor who shot 13 soldiers in Texas; and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, were Palestinian refugees.

Unable to eradicate militancy root and branch, the US and its allies try to identify militant networks, ‘kill or capture’ mujahideen leaders and fighters, and disrupt the flow of funds. But to succeed, US intelligence agencies need to comprehend their foe and to garner reliable information. They do neither.  For example, the CIA’s desperation for information led it to recruit Balawi as a double agent to spy on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. He was trusted to enter the CIA base, where he slew his controllers even though he openly espoused anti-US sentiments and declared his intention of becoming a suicide bomber.

Following the Christmas day attempt by a young Nigerian to blow up a US airliner over Detroit, Washington is seeking to step up efforts to intercept potential attackers. Success cannot be guaranteed. Intelligence agencies cannot hope to track the movements of all the world’s mujahideen and identify those taking part in operations. Security personnel at airports cannot be expected to make up for intelligence deficiencies and high-tech machines are only as effective as the people who operate them.

The only way to play the new ‘Great Game’ is to deal with Palestinian, Arab and Muslim grievances and bolster secular nationalism.

(Published 10 January 2010, 16:46 IST)

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