Watching the gruesome execution videos, I felt some of the same emotions I did after 9/11. Barbarism is designed to provoke anger, and it succeeded. But in September 2001, it also made me ask, “Why do they hate us?” I tried to answer that question in an essay for Newsweek that struck a chord with readers. I reread it to see what I got right and wrong and what I’ve learned in the past 13 years.
It’s not just al-Qaeda. I began by noting that Islamic terrorism is not the isolated behavior of a handful of nihilists. There is a broader culture that has been complicit or at least unwilling to combat it. Things have changed on this front but not nearly enough.
It’s not an Islam problem but an Arab problem. In the early 2000s, Indonesia was our biggest concern because of a series of terrorist attacks there after 9/11. But over the past decade, jihad and even Islamic fundamentalism have not done well in Indonesia — the largest Muslim country in the world, larger in that sense than Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and the Gulf states put together. Or look at India, which is right next door to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s headquarters in Pakistan, but very few of its 165 million Muslims are members of al-Qaeda. Zawahiri has announced a bold effort to recruit Indian Muslims, but I suspect it will fail.
Arab political decay. The central point of the essay was that the reason the Arab world produces fanaticism and jihad is political stagnation. By 2001, almost every part of the world had seen significant political progress — Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, even Africa had held many free and fair elections. But the Arab world remained a desert. In 2001, most Arabs had fewer freedoms than they did in 1951.
The one aspect of life that Arab dictators could not ban was religion, so Islam had become the language of political opposition. As the Westernized, secular dictatorships of the Arab world failed — politically, economically and socially — the fundamentalists told the people, “Islam is the solution.”
The Arab world was left with dictatorships on one hand and deeply illiberal opposition groups on the other — Hosni Mubarak or al-Qaeda. The more extreme the regime, the more violent the opposition. This cancer was deeper and more destructive than I realized. Despite the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and despite the Arab Spring, this dynamic between dictators and jihadis has not been broken.
Look at Syria, where, until recently, Bashar al-Assad actually had been helping the Islamic State by buying oil and gas from it and shelling its opponents, the Free Syrian Army, when the two were battling each other. Assad was playing the old dictator’s game, giving his people a stark choice — it’s either me or the Islamic State. And many Syrians (the Christian minority, for example) have chosen him.
The greatest setback has been in Egypt, where a nonviolent Islamist movement took power and squandered its chance by overreaching. But not content to let the Muslim Brotherhood fail at the polls, the army displaced it by force and moved back into power. Egypt is now a more brutal police state than it was under Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned, many of its members killed or jailed, the rest driven underground. Let’s hope that ,10 years from now, we do not find ourselves discussing the causes of the rise of an Islamic State in Egypt.
What did I miss in that essay 13 years ago? The fragility of these countries. I didn’t recognize that if the dictatorships faltered, the state could collapse, and that beneath the state there was no civil society — nor, in fact, a real nation. Once chaos reigned across the Middle East, people reached not for their national identities — Iraqi, Syrian — but for much older ones: Shiite, Sunni, Kurd and Arab.
I should have paid greater attention to my mentor in graduate school, Samuel Huntington, who once explained that Americans never recognize that, in the developing world, the key is not the kind of government — communist, capitalist, democratic, dictatorial — but the degree of government. That absence of government is what we are watching these days, from Libya to Iraq to Syria.
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