Use of Muslim militancy to defeat Arab nationalism a massive strategic error

 

Young Muslims are easy recruits for liberation groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban or Hamas, writes Michael Jansen

AL-QAEDA IN the Arabian Peninsula has issued a chilling communique, couched in a medieval idiom, following its failed attempt to destroy a US airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day.

The organisation, dubbed Aqap, claimed responsibility, praised its agent, Omar Farouk Abdul Muttalab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, and boasted of its prowess with high-powered explosives.

Dismissing the failure of the Detroit device as “God’s will”, Aqap pledged: “We will continue on the path (God willing) until we achieve what we want . . . We call upon all Muslims . . . to kill every Crusader” in the Arabian Peninsula, and to punish US citizens for supporting leaders who kill “our women and children . . . We have come to slaughter you and have prepared for you men who love death just as much as you love life.”

It is now nearly 70 years since the US initiated tentative contacts with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the mother-and-father of all militant Muslim groups.

The brotherhood, founded in 1928 as a revivalist, social reform and anti-imperialist movement, has inspired and indoctrinated thousands of young Muslims who studied at universities in Egypt, once the cultural capital of the Arab world.

Affiliates of the Egyptian brotherhood formed organisations in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan, and have served as mentors for militant organisations rising in the wider Muslim world.

Following the 1952 ouster of Egypt’s king by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Washington courted the brotherhood in an effort to counter the tide of secular Arab nationalism engulfing the Arab world from Algiers in the west to Aden in the east.

Saudi Arabia was also encouraged to use a portion of its oil revenues to promote Muslim activism as a counterweight to the drive for liberation of Arab countries and the unification of the Arab front. These were seen as threats to western interests in the region and to Israel, established by war in 1948 at the expense of Palestinian Arabs.

At first, Washington and its western allies ignored the fact that the brotherhood’s agenda included liberation, as well as calling on Muslims to return to their faith and abide by traditional social norms.

However, the West exploited the liberation aspect of the brotherhood programme in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded strategic Afghanistan. The US and Saudi Arabia conspired to oust the Soviet Union from the country by co-opting the native Afghan resistance and bolstering it with holy warriors from the Muslim world.

Arab, Asian, African and European veterans of this campaign have since formed the core of local militant groups as well as al-Qaeda and its franchises in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

After Shia clerics toppled the shah of Iran in 1979, oil-rich Saudi Arabia, aided and abetted by the West, strove to counter Iran’s efforts to export its Shia Islamic Revolution. Sunni competitor Saudi Arabia projected its puritan religious ideology by building mosques and training preachers.

The Saudi aim was to convert congregations in the 85 per cent Sunni majority worldwide community, the Umma, to Riyadh’s uncompromising Wahhabism.

However, a significant minority of converts adopted the liberation struggle as well as personal piety, and returned to traditional Muslim behaviour and practice.

Angry and frustrated by Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the impotence of their US-allied rulers, young Muslims became easy recruits for liberation groups, whether al-Qaeda, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, or Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The conclusion that must be drawn from this experience is that the use of Muslim militancy to defeat Arab nationalism was a monumental strategic mistake.

The conflict between militant Muslims and the West is civilisational, with historical, religious, cultural, and nationalist dimensions, and is, consequently, nearly impossible to resolve.

The dispute between the Arab nationalists and the West was merely political, and might have been resolved if the western powers had addressed Arab grievances.