The emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda, the Islamist State and other Islamist groups has put these questions in sharp perspective. The persistence of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with Saudi Arabia’s support and export of Wahabism, have made the issue of violent extremism of vital importance. The attacks of September 11th and America’s intervention first into Afghanistan and then Iraq conspired to accelerate the forces and influence of violent Islamist extremism. While the ghastly events in Paris earlier this month provoked oceans of condemnation, the long arm of this perversion of Islam shows that this struggle is far from over.
In one sense, little of this is really new. As Lenin crisply observed, “the purpose of terror is to terrorize.” Religion, terror and violence have interacted, sadly, for millennia. The history of religious inspired wars is well-known, preceding by centuries the deaths of Christ and six hundred years later of Mohammed. Similarly, the spread of Islam after 632 AD and its dominance of much of the known world for eight hundred years is well recorded. One defining difference however is that unlike Christianity, Islam has never undergone a reformation.
Put another, way the nuclear division between Sunni and Shia denominations following Mohammed’s death might have made future reform impossible unlike Martin Luther’s schism with Catholicism in the early 16th century. That Islam is practiced in many different ways also makes reform elusive. A further and perhaps immovable obstacle is how the Koran has been adapted or twisted to fit many different versions of Sharia law.
The Koran does mention punishments for blasphemy. Over centuries however, Sharia law was used to impose strict political controls and to counter opposition under many guises. Hence, Saudi law still imposes harsh punishments from beheading to the lash. And Afghan Taliban Sharia law outlawed kite-flying as an abomination against Islam. Reversing or changing interpretation of Sharia law into a single, approved code could prove as difficult as King Canute attempts to turn back the tides.
What has turned Islamists into such dangerous and vicious adversaries fundamentally arises from the combination of failed and failing government and economic disadvantage at a time when the diffusion of power and globalization has empowered people and groups at the expense of states. One result has been the fueling of deprivation and frustration whether for reasons of dignity, equality, access or empowerment. While it can be argued that economic desolation is not the root cause of religious extremism, clearly it plays into the hands of those attempting to manipulate others to support a particular cause.
The tragic case of the impoverished Tunisian fruit vendor who lit himself on fire in desperation is overwhelmed by many more who have become suicide bombers. The prospect of an eternity in heaven for martyrdom provides an outlet and excuse to perpetuate the most extreme aspects of violence. And the excruciating dilemma of how non-Muslim states and publics can deal effectively with Islam without provoking and producing a countering backlash has yet to be resolved.
Answers could rest in linking NATO, the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) and the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) including its observers (that include India, Iran and Pakistan) to complement the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the World Muslim League. Nigeria, Indonesia and Iraq with large Muslim populations must also participate. The purpose would be to address the fundamental causes of radicalism to develop solutions to be implemented within and without the world of Islam.
Discouraging formation of a new, separate body is easy. Who wants another international organization? The potentially unresolvable religious, strategic, ideological and economic interests and differences among potential members—Iran and Saudi Arabia and India and Pakistan are prime examples—could be self-defeating.
But unless or until strong coordinated action follows, the clash of violent Islamists with modernity and civilization will continue. Given the Internet and the power to persuade and disrupt via it, do not expect any real solutions anytime soon. To quote a past American defense secretary, this will be a long, hard slog.