In the last one and half month, a spate of terrorist attacks across the globe and Quetta city, either executed in the name of Islam or attributed to religion, has escaped one important fact from the notice of a number of political pundits: specific concrete factors, other than Islam, are the raison d’etre of these instances of violent extremism. There is no denying that Islamism has a role in inciting violence, however.
What is important is that the role of ideology is principally a reflection of the concrete factors of violence. We must differentiate between what Graham E Fuller says source of conflict and vehicle of conflict. Islam, the vehicle of conflict is mainly used as a means to ennoble a cause or conflict, which has otherwise concrete factors, source of conflict, for its existence.
Attributing Islamist violence exclusively to Islam is problematic. The fourth wave of modern terrorism, billed as “religious wave” beginning since 1979 is a very recent phenomenon. On the other hand, Islam is a 1400 years old tradition. Even the genesis of modern terror is traced back to 1880s. Its first wave called the “anarchist wave,” was followed by “anti-colonial wave” in 1920s. The “New Left wave” of 1970s was succeeded by the current wave informed by religious underpinnings.
Therefore, historical disconnect between violent extremism and the role of Islam as the cause for the presence of Islamists’ perpetrated violence renders the hypothesis ahistoric. Similarly, bracketing religious violence with Islam engenders a tendency to absolve states’ policies of all wrongs that are committed. Last but not least, bracketing Islamists’ perpetrated violence with Islam leaves common Muslims averse to condemning the terrorists’ violence because, in their understanding, criticising Islamist terror is considered equivalent to criticising Islam itself. The urgent need is to dissociate Islam with Islamists’ terror in the name of Islam.
Is Islam responsible for Islamists’ terror?
Things are far clearer in our Afghan neighbourhood than elsewhere. Who can refute that fighting the Soviets in 1980s, dubbed jihad, in Afghanistan was an American sponsored proxy war aided and abetted by a dozen or more countries? Are we not suffering from the continuation of those legacies? Critics may point out that the US quit the scene post Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and even then religion-inspired violence has been taking place in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are two explanations for the question why violence — with Quetta horrific blast as a case in point — in the name of religion shows no sign of subsiding.
First, the investment of billions of dollars in religious radicalisation was never countered by a similar investment in de-radicalisation to help religious extremism peter out from Pak-Afghan region. This was a pointed reminder that the US’s policy of Soviet containment in Afghanistan was a matter of national interest and convenience rather than any sense of subsequent responsibility.
Second, as Afghanistan dropped from the US’s strategic arena, the ensuing disengagement of the US from that country brought about a power vacuum. As a result, regional states, ranging from India and Iran to Pakistan, moved in to fill the void. Each state strived to create its own proxy arrayed against others in such an arrangement which left Pakistan and Sunni Arab monarchies — the Saudis especially — arrayed against India, Shiite Iran and Russia; Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The tussle created the religious Taliban on the one hand and the so-called secular Northern Alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras on the other. As these proxies became overwhelmingly dependent on regional powers for arms and finances, they became increasingly vulnerable to external manipulation.
As always true of international politics, the common interest of seeing in America a sworn foe brought even Iran and Taliban, the two arch rivals, on the same page. By 2007 and 2008, there were reports by UK’s Special Forces operating on Iran-Afghan border that Iran was “supplying the Taliban with devastating roadside bomb-making equipment.” More, Mullah Mansour’s death in an American drone strike in May, while the Afghan Taliban chief was travelling from Iran to Balochistan, laid bare Tehran’s alleged links with the militant movement.
In the wake of IS’s emergence in Afghanistan, especially their stronghold in Nangarhar province, Iran is concerned to protect its 572-mile long border with Afghanistan from any IS’s infiltration into Iranian mainland. In its bid to counter the virulently anti-Shia Islamic State, Iran seeks in the comparatively moderate Taliban a proxy role to fight against the terrorist entity.
In a similar way, the Afghan society is being militarised through other means too. As a recent New York Times report bears evidence, thousands of Afghan Shiite, drawn primarily from the historically persecuted Afghan Hazara community, are lured by Tehran to fight alongside the Assad forces in Syria. The consequences are already obvious. In July, the Kabul’s twin suicide attacks, claimed by the Islamic State, on a peaceful demonstration of Afghan Hazaras are a grim reminder of how regional states’ involvement is wreaking havoc on Afghans.
Thus, taking Afghanistan as a case study, the preceding paragraphs demonstrate that the continuity of religious violence in the country and Pakistan’s northwest is principally because of the continuation of past policies informed by national interests of global and regional states. The desperate need is to resist the temptation of claiming that Islam is responsible for every episode of violence committed by Muslims. In other words, the need is to look into specific reasons which give rise to militant violence elsewhere too and seek remedies.
In the case of Pak-Afghan region, the international community led by the US must invest in technical education in areas hit hard by religious extremism. More, Afghan policymakers should exercise restraint: establishing peace in the existing boundaries of Afghanistan should be the priority than making fantastical irredentist claims. Moreover, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran should learn the bitter lesson of history: there are simply no good Taliban. The stepped-up cooperation between Iran and Afghan Taliban is a strange bedfellow alliance, which won’t go Iran’s way in the long run. At least this is what past has taught us: Taliban are mercenaries; worse, they are a parasite too!