By Hamad Al Thunayyan
Rai Insights Contributor
Washington D.C.: 27 people lost their lives in the Kuwait Mosque blast. 130 people died in the Paris attacks. 32 people were killed in the Brussels attacks. 42 deaths resulted from the bombing in Istanbul, and many others were wounded in these tragic incidents. They all have one thing in common: ISIS.
There is no doubt that the rise of ISIS has exacerbated Islamophobia around the World. The Supreme Court in Japan recently ruled that the surveillance of Muslims is legal. Donald Trump, the Republican Nominee for the U.S. Presidency, said: “I think Islam hates us,” and he wants to impose a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. Following the Orlando shooting, Hillary Clinton blamed Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait for their lack of efforts to stop their citizens from financing extremist organizations. Are these reactions toward Muslims justified?
Let us run some numbers. The large majority of Muslims in the Middle East oppose ISIS. In fact, a 2015 poll shows that 92% of respondents in Saudi Arabia alone have a negative view of ISIS. Figures from 2013 indicate that Americans had a higher chance of being killed by a toddler than by ISIS. Statistics also show that Muslims were responsible for less than 0.0002% deaths occurring in the United States after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In fact, homegrown extremists in the U.S. have killed twice as many people as Muslim extremists have since 9/11.
Do not be mistaken. These numbers should not encourage us to ignore the fact that ISIS bases its rhetoric on a distorted interpretation of Islam in order to recruit members, receive funding, and legitimize their organization and actions. But radical Islamic rhetoric alone is not enough to understand ISIS, and not all radicals resort to violence. A political opportunity must be present to mobilize collective violence.
This was not the first time that U.S. policies in the Middle East backfired. The U.S. policy in the region played a role in the rise of radical Islamic groups over the last 36 years. Consider Al-Qaeda. The Jihadi Militias were told: “that land over there is yours. You will go back to it one day because your fight will prevail, and you will have your homes and mosques back again…because your cause is right and you have God on your side.” The speaker was not Al-Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden or Ayman Alzawahiri. It was not ISIS’s leader, Abu-Baker Albaghdadi, either. This was said by Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security advisor to President Carter, addressing the Afghani mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union back in 1979. The same militants who later created Al-Qaeda, and did 9/11.
Equally important, however, is the lack of democratic institutions that guarantee fairness and justice in the region, resulting in an association between politics and violence.
Governance matters. Systematic repression by some states in the Middle East has lured a number of their citizens into joining radical groups and exchanging views with the government using AK-47s and other weapons. Similarly, the lack of freedom of expression in many Middle Eastern countries cannot be ignored.
Tunisia is a good example. While it is the cradle of the Arab spring, it is also the number one source for ISIS recruits. Around 7000 Tunisians were estimated to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and more than 8000 suspected ISIS sympathizers were barred from leaving the country. Why did they join ISIS?
Thank Ben Ali, who has been the dictator of Tunisia for the past 23 years.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Ben Ali used repressive state laws to “stifle civil society, diminish judicial independence, limit political participation, and shield the president from accountability for any legal trespass, no matter how grave. In particular, the laws punished citizens for expressing views critical of the government.” It would be unrealistic to imagine that a revolution in Tunisia would create a civic culture overnight, or even in few years. In fact, a 2015 poll conducted in Tunisia shows that 95% of those surveyed have little faith in state institutions and the security establishment. They believe that the state is still unjust and corrupt, even after the Arab spring. More broadly, the public citizens in the Arab world sometimes feel that their governments are detached from Arab issues.
Consider Palestine. The Arab-Israeli conflict resembles an unending collective historical and psychological experience of humiliation and suffering. As Telhami notes, “every Arab generation since 1948 witnessed wars and bloodshed connected to Palestine. And every major political movement has made Palestine and Jerusalem a central theme of its ideology and narrative”. Palestine is a “religious issue” and the solution is to declare Jihad and fight, ISIS said in a video. This strategy has been used effectively by ISIS to market its brand of radical Islam and garner support.
To defeat ISIS, we need to neutralize the political environment that created it in the first place.
Hamad Althunayyan is a PhD Researcher in Political Science at University of Maryland- College Park. He earned his BA in Political Science from Virginia Commonwealth University and MA in International Relations from American University – Washington, DC. He wrote several articles on Gulf security, Iran, and U.S. role in the region.