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Only Muslims can fight radical Islam

On December 3, at a meeting of the HSE's Asian Club, Professor Georgiiy Mirskiy of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs gave a talk about what radical Islam is and the main myths about it.

De-mythologizing radical Islam

There are several different myths circulating about the problem of radical Islam. Unfortunately, this ideology can trace its roots back to certain elements in Islam.

First, many believed that only the disadvantaged and destitute turn to terrorism. This is not true. Most Islamist terrorists are people from a well-off background with a higher education. If you take, for example, the 19 people who took part in the September 11, 2001 attacks, then 15 of them were from Saudi Arabia: a rich country, and the themselves had both higher education and work. Those people who took part in the 2005 attacks in London were of Pakistani descent but were British citizens, and included doctors and teachers. And we have not seen terrorists emerge internationally on that level who are from Bangladeshi or parts of Africa.

Islam, compared to other religions, is relatively straightforward. It offers an entire worldview, and that has a great impact. Who converts to Islam in European countries? Not the destitute, but educated, intelligent youths.

 Another perception that remains dominant, especially now, is that all these Islamist organisations were created by the United States. That is not the case. It is true that when Al Qaeda emerged in Afghanistan, the Americans – at the height of the Cold War – with the help of Pakistani intelligence (ISI) used this and entered into an alliance with the Mujahedeen, giving them weapons. But Al Qaeda had already come into existence some time earlier.

Why (radical) Islam is attractive

So, what is the strength of an ideology that people, especially young people, seem to find so attractive that they are willing die for it? It seems that Islam is currently the strongest religion – in the sense of the extent to which people adhere to it. Islam is not just a religion; it is a way of life, an entire civilisation.

Why have so many in Egypt converted? Islam, compared to other religions, is relatively straightforward. It offers an entire worldview, and that has a great impact. Who converts to Islam in European countries? Not the destitute, but educated, intelligent youths.

It strikes me that there are some comparisons that can be made with the 1930s in Western Europe, when young intellectuals, grew tired of their bourgeois, middle class life (with its lack of spirituality, as we would say now) and hungered for a greater cause, a grand idea, and found either Communism or Fascism. They did this to become part of a greater community, a great future. Many of those who convert to Islam, are also searching for a grand idea. Nazism is no more (Neo-Nazis aside), the idea of Communism has (largely) collapsed, so what alternatives are there to vulgar, philistine capitalism and democracy? Many – and you could call them romantics or idealists – believe that there is only Islam.

Restoring justice

So why do these people feel such spirituality and rage? Why do they join terrorist networks? It is impossible to understand this without first recognising that all this is taking place against a sense of global injustice against the Muslim community (or Ummah).

The Koran does not contain any concept of the Muslims as a 'chosen people' but it does say that its followers are the 'best of the nations ever raised up for mankind' (Surah Ali Imran, verse 110).

There are people who are filled with a sincere desire to protect Islam, and are willing to die or kill for it.

This sense of injustice, one could call it an inferiority complex, is arguably quite undeserved. A Muslim has it all: God has rewarded him, but fate has conspired to make him feel marginalised, excluded. This should not be confused with envy of the West. In their teachings, Islamists stress that Western society is comprised of the heathen, faithless, ungodly, and debased. What, or who, is there to envy? That is why the events we see today cannot be called a religious war or a war between Islam and Christianity, because precious little Christianity remains in Western society.

How Al Qaeda went global

After the Soviet Army left Afghanistan, infighting broke out among the Mujahedeen, who were set on mutual destruction. Then the Taliban became dominant. And when there was no one left to fight in Afghanistan, the USSR had collapsed, America had given up, where did these Islamists go?  They dissipated, melting away into Algeria, Bosnia, and the North Caucasus. Terrorist cells formed in various countries. Al Qaeda in Iraq (the origin of Islamic State) took shape, another Al Qaeda formed on the Arabian peninsula, which is currently fighting Saudi Arabia in Yemen. A third Al Qaeda formed in the Maghreb or North Africa.

Then the Arab Spring came, and militants crossed the border into Syria, and took up arms against the local Shiite authorities. Then, this year, they crossed the border back into Iraq, once Obama had withdrawn U.S. forces, and currently control about a third of Iraq and a quarter of Syria. If IS continues to strengthen and consolidate, and creates the caliphate that is its goal, then its capital is to be Damascus.

Double game against all

American troops cannot get really involved in the conflict in the Middle East. If they do, it would mean U.S. forces taking the Shiites' side against the Sunnis. And 20 of 21 countries in the Middle East are Sunni, including the United States' traditional allies – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. That's the trap the U.S. is currently trying to extricate itself from.

But the hope remains that they will destroy themselves. Through their barbarity and excesses, the IS Sunni fighters risk antagonizing local Sunni tribes.

Syria's leader Bashar Assad (Alawite) is playing a double game. On the one hand, he understands that sooner or later he will die at the hands of the Islamists or Jihadis. But this is a question for the (albeit near) future. For now, he is pleased to see IS operating on Syrian soil, since this means that the United States cannot give heavy weaponry to the Islamists fighting against his regime due to the fear they may fall into IS hands. IS militants are among the most brutal and ruthless fighting there, not least because they view dying for their faith as a privilege and an honor.

IS will destroy itself

A coalition of 60 countries has emerged against IS, but they will not deploy ground troops. Paradoxically, Iran finds itself on the same side as the United States in this conflict – Iranian planes also bomb Jihadi positions. Iran will not send in troops – memories of the Iran-Iraq war are still fresh, and it is impossible to imagine a Persian soldier marching on an Arab city. So that means that the real force in the region is not a government army, but an army built from local groups – Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Kurd.

This coalition can try to exert economic pressure on IS. Where does its money come from? Seized oil that they sell at low prices to anyone they can find – Turkey or even the government in Damascus. Assad has also bought cheap oil from them. This is another part of this double game. Severing this supply chain is possible. IS's other sources of funding include: extortion, theft, and taxes of the population in territory they control – are harder to combat.

But the hope remains that they will destroy themselves. Through their barbarity and excesses, the IS Sunni fighters risk antagonizing local Sunni tribes. And it is hard to imagine Al Qaeda or IS without this brutality. A leopard cannot change its spots. If it were moderate, it would not be Al Qaeda. I personally am counting on this.

How to defeat radical Islam

But even if, as we hope, IS vanishes, that would not mean the end of radical Islam. I repeat, radical Islam is not a temporary malaise, it is not a fever, it could very well be a cancerous tumour that grew out of the body of Islam. It is not a problem that can be solved by military or external propaganda. Only by re-building the Islamic community, only by understanding that it is a dead-end, which will lead to the ultimate demise of Muslim civilisation, that it hurts Islam, that it is responsible for the fact that people in many countries view 'Muslim' as synonymous with 'terrorist', only this will, over time, lead to a change.

Photo Mikhail Dmitriev

See also:

Conference ‘Islamic Migrants in Russia, Europe and America’

On December 15, 2011, the HSE Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR) held a conference 'Islamic Migrants in Russia, Europe and America' in St. Petersburg.