By Nasir Shansab, Author “Silent Trees”
The continual bloodshed in the Middle East feels as if it will never end.
In Afghanistan, the country where I was born and where I still maintain a residence (although I’ve lived for many years in the Washington, D.C., area and am proud to call America my home) three U.S. civilian contractors and an Afghan national were killed and an additional American contractor was wounded just this week in a shooting at a military base at North Kabul International Airport Complex. These terrorist attacks feel to many as if we’re battling the mythical Hydra; cut off one limb and two more grow back to take its’ place.
In its short life, al Qaida has morphed into many parts and spread out over a large area. Its successor organizations including ISIS have survived America’s military onslaught and gained ground in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Nigeria. In view of our failure to destroy Islamist terror militarily, we must search for new policies to adequately deal with this growing threat.
First, we must recognize that we deal with not one but two distinct groups of jihadists. There are modern-world jihadists, such as Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the killers of Charlie Hebdo’s editor and the magazine’s several other employees. They grew up in the developed world, mainly in Europe, were educated in modern schools, and—as the brothers Kouachi displayed by their effectiveness—function like modern people.
These modern-world jihadists have a beef with their countries of their parents’ choice. They believe that their adopted society have cast them out to its periphery so that it would neither have to see nor deal with them in the normal cycle of daily life. That ejection has had traumatic effects, leading them to isolation and despondency. They realized that jettisoning their parents’ foreignism had not made them members of the society they had believed they belonged to. By its treatment of them, the majority conveyed to them that it was not willing to accept them as its own.
Their parents’ gentle love and constant anguish over their well-being was not enough to counterbalance the coldblooded rebuff of life beyond their dilapidated surroundings. The fury transformed them to advocates of death and destruction.
Second, there are the homegrown jihadists who grew up in their countries of origin. They believe that it is their elites who are responsible for their marginalization and damnation to lives of poverty and subservience. Their prime objective is the destruction of their countries’ elites. As long as the outside world does not interfere in their countries, they are not particularly concerned with the rest of the world and do not feel an urge to launch terror attacks in other regions. However, should outsiders interfere on behalf of their elites—what the West has traditionally done and continues to do—they will become targets of terrorism.
Hence, the direct danger to the West, specifically Europe, does not necessarily come from homegrown Islamists. The threat comes mainly from the alienated and embittered men and women from the West itself.
The basis for the homegrown jihadists’ radicalization is quite similar to that of the modern-world Islamists. Both groups believe they have been forced out to the fringes of their societies and condemned to a life of rejection, marginalization, and humiliation. While the homegrown Islamists revile a small minority within their own countries, namely their ruling elites, for their backwardness and poverty, the modern-world Islamists make the majority population of the countries of their parents’ choice responsible for their marginalization and deprivation. Both groups want a better place within their societies, crave for equality and a sense of belonging, and the opportunity to participate in the life of their nations.
The tragic and abhorrent happenings in the Middle East and Nigeria remind me of the Thirty Years War in Europe. Between 1618 and 1648, Europeans fought for land, for domination, and, yes, for God. And they fought with the same indiscriminate violence, torture, murder of civilians, rape, and pointless destruction that we see Islamists engage in today.
Although the Thirty Years War’s root cause of controversy was political, religion played a major role in it. For one, religion had an omnipresent and omnipotent place in people’s lives and almost everything was scrutinized and judged in religious terms. For another, both Catholicism and Protestantism contended to being the sole route to heaven, a confrontation that seeped into the political and social discord.
Much of what compelled Central and Western Europeans in the 17th Century to kill 20% of themselves in the Thirty Years War are virtually the same ingredients that have instigated the Islamist rebellion in several Moslem nations. While the Islamist rebellion has strong religious elements—such as the Shi’a–Sunni divide, the outdated Shari’ah laws, and the virtual lack of secularism—the real motivation for it is political, social, and economic.
It is an accident of history that development in most of the Islamic world has stagnated and those nations have barely emerged from the Middle Ages. In the context of this lack of evolution in their social, religious, and legal advancement, it is not surprising to see Islamist fighters behave as they do. Without wanting to excuse murder and mayhem, that is what happens after centuries of oppression and decades of economic and social stagnation. When the urge for change takes hold of the populace, the resulting struggle is, if history is a guide, violent, cruel, and long-lasting.
The killing and mayhem during the Thirty Years War initiated and gradually led to secular politics, legal reforms, international law, and the idea of sovereignty. These developments propelled the West toward modernity, wealth, and progress. This historic fact leads me to believe that the Muslim world’s tragedy will also steer it out of its present backwardness and thrust it into the modern world.
This alone is reason enough for the West to let those countries find their own way out of their present turmoil by themselves. In refraining from interfering in those internal struggles, we would also avoid becoming a target of Islamist terror attacks. Besides, by our interference, we don’t solve those countries’ problems. We merely arrest the progression of change and delay the inevitable to return at a later time with more vengeance.
As for the modern-world Islamist terrorism, Europeans and Americans should realize that their Muslim minorities will not vanish. They would do themselves and all their minority populations a favor if they let them fully and equally participate in their national life.
Nasir Shansab has maintained homes, business interests and dual citizenship in both the United States and Afghanistan for the past three decades. He was once one of Afghanistan’s leading industrialists and had advised the White House and Parliament on matters regarding his home country. Shansab’s book “Silent Trees” is published by Headline Books.