Thursday, December 10, 2015

Seven inconvenient truths about ISIS, terrorism

Guest Editorial (first published on Des Moines Register)

American Muslims now live with three interconnected and devastating burdens: disastrous civil wars that are turning Syrians and Iraqis into unwanted refugees, acts of terrorism by fanatical groups that are distorting their faith, and racist attitudes and acts inspired by politicians claiming to represent the citizens of the United States. None of these issues are of American Muslims’ own making. Yet they are called upon to clear their religion of perversions, argue the virtues of admitting refugees, and fight new expressions of persistent racism in America. The real perpetrators of these burdens continue to profit from their trade in the sweat and blood of the vulnerable, and the real causes continue unabated.

Undoubtedly the couple Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, were inspired by ISIL. There is also no doubt that the order to commit such murders came from ISIL, although law enforcement officials claim that they have no evidence that “ISIS directed or ordered the attack.” The distinction between attacks inspired by ISIL and the ones ordered by ISIL reveals a lack of understanding of the ideology and practices of ISIL and an incoherent response that allows this group to carry out its genocidal agenda. This willful ignorance is present among federal law enforcement officials and politicians, especially those who are supposed to formulate a comprehensive strategy to neutralize and eradicate such threats. Importantly, the occurrence of these brutal attacks in many countries, with both Muslim and non-Muslim majorities, underscore the link between the crises in Syria and Iraq, the spread of terrorism, and increased hateful speech against Muslims. It is now abundantly clear that the longer the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars are allowed to continue, the graver the threat of terrorism around the world. Therefore, properly defining the nature of the terrorist threat facing the world and defeating ISIL in Syria, Libya, and Iraq will protect American citizens — all of them — at home and abroad, and will end the cycle of violence that is killing and displacing people from their homes and countries.

Defeating ISIL and its current and future derivative requires a comprehensive principled strategy that is built on facts, not on imagination or political spin. Through such a strategy the administration should be able to protect American citizens — including American Muslims — effectively counter ISIL’s propaganda, and stop the violent civil wars that create the kind of environment where ISIL thrives. Fearing being perceived as sympathizers to authoritarian regimes, most experts and media outlets avoid reminding the public and our political leaders of the facts and the hard truths that must guide U.S. foreign policy and security strategy. Here are some of these facts and hard truths:

1. All major attacks, including the recent Beirut, Paris, Tunis, and San Bernardino attacks, were carried out by individuals who were inspired and guided by the Saudi brand of Islam known as Wahhabism or Salafism. That is not to say that all Salafists are terrorists, but rather that all ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists are Salafists. Moreover, all those who carried out these attacks were inspired by ISIL and its derivatives operating out of Syria, Iraq or Libya. Therefore, ending the civil wars in those countries must be part of the strategy of fighting Salafi-inspired terrorism.

2. Assad and his government did not create ISIL. Before the civil war, Syria was stable, prosperous and safe. Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Alawites and Kurds lived in relative peace. True, under the old Syrian constitution, the Baath party had a monopoly on power and the Baath regime, like all other Arab regimes prior to the Arab Spring, was an authoritarian one. However, Syrian women were educated and able to drive and travel, citizenship was not defined in religious or sectarian terms, and elections, though flawed, were regularly held. The Syrian government may have harassed, imprisoned, and tortured political opponents, but Syrian troops did not behead people, chew on their internal organs, and videotape themselves doing so. ISIL and its derivatives have. Furthermore, the U.S. government, through its rendition practices, was in part responsible for the Syrian government’s use of torture.

3. The Syrian government did not start the civil war. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey started the war when they hijacked the peaceful protest movement and provided opposition groups and foreign zealots with political, financial, and military assistance in order to overthrow the Assad regime. Therefore, the estimated 250,000 people killed in Syria were not all killed by the Syrian government, they were killed by both government forces and rebel groups. Most armed groups, in fact, specifically targeted minority civilians, like the Alawites.

4. As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair — one of architects of the war in Iraq — admitted recently, the invasion of Iraq produced ISIL. Similarly, the Syrian civil war strengthened ISIL. Therefore, those responsible for the civil war in Syria are responsible for strengthening ISIL and its derivatives.

5. The Bush administration falsely claimed that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction and on that basis pursued its real goal: regime change. It managed to overthrow the Baath regime in that country. That regime was then replaced by a tightly managed democratic regime, which brought to power the majority in that country: the Shias. That outcome enraged the non-democratic sectarian rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These rulers, riding the wave of the so-called Arab Spring protest, plotted their own regime change in Syria. They paid Syrian officers to defect, bankrolled the formation of a coalition of political opposition, and flooded Syria with weapons and religious fanatics through the Jordanian and Turkish borders. The U.S. administration and other Western governments went along with this dangerous plan for regime change. As a result, ISIL and other Salafi combatants took over large territories in Syria and Iraq and used it as a base to train fighters from all over the world to carry out attacks inside and outside those countries.

6. One of the most tragic decisions of the Bush administration after the invasion of Iraq was the de-Baathification program, which released hundreds of thousands of military and security personnel who were later recruited by al-Qaeda and ISIL. The Saudi plan in Syria, to which the U.S. acquiesced, was to form an alternative army out of defecting officers and Salafi combatants to replace Assad and his troops. Unsurprisingly, the same plan has led to the same result: more trained free agents joining ISIL and its derivatives. By joining this sinister Saudi plan, President Barack Obama has made the same mistake in Syria that President Bush had made in Iraq. It is imperative that the president abandon his support for the Saudi’s destabilizing agenda and irrational behavior.

7. Protecting American citizens, including American-Muslim citizens, is the primary charge of the president. Therefore, candidates seeking the presidency and the current president must act responsibly in addressing threats to Americans. However, American-Muslim citizens are threatened by the current political discourse. Statements by Republican presidential candidates like Donald J. Trump, Ben Carson, and even Jeb Bush criticizing President Obama for not using their favorite phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” turns American Muslims into a political football and risks their lives. If they want to be specific and factually accurate, politicians could call the phenomenon by its true name: “Combatant Wahhabi Terrorism” or “Combatant Salafi Terrorism.” However, Republican politicians, trying to establish their credentials with the evangelical conservative wing of the party, find it politically expedient to invoke the name of Islam. Administration officials, including President Obama, are seeking to preserve the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and therefore prefer to be less specific so not to offend a so-called ally, regardless of that ally’s erratic behavior. On both ends of the American political spectrum, the discourse about ISIL is false, based on short-sighted political thinking, and risks the lives of American citizens.

The threat of more terrorist attacks carried out by Combatant Salafi Terrorists is real. But that threat cannot be addressed with half measures diluted by diplomatic niceties intended to appease the rich Saudi rulers, or hatemongering intended to appeal to racist, xenophobic voters. The U.S. must develop and adopt a courageous policy built on two strategies: (1) shoring up the Syrian and Iraqi governments — not the so-called “moderate” rebel groups or Sunni tribes — so that these governments are able to defeat ISIL militarily, and (2) confronting the only two official Wahhabi states in the world — Saudi Arabia and Qatar — and forcing them to end their support of Combatant Salafism by allowing other branches of Sunni Islam, like Hanfism, Malikism, and Shafi`ism, to debate and challenge their deeply anti-reason Wahhabism.

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