Inventing an enemy

Print edition : November 14, 2014

President George W. Bush with the pilots and crew of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off San Diego in May 2003. The carrier had returned from the Gulf region where it had been deployed earlier. Bush claimed that the war in Iraq had been won. Photo: AFP

President Barack Obama at Bagram airfield in Afghanistan in May 2012. Obama, the fourth successive U.S. President to attack Iraq, announced in September the decision to send U.S. planes to Iraq to bomb Islamic State targets. The war goes on. Photo: AP

The book argues that global jehad is a “myth” used by the U.S. “military-industrial-congressional complex” which wants wars for its survival.

ON May 1, 2003, more than a month after he launched the Iraq war, President George W. Bush of the United States made a cinematic landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which was lying just off the San Diego coast, having returned from combat operations in the Gulf. Making his landing in a Lockheed S-3 Viking, the President, dressed in a flight suit, posed for photographs with pilots and members of the ship’s crew. A few hours later, he announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq. “In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty and for the peace of the world. Our nation and our coalition are proud of this accomplishment, yet it is you, the members of the United States military, who achieved it,” Bush said from the flight deck of the carrier. Far above him was the warship's banner stating “Mission Accomplished”.

Cut to September 10, 2014. In a televised address, incumbent President Barack Obama said: “My fellow Americans. Tonight, I want to speak to you about what the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” Obama was announcing his decision to send bombers to Iraq to carry out aerial strikes on the Islamic State, or I.S. (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL), becoming the fourth successive U.S. President to attack Iraq. These two presidential statements tell us volumes about the present situation in Iraq. Bush had never accomplished the “mission”. Rather, his destruction of the modern Iraqi state was the starting point of most of the worries facing the nation, including Sunni militancy. Obama continues the interventionist legacy of his predecessors, despite warnings and a history that offers a disastrous picture of those interventions.

Today’s Iraq is fighting for its survival with I.S. militants bearing down on the capital city of Baghdad. Parts of north-western Iraq, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul, are already under their control. The sectarian policies of Iraq’s Shia-dominated government have driven a huge chunk of the country’s Sunni minority away from the government. The army seems to have lost its morale in the wake of relentless I.S. attacks, and the counterattacks are mostly powered by Shia militias with support from Iran. It is a classic case of a failed state. What is worse, there are many more Iraqs in today’s global system—Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Mali, and Sudan, among others. All these countries have at least two things in common—Islamist militancy and a past or present of direct or indirect Western military intervention. The end result is collapsed or weakened nation states and millions of people pushed into perpetual misery. This is a two-pronged problem, while mainstream analyses are often obsessed with only Islamism.

Taj Hashmi’s book Global Jihad and America challenges such stereotypical methods of analyses and tries to understand the problem in a larger context. Hashmi, who teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University, Tennessee, poses many questions: What turned Muslims and the West into adversaries in the post-Cold War world? What led to the emergence of Islamist terrorism? Is global jehad the biggest threat to world peace?, and so on. In his own words, the book is about “foretelling the catastrophic effects of the seemingly inevitable conflicts between America (and its allies) and their adversaries in the Muslim world backed by their non-Muslim patrons in the ongoing Hundred Year War”. The first Arab-Israel war of 1948 marked the beginning of a 100-year war between the Muslim world and the U.S. and “the post-Cold War Western invasions of countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and threats of invasions of Syria and Iran have further widened the scope” of this war, he writes.

U.S. exceptionalism

Is global jehad the greatest threat to human civilisation? Hashmi argues that global jehad is a “myth”, which only exists in the “imagination of Islamist fanatics, misinformed people, and most importantly in the vocabulary of Islamophobes”. It is the hegemonic designs and warfare of the U.S. and its allies that led to Islamist terrorism and insurgencies in a global perspective. The U.S. always needs a global enemy as its “military-industrial-congressional complex” wants wars for its survival. During the Cold War, it had communism, and in the post-Cold War period, it has global jehad. Throughout the Cold War period, the U.S. had backed a number of dictatorships and played several of them against one another in its bid to retain the American supremacy and protect its imperialist interests. It supported the coup against Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, backed General Augusto Pinochet who seized power in Chile from President Salvador Allende through a military coup on September 11, 1973, and bankrolled Contras militias to fight against the Marxist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, to name a few. “[President Ronald] Reagan considered the Philippine’s [Ferdinand] Marcos as one of the most democratic rulers in Asia and Angola’s warlord [Jonas] Savimbi, Zaire’s mass murderer Mobutu [Sese Seko] and Pakistan’s Islamist military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq as America’s best friends in the world,” writes Hashmi.

The U.S.’ support for Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s had been crucial for the rise of Islamist militancy in Afghanistan. Along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. funded and trained mujahideen fighters to fight a proxy war against the Soviet Army in communist Afghanistan. And after the Red Army wound up the war, the U.S. sat quietly, watching its ally Pakistan back the Taliban in the Afghan civil war that led to Mullah Omar’s eventual takeover of Kabul. The policy of allying with or promoting dictators and premodern forces continued intact in the post-Cold War phase as well. The U.S. backed the Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf until he was forced to demit office in 2008. Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak counted on U.S. for support until his final days in power in early 2011. Still, Saudi Arabia, one of the most brutal dictatorships in West Asia, is the U.S.’ greatest Muslim ally in the region.

So the U.S.’ commitment to liberalism and liberty has always been cut short by its own geopolitical interests. And whenever it suits its interests, the U.S. has embraced liberal internationalist rhetoric and even shaped its foreign policy around such grand morality-based ideas. That is what it did in Yugoslavia in the late 1990s when President Bill Clinton led a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) attack on the East European country in the name of “humanitarian intervention”. The U.S. did the same thing in Iraq in 2003 when Bush said he would “liberate” Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and bring democracy to that country. These selective interventions serve only the U.S. interests and threaten world peace. That is why Hashmi asks, “What went wrong with America?” “Is America the biggest problem towards world peace? Is not the American legacy of expropriation, mass murder of indigenous people, slavery and apartheid at the core of the American psyche, while the American dogma of freedom and democracy is quite superficial, not applicable to non-Americans?”

The U.S.’ policy of divisive politics and promotion of Muslim autocracies are also responsible for the lack of democracy and civility in many parts of the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, writes Hashmi. “America’s post-World War II policy towards the Muslim world has not been about strengthening democracy, secularism and good governance. It was all about serving America’s short-term geopolitical interests. Its State Department hardly has any long-term vision and programme, at least not in the Third World.” By 1991, almost all Muslim majority countries—barring Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia—had remained autocratic; and by 2003, three of them—Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan —had been invaded by Western troops. If Islamists during the Cold War considered the West a “suspect-cum-ally, as a friend against their common enemy, communism”, the equations changed in the post-Cold War era, with the West continuing to target Muslim-majority countries. “In short, the cumulative unpleasant post-Cold War Muslim experience has led to the beginning of another Cold War”—Islam versus the West.

Who is a bigger threat in this evolving conflict? To be sure, “many Islamists are out and out fascist in their outlook. They believe and promote the concept of global jihad or total war against all non-Muslims, either to forcibly convert them into Muslims or perform qital or mass slaughter of non-Muslims and deviant Muslims,” Hashmi writes. And the violence Islamists have committed, including the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Centre in the U.S., is well documented in our times. But what about the atrocities the American empire has unleashed on humanity? The death toll in the Second World War was between 60 million and 85 million, but U.S.-led invasions of dozens of countries since the Korean War led to more than 75 million deaths, mostly civilians, Hashmi says. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 alone killed more than a million Iraqis by 2007. Since then hundreds and thousands of Iraqis have died in sectarian violence. And in 37 countries the U.S. invaded since the Korean War, the death toll has been between 20 million and 30 million, between nine million and 14 million in Afghanistan alone. He has no doubt that “the West-sponsored new world order has been the biggest challenge to human civilization since the end of World War II”.

Global Jihad and America helps one understand the intricacies of the post-Cold War world order. It also shatters several myths about U.S. foreign policy and offers a grave but realistic picture of the U.S.’ military interventions. What makes the book stand out is its refusal to follow the stereotype. But where it is found lacking is in identifying the problems within the Muslim world. When he says “Muslims in general are not fit for rational thinking”, one cannot miss the Orientalist overtones in the statement. Or, when he says that U.S. foreign policy is not the only factor responsible for the emergence of Islamist militancy or for the absence of democracy and freedom in the Muslim world. He also sheds little light on the geopolitical rivalries between Muslim nations and their implications on peace in the Muslim world. In today’s West Asia, the U.S. is not the only country that wages proxy wars. There is a regional Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and both nations have their proxies in several countries. And finally, calling the post-Cold War conflicts a war between Islam and the West is oversimplification of the U.S. foreign policy goals and strategies. Did the U.S. attack Iraq because Iraq is a Muslim country? Doubtful. Iraq was not ruled by Islamists when Bush invaded the country. It was a Muslim-majority nation ruled by the secular Baath party. Before Iraq, the Clinton administration intervened in Yugoslavia on behalf of the Albanian Muslims in Kosovo, who the West said were facing an existential threat from the Serbs. In Syria, the U.S. is aligned with Saudi Arabia against Bashar al-Assad’s secular dictatorship. The pretexts change. What remains is the interests of imperialism. The U.S.’ goal is to retain its singular power status in the post-Soviet world and continue to shape the politics in the Third World either through coercion or through diplomacy.

But Hashmi is right in pointing out that this hegemony is getting weakened and the changes in global politics may open new avenues of competition for dominance, with China and Russia now waiting in the wings.

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