Ex-Islamic radicals on what motivates -- and impedes -- extremism

Why are such glaring truths about the effects of our policies continuously ignored?

Published November 16, 2009 11:17AM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

The British journalist Johann Hari has written an absolutely vital article for The Independent, examining a growing movement of former hardened Islamic militants who are now devoted to teaching a more moderate and less fundamentalist Islam.  Hari focuses on understanding what motivates some Muslims to turn to radicalism and terrorism in the first place, and how that process can be reversed.  Though these ex-militants have very diverse backgrounds, they all stress two critical facts:  (1) the more the foreign policy of the West is seen as aggressive, violent and oppressive to the Muslim world, the easier it is to convert Muslims to violent radicalism, and (2) the most potent weapon for undermining Islamic extremism is the efforts of Westerners to work against their own governments' belligerent policies:

To my surprise, the ex-jihadis said their rage about Western foreign policy -- which was real, and burning -- emerged only after their identity crises, and as a result of it.  They identified with the story of oppressed Muslims abroad because it seemed to mirror the oppressive disorientation they felt in their own minds. . . .

But once they had made that leap to identify with the Umma – the global Muslim community -- they got angrier the more abusive our foreign policy came. Every one of them said the Bush administration's response to 9/11 -- from Guantanamo to Iraq -- made jihadism seem more like an accurate description of the world. Hadiya Masieh, a tiny female former HT organiser, tells me: "You'd see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think -- anything is justified to stop this. What are we meant to do, just stand still and let him cut our throats?"

But the converse was -- they stressed -- also true.  When they saw ordinary Westerners trying to uphold human rights, their jihadism began to stutter. Almost all of them said that they doubted their Islamism when they saw a million non-Muslims march in London to oppose the Iraq War:  "How could we demonise people who obviously opposed aggression against Muslims?" asks Hadiya.

One of the leaders of Britain's movement of ex-Islamists, Maajid Nawaz, recounts how his hardened militarism began when, as a youth, he read "leaflets saying Muslims were being massacred all over the world, from India to Bosnia to Southend."  In 2000, he moved to Egypt and began recruiting students into radicalism.  Listen to what he says about what helped and hindered his efforts:

He started to recruit other students, as he had done so many times before. But it was harder. "Everyone hated the [unelected] government [of Hosni Mubarak], and the US for backing it," he says. But there was an inhibiting sympathy for the victims of 9/11 -- until the Bush administration began to respond with Guantanamo Bay and bombs. "That made it much easier. After that, I could persuade people a lot faster."  

Nawaz was ultimately imprisoned in Egypt and was surrounded by Egyptian prisoners who were being brutally tortured by a government propped up by the U.S. (he was spared only because he was a British citizen).  Consider what began to change Nawaz's views on the rightness of his Islamic extremism:

Maajid's Islamist convictions were about to be challenged from two unexpected directions -- the men who murdered Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Amnesty International.

HT [the Islamic group which he had headed] abandoned Maajid as a "fallen soldier" and barely spoke of him or his case. But when his family were finally allowed to see him, they told him he had a new defender. Although they abhorred his political views, Amnesty International said he had a right to free speech and to peacefully express his views, and publicised his case.

"I was just amazed," Maajid says. "We'd always seen Amnesty as the soft power tools of colonialism. So, when Amnesty, despite knowing that we hated them, adopted us, I felt -- maybe these democratic values aren't always hypocritical. Maybe some people take them seriously ... it was the beginning of my serious doubts."  

In other words, the very policies the U.S. has been pursuing in the name of combating Terrorism -- invading, occupying, and bombing Muslim countries; locking them up without trials; torturing them; violating the values we've been preaching to the world -- have been the most potent instruments for fueling Islamic radicalism and terrorism.  By contrast, those who have been continuously accused of being "soft on Terrorism" and even being allied with the Terrorists -- those who opposes our various wars, who demanded and provided basic human rights protections and equal liberties to Muslims, who objected to their own governments' oppressive and belligerent policies -- have done more to diffuse and impede Muslim radicalism than virtually anyone else in the world.

These truths are so self-evident that they shouldn't require journalists like Hari to document.  If we invade, bomb and attack Muslim countries -- and uniquely deny to them the rights we claim are universal (such as the right to be free of torture and imprisonment without trials) -- then far more Muslims are going to wallow in rage and hatred for the West and be willing and eager to return the treatment.  Conversely, seeing Westerners speak out against their countries' attacks on, and oppressive policies towards, Muslims renders far harder to sustain the divisiveness and demonization on which all radicalism feeds.  This is all basic cause and effect, as even the Pentagon's own Task Force concluded all the way back in 2004 in explaining how and why our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are severely exacerbating the threat of Terrorism.

Despite how obvious and well-documented these truths are, so many American elites continue to ignore them.  Writing in Newsweek this week, Slate's Editor-in-Chief Jacob Weisberg looks at the Fort Hood shootings and various disrupted terrorist plots and concludes that Obama has perhaps been too conciliatory towards Muslims; that "Obama's [so-called] olive-branch strategy" has not made us safer, at least in the short-term; and that "Obama's heritage feeds a broader suspicion that he is too casual about the threat from America's Islamist enemies."  In what fantasy world is Jacob Weisberg living?

Obama is presiding over active wars in three separate Muslim countries -- Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  All year long, there has been an abundance of video footage of Muslim villages -- including scores of women and children -- being wiped out by American air raids.  Obama has already escalated the war in Afghanistan.  His administration is actively demanding the right to abduct people and imprison them at Bagram with no charges and is actively protecting those who spent the last decade torturing Muslims and disppearing them to secret camps.  Our steadfast alliance with Israel -- which The New York Times' Mark Mazzetti documented this weekend was a prime motivating factor in the militarism and hatred of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- has been symbolically altered by Obama but otherwise remains fully in place.  It's true that Obama has sand-papered some of the roughest rhetorical and policy edges of the Bush/Cheney approach -- explicitly barring torture and CIA black sites, trying to close Guantanamo, sounding a far different tone in how he speaks about and to the Muslim world -- but, at least so far, many of the fundamentals remain largely in place, and it's thus unsurprising that Obama's intense international popularity has not yet translated to much of the Muslim world.

Despite all that, people like Jacob Weisberg fret that Obama "has not taken the radical Islamist threat to American security -- at home or in Afghanistan -- seriously enough," and demand that Obama announce to the world that "America does not face a threat from the perversion of faith in general. We face a threat from the perversion of one faith in particular."  Even in the face of mountains of evidence that this sort of heightened aggression and oppression exacerbates the threat of Islamic terrorism, people like Weisberg continue to demand more of it.  And even in the face of the most compelling evidence imaginable that accommodation to the Muslim world and treating Muslims equally and respectfully is the greatest threat to the Islamic extremist, people like Weisberg perpetually worry that we're doing too much of that.  At some point, a rational person has to wonder whether people like Jacob Weisberg -- who endlessly advocate policies that fuel Islamic extremism and intensify tension between the West and the Muslim world -- aren't desirous of exactly that outcome.  After decades of pursuing this blatantly counter-productive approach, what else could explain such moral and intellectual blindness?

* * * * * 

I'll be on MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan show this morning at 9:00 a.m. EST discussing the 9/11 trials.


UPDATE:  The MSNBC segment I did this morning included George Pataki arguing against 9/11 trials, and Rep. Jerry Nadler who, along with me, argued in their favor.  There were several points highlighted by this discussion which I'll write about shortly, once MSNBC makes the video available, but the fear Pataki was spewing about holding real trials in New York, combined with his insistence that we exempt accused Muslim terrorists from our standard institutions of justice, is exactly the fuel that drives Islamic radicals, as documented by Hari.  It was almost as though Pataki was intent on providing a textbook example of everything I wrote here this morning.


UPDATE II:  The MSNBC segment I did this morning with Pataki and Nadler is here.  Note how little faith people like George Pataki have in America and its institutions:  he doesn't trust our judiciary to safeguard the nation's secrets; he doesn't trust our courts to mete out justice to accused Terrorists; and he doesn't trust the NYPD or the FBI to keep residents safe if we follow the example of virtually every other civilized democracy by providing trials to accused Terrorists in the place where they did their damage.

With regard to Hari's explanation of what fuels Islamic radicalism, note how completely his explanation tracks what The New York Times' David Rohde told us about what motivated his Taliban captors:

For the next several nights, a stream of Haqqani commanders overflowing with hatred for the United States and Israel visited us, unleashing blistering critiques that would continue throughout our captivity.

Some of their comments were factual. They said large numbers of civilians had been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories in aerial bombings. Muslim prisoners had been physically abused and sexually humiliated in Iraq. Scores of men had been detained in Cuba and Afghanistan for up to seven years without charges.

To Americans, these episodes were aberrations. To my captors, they were proof that the United States was a hypocritical and duplicitous power that flouted international law.

When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?

Aren't we, by now, faced with enough conclusive evidence proving this causal connection to no longer be able to ignore it?

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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