Pakistani Muslims protesting against the Taliban outside Islamabad’s notorious Red Mosque. The Sultan of Sokoto and Emir of Kano (Nigeria) calling on Muslims to fight back against Boko Haram. A pan-Muslim alliance against the Islamic State (or ISIS). Muslim “people power” supporting the military in pushing out the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo in July. It seems as if the world’s mainstream Muslims are finally standing up to a half-century of violent radicalism. Why is this happening, and what should the West do?
The reason that the Muslim citizenry is finally rebelling against violent Islamists is because the Islamists—whether al Qaeda, ISIS, al Shabab, the Pakistani Taliban, or others—kill far more Muslims than they do Jews, Hindus or Christians. The simple fact is that Muslim-on-Muslim violence is a clash of civilizations: the brutal thuggery of primitive Islamism trying to tear down all vestiges of modernity in Muslim societies.
It is a war between criminals who want to repress and enslave those they deem inferior vs. the wider citizens of their own societies. Frighteningly, it is hundreds of thousands of Islamist killers. What else can we call rape as policy, public beheadings, and the murder of school children other than the grossest form of war criminality?
Why do they engage in such detestable behavior? The violent Islamists like ISIS do it in order to publicize their message. They are trying to recruit an army of like-minded young men, inspire dread among locals (so that they cower and surrender), and scare off the West. Ironically, however, the Islamist groups have gotten into a cycle of outbidding which horrifies average Muslims. Groups are trying to out do, or outbid, one another in shocking acts. ISIS and al Qaeda broke over ISIS’ extreme tactics; now we see the Pakistani Taliban imitating ISIS’ brutality in the recent killing of nearly 150 school children. Boko Haram has likewise gotten more and more grotesque over the past two years. Each is trying to earn top billing in the headlines of horror.
This is a downward cycle of bestial behavior by a blood-lusting, unrestrained group of men.
Unfortunately, millions of people in Muslim societies have long winked at, and even supported, these rogue elements. Saudi Arabia’s financing of Wahhbist-inspired mosques around the world has contributed to radicalization (observe ISIS’ Wahhabi-like emphasis on ‘purity’). The demonization of the West by Muslim governments as well as the religionization of politics in Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere has contributed to a churning cauldron of hate.
So, the recent popular movement against violent Islamism is a welcome sign, but one that has been far too long in coming. We should not mistake this for another phase of a peace-and-democracy-loving “Arab Spring.” This is raw disgust at the tactics of the Islamists.
What can the West do? What should Washington, and London, and Paris do? Very little, at least militarily, except in the support of key allies (like Israel, Turkey, and the Kurds). The best thing that Western governments can do is to stay out of it in most cases and let the Muslim people, in tandem with some of their governments (e.g. Cairo, Abuja), fight the Islamists. In some cases the U.S. can offer very quiet advice and intelligence, but in most cases it simply must not get sucked in. Many of those countries would like nothing better than for the U.S. to fight their battles for them. For instance, imagine the joy in Saudi Arabia if the U.S. bombed Iran. Such joy was apparent among conservative Gulf States, notably Qatar, when the West took out Libya’s Gaddafi.
What the West can do is amplify the counter-Islamist voices. Western media, aid agencies, houses of worship, NGOs, and non-military government agencies should broadcast widely and loudly these counter-Islamist movements. The world, especially the wider Muslim world, needs to see its own citizens fighting against violent Islamism. It needs to hear the credible voices that are pro-rule of law, pro-human rights, pro-religious liberty, and pro-democracy. It needs to hear these voices on the radio and see images of men and women standing up against the cowardly brutes who cover the faces while marching under the black flag.
The global fight against violent Islamism is at a critical juncture. Muslim citizens are standing up against the violence. If they are not successful, it is likely they will turn back the clock and seek authoritarian rulers as in the past, in order to get some security relief. Such a move will undoubtedly continue the cycle of repression, social stagnation, and violence in the greater Middle East. The West simply cannot solve these problems but it can expose and trumpet resistance to the violent Islamists.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and co-editor of the book, Debating the War of Ideas.
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