Last year, Congress asked the U.S. Institute of Peace, a government-funded think tank, to develop “a comprehensive plan to prevent the underlying causes of extremism in fragile states in the Sahel, Horn of Africa, and the Near East.”
So the Institute of Peace organized a bipartisan task force — a veritable who’s who of Washington’s foreign policy elite, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and, as co-chairs, former Gov. Tom Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who headed the 9/11 Commission which investigated the circumstances that led to the attacks 17 years ago, and offered recommendations to avert future terrorist attacks.
This week the task force released its “Interim Report on Extremism in Fragile States.” It notes that terrorist groups are now present in 19 countries in the Middle East and Africa, and have held territory in 10 of them. It argues that “to stop extremists from spreading further and roll back their gains, we need a new strategy, one that focuses on the incubators of extremism: fragile states,” and helps such states “build resilience against extremism.”
You may wonder: Is there a distinction between “building resilience,” and what has been called “nation-building?” Nancy Lindborg, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me that nation-building suggests constructing liberal democracies on foreign soil — an overly ambitious project. Building resilience implies that we provide robust support to local partners willing and able to improve governance and mitigate the underlying cause of extremism.
Which raises the question: What are the underlying causes of extremism?
I think the task force is right to say that extremism thrives where governments are weak, and is fueled by oppression and poverty. But it’s worth noting that much of Africa south of the Sahara is deeply impoverished, and under the boot heels of thuggish regimes. Yet that region produces few extremists or terrorists. Meanwhile, in Britain, France, Germany and other stable, free and prosperous states, Muslim communities continue to produce extremists.
I understand that sub-Saharan Africa and Europe are beyond the scope of this report. Still, their experiences with extremism are not irrelevant to the validity of a theory about extremism.
That brings us to the thorniest question: What role is played by Islam? The report avoids giving a name to what it calls “the most common form” of extremism, “the one posing the most immediate threat to the United States today.” It does, however, acknowledge that this most common form of extremism “espouses the creation of a radical Islamist state based on rigid, twisted, and false interpretations of sharia law.”
A quick and, I hope, telling anecdote: In Pakistan nine years ago, I met with a group of religious leaders, all Muslims but from different sects. I was impolite enough to ask about Osama bin Laden (who was then secretly living in Pakistan). All said they regarded him as an evil man.
I asked if they considered him an apostate — one who has turned his back on his religion. No, they responded, that would not be accurate. I asked if he was a heretic — one whose beliefs violate the fundamental tenets of Islam. That too, they told me, would not be correct.
Bernard Lewis, the eminent scholar of Islam, addressed this issue succinctly and straightforwardly. “We are at war with a movement in the Islamic world,” he said.
It is a movement that emphasizes jihad — a word never used in this report. Nor is there any mention of jihadism, defined by Father Richard John Neuhaus as an ideology premised on the teaching “that it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means necessary in order to compel the world’s submission to Islam.”
Jihadists wage war not just against non-believers but also against devout Muslims who dare disobey them. Jihadists are odious and threatening but, if we’re serious, we can’t say their reading of Islam has no roots in Islamic scripture and medieval Islamic civilizations.
Read a history of the caliphs: More than a few spent their lives leading jihads — the kinetic variety, not “inner personal struggles” — and interpreted sharia in ways that we moderns — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — find cruel and destructive.
That’s obviously not the view of salafi/jihadis — Sunnis who want to re-create Islam as it was in the centuries when its armies were conquering the world. Nor is it the view of Shia followers of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. They are eager to smite infidels with their swords — or whatever weapons they can acquire.
Yes, many of those joining jihadi groups are fleeing terrible circumstances in fragile if not failing states. But others want to participate in what they see as a glorious project — the construction of a new Islamic empire. And some may simply be eager to trade humdrum lives — schools, jobs, mortgages, families — for a license to pillage, slaughter and enslave.
One final question: Has the United States not, for decades, been attempting to help fragile states build resilience against extremism? The most obvious example is Afghanistan, hardly a success story to date. There’s also Lebanon, where the dominant force is now Hezbollah, terrorist proxy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Perhaps there’s more we can do. If so, I’m all for doing it. The U.S. Institute of Peace’s final report, a “comprehensive strategy for reducing extremism in fragile states,” is scheduled for release next year. Between now and then, the distinguished members of the Task Force have their work cut out for them.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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