By Jyotika Teckchandani
07 May 2016
At a time when the world is trying to grapple with the unprecedented scale of terror activities, the growing trend of various terror outfits seeking affiliation to the brute Islamic State (ISIS) is baffling as it is not the deadliest Jehadi organisation in the word. As per the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, ISIS killed 6,073 people in 2014, while Nigerian group Boko Haram has 6,644 deaths to its credit. Even al-Qaeda, which ruled the terror world for over two decades, has faded in front of the growing craze among the radical Islamists for ISIS.
What Has Caused This Sustained Interest In ISIS?
All Islamic terrorist groups’ claimed goal is to wage Jehad to re-establish puritanical Islamic society. Till the birth of ISIS, al-Qaeda hogged all the terror limelight, especially for the 9/11 misadventure. Despite massive American backlash, al-Qaeda maintained its position as number one Islamic terrorist organisation, but it lost the crown to ISIS after the brute force captured part of Iraq and Syria and grabbed the headlines. Moreover, ISIS’ unique techniques like declaring Caliphate and maintaining uninterrupted supply of enemy girls and women as sex slaves to keep it mercenaries entertained worked wonders.
Moreover, when fundamentalists are fighting to establish an utopian Wahhabi Islamic state which is purged of heretics like Shias, Yazidi, Jews, Christians and all other Kafirs, al-Qaeda’s loss of popularity among the Islamists was also due to the dilution of its principles. For example, after the seizure of the Yemeni port city of Mukalla in April 2015, al-Qaeda commanders didn’t hesitate to ink a pact with local tribal leaders to allow music at parties or men wearing shorts — both considered un-Islamic by the radicals.
The growth of ISIS in West Asia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabab in Kenya continues to testify resilience, sustenance and appeal of extremist Islamist ideology, notwithstanding the powerful, relentless international and Islamic condemnations against the same.
A part of the explanation to this trend lies in the covert and overt support of State actors to such non-state actors in order to protect, advance and defend one’s own narrowly defined “national interest”. The “internationalisation of Islamic terrorism” in Afghanistan was partly due to the support extended by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan. If the US facilitated the grouping of international mujahedeen in Afghanistan primarily to check the erstwhile Soviet influence in the Persian Gulf, the Saudis’ support to Sunni-Pashtun Taliban was meant to check the influence of Shia Iran through Shia-Hazara Afghani militants in Afghanistan. Whereas Pakistan saw in Afghanistan crisis a golden opportunity to mobilise resources — money and arms (primarily through US-Saudi nexus) — to advance its nuclear programme, to settle the border with Afghanistan, and finally to use Taliban terrorists as foot soldiers to fight in Kashmir and conduct other terrorist operations within India.
ISIS is the product of inter-State West Asian politics as it stems from the failure of Arab Spring to institute a democratic transformation in the region. However, ISIS thrived on account of support extended by the nexus of the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The US indirectly supported ISIS by ignoring its activities in order to grind its own axe — to check the growing Iranian influence in the region following the US invasion of Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Qatar connived with ISIS for “Sunni mobilisation” against Shia Iraq and its protégé Syria. Turkey trusted ISIS as “resistance forces” to the Baathist regime in Syria, as well as to nip in the bud the bid to establish Kurdish state on Syrian-Turkish border.
As long as ISIS confined its activities to political capture of Iraq and Syria, it was tolerated and supported by the West and Sunni Gulf monarchies as it suited their national and regional agenda. However, with its malignant growth, claiming caliphate, ISIS posed the existential threat to conservative Islamic Gulf monarchies and to the interest of the West in the region. Therefore, ISIS became a pariah. Similar was the case with Muslim Brotherhood. Saudis and other Gulf countries nurtured the organisation and provided safe haven in their countries to the persecuted members of Muslim Brotherhood to undermine the Nasserite regime in Egypt and to destabilise post-Nasserite regimes. However, when Muslim Brothers democratically occupied the Egyptian State they turned a threat to be eliminated. The West, Saudis and other Gulf monarchies provided all supports to the Al-Sisi regime to dismantle the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt. The same happened to FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) in Algeria during 1990-1991.
Such political use of non-State actors by the State and regimes has not been without consequences. It often proved counterproductive to their interests, and even posed the existential threat to the regimes. Al-Qaeda nurtured by the US in Afghanistan extracted the superpower’s blood in the form of 9/11 and put the lives of Americans at risk globally. Similarly Pakistani’s support to Taliban boomeranged as it has recorded a spurt in terror activities in that country. Turkey too has begun to feel the heat of ISIS backlash following blasts in Ankara, and Istanbul.
However, beyond the political use of Islamic terrorist groups by States, the historical roots of this menace lies in development of Wahhabism. The modern colonial context unleashed the process of redefining Islam as an ideology at least since 18th century. Almost all post-Wahhabi Islamic movements in the Muslim world have operated within the discursive field of Wahhabi Salafism and shared in varying degree the Wahhabi vision of Salafism and its political imagination of sharing the State power. The process gradually gave birth to the idea of an “Islamic state”, an idea that was intensified more against the backdrop of the abolition of caliphate by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. Though the idea remained incoherent, it continues to express aspirations of a section of Muslim community domestically and internationally — both peacefully and violently.
One consequence of this process is the emergence of Islamic terrorist organisations, which are not only influenced by the resistance discourse of pan-Islamism. The terrorist outfits try to fit themselves into Wahhabi orientation that is distinctively sectarian, supremacist, thoroughly opportunistic in nature and places no consideration of universal moral values to their “Islamic” mission.
The political Islam of any variety, whether Wahhabi or AKP type, cannot be an effective counter discourse to Islamic militant or terrorist organisations such as ISIS or al-Qaeda. Founded on the notion of “other” and being inherently “immoral” both on account of its ideological construction and non-acceptance of “modernist politics”, the creed of political Islam lacks sufficient moral and ethical resources to wipe out the influence of Islamic terrorism.
The only recourse to such political contingency lies in the resurrection of universal moral and ethical vision of Islam in the public life of the nation and community. In this regard the support extended by the Modi Government to four day-long World Sufi Forum, which was organised by the All-India Ulema and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), the apex body of Dargahs, tombs of Sufi saints, in March 2017, is an important step.
Though some fundamentalist Muslim scholars and leaders see in Modi’s policy an attempt to divide the Muslim community and to weaken it further, others find this Sufi initiative as an expression of internal power struggle within Islamic religious groups. It cannot be denied that Sufi’s culture and ideology represents Islamic syncretic tradition that alone would resist the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.
Jyotika Teckchandani a visiting faculty member, Amity University, Noida