Alternet: When Bill Maher and Sam Harris recently re-ignited the debate over Islamophobia on the left, they defended themselves from charges of racism by invoking the specter of Islamic extremism. In responding to their critics, Muslim-bashers often argue that Islam embodies uniquely dangerous, retrograde ideas, which naturally lead to violent expressions of political Islam.
Even people who are otherwise sympathetic to the fight against Islamophobia will concede that Islamic extremism is a threat that deserves to be taken seriously. However, what’s lost in these debates—and what Islamophobia serves to erase—is the fact that Islamic extremism is often the direct product of Western imperialism. Many of the groups identified as proof of Islam’s violent nature enjoy their status due to having been cultivated by the West, usually as a weapon against secular leftist opposition. From the beginning of the Cold War until today, violent Islamic fundamentalism has served as a useful tool of American foreign policy.
Here are eight reasons why America and its allies are responsible for Islamic extremism.
1) The US backs Saudi Arabia against pan-Arab socialism (1950s-1970s).
In many ways, Saudi Arabia is one of the most formative forces in shaping the contemporary Middle East. As part of America’s Cold War strategy, the Middle East’s reactionary forces were cultivated to serve as a bulwark against socialism. As professor Deepa Kumar explains, “the turn by the United States toward promoting Islam on the political stage began in the 1950s.”
At the time, the pan-Arab socialism promoted by leaders like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was an ideology on the rise. For his defiance of Washington, Nasser was one of the first politicians to earn the now-ubiquitous comparisons to Hitler. The US and UK collaborated on plans to overthrow or kill Nasser in the melodramatically titled Omega Memos, and ultimately decided to back Saudi Arabia as a strategic counterweight to Egypt.
Beginning in the 1970s, Nasserism was outpaced by the right-wing influence of US-backed Saudi money. Bolstered by the OPEC oil embargo and empowered by supra-national proxies like the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Saudi Arabia saw its influence grow. With this influence, it supported reactionary religious groups throughout the region like the Muslim Brotherhood.
“At the end of the day,” Kumar writes, “through its various political, religious, and economic institutions, Saudi Arabia played a key behind-the-scenes role in furthering the cause of Islamism. This role was accentuated even more after 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution deposed the Shah.”
2) The CIA funds Iran’s clergy against Mossadegh (1951-1953).
Under Mohammad Mossadegh—Time’s 1951 Man of the Year—Iran had the sort of progressive democracy that the US claims it wants more of in the Muslim world. According to journalist Stephen Kinzer, “When I would say to [Iranians], Why is it that Iran’s never been able to develop a democracy, they’d say, We had a democracy until America came over and crushed it.”
Mossadegh was a populist and staunchly anti-Communist but, to the West’s alarm, he was also a nationalist. When he became Iran’s Prime Minister in 1951, he nationalized British oil claims as part of a burgeoning social welfare system. When Mossadegh’s government got wind of a British plan to overthrow him, he closed the British embassy, successfully foiling the abortive coup. However, the UK asked America to take over, and the sympathetic Eisenhower administration set in motion Operation Ajax—the CIA coup plot against Mossadegh.
The CIA’s scheme was dependent on fomenting local opposition to the popular Mossadegh government, and they found Iran’s Islamist clergy to be receptive partners. Kumar says, “Ayatollah Khomeini’s mentor Ayatollah Abolqassem Kashani…received substantial sums of money from the CIA and had very close to ties to them.”
Clergymen like Kashani successfully mobilized thousands of Iranians against the Mossadegh administration, contributing to his overthrow in August 1953. The subsequent 26-year rule by the Shah was marked by brutal repression, which ultimately led to the Islamic revolution. “It is this initial ground work laid by the CIA and Kashani,” Kumar says, “that helped position Khomeini for the role he played in the 1979 revolution.”
3) Israel backs Hamas against nationalist Palestinian resistance (1970s-1980s).
Between the Nakba and the First Intifada, Palestinian armed resistance was largely secular, leftist, and nationalist in nature. The largest group, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), modeled itself on the guerilla organizations that successfully expelled colonial forces throughout the Third World. The largest group after the PLO was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), founded on Marxist principles by a Palestinian Christian, Dr. George Habash. Prior to the 1980s, the constellation of groups claiming the mantle of Palestinian resistance rarely linked their struggle to political Islam.
Israel and the US saw competing Islamist factions as an opportunity to weaken these groups. When Israel conquered the Gaza Strip in 1967, it inherited the Saudi-backed Muslim Brotherhood. “When Israel first encountered Islamists in Gaza in the 1970s and ’80s, they seemed focused on studying the Quran, not on confrontation with Israel,” Andrew Higgins explains in a Wall Street Journalpiece titled “How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas.”
When these groups started coming into conflict with secular leftist groups, Israel either turned a blind eye or allowed the Islamists to have free rein. Israel’s support included affording charity status to Mujama al-Islamiya (the group that would become Hamas), releasing Islamist leaders from prison, or allowing groups like Hamas to attack leftist groups openly in the streets. That Hamas is now widely popular for its resistance to Israel is an outcome of Israel’s own making.
4) America, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan back the Afghan mujahideen (1979-1989).
The story of how the US backed the anti-Soviet mujahideen during the USSR’s war in Afghanistan is relatively well known. At the time, it was romanticized in popular culture, with Rambo and James Bond fighting alongside the gallant guerillas, although it’s been given more serious takes after 9/11 in films like “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
In order to create a military quagmire that would drain the Soviet Union of blood and treasure, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan orchestrated a support, funding, and recruitment network for fighters in Afghanistan waging war against the USSR.
The CIA’s Operation Cyclone began in 1979 with a covert program to fund and arm anti-Soviet forces. The US spent billions to fund the mujahideen, with Saudi Arabia ultimately matching American funding dollar for dollar. Next door to Afghanistan, the US supported Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq embarked on a project to make Pakistan’s institutions more religious and more reactionary. Zia’s Pakistan provided a training ground and forward operating base for the mujahideen as the leader purged the country of socialist economic policies and pluralism.
The decision to create “Russia’s Vietnam” led directly to more than 4 decades of war, poverty, and misery for Central Asia. It contributed to the rise of the Taliban and the September 11 attacks. Americans hear even less about Pakistan than about Afghanistan, but much of what they do hear, from the attempted murder of Malala Yusafzai to the 28/11 Mumbai attacks, stems from the US-supported “Islamization” of Pakistan.
In an ironic inversion of the idea that political extremism is proof of Islam’s backwardness, President Ronald Reagan dedicated a launch of the space shuttle Columbia to the mujahideen, comparing them to America’s founders. The episode is a useful illustration that actions can represent either the ultimate savagery or the greatest in human idealism depending on how it serves the government’s interests.
5) US foments sectarianism to destroy united Iraqi opposition (2003-2008).
One of the most powerful and enduring American propaganda myths is that of a 1,000-year-old Sunni-Shi’a split that is responsible for today’s violence in the Middle East. In Iraq, this split has been invoked as the cause of the catastrophic human suffering unleashed in the wake of the US’s 2003 invasion. In reality, sectarianism is a tool of American counterinsurgency strategy.
At the outset of the US occupation, “there were serious rumblings across Iraq of a national uprising of Shiites and Sunnis,” wrote Jeremy Scahill in his book “Blackwater.” The burgeoning opposition to the Americans spoke in a language that was nationalistic in nature, which bode ill for the American invaders. According to Nir Rosen, “Iraqis were not primarily Sunnis or Shiites; they were Iraqis first, and their sectarian identities did not become politicized until the Americans occupied their country, treating Sunnis as the bad guys and Shiites as the good guys.” Faced with the prospect of a united Iraqi opposition, the US turned to the classic tactic of divide-and-conquer.
A large part of America’s strategy in Iraq was imposing a dualistic Sunni vs. Shi’a political structure to weaken Iraqi unity. Rosen says that the ruling Coalition Provisional Authority saw Iraq’s society in Manichaean terms, treating Iraq’s Shiites like Jews in post-WWII Germany, and the Sunnis like the defeated Nazis.
“US forces targeted the Sunni resistance with the utmost repression, raiding homes, seizing ordinary people, tortured detainees in Abu Ghraib and wreaking havoc over whole cities like Falluja,” wrote Ashley Smith in an article for the Socialist Worker.
The most destructive aspect of the US’s counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq was “the Salvador option”: empowering sectarian death squads that committed torture, murder, and waged a bloody civil war. Implemented by General David Petraeus and his underling, Colonel James Steele, the “Salvadorization” of Iraq led to tens of thousands of deaths and the country’s continuing misery. The invasion would also lead directly to the rise of ISIS, which was initially “al Qaeda in Iraq.”
6) US boosts Libya’s al Qaeda-affiliate against Gaddafi (2004-2011).
In 2004, Muammar Gaddafi began a much-publicized rapprochement with the NATO countries. In public this meant photo-ops between Gaddafi and Tony Blair in a desert tent, or trips by John McCain to the Libyan leader’s ranch. Behind the scenes, according to Dan Glazebrook at Middle East Eye, “this image was largely a myth.” As soon as they established a foothold in Libya, the US, UK, and France began surreptitiously setting the stage for NATO’s eventual regime change.
The US and Britain arranged back-channel meetings with figures who would help overthrow the Libyan government in 2011. Most crucially, the US’s covert allies in Libya helped “speed up the prisoner release program that led to the release of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group insurgents who ultimately acted as NATO’s shock troops during the 2011 war,” according to Glazebrook. “The head of the LIFG —al-Qaeda’s franchise in Libya—eventually became head of Tripoli’s military council.”
Today, LIFG is one of the most powerful fighting groups that have brought Libya “very close to the point of no return,” in the words of a UN envoy.
7) US’s regional allies back ISIS (2011-2014).
It’s a truism that a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth, and Joe Biden finally made a gaffe worth commenting on beyond the usual Onion-fodder. In October 2014, Biden identified US allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and NATO member Turkey as the “biggest problem” in fostering ISIS. Biden was naturally forced to issue a public apology for commenting on what’s been an open secret.
Turkey had been an especially reliable patron. The level of manpower and materièl crossing over the border into Syria earns the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep frequent comparisons to Peshawar, Pakistan in the 1980s, the central support and recruiting hub for the Afghan mujahideen.
Under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey had termed its philosophy for regional relations “zero problems with neighbors.” Ultimately, the “zero problems” strategy gave way to Erdoğan’s “obsession” with overthrowing the Assad government, with ISIS as the favored proxy. Turkey has maintained a notoriously porous border with Syria, which many allege has allowed weapons and fighters to cross over easily. Newsweek quotes one former ISIS militant as saying that “there was full cooperation with the Turks.” Turkish-language media widely shared a video purporting to depict a meeting between ISIS fighters and the Turkish military, which seemingly confirmed this co-operation. For ISIS’s part, where American and British hostages have suffered grisly executions, Turkish hostages have been repeatedly released en masse or swapped for ISIS fighters.
For its part, the US isn’t connected to ISIS as directly as Turkey or Saudi Arabia. However, as has been observed, “we know the West is training rebels in Jordan and that they’re sending guns to them. We also know defections from ‘moderates’ to takfiri groups happen constantly. Finally, we know the US has probably been able to hear everything going on electronically in Syria for years. Isn’t this kind of enough to say maybe they’re just fine with ISIS in Syria?” If this is the case, the motive is clear enough: Samantha Power says that Assad is the ultimate target in the US’s campaign against ISIS.
8) US’s eternal ally Saudi Arabia exports proxy terror and repression (1970s-2014).
In fall 2014, the Western media reported extensively on the beheading of American and British hostages in Syria by ISIS. The horrific nature of the killings contributed to Americans supporting a NATO war against ISIS, a war that the public hadn’t supported the previous year when the nominal target was the Assad regime. However, the chief perpetrator of public beheadings in the region isn’t ISIS, but the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the hypocrisy of the US’s stance was too great for the media to ignore. Even Newsweek pointed out the cynicism inherent in Washington’s unstinting support for one of the most reactionary states in the world.
Saudi Arabia has long funded the most extreme forms of violence as a means of enacting national policy. Not only were 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers Saudi, but former Senators Bob Kerrey and Bob Graham, having seen the uncensored 9/11 Commission report, allege that there is “a direct line” between the Saudi government and at least some of the September 11 hijackers.
In 2013, Vladimir Putin met behind closed doors with Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi prince who headed the Saudi intelligence services and has been dubbed “Bandar Bush” due to his close ties to the former American first family. In exchange for Russia dropping its patronage of Bashar al-Assad, Bandar promised to rein in Chechen terror groups in the lead-up to the Sochi games. The threat was an admission that the Kingdom has had a hand in fomenting violence in the Caucasus that has led to two wars in Chechnya, and horrors like the Nord-Ost theater siege and the school massacre in Beslan. It was a candid admission that terror is usually a proxy for statecraft.
Beyond being the prime culprit in exporting takfiri ideology worldwide, Saudi Arabia has been one of the chief counterrevolutionary forces in rolling back the popular gains of the Arab Spring. When protests came to Bahrain, this took the form of direct military intervention. In Egypt, though, Saudi influence fomented the coup that ousted Morsi and led to last week’s acquittal of Mubarak.
“Saudi Arabia is now in charge of arranging and re-arranging the Arab regional order according to its wishes,” according to As’ad AbuKhalil. “The Arab counter-revolution is now in Saudi-Israeli-US hands.”