The essay tries to explain why Islamic militancy targets the West. It provides a brief description of the historical events leading up to the rise of extremism and militancy in Muslim societies. The policies followed by the West in general and by the US in particular are discussed which have contributed to the resentment and bitterness of Muslim groups around the world. The essay also discusses the failure of world bodies to resolve contentious issues pertaining to Muslims with the help of political means. Finally the role played by the western media has been analyzed.
Why does Islamic militancy target the West?
In the present age, global terrorism has emerged as the most serious threat to governments and states around the world. Suicide bombings, high profile murders, sabotage activities and countless other acts of terrorism have jeopardized the peace of the world. What is even more serious is the fact that in today’s age of globalization and information technology, acts of terror can not be contained in a region or geographical boundary. Technology is increasingly being brought to use by terrorists to achieve their goals. Moreover, an event occurring in one place is followed by aftereffects in another part of the globe thousands of miles away.
Militancy and armed struggle, fueled by terrorism are not new phenomena. Anarchists have been responsible for many assassinations around the turn of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. During the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, there had been many militant organizations, but these were mostly localized, carrying out their armed struggle in their own specific areas. Examples include ETA fighting Spain for an independent Basque homeland; and the IRA, which wanted Northern Ireland united with the Irish Republic (Lowe 262).
However, it was in the 1970s that militancy and armed struggle began to act outside their own territories (Lowe 262). This struggle gradually took the form of Islamic militancy and accompanied with terrorist activities, began to target the West. In the 1980s, it became clear that the chief target of these terrorist activities was the USA, which had emerged as the leader of the West and the sole super power after the Second World War. Examples include the attack on the American embassy in Lebanon (1983), bombing in the World Trade Centre in New York (1993), attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (1998), and attack on the American battleship Cole in port at Aden in Yemen (2000). “The culmination of this campaign was the terrible events of 11 September 2001 when the World Trade Centre in New York was completely destroyed” (Lowe 263).
The roots of Islamic militancy targeting the West can be traced to the fall of Communism, when in 1991 the USSR collapsed and the Western Capitalistic bloc emerged victorious with the USA assuming the role of the world’s only supreme power. Politicians and analysts around the world were optimistic that the uni-polar world would be characterized by peace and stability, where the West led by the US would uphold democratic values, human rights and the ideals of freedom and liberation. Such analysts were of the opinion that the Western governments would act as global policemen, discouraging autocratic and dictatorial regimes and promoting social equality and egalitarian principles. In the early nineties Francis Fukuyama, professor of political economy at John Hopkins University, presented his idea of ‘The End of History’. He claimed that the human civilization had reached its climax in the form of Western, liberal democracy and market-oriented economy (Lowe 262).
However, despite the optimism shown earlier, the world events took a different turn. The US assumed the role of the leader of the West and embarked upon the policy of securing the interests of the West in general and of America in specific. But much of the rest of the world did not wish to be led any where by the US, and disagreed with the USA’s world view. The military and economic strength of the super power discouraged smaller states to face the US in conventional ways. It was in these circumstances that militant elements in countries around the world, particularly in Muslim states began resorting to terrorist activities in order to strike the West and its interests (Lowe 262).
This serious situation led many political analysts to wonder why the post-Cold War era, which seemed so full of hope and optimism, turn out to be so full of hatred and horror. One of the basic reasons for these events was the fact that the end of the Cold War led to the formation of a uni-polar world, where the US emerged as the leader of the West. Bringing its economic strength and military might to use, it could follow unilateral policies which no other power in the world could challenge. Millions of people around the world were adversely affected by the policies of the US, and they realized that they did not share the benefits of the prosperous American lifestyle. Moreover there was not much evidence to support the fact that America was genuinely trying to narrow the gap between rich and poor nations, or to fight for justice and human rights (Lowe 264). Towards the turn of the century, many writers and intellectuals had started predicting the consequences of such unilateralist policies. Nicholas Guyatt, in his book Another American Century published in 2000 remarked:
Many people around the world are frustrated by the complacency and impenetrability of the US . . . [and there are] large and dangerous pockets of resentment towards the US around the world, grounded not in fundamentalism or insanity but in a real perception of the imbalance of power, and a real frustration at the impotence of political means of change.
Obviously, the actions of the US and the inability of the West to check them, led to extreme reactions from the affected group of people. The American foreign policy continued along the same interventionist course as during the Cold War (Lowe 264). Despite supporting democratic and humanitarian values, the US failed to take practical steps to bring democracy and rule of law to countries where it was needed the most. In fact, the US followed a totally different path in this regard. Thus it continued to support dictators and monarchs in the Arab world and virtually did not take any appreciable steps to bring democracy to the Arab nations. This created a great sense of disappointment and frustration in the Arab world. Most of the times, the autocratic rulers committed grave human rights violations, repressing the general public and curbing the media. Needless to say, the West also did not play its part in liberating such the Arab people form the shackles of despotism.
The West in general and the US in particular also failed to intervene in situations where they could play a decisive and positive role. The Arab-Israeli conflict has marred the politics of the Middle East since 1948, and though the US engaged Israel and the Palestinian leadership in peace negotiations, “it was clearly on the side of Israel” (Lowe 265). The failure of the West to bring about a just and peaceful settlement of this conflict has contributed immensely to the resentment of the Arab people.
The ineffectuality and powerlessness of major world bodies, specifically the United Nations (UN), has also added to the frustration and resentment of the aggrieved people in the Muslim world. In this regard, the US has a long history of failing to support the UN, vetoing Security Council resolutions and opposing General Assembly resolutions. In 1985, the US was the only member to oppose new policies for improving and safeguarding human rights. Likewise, it also voted against a resolution aimed at strengthening communication services in the Third World. Interestingly, the US also opposed the UN proposals on control of terrorism, ostensibly because it wanted to combat terrorism in its own way (Lowe 265). Describing such policies fo the US, Noam Chomsky remarks in Hegemony or Survival: “When the UN fails to serve as an instrument of American unilateralism on issues of elite concern, it is dismissed.” All such actions have led to the erosion of power and credibility of the largest world body. This has an adverse effect on the elements in Muslim states which are steeped in resentment and bitterness. Realizing that the UN would not be able to resolve issues pertaining to them fairly, such elements resort to violent and perverse means.
Ironically, the US foreign policy, which was aimed at securing the American interests globally, has led the Islamic militants to rise up against the West. When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the US encouraged Afghan mujahideen (holy warriors) to rise up against the Soviet power. The Afghan fighters were supported militarily and financially on a large scale by the US and the West. Historians have termed this operation as the ‘largest covert operation carried out by the CIA’. The American administration completely backed up the Afghan fighters morally and materially. In their struggle to counter the might of Soviet Russia, the US administration urged the Afghans to rise up against the Russians and even termed this as a ‘Holy War’. However once the war ended and the USSR retreated, the Western powers completely abandoned the war-torn country, leaving the Afghan people at the mercy of the militant groups and warlords. The West did not play any part in the rehabilitation of Afghanistan where different warring factions began fighting for supremacy. It was under these circumstances that extremist elements began to gain strength in Afghanistan which were against the Western policies: This was the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan.
More recently, the US led war on terror, which has been supported by many Western states despite reservations by some, has also not achieved the desired results. The attack on Afghanistan in 2001 was aimed at curbing the growing tide of terrorism and capturing the Al-Qaeda leadership. However, as of now, the main leaders of the terrorist organization remain at large. Moreover, the terrorist activities throughout the world have increased manifold since 2001. Similarly, the war in Iraq has also caused hatred and resentment amongst the Muslim masses. At the time of the launch of the attack on Iraq, the two major objectives presented by the Allied forces were to bring sustainable democracy in Iraq and to destroy the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in possessed by the Saddam regime. As it later turned out, there were no WMD in Iraq, causing a wave of anger and infuriation in Muslim countries. Deaths of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq have added to the hostilities of Muslim states and militant groups. Since the US is supported by a majority of the Western powers in this ‘Global War on Terror’, Islamic militancy has found new targets in the Western world. Attacks in Britain and Spain are testimony to this fact.
The role being played by the Western intelligentsia and media has also been criticized by many scholars. During the 1990s, Samuel Huntington presented his idea of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ arguing that Western civilization is threatened by the Islamic and Chinese civilizations. At a time when interfaith harmony and tolerance should be the order of the day, such ideas have aggravated the prevailing situation. Failing to realize that social values have varying standards in different societies, the Western media has offended the Muslim masses throughout the world by publishing works considered blasphemous by the Muslims.
The above mentioned arguments describe the policies followed by the Western powers, particularly the US, which have led to the grievance and resentment in Muslim societies. These instances of bitterness are exploited by the militant elements around the world in targeting the Western interests.
Benjamin, Daniel, and Steven Simon. The Age of Sacred Terror. New York: Random House, 2002.
Booth, Ken, and Tim Dunne. Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Halliday, Fred. Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
Lowe, Norman. Modern World History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
“Madrid bombers get long sentences.” 31 October 2007. BBC News. 12 April 2008 <http://www.bbcnews.com>.
“Train bomb trial starts in Madrid.” 15 February 2007. BBC News. 12 April 2008 <http://www.bbcnews.com>.