The ISIS is a barbarian terror outfit that has wreaked much havoc in the Middle East and has been responsible for various terrorist attacks in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. While an examination of the root causes of its emergence may be important as a lesson to learn from history, which would squarely blame geopolitical powers in the West for the games they played that contributed to the rise of the ISIS, that doesn’t take away from the barbarianism of the ISIS or the single-point necessity to have to root it out. Clashes of ideology or even vested interests shouldn’t come in the way of uniting against a common enemy that is cancerous in nature, and some of this cancer has found its way even in India. Just as during the Second World War, democracies like Britain and the United States joined hands with Soviet Russia and Mao joined hands with Chang kai Shek, a similar united front is necessary to fight the ISIS. Any shame or guilt with respect to the negative role played by the West in the Middle East in the past, as rightly invoked by left-liberals, should not come in the way of rooting out the ISIS, and in fact, if the West has any contribution to the emergence of this menace, that only increases its responsibility to fix it manifold. And yes, killing, enslaving and raping harmless Shias, Yazidis or even Arab Christians or subjugating women can’t be attributed to any wrongdoing of the West.
As things stand, Russia supports the Syrian dictator Assad. It was in the backdrop of the rebellion against Assad that the ISIS came into being, but Assad has indeed been guilty of the most heinous atrocities against his own Syrian people. The United States, on the other hand, vehemently insists on Assad’s ouster. France is willing to cooperate with Russia and Assad. Turkey is more concerned with Kurdish separatism in its backyard, and is hence more interested in weakening the Kurdish fighters in the Middle East very bravely taking on the ISIS, than the ISIS, in spite of facing ISIS bombings on its own soil. This has brought Turkey in conflict with Russia as well.
Russia is one of Assad’s most important international backers and the survival of Assad’s regime is crucial to maintaining Russian interests in that country. It has blocked resolutions critical of President Assad at the UN Security Council and has continued to supply weapons to the Syrian military despite criticism by the international community. Moscow wants to protect a key naval facility which it leases at the Syrian port of Tartous, which serves as Russia’s sole Mediterranean base for its Black Sea fleet. It also has forces at an air base in Latakia, President Assad’s Shia Alawite heartland. In September 2015, Russia began launching air strikes against rebels, saying the ISIS and “all terrorists” were targets, but those apparently also hit rebel groups other than the ISIS backed by Western powers. President Vladimir Putin has though said that only a political solution can end the conflict.
The US has accused President Assad of responsibility for widespread atrocities and says he must quit office or be removed. But the US does agree on the need for a negotiated settlement to end the war and the formation of a transitional administration. It supports Syria’s main opposition alliance, the National Coalition, and provides limited military assistance to supposedly moderate rebels. Since September 2014, it has been conducting air strikes on the ISIS and other jihadist groups in Syria as part of an international coalition against the jihadist group. However, it has tried to not engage in attacks that may benefit Assad’s forces, and it has not intervened in battles between them and the rebels.
The Turkish government has been a staunch critic of Assad since the outset of the uprising in Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who is indeed known to have Sunni-rightist leanings, though Turkey is constitutionally a secular democracy) has said it was impossible for Syrians to “accept a dictator who has led to the deaths of up to 350,000 people”. Turkey has been a key supporter of Syrian rebels other than the ISIS (and has even been accused of buying oil from the ISIS) and has faced the burden of hosting almost two million refugees. But its policy of allowing rebel fighters, arms shipments and refugees to pass through its territory has been exploited by foreign jihadists wanting to join ISIS. Turkey offered the US-led coalition against the ISIS to use its air bases for strikes on Syria after an ISIS bomb attack in July 2015.
The reason for this rather unfortunate lack of consensus lies in the sectarian fissures that exist within the Muslim community in the Middle East (including Iran in this context), as has historically existed among Catholics and Protestants. While Iran sees Assad’s Shi’ite regime and the Hezbollah regime in Lebanon (which is also Shi’ite and has no problem with Lebanese Christians but huge problems with Israel) as its allies, Saudi Arabia sees them as its opponents. The United States, because of its horrible historical experience relating to the 444 day-long American Embassy hostage crisis there in 1979, for long, chose to isolate Iran and preferred to have better relations with the Wahabi Saudi Arabia, stationing its troops there. America’s close ally Israel (in no small measure owing to the clout many Zionist industrialists enjoy in the United States) also sees Iran as a bigger enemy. Iran’s strong antipathy to Israel (in spite of its fairly reasonable treatment of Iranian Jews) stems from its desire to be the leader of the Islamic world, and portray itself as the chief crusader of the Palestinian cause (though in actuality, the Palestinian issue can be settled only by way of negotiation and not jingoistic rhetoric). The Israeli defence minister has openly declared that he regards Iran as a bigger enemy than the ISIS. In the light of these facts, the American government doesn’t want to get its boots on the ground to fight the ISIS currently, and since the elections are soon to take place in the United States, Obama perhaps doesn’t want to institute any major policy change in a conflict zone towards the end of his career (he possibly wants to leave it to his successor to decide), though he has warmed up to Iran, which being the Shi’ite-majority country that it is, is dead opposed to the Sunni-extremist ISIS.
While even Saudi Arabia is indeed genuinely opposed to the ISIS for the ISIS leader Baghdadi holds himself to be the Caliph of the world’s Muslims and is against the Saudi royal family as being American stooges, they are not so eager to take on the ISIS at this juncture, for they are more against the pro-Iran Assad and Hezbollah, and they feel that for some time, the ISIS would do well to weaken them. That said, they have got their own clerics to denounce the ISIS, and their government is very strong on terrorists taking on their own regime.
According to Saudi Arabia, President Assad cannot be part of any solution and he must either hand over power to a transitional administration or be coercively removed. Saudi Arabia and Israel have even provided arms and money to several rebel groups other than the ISIS, including those with Islamist ideologies which are less extreme, and Saudi Arabia has called for the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect civilians from bombardment by Syrian government forces. Saudi leaders were annoyed with the Obama administration’s decision not to intervene militarily in Syria after a chemical attack allegedly by Assad’s forces in 2013. They later agreed to take part in the US-led coalition air campaign against the ISIS, concerned by its popularity among a minority of Saudis.
Iran is believed to be spending billions of dollars a year to prop up the Assad regime, providing military advisers and subsidised weapons, as well as lines of credit and oil transfers. Assad is among Iran’s closest Arab allies and Syria is the main transit point for shipments of Iranian weapons to the Hezbollah. It is also believed to have played a role in influencing the Hezbollah to send fighters to western Syria to assist the pro-Assad forces. Iran has advocated a peaceful transition in Syria that would culminate in free, multi-party elections. It was involved in peace talks over Syria’s future for the first time when global powers met in Vienna.
Thus, it is not as though there is absolutely no consensus on fighting the ISIS. The Wahabi regimes of the Middle East have come together to fight the ISIS. While the United States hasn’t sent its troops to fight the ISIS, it has resorted to aerial strikes and sent a 200-member special forces team in Iraq to target anything that facilitates financial conduits of the ISIS, them having killed Abu Sayyaf, the main financial manager of the ISIS and captured his wife, other than resorting to air strikes against the ISIS. The dilution of the Mosul oil refinery has helped to reduce the outflow of oil, adversely affecting the ISIS financially, leading to it paying much less to its soldiers. The United Nations Security Council has unanimously agreed to destroy the ISIS, which will indeed happen. Better late than never, but the delay caused immense hardship to many innocent people in the Middle East who were either killed or had to leave their homes.
However, the lethal ideology of armed jihad to establish an Islamic caliphate will take much longer to exterminate, and the solution to that isn’t bigotry towards Muslims in general, which would only be counterproductive. It is not as though communalists under any banner, except arguably those actually resorting to killing innocent civilians, should be dehumanized or can never be logically made to modify their views, as the must-watch movie Road to Sangam, based on a true story, demonstrates, and to draw an analogy, you can see this video of a Muslim who initially wanted to become a terrorist wanting to blow up Jewish civilians but changed his standpoint about Israel for the better after visiting that country. It is not as though Muslims are another species that can’t be rationally engaged with, the way some extreme anti-Muslim rightists make all of them out to be, portraying Muslims in general as cruel, slimy, backstabbing and aggressive (many Muslims whom the non-Muslim readers would know personally would not exhibit such traits if the non-Muslim readers were to analyze dispassionately, rather than making baseless presumptions, and indeed, most Indian Muslims are of Hindu ancestry and so, they share the same genes as the Hindus – Hindu religious lore also refers to treacherous human beings like the Kauravas wanting to burn the Pandavas in a wax palace; so, treachery was not unknown to India before the advent of Islam, as royal family feuds among the Nanda and Gupta rulers also demonstrate, and some of the worst atrocities in history have been committed by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, who were not Muslims, nor was Chengiz Khan who was an animist), but like many people in other communities in different contexts, some (not all) Muslims are in the stranglehold of anachronistic ideas like a global pan-Muslim fraternity and the upholding of Islamic law, other than having prejudiced notions of an exaggerated sense of victimhood, and I have dealt with how to ideologically combat Muslim extremism in some depth in this article, which I would appeal to one and all to read.
Sacrificing animals as a religious ritual is indeed not exclusive to Muslims, and ‘bali’ has existed among Hindus too, something Gautam Buddha (who lived centuries before Jesus and Muhammad) had opposed (and even Emperor Ashok the Great consumed meat of peacocks, which he stopped after embracing Buddhism, though interestingly, Buddhists in China, Japan, Bhutan, Vietnam etc. do consume meat, as do most Sikhs, Christians, Jews and Parsis, and what is halal for Muslims in terms of dietary regulations and the mode of slaughtering some animals is identical to what is kosher for Jews and several sects of Christians, and that is true for the practice of circumcision for males as well, which even has health benefits), and still continues in many Hindu temples across India, especially in West Bengal during the Navratri season. Also, it may interest some to know that the story of Prophet Abraham associated with Id-ul-Zuha is found in the Old Testament of the Bible too, which the Jews and Christians also believe in (those regarded as prophets by the Jews are regarded as prophets by the Christians too, with the addition of Jesus, and those regarded as prophets by the Christians are regarded as prophets by the Muslims as well, with the addition of Muhammad). And obviously, not all of Arab cuisine is non-vegetarian either, with Arab vegetarian dishes like strained yogurt using labneh cheese and sweet dishes like zlabia, popular in South Asia as jalebi!
Terrorism, even terrorism citing a theological basis, is not a Muslim monopoly. As you can see here, very many instances of terrorism globally, even in the name of religion, have been carried out by those identifying themselves as Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and even Buddhists, the victims of the acts of terrorists from each of these religious groupings not always being Muslims. However, just like most people of these religious groupings are not terrorists or supporters of terrorism, and they do not believe that their religion preaches terrorism, the same is the case with most Muslims (and not supporting terrorism applies to even most of those Muslims with other regressive and not-so-liberal attitudes on issues like gender and homosexuality).
It is possible to quote any scripture (allegedly out of context according to its liberal adherents) to justify malpractices, like some verses in the Bible namely Deuteronomy 13:12-15, Samuel 15:3, Leviticus 24:16 and Matthew 10:34 seemingly advocate violence against “non-believers” and the Purusha Sukta of the Rigved, an ancient Hindu scripture, is taken by some to justify caste discrimination, but these verses do not define the entire religion. This article mentioning an anecdote from the British parliament does make an interesting read in this regard, as does this video make an interesting watch in this connection. There are Quranic verses like 2:256, 5:2, 5:8, 5:32, 6:108, 6:151, 10:99, 49:13, 60:8 and 109:6 preaching peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood, as does the letter from Prophet Muhammad to the Christian monks of St Catherine’s monastery and there are episodes from Prophet Muhammad’s life, as per Islamic lore, indicative of such an approach too, such as his allowing a woman to throw garbage at him daily and his succeeding in ideologically, winning over her by way of humanitarian affection. Those suggesting that peaceful verses in the Quran are superseded by violent verses (which the vast majority of practising Muslims globally regard as contextual) would do well to note that verse 109:6 appears towards the end of the book, and indeed preaches nothing but peace, and the Quran and Hadiths devote considerable space to talking about honesty (there’s an anecdote of Prophet Muhammad punishing a Muslim for stealing from a Jewish gentleman’s house), kindness, forgiveness, humility and striving for socioeconomic egalitarianism.
Very many mainstream Muslims do indeed believe that Islam is the only religion that can lead to God since the advent of Prophet Muhammad, as mainstream Christians believe the same for Christianity since the advent of Jesus, but that doesn’t entail intolerance towards those of other faiths. To explain this with an analogy, if a certain coaching centre (analogous to Islam or Christianity, going by the mainstream interpretation) claims it is the only one that can get students admitted into say, IIT (analogous to heaven), and even encourages its students to get students of other coaching centres and those not taking any coaching to join that particular coaching centre, it cannot be equated with forcing others to join their institute or killing those not willing to do so. In fact, both the Bible and the Quran preach the message of peaceful coexistence with other religious groups (the relevant verses in the context of the Quran have already been cited, and Rom. 12:18 and 1 Tim 2:2 may be cited in the context of the Bible).
Speaking of apostates of Islam (“ex-Muslims”) criticising their former religion, there is a fairly well-known website run by an apostate and basher of Islam who has even offered a cash prize to anyone who can disprove his allegations against Prophet Muhammad (but there are books by apostates of other religions criticizing their former religions too, the most famous one being ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ by Bertrand Russell, and there’s also ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’ by Kancha Ilaiah, levelling very strong allegations), but practically, he is the judge of the debate, or to go by what he is saying, the “readership” of the website, a rather non-defined entity. In fact, he has acknowledged that he came across a Muslim who “intelligently argued his case and never descended to logical fallacies or insults” and while that Islam-basher “did not manage to convince him to leave Islam”, that Muslim earned his “utmost respect”, which implies that practically, the Islam-basher is the judge of the debate. Likewise, that Islam-basher has mentioned with reference to a scholar of Islam he debated with, that the latter was “a learned man, a moderate Muslim and a good human being” and someone he (the Islam-basher) has “utmost respect for”. So, that Islam-basher’s critique of Islam, whether valid or invalid, has no relevance in terms of making blanket stereotypes about the people we know as Muslims or even practising Muslims. By the way, that Islam-basher bashes Judaism too. And it is worth mentioning that I’ve encountered several practising Muslims on discussion groups on the social media, who have, in a very calm and composed fashion, logically refuted the allegations against Islam on such websites. Indeed, as you can see here and here, there are several other apostates of Islam who have stated that while they personally left Islam thinking that the extremist interpretations are correct and moderate ones wrong (as is the case with apostates of many other religions), they have equally explicitly emphasized that that doesn’t in the least mean that they believe that most people identifying themselves as practising Muslims support violence against innocent people.
And in fact, even speaking of the West, a report submitted by Europol, the criminal intelligence agency of the European Union, showed that only 3 out of the 249 terrorist attacks (amounting to just about 1.2%) carried out in Europe in 2010 were carried out by Muslims. Even in the United States, most terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2005 were not carried out by Muslims. Speaking of India, a column by Praveen Swami in our newspaper The Hindu (‘Terror data give lie to Giriraj Singh’s slur’, May 15, 2014) and one by Samar Halarnkar in the Hindustan Times (‘Naxal or jihadi?’, February 17, 2010) also eloquently point out that most terrorist attacks here aren’t carried out by Muslims. And no, I am not in the least seeking to undermine the heinousness of the crimes committed by some in the name of Islam by pointing to others having committed similar crimes under other ideological banners, for a more highlighted wrongdoing is no less of a wrongdoing than a less highlighted wrongdoing, but only to point out that viewing only Muslims as villains, and that too, all or even most of them, would indeed be grossly incorrect. However, despite jihadist terrorists being a microscopic minority of Muslims, Islamist terrorism has become a bigger global threat for its well-coordinated international network since the 1990s. And, let us not forget that when we had the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the victims included Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer who died fighting the terrorists (and by the way, there are more French Muslims in the local police, including those who have died fighting jihadist terrorists, than in the Al Qaeda unit in their country), Mustapha Ourad, a Muslim who was one of the magazine staff members killed in that attack and there was Lassana Bathily, a Muslim shopkeeper who gave sanctuary to many innocent civilians during the hostage crisis in Paris that followed. Even in the context of the more recent attacks in Paris, a Muslim security guard Zouheir, risking his own life, prevented one suicide bomber from entering a packed football stadium. More recently, Kenyan Muslims laudably protected fellow bus commuters, who were Christians, from jihadist terrorists.
I would like to thank Lt Gen (Retd) Ata Hasnain of the Indian Army for giving me a broad overview of the scenario in the Middle East, which enabled me to write this article (the last few paragraphs rebutting anti-Muslim prejudices don’t entail any inputs from his esteemed self, and the ideas and examples in those paragraphs can be found even in many of my earlier articles). I would also like to thank my friend Akash Arora for his inputs for this article.
(Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)