Islamic Terror: The Modern Hydra?

(Originally published 3 July, 2014)

The ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT) or now known under the Obama administration as ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ against Islamic extremism (predominantly) is an unwinnable conflict. It is de-facto permanent war and the reality checks for the Western powers have been stark as they have come across an ever evolving entity that cannot be destroyed by conventional means only. Understanding why Islamic radicalism is flourishing and why it exists is a much more important than how states counter the jihadists, mujahideen, terrorists, and insurgents.

In Greek mythology the Learnaen Hydra was a serpent which possessed many heads. Heracles arrived on orders King Eurystheus to perform his second of his fabled Twelve Labors to kill the beast. He engaged with the Hydra and crushed the heads with his club only to be exasperated as with each Hydra head he destroyed, another two would replace it. Again and again and again he tried to slash and hack at the creature until he was forced to retreat in exhaustion. For all his might, the strongest man in the world could not defeat the creature by normal means.

His nephew then came upon the idea of using a firebrand to scorch the neck stumps after each decapitation. Heracles cut off each head and Iolaus cauterized the open stumps until eventually he defeated the great creature, burying the immortal head under the rocks so that it would not re-emerge.

Naturally we shouldn’t take the Hydra story as a way to interpret Islamic radicalism. As mentioned before presenting it as a single entitey would be to misconstrue how we interpret the complex world that is Islam. The message of this story is that Heracles had to find an alternate tactic to defeat the Hydra as simple brute force could not work. Defeating Islamic extremism through the use of simple brute force and counter-terrorism will not deal with the problems blighting the Middle East. The death of Osama of Bin Laden and the recline in influence of Al-Qaeda is the most obvious testimony to this as is the idea to see the conflict as a ‘us versus them’ scenario, ‘good versus evil’, the ‘clash of civilisations’ or a GWOT.

Terrorism will always exist and has done long before the events of 9/11. One hundred years ago the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Black Hand Serbian terrorist organisation sparked the First World War (alongside other factors). Terrorism cannot be eliminated because the relations of states and civilians, minorities, and oppressed peoples are built on resisting whether just or unjust to what they consider excessively powerful and corrupt authorities.

It creates new enemies and ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab have  joined the burgeoning ranks of extremists (though differing goals and objectives). These are four of many diverse factions and splinter groups. In 2011, the death of Osama Bin Laden appeared to symbolise in the eyes of the White House that the war against the most violent elements of Islamism were over. Notable terrorist activity in Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Egypt, the division of opposition in Syria, the attacks on Volgograd, the continued instability in the Caucasus the beheading of Lee Rigby in London, and the Boston Bombing suggest otherwise. Eighteen countries and its civilians felt the wroth of radical  Islam in 2013 alone.

All encompassing global application overlooksthe importance of regional and local political, social and religious issues that affect the evolution and formation of a ‘terrorist’ organisation. As Jason Burke notes ‘to blame…contemporary Islamic militancy…on one man….is gross oversimplification. Building bin Laden up to be a global mastermind directing….a network of terror is counter productive.’

Nor should we see Islamic extremism as the product or sheer fanaticism, of just psychotic personalities and deluded, nor are they simply always suffering in poverty and seeking a way out. They certainly are prevalent in many radical movements, but not all, not amongst the tens of thousands of men and women across the globe who fight for their faith. Individuals as well as groups vary in both motive and extremes of promoting their faith. Leaders of Al-Qaeda Zawahiri and Bin Laden were both wealthy and educated individuals alongside their conservatism which when combined with a sense of injustice can be potent in the hands of intelligent dissidents.

Supplying weapons to Syrian rebels be they the Islamic Front, the Free Syrian Army, or jihadists is not even containing the cure. The New York Times doesn’t even deny that jihadists are being supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar who recieve shipments from allies of the Western sphere to the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.  MakingSyria and Iraq weapon depots and combining that with national, religious and/or political and social grievances enflamed by the Arab Spring only make the problems more complex. Nor is using drones and airstrikes a solution to endearing the West to Middle-Eastern countries or the families suffering on the grounds.

Things are worse now than they ever were before 9/11 and this is a problem which will extend into a long-term issue for the Middle East, the United States and Eastern Europe. The 2nd Ukrainian Civil War,  though a serious situation unseen for decades in Europe, is still a recoverable situation despite the violence between the eastern Ukrainians and the government of Poroshenko in Kiev.

So if it becomes a long-standing issue how do we fight it? To discount military means completely would be to leave innocent civilians vulnerable. Security and development must work hand in hand and at this current moment the gross imbalance in prizing military strength over diplomatic, soft power, and development is worrying. Short-term objectives must be combined with long-term strategy.

Radical changes in attitudes in our own society on the Middle East must change and incorporating the Arab Spring, the history of the Middle East and Islam as a compulsory part of our education system would be a first very important step. Answers lie in the past as well as the present and future.

9/11 should be understood from looking at both sides of the coin. Why do some Islamic radicals hate us and often each other? Why did the United States become so involved in Middle Eastern affairs? How does Islamic society, politics and religion work?

The main point of this is that rather than understanding the motivations of the men and the build up and aftermath of the tragedy of 9/11 the West chose a more militant stance against it which has not only cost us man-power and destabalised the region, but cost  excessive amounts of money and the blood of both soldiers and civilians.  We have encouraged radical extremism to flourish rather than recede. Al-Qaeda did not exist under Saddam Hussein rule and now ISIS and civil war occupy the Iraqi people.

The emergence of militant Islam in Africa is a clear indicator that development, poverty, and the failure of government’s to meet the needs of their people can be a traction to join terrorist organisations alongside the questions of faith and radical ideologies. The violence in Nigeria, Mali, Somalia and Kenya are such examples. People also forget to ask what will become of the Muslim refugees in the Central African Republic?  Will they be radicalised by their suffering, their increased poverty and the ethnic cleansing of the Christians?

This is a problem with no quick remedy, it is a product of contemporary issues created and aided by misunderstanding  historical ‘clashes’. The Crusades were not simply wars between Christians and Muslims. They involved numerous secular and religious conflicts often Muslims fighting Muslims, Christians fighting Christians or pagans fighting Christians and though often shrouded by religious motives were wars a-typical of medival times; factions, tribes, fiefdoms, kingdoms, empire, anarchy and violence.

Once regarded as a valuable and complex centre of human civilisation, intellectual discourse Islam, like Europe, has a confusing and difficult histories of empire which divided Muslim cultures just as it did Christian society during medieval times and the Renaissance period.

Muslims have a European history, the Ottoman Empire, one of the most powerful in the world stretched, at it zenith, to the doors of Vienna in Austria back to the deserts of Iran. What we see is a faith of a supposed ‘other world’ with unfathomable concepts, largely devoid of European significance.

The Crusades were not wars of civilisations which was often used as propaganda by the papacy to meet secular goals and increase its influence in the holy land, ‘the land of milk and honey’, the latter statement alluding to the economic value of the Middle East even in medieval times. Almost sounds like George Bush using the Global War on Terror as a pretext to restore American influence in the Middle East, ‘the land of oil’! Patterns.

Oversimplifying the answers to an inherently complex issue is bound to get a poor grade. Saying that the Crusades were simply wars between Christians and Muslims is like answering the question ‘What is Al-Qaeda?’ with ‘it is a fanatical global terrorist organisation’.  This is in-part correct but it is only a basic explanation.

Generosity and the spirit of the intellectual were key pillars in Islamic civilisation. What we choose to see or only hear of now, and they are serious problems, is the attempt to enforce sharia law, calls to jihad, prejudice against homo-sexuals, horror stories of forced marriages and honor killings, rape, and acid attacks that maim innocent and beautiful women because they challenge their faith and for arguing for the notions of femininity, education, and freedom and against  the imposition or choices made by many to embrace of extremist doctrines. All we here is the brutality of the Al-Nusra Front and the violence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

We also sometimes fall prey to the idea that Islamic extremism is the sole threat. Presenting Islam as a wholly anti-western pillar only serves to alienate the minority and in many circumstances radicalise those on the wrong end of racism and xenophobia, particularly the United States and Europe. Few remember that the greatest atrocities carried out in Europe in recent memory were targeted against Muslims during the break-up of Yugoslavia by Serbian nationalists in the 1990s.

Nor do many pay heed to the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Central African Republic by Christian militia (the anti-balaka) currently, the blood of thousands staining the country’s soil. Let us also not forget that the most horrifying act of mass murder and terrorism in Europe was perpetrated by Anders Breivik, a Norweigian far-right fanatic, operating in the name of Islamophobic white supremacy, his own warped crusade.

The problems of history are linked with the contemporary problems facing Islam. However there is only so much the West can solve. The Muslim communities are at war with each other as much as the moderates, extremists and ‘terrorists’ are at war with Western concepts.

The issue within Muslim societies iswhat conversations moderates and intellectuals are not having in the debate; the adaptability and the balance between religion and politics. Some argue they should be unquestionably linked whilst other argue that compromise must be instituted. Those who demand for compromise and restraint get denounced as heretics and not Muslim and open themselves up to reprisal from extremist factions. Why? Because to many Islamic intellectuals like Qutb a solely political state would become decadent and corrupt in partnership with unfettered Western capitalism without the spirituality and codes of Islam as seen by his time spent in America in the 1940s.

The lack of conversations and debate is in part guided by both fear of violence and repercussions against families and individuals, but is also the result of a neglect to encourage or promote more diverse ways of thinking about the structures of  faith and establish an effective rapport between different communities which will challenge the norms and rules of Muslim society. What is lacking is a sufficient and convincing challenge against elements (previously mentioned) that wholly undermine the more enlightened, moderate and peaceful elements of both contemporary and historical Islam. Military power must be used to combat extremism up to a point, but it will not solve a problem that is predominantly social and economic.

Matthew Williams