April 4, 2013

The origins and evolution of the Grinch that derailed the Arab Spring

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The Pakistanization  of Turkey and the Afghanization of Syria in the new proxy-war

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Witnessing the first democratic elections in Tunisia in 2011, I stood at the edge of the city listening to residents explaining the role of “neighborhood watch committees” in keeping peace and protecting personal and public property. I listened as my interlocutors told me stories of new connections emerging to create tighter relations between neighbors to face unprecedented violence and loss of security. On a rotating basis, residents, carrying wooden sticks, stood guard at the main intersection separating one neighborhood from another. To them, safety developed a new meaning. Without thinking of the American context (gun control debate) for my question, I asked if they would have felt safer if they had guns instead of sticks and brooms while guarding their families and properties. Without hesitation, one of the people accompanying me stated that he is alive because people did not have guns.  

On February 26 (2013), the Tunisian government announced that three suspects in the  murder of Chokri Belaid had been arrested and that authorities were searching for the person who shot the victim. Ali Laraydh, the current prime minister, stated that “extremist Islamists [islamiyyun mutashddidun] code name for takfiri fighters, were behind the murder. This formal accusation confirms what many Tunisians had said even before the assassination:  Takfiris are behind the violence and unless they are restrained they will continue to use violence to intimidate and eliminate those who criticize them and oppose their interpretation of Islam.

To have a full picture of this transformative moment in Tunisia, one must examine political violence in its global context, especially, in the context of the takfiri Salafism.

In the 1980’s, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan created an alliance against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The United States provided Stinger missiles, training, and intelligence. The Saudi rulers provided ideology, propaganda and recruiting tools, and volunteers. Pakistan provided the entry point, training camps, and the madrasahs. The joint efforts created the legendary Jihad groups consisting of hardened takfiri fighters who came from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, and several other Arab and Muslim countries.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, many of these traveling takfiri fighters returned to their homelands. But it was not easy integrating them into normal life. These so-called Arab-Afghans see the world only in black-and-white shades: one is either a true muslim or deviant muslim, Muslim or non-Muslim, and that only true muslims can be on power. Some wanted to change their own societies into more “Islamic" ones. Their attempts put them face-to-face with Arab regimes that do not tolerate even moderate Islamist groups, let alone violent militants. Consequently, many left their countries to live in more hospitable environments for their brand of Islam. And those who stayed were imprisoned, tortured, and some were executed. The case of Libyan takfiri fighters, like Abdel Hakim Belhaj, is now well-documented.

Algerian takfiri fighters returned to a country that was taking its first steps towards political pluralism. These trained fighters did not believe that moderate or non-moderate Islamists will ever be allowed to govern. They argued that only through Jihad can Islam be imposed--not through the ballot boxes. Their prophecies came true. Despite the fact that moderate Islamists won most of the votes in the parliamentary elections of 1991, the ruling secular elite, backed by the military generals and their Western backers, nullified the election results and canceled the second round of elections, plunging the country into a decade long civil war that took the lives of more than 150,000 people. Many of the takfiri fighters are still carrying out sporadic attacks and retreating to the mountains and the desert.

The chaos in Somalia, the insecurity in Yemen, the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., the 2003 suicide bombings in Morocco, the numerous and repeated attacks in Saudi Arabia, and the frequent bombings and attacks in Pakistan are some of the aftershocks of the Afghan proxy war and the consequences of relying on non-state fighters as a foreign policy tool.

The second case of manufactured proxy war emerged after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The presence of the U.S. troops and the rise of Shias, which takfiri fighters consider deviant, made Iraq the new land of Jihad. The Saudi rulers, again, eager to dispose of its takfiri fighters, opened the door for them to join the fight alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq. Syria, too, eager to give the U.S. a hard time for its hostility towards the regime of Assad, looked the other way as Islamist fighters from Syria and Lebanon set training camps on the Syrian-Iraqi border and joined the fight for Mesopotamia. In a sense, the Afghan model was replicated in Iraq with minor differences. This time, U.S. was not a direct ally. It was the enemy. But Saudi Arabia and Qatar remained the ideological backbone of the takfiri fighters. Qatari Satellite channel, Aljazeera, played a major role galvanizing support for the insurgency in Iraq to the point that then U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it the “mouth piece of al-Qaeda.” Another minor difference, Syria, this time, played the role of Pakistan. In that it served as the first stop for takfiri fighters coming from other countries on their way to Iraq.

It should not be a surprise, then, that when the war in Iraq started to wind down, Syria quickly fell into chaos the same way Pakistan did after the end of the war in Afghanistan. In fact, it became the new Afghanistan (or the new Iraq). 

With the end of the Iraq war and the start of the so-called Arab Spring, takfiri fighters quickly relocated to the countries that were in turmoil. Syria, sharing the border with the former hot spot, Iraq, was the natural destination. Many of the Syrian takfiri fighters were veterans of the Iraq war. These roaming takfiri fighters regrouped in Syria the minute they knew that the Qatari and Saudi rulers were throwing their weight behind a rebellion that will rid the Arab world of a leader who sided with their Persian nemesis.

The takfiri fighters did not need much convincing to wage a war on the Syrian regime: these are secular atheists, heretic Alawites, deviant Druze, anti-Sunni Shias, or infidel Christians. They must submit to the true "Islam", pay protective tax and accept their inferior social status, or die resisting. At this stage in the Syrian crisis, Syria became Afghanistan, Turkey (and to some extent Jordan) became Pakistan, France became the U.S. and Qatar and Saudi Arabia continued to play the same role they played in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both instances these two countries have provided the propaganda and recruitment tools to send fighters to the new land of Jihad: al-Sham, the historic seat of the Umayyad dynasty, the prototype emulated by the Saudi and Qatari rulers.

The vicious cycle continues. Syria is now the new land of Jihad and it is attracting takfiri fighters from all over the Arab and Islamic worlds. Most notable is the large number of Turkish, Tunisian, Jordanian, and Saudi young men who joined Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups to fight the Syrian regime on religious grounds. These countries that are sending their citizens to Syria are forgetting that the War in Syria will end one day and these fighting takfiri fighters, or at least those who survive the war, will one day return home.” With them, they will bring an ideology of exclusion, puritanism, and violence. They will bring the war home. In Tunisia, the first returning soldiers may have arrived already.

The proxy wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria are good examples of “chicken coming home to roost.” Some of the rulers of Arab countries who think that they can export their troubled, extremist youth to fight a war somewhere and die doing so did not and still don’t, anticipate that some of these takfiri fighters will survive and return home. They will return with an ideology that divides the world into “muslim” and “kafir.” They will soon see the rulers of Arab countries through the same lens they saw Assad and his regime: kafirs infidels who must dies if they resist the rise of pure "muslims".

Soon, Turkey will be Pakistanized if not Afghanistanized, the same way Syria was Pakistanized and then Afghanistanized after the iraq war. The attack on U.S. Consulate in Istanbul last February, that killed six and the suicide bombing near the border with Syria, are a preview of what could become of countries that support takfiri fighters. No one will be immune from their wrath because no one is a true “muslim” in their eyes.

The peaceful Arab Spring that ended the rule of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt has also created space for takfiri fighters who do not believe in personal human agency, reason, or publicly mandated authority. These takfiri fighters want to have it both ways: they want to benefit from the freedom brought by the dignity revolutions, but they also want to use these freedoms to arm themselves to impose their version of “Islam.”

The assassination of Chokri Belaid is a deadly warning shot that those who were brainwashed to believe that anyone who does not share their faith is a non-believer will be coming home soon and they cannot be easily de-programmed. The brand of Islam espoused by the takfiri fighters is eerily similar to another destructive interpretation and application of Islam from the formative years of Islamic societies: kharajism. Arab leaders and their Western allies should know that entering into a pact with the neo-kharajites comes with costly risks. History tells us that much.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Statements in this article are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.


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