Authoritarians, Foreign Invaders and Wars Create Extremists

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Nusrah Front, AQAP, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and many other Radical militant organizations became the face of political Islam and they are projecting the worst image of Islam and its adherents. Their alleged heinous barbaric crimes against humanity and the principles of Islam handed ammunition to the enemies of Islam to smear it and perpetuate the “Islam-phobia” scare. This made it more difficult for main stream Muslims to rectify the distorted and demonized stereotype image of their faith.

The West continues to live in mortal fear of its perception of Islam and Muslims especially since ISIS has not stayed regional in Syria and Iraq where it was born, but it has been able to take credit for terror attacks in different African and European countries. Ironically, most victims of terrorism perpetrated under the name of the Islam faith are people in Muslim countries governed by secular regimes that are not pure secular. Militant organizations claiming to be Islamist, especially in Syria, Yemen and Libya, fight and murder each other.

Traditionally, terrorism is the weapon of the weak that does not possess conventional power or complete control over land, but the Middle Eastern militant organizations and the authoritarian regimes broke this universally recognized traditions. ISIS controls land and acts like another Middle East sovereign entity, and the internationally recognized regimes in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Egypt act more like terror organizations and established their own armed lawless gangs to terrorize their own constituents and liquidate their political opponents.

Since the late twentieth century, there has been a social and political Islamic resurgence in the Islamic countries that started as reaction to foreign invasions, authoritarianism and corruption of secular institutions. In the countries of predominantly Muslim population, Islamic symbols, beliefs, practices and organizations won increasing commitment and support. The resurgence occurred first in the cultural realm and then moved on to the social and political spheres. Political activists complain about the hypocrisy and double standards of the West. Democracy is promoted but not if it brings Islamists to power; nonproliferation is preached for Iran and Arab states but not for Israel; aggression against oil rich Kuwait was massively repulsed, but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians; and human rights is an issue for Tibetans in China but not for the Palestinians. What is promoted as universalism in the West is viewed as imperialism by the Islamists. The Islamic scholar, John Esposito observed that mainstream middle class Muslims turned toward Islam as a source of identity, “mosque attendance, prayer, fasting, publications, Islamic dress and values, and revitalization of mystical Sufism.”

Islamic militarism was not created by the poor in the shanty quarters of the Middle East towns, but by frustrated middle class, university educated and professionals. The Islamic activists volunteered to fight against the Soviet Union invaders in Afghanistan in the same passion as the 1930s European youth went to fight in the Spanish civil war. Osama bin Laden who joined the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan and later on established al-Qaeda terrorist organization, belonged to the richest non-royal family in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden’s right hand man was Dr. Ayman al-Zawahari, an Egyptian physician from a prominent family of lawyers and diplomats residing in Cairo’s suburb of Maali. The hijackers who slammed airplanes into the N.Y. World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 9, 2001, were US-educated young men and two-thirds of them came from Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest state in the Middle East.

First international Islamic Militant leaders were not schooled in religion schools, but in secular educational institutions and majored in natural sciences. They embraced Islam because political Islam is and will be the most potent protest movement against authoritarian regimes and foreign aggression in Muslim countries. Unlike socialism and nationalism, Islam activism has been a home-grown ideology. It gained currency because it thrives in the mosque, the one non-governmental institution that no regime dares ban. Its discourse is couched in the same sacred terminology that authoritarian regimes in Islamic countries use to underpin their legitimacy.

Islamic revival has been considered a threat to the US interests by majority of Americans, but the US allied itself with Muslim militants against the Soviet Union when its military invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The first Muslim fundamentalist militant groups were Afghanis and Arabs who declared holy war “Jihad” against the Soviet occupation. While fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the Afghan freedom fighters and thousands of Arab volunteers served as genuine allies of the West in the Cold War. They were admired by Muslims everywhere for their dedication in fighting the “godless” Soviets on behalf of their faith and country.

It was at the height of the Cold War in April 1985 when the newly re-elected US President Ronald Reagan recognized the potential of using the Afghan freedom fighters “Mujahedeen” to weaken the Soviets. He signed a national security directive that declared the US intent to support the Afghan resistance “by all available means.” Reagan gave the CIA the green light to train and arm the freedom fighters “mujahedeen”. The “mujahedeen” guerilla fighters backed by the US forced the Soviets to withdraw. They defeated the Soviets militarily, and according to many historians, the costly Afghan war in blood and treasure was a major factor in the Soviet Union collapse.

The war left behind a coalition of Islamist organizations and a legacy of experienced fighters, training camps, logistical facilities, trans-Islamic personal and organizational relations, and a large amount of military hardware. After earning their military and political credentials, the Islamists promoted the return to Islam for solving the Islamic countries’ ills. Afghanistan war produced network of underground groups of militants who showed up fighting in different conflicts and allegedly carried out many terror acts.

Then in 1991, the West under the US leadership intervened militarily to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation and deter possible attacks on the oil rich Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia allowed the US to establish military bases on its soil to operate against Iraq, and paid back to the US most of the war’s cost. Tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were needlessly killed by the US while withdrawing from Kuwait. Muslim people were almost universally against US military actions even if they agreed that Saddam Hussein was a bloody tyrant and had been a US puppet. They argued that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was Arab’s affair and should be settled within the Arabs, and that the Arab regimes which supported the US invasion wanted only to maintain their subordination to the West. The Muslim population believed the invasion was a Western conspiracy to establish military bases in the Gulf area, because the US was Saddam’s ally in his 1980-88 war against Iran after overthrowing the Shah and invading the US embassy in Tehran.

The US had given its open support to Saddam in the war against Iran by providing him with arms, intelligence and economic assistance which compounded Iran’s hostility to the US; and for that reason, the Iranians took every opportunity to strike at US interests in the region. To support the conspiracy theorem, it was circulated that Saddam told the US ambassador about his plans to annex Kuwait and she did not have objections.

Muslims denounced the presence of the US troops in Saudi Arabia as “desecration” of the Islamic holy sites. It was viewed as an aggression against their faith and the militants decided to strike back. Al-Qaeda operatives spent time and energy in planning their stated goals of deriving the US out of Saudi Arabia and the Muslim World. In 1998, two US embassies in Africa were targeted by suicide bombing that left many dead and wounded. In 2000, a suicide bomb attack on the USS Cole in Aden left 17 US sailors dead and 39 wounded. The New York Times Reporter, Tim Weiner wrote: “They [Afghan volunteers] beat one of the world’s two superpowers and now they are working on the second.” The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the US homeland changed President George W. Bush priorities by starting the US longest and most bloody military war in the Middle East in its history. The US military invaded Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban government and occupied the country.

The Bush administration had been planning for invading Iraq as part of the global war on terror since the September 11, 2001 events. Bush alleged that Saddam had amassed a large arsenal of WMD, including chemical and biological agents, and precursors for nuclear weapons. Vice President Dick Cheney also claimed that Saddam had connections to Bin Laden. The Arab World had grave reservations about these accusations but President Bush never paid attention to Arab opinions any way. He ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003 without any provocation or UN sanctions. The invasion was condemned internationally and especially across the Muslim World. No WMD was found; Iraq was destroyed as a country and as a sovereign nation and became a recruiting ground for anti-American and anti-Western interests. After eight years of official occupation, the death of more than 700,000 Iraqis and displacement of millions, Iraq today has become a failing state controlled by the Kurds in the north, by Iran’s revolutionary guards and American military advisors in the south and east and by ISIS militants in the west.

The Middle East authoritarian regimes, the foreign invaders, and the radical militants established anarchical societies, and returned the region to what the sixteenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes might have called “State of Nature” where people live in conditions of fear and insecurity. The Middle East today became the arena of struggle in which it is war of all against all and violence is limited only by the capacity of the belligerents to inflict pain. In the absence of democratic institutions, tyrant rulers of the Middle East derive their legitimacy from foreign powers and govern without moral or legal restrictions. They are as corrupting as they are corrupt.

What is happening in the Middle East is not Arab Spring revolution or a peasants’ revolt, and its religious outlook is not traditional Islam. It is new conflicts spawned by foreign invasions and fundamental fault lines within each state in terms of politics, ethnicity, tribalism and sectarianism.

The conflict in Egypt is over democracy, religious in Tunisia, tribal in Libya, ethnicity in Syria, sectarian in Iraq, regional proxy in Yemen. And in Palestine, it is about uprooted nation by foreign invaders.

- Hasan Afif El-Hasan, Ph.D. is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), now available on and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to


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