How The Holy Warriors Learned To Hate

Waleed Ziad has an interesting op-ed in today’s NYT entitled, “How The Holy Warriors Learned To Hate.” [RSS]

[C]ontrary to popular theories, the fight against militant religious groups in South Asia is not a clash of age-old civilizations or a conflict between traditionalism and modernism. Rather, it is a more recent story of political ineptitude and corruption, and of a postcolonial class struggle between the disenfranchised poor and these countries’ elites.

He details the history of Islamic movements in the region and notes that, although madrasas were in place as early as the 19th century, radical Islamist movements gained little traction until relatively recently.

The turning point was the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The West and its allies decided the best resistance to Moscow would come through presenting the war as a religious struggle. While Pakistani religious leaders had little political power, they did have considerable influence over the madrasas in Pakistan’s northwestern frontier region and in Afghanistan. Even the most benign found this to be an opportunity to finally win recognition (and a fortune), and they set up their own militant subsidiaries. Madrasas were converted overnight into training grounds for mujahedeen. In exchange for political power and global recognition, these impoverished students readily became cannon fodder in Afghanistan.

Of course, the eventual Soviet withdrawal meant an end to all that Western attention and money. The mujahedeen needed a new cause. International events — including the Persian Gulf war and the Palestinian intifada — provided one: hatred of America. An ethnic Pashtun militia, which metamorphosed into the Taliban, provided a rallying point for the unemployed mujahedeen. The rest is history.

Today, Western politicians, academics and intelligence experts continue to search through the annals of history to determine the sources of this jihadist mindset. But the truth is, it is just another ideology adopted by so-called religious parties in the former British Empire for short-term political gains, and fueled by the frustrations of a disaffected lower class.

To battle this phenomenon, then, we need to open a new front on the war on terrorism. Permanently dislodging these extremists calls for educational, economic and cultural development. A first step should be working with Afghanistan and Pakistan to move the focus of the madrasas away from holy war. Equally important is providing more Western money for new schools to provide functional education, coupled with real economic opportunities for graduates. Education and jobs, not rooting out some faux-religious doctrine, are the means by which the disenfranchised may be brought back into the fold.

Considering the vast populations of the underclasses in these countries, changing their lot may take longer than war, but it would be cheaper and is the only long-term solution. And in doing so, America would be seen not as an occupier but as a purveyor of prosperity, winning the hearts and minds of generations to come.

This is an interesting argument. It should be noted, though, that he’s talking about South Asia and not the Arab world, where Islamism has much earlier and deeper roots. it’ll take much longer to overcome its appeal there.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.