The horrific attacks in Brussels bring to the forefront questions about Islam, terrorism, and the Middle East. Is political Islam a precursor to terrorism? Are some or many European, North African, Asian, and North American Muslims potential terrorists? These questions only speak to one several narratives that try to explain first the rise al-Qaeda and recently ISIS.
One narrative revolves around militant and radical strains of the Islamic faith. ISIS and al-Qaeda as well as other terrorist organizations in the region claim they are fighting to protect and to spread Islam. The terrorists portray themselves as devout practitioners who have shunned the practices of current progressive Muslims. They claim they are returning to the original teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and decry all other Muslims as schematics and blasphemers. Certainly, the Wahhabi and Salafi interpretations of Islam are hybrids and are being manipulated by the terrorists to proselytize and particularly to counter modernity.
Indeed, modernity is one of several shocks that have impacted on Muslim communities. The first was the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate, which led to establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood in March 1928 and more recently the ISIS caliphate. Secondly, the postcolonial Muslim word faced the challenge of how to reorganize Islam. Some of the new Muslim states drifted towards secular socialism, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states maintained strict adherence to Wahabbi Islam.
After 1945, the United States attempted to coopt the Saudi kingdom and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as any other fervent religious group to counter communism in the Middle East. This was part of the American policy in the early Cold War and again after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
To the White House Administrations beginning with Eisenhower, Islam served as the magic bullet with which to stop the expanding influence of the Soviet Union in the Third World. Even benign regimes such as those of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh were seen as a threat, particularly to British petroleum interests. In 1953, a combined American-British coup in 1953 overthrew the Iranian leader.
Part of the plot included bribing the religious establishment in Iran to help destroy the secular Mosaddegh regime. In time the defeat of Mosaddegh let to the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi and the establishment of a Shiite theocracy. In 1979, it was the head of that theocracy the Ayatollah Khomeini who condemned the United States as the “Great Satan” and proscribed Western practices in Iran. Today, Iran is a powerful, albeit almost silent, ally in the war against ISIS. Under Khomeini and his successors, Iran emerged as a powerful Shia state and is trying to establish a sphere of influence over part or all of the Middle East.
Another narrative focuses less on religion than on geopolitics. According to this analysis, the Middle East is in a state of flux, triggered by the near collapse of the Iraqi state. The defeat of Saddam Hussein also reduced the Sunnis into a despised minority, dominated by a fanatical Shia regime.
The fate of Iraq, consequently, enabled ISIS to emerge as the defender of the Sunnis. The Syrian Civil War, subsequently, created the ideal conditions for ISIS to expand its territory in Iraq to Syria. Furthermore, the failure of the United States to intervene in the Syrian conflict, the drone strikes, and bombing campaign have ultimately helped ISIS’ propaganda.
The terrorists now claim that they are defending the beleaguered Sunnis who are being slaughtered by the Shias in Iraq, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria – while the American led coalition, are raining fire on the Syrian rebels fighting the brutal regime of Assad.
Traditionally, the defense of Sunni Islam had been the role for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, however, have had to navigate a treacherous road between seeming to be an ally of the United States and the West, while engaging in an ongoing campaign to proselytize Wahhabi Islam to the Muslin and Third Worlds – a version of Islam that clearly despises the West and moderate Muslims.
The crisis in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal and the Syrian civil war offered new opportunities for the Saudis to expand their brand of Islam while countering that of Iran. Under the current circumstances, military force was the only option. ISIS, fortuitously for the Saudis and the other Sunni major powers, assumed the fighting against in Syria and Iraq.
Another player in this confluence of politics and religion is Turkey. Ankara’s strategy has been, more or less, to adopt a neutral position with respect to ISIS, since the terrorists were killing Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Thus turning a blind eye to foreign fighters crossing from Turkey to join ISIS as well as overlooking how the terrorists have been using Turkish banks to finance their war.
In effect, ISIS is part of a larger upheaval unfolding in the Middle East. Some of the countries in the region such as Syria and Iraq – created by the British and French through the 1916 Sykes- Picot – are collapsing, while new states such as Kurdistan are ready to emerge. In this context, directly or indirectly the ISIS jihadists are the foot soldiers of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States that are pursuing geopolitical as well as religious agendas.
Dr. André Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.