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Ways to contain militancy within the Islamic World

Islamabad - RISING militancy accompanies the spreading turmoil in the Islamic world. The coup in Cairo to oust the Muslim Brotherhood's president Mohamed Morsi is symptomatic of the tumult and conflict that afflicts Muslim peoples today.

Egypt may see uneasy stability or a wider internal conflict. The trend in Tunisia may be similar.

In Algeria, the military reversal of an Islamist electoral victory happened almost two decades ago. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has emerged from the subsequent brutal conflict. Islamist forces have spread to Mali and other Sahel countries. In post-Gadhafi Libya, militias of various Islamist stripes exert greater power than the elected "moderate" government.

Sudan's multiple civil wars, motivated by religion and resources, have led to the division of Africa's largest country into a Muslim north and a Christian and animist South Sudan. Somalia has collapsed into tribal components and is now the locale for the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabab movement. Across the Red Sea, Yemen, riven by tribal and political rivalries and regional insurgencies, has become the uncertain host of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Twelve years of US-Nato military operations, thousands of civilian and military casualties, and billions of dollars spent on "development", have failed to put down the Taleban insurgency or to change Afghanistan's conservative Muslim culture. The sole achievement has been the decimation of the original al-Qaeda leadership. US military withdrawal is likely to see Afghanistan much as it was prior to its intervention.

The Afghan wars have now spread to Pakistan. Islamic extremists here have inflicted huge casualties and economic damage on Pakistan due to its erstwhile alliance with the US-led "war on terror". The newly elected government has offered to negotiate with these groups. Simultaneously, Pakistan seeks to mediate a settlement between the Afghan Taleban and the US. The outcomes are highly uncertain.

The US military intervention in Iraq opened a Pandora's box of Sunni-Shia conflict and led to the emergence of al-Qaeda-related terrorist groups. Sectarian conflict has resumed in Iraq after American withdrawal. It has now spread to Alawite-controlled Syria.

In Syria, the geopolitical goal of containing Iran has created an uneasy alliance between Sunni extremist groups and Western powers. The Syrian conflict is now spreading to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israeli-occupied Golan. The Muslim world may suffer the consequences of the sectarian divisions for decades. But the unintended geopolitical cost for the West is likely to be equally significant.

Israeli-occupied Palestine is at a crucial juncture. The secular Palestinian Authority (PA) has lost popularity due to its perceived dependence on the West. Hamas enjoys wider support. Yet, unless the PA and Hamas, jointly or separately, can show progress towards a viable Palestinian state, they could lose ground rapidly to the more extremist Salafists and groups with links to al-Qaeda. The right-wing Israeli government stands in the way of any meaningful progress. It may thus consign its people to facing much more intractable adversaries in future.

The Gulf's Arab monarchies - with the exception of Bahrain - have avoided the Arab Spring by ensuring the economic needs of their small populations. Yet, within these prosperous states too, the popular sentiment is anti-West. Their stability could be thrown out of kilter by the crisis in Syria or a confrontation with Iran.

Iran faces domestic political differences. But its contest with the Western powers over its nuclear programme and regional influence, unless peacefully resolved, has the potential to destabilise most of West Asia and create additional streams of militancy. Expectations that the newly elected "moderate" president will compromise on Iran's nuclear stance are unrealistic.

Central Asia enjoys artificial stability for the moment, with the suppressed Islamist movements from Uzbekistan and the Caucasus fighting in exile in Afghanistan and against Pakistan. They are "hired guns" who can be turned against multiple targets, including their own countries. The outcome of peace efforts for Afghanistan is also crucial for Central Asia.

Quite evidently, each crisis in the Muslim world is the consequence of specific and local causes. Yet, Islamic militancy plays an essential role in almost every situation. This militancy is an expression of Muslim anger at centuries of Western colonialism; the continuing injustices and discrimination against Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and elsewhere; and the perceived complicity of Muslim rulers with these injustices. Muslim anger is directed against both domestic and external "enemies".

Ruthless terrorist extremism has been countered by equally ruthless counter-terrorism by the agencies of the major powers and Islamic states. Instead of containing militancy and terrorism, these tactics have expanded them. A different approach is essential.

While policies will need to be specific for each situation and respond to the genuine local grievances and problems, there are some general principles that could be implemented to contain and reverse militancy and terrorism within and outside the Islamic world.

First, the leaders in Muslim countries need to align their policies with the sentiments of their peoples. This is the essence of democracy. Where these sentiments are extreme or unrealistic, it is the government's responsibility to educate its population.

Second, the US and its allies need to review and rectify their anti-Muslim policies and premises. They will of course deny that their policies are discriminatory, but they need to be honest with themselves. Their one-sided policies are not helping themselves, nor their ally, Israel.

Third, an emergency endeavour is required to promote economic and social development in the Muslim world. Education and jobs are effective antidotes to militancy and extremism.

Fourth, Muslim governments must reconcile their differences. In particular, halting the use of militant groups against domestic and external enemies and ending sectarian conflict would be most consequential in ending violence and terrorism, locally and globally. At the same time, Islamic governments need to ensure the monopoly of state over the instruments of force. Loss of this monopoly is the first step towards turmoil in any state.


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