Contrary to popular media portrayals, the Middle East wasn’t always plagued by regressive fundamentalism. Salafi jihadist groups like Al Qaeda were not popular in the region. They still aren’t. They have been violently imposed on people thanks in large part to the actions of the US, which has a longstanding pattern of backing religious fundamentalists to further its geopolitical ambitions.
As far back as the 1950s, the CIA teamed up with the Muslim Brotherhood, then backed by Saudi Arabia, to weaken secular Arab nationalism and communism.
The most significant chapter in the US-Islamist love affair came in the 1980s, when the US armed the Mujahedeen to bleed the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It was the largest and longest running covert operation in US history. People like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Osama bin Laden associate whose claim to fame was splashing acid in the faces of unveiled schoolgirls at Kabul University, were the top recipients of CIA funds.
After the Soviet Union fell, the American-armed Mujahedeen groups morphed into Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Not long after that, Al Qaeda pulled off an attack that killed 3,000 people in New York City and its existence has been invoked to justify endless war and the curtailing of civil liberties ever since. (Afghanistan, where the US is still at war, remains the world’s second largest producer of refugees.)
The US played a similarly dirty game in Syria over the last six years. By knowingly arming rebel groups linked to Al Qaeda to weaken the Syrian government, the US created the world’s greatest refugee crisis since World War Two, which fueled the resurgent far right in the west and helped get Trump elected. I go into great detail about this topic in a recent piece I wrote for Alternet. Check it out here.
In September, during a private meeting at the state department, I expressed frustration about the US allowing Saudi Arabia to spread its toxic Wahhabi ideology, which serves as a primary inspiration for Salafi jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, around the world. Before I could finish, a senior level official in the department of near eastern affairs interrupted me to defend the Saudis.
“Saudi Arabia isn’t exporting terrorism, they’re exporting religion and we can’t get into the business of policing religion. It’s a free speech issue,” said the official. “The Saudis are a very important geostrategic ally. And they are changing. They’ve worked very hard to reform their textbooks,” the official added.
The official then brought up the jihadist textbooks printed by the US and disseminated to Afghan school children in refugee camps in Pakistan in the 1980s. The textbooks encouraged violence against infidels, communists and the Soviet Union in the name of Islam and helped inculcate an entire generation. These US-printed textbooks can still be found in in Taliban-run schools today.
The senior state department official insisted that in the end printing them was “worth it” because “we got rid of the Soviet Union.”
The official’s response was reminiscent of former US National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the architects of the US policy to arm the Afghan mujahedeen. Asked in 1998 if he regretted supporting Islamic fundamentalists, Brzezinski replied, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of central Europe and the end of the cold war?”
This sort of thinking continues to dominate the foreign policy establishment’s approach to the region with ever more disastrous consequences.
[…] 3 March 2017 — Rania Khalek […]
This stuff is even more infuriating when we consider how Saudi Arabia was more or less constructed by Western imperialism in the first place (initially the UK during Ibn Saud’s wars of conquest which wiped out neighboring, more cosmopolitan tribes, and then by the US after the 1930s establishing the oily foundation of the House of Saud), and especially when we consider how the US played a critical role in defending the House of Saud’s rule over their fiefdom against nationalist-republican military officers, socialist labor unions, and progressive technocrats.
Pretty cool guys like Abdullah Tariki and Ibn Muammar, who were in control of the state for a year or two in the late 1950s and were drafting up a constitution and planning municipal elections and gender reforms, were almost immediately locked up and/or deported by the US-funded and trained loyalist militias. Although that’s probably better than what happened to their allies in the military and in the general population, many of whom were outright executed.
Imagine what the Middle East might look like today if democratic secular leftists had managed to successfully overthrow the House of Saud in 1960/1961!
This post is good at outlining our direct US support for Sunni Islamism over the years. However, in my view, critics of US foreign policy should take a broader view of the role that our country has played in magnifying these ideologies.
Over the same time period you outline, to maintain hegemony over the region, the US made alliances with secularists. The Shah, Sadat, and Saddam come to mind — Sisi is a more recent example in this tradition. The spread of Islamism in the MidEast must be understood, in part, as a reaction to repressive secularism.
During the Iraq War, US COIN ghouls, like Petraeus and James Steele, occasionally made tactical alliances with sectarian Shia militias. The Guardian did a great report on one instance of collaboration here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/06/pentagon-iraqi-torture-centres-link
The spiral of deadly sectarianism in Iraq and Syria can’t be separated from policies like this. There’s more to the story, of course, but I don’t want to make this too long of a post. I just want to outline some of the other ways we’ve helped to lead the Middle East into this sinkhole. I hope that we learn a more exhaustive lesson than “backing secularists is the solution.”
Wow. Excellent article and just the justification politicians give for imperialism and the horrors it unleashes. I will check out your article on Alternet, a former fav publication of mine. If ever interested, I will disseminate the why to as ‘former’.
So supporting secularism isn’t the solution Michael? I am sorry but you can’t have socialism or social democracy with theocracy, so if you think progressive policy is the answer (and it is) then “backing secularists is the only solution.”