Supporting the Good Rebels in the Muslim World
Although rarely stated as such, one of the primary goals of U.S. foreign policy is to prevent militant Islamic fundamentalists from coming to power or potentially carving out their own state-within-a-state somewhere in the world. At the same time, the U.S. and other western countries have generally supported recent uprisings throughout the Muslim world despite fears that militant Islamists hostile to western countries and values would take power.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to separate the good guys from the bad guys. A front page story in yesterday’s New York Times, for instance, discusses the potential “Islamization” of the Syrian conflict as the Al-Qaeda types try to make inroads. In the case of (the somewhat less publicized) conflict in the North African country of Mali, fighting in the country has, in fact, already become “Islamicized.”
“Islamized” conflicts are those in which rebel groups pursuing conventional goals involving power and resources transform into, or are pushed out, by militants who who see themselves as warriors in an international jihad. Before the transformation takes place, rebel groups express secular goals such as democracy, human rights, and self-determination. When a conflict becomes “Islamicized” goals are expressed in terms of a desire for the institution of Sharia law and the pursuit of a Pan-Islamic agenda.
When, as is usually the case, conflicts take place in religiously and ethnically divided regions, the Islamization of conflict is also accompanied by changing tactics that label civilian out-groups as “infidels” and “apostates” and target them for massacres and suicide bombings. The move from secular to religious-based rebel movements in the Muslim world is almost inevitably accompanied by an upsurge in violence again the innocent.
Since the 1980s, almost every civil conflict in the Muslim world witnessed a tension between secular and religious insurgents. Sometimes the forces of religious extremism successfully co-opted movements that had previously attracted a measure of western sympathy, if not material support. One good example was the rebellion in Chechnya in the 1990s, which was transformed from a sympathetic cause to one associated with some of the worst Islamist terrorism outside of 9-11. Another good example was the rebellion in Kashmir, where the largely secular Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) was displaced by the radical Islamists of Lashkar e Toiba and Hizb ul Mujahadeen. More recently, of course, the story of the Iraqi insurgency is one that started off as a rebellion of ex-Saddam loyalists and former members of the military and turned in an Al Qaeda-affiliated bloodbath.
In other cases, however, international jihadists never got the upper hand. Radicals were present in Bosnia in the nineties, but never attracted much of a following, and, more recently, in Libya fears surrounding the presence of international jihadists failed to materialize. In the Palestinian territories the Islamist forces of Hamas gained support and control over the Gaza strip in recent years, but were also ultimately held in check by the largely secular Palestinian Authority.
What made the difference in these cases between movements in which Islamists prevailed in hijacking insurgent movements and those in which they failed? Certainly there is no one answer. However, it is also probably not a coincidence that the examples of unsuccessful or incomplete Islamization occurred when there was vocal, and even material support, by Western countries for the goals of insurgent groups while this support was absent in cases in which Islamization happened.
In the cases of Bosnia and Libya, there was near unanimous agreement in the West about who the “good guys” were in each conflict. The strong desire of many Palestinian leaders to retain the sympathies of western audiences helps mitigate the forces of radicalism there. More than just moral support, Western governments, particularly the U.S., have gotten to pick who received material support in these cases, allowing them to empower the players in these conflicts with more acceptable goals.
In the cases of Chechya, Kashmir, and Iraq, on the other hand, Western governments either opposed or distanced themselves from the earlier secular-oriented insurgents in these areas. “Turning our back” on Afghanistan in 1989 helped paved the way for the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda within a decade. In each case, the secular forces in the region were ultimately squeezed out as the more brutal Islamists forces forced themselves into leading roles.
What does this all suggest for the contemporary situations in Mali and Syria? In Mali, best known to us as the home of Timbuktu, a city which fell to the Islamist group Ansar Dine several months ago, the outside world needs to offer some degree of support to the goals of a rebel group known as the MNLA. The MNLA is a secular group that started the rebellion against Mali’s government in pursuit of an independent state for the Tuareg ethnic group, only to be later displaced by Islamist rebels. While the U.S. will continue to offer support to the hapless government of Mali, it, in cooperation with regional leaders, can also express to the MNLA support for some degree of Tuareg self-rule in return for their assistance in fighting the Islamists of Ansar Dine.
In the case of Syria, the United States needs to continue to be involved, with its allies in the region, to providing material support to those factions in the Free Syrian Army that are known to eschew radical Islam. If Syria continues to fall apart, which is the likely scenario, friendly opposition forces with compatible goals will be our ally in the fight against the militant Islamists. The U.S. government needs to help empower the “good guys” in both Mali and Syria so that neither becomes a base of operations for those who would do us harm. In Syria, we are taking the right approach. In Mali, western leaders have to do more.