Islamic State: The long battle ahead
The Middle East is in turmoil. The crisis created by the Islamic State will take a long time to heal since the turmoil is one of ideology, although we have witnessed its violent manifestation. The genesis of the problem has deep historical roots. It’s a heady cocktail of artificial national boundaries, religious differences, and an American policy of boots on the grounds. Suffice to say, such a heady cocktail has always created a recipe for disaster. Like most regions, the Middle East too has its fair share of differences that are also steeped in religion. The golden mile in the holy city of Jerusalem, for example, has given birth to three major faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The region, however, is not only home to these Abrahamic religions, but also a heady mix of sects that include Shia, Sunni, Alawite, Druze, Coptic, Maronites and Armenians, among many others. Violence thus becomes a necessary spin-off.
After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the European colonial powers had created national boundaries. Suffice to say, these boundaries lasted for the better part of the last century. However, the glue of nationalism that had held this volatile region together came unstuck after the Americans went after Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Prior to Iraq, the Americans had supported the Mujahedeen-led battle against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Americans had wanted to deny the Russians access to warm sea ports and thus cranked up the Pashtuns on either side of the Durand line from Pakistan. It finally resulted in the defeat of the mighty Red Army in Afghanistan. The stage was thus set for international intervention through the back door. Once the Americans intervened with boots on the ground in Iraq old sectarian and tribal rivalries broke out. After the American invasion, old sectarian rivalries came to the fore. The mix of Sunni, Shia, and Christian and Alawite sects had caused a social upheaval and except for Israel all populations remain affected. As per latest reports, the stabbing by Palestinian youth in Israel has begun once again. Is this the beginning of the Third Intifada?
The genesis of the current problem lies in the American policy of pitting Shias against the Sunnis. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni dictator, who had brutally controlled the majority Shia in Iraq. The Americans controlled the cities and the built-up areas while the countryside was littered with radical Sunnis, who got together with the Al-Qaeda. They soon took control of the areas outside the cities, and slowly a civil war had erupted. Once the Americans began to depart in 2011, the Sunnis and the Al-Qaeda quickly occupied center stage and set this region on fire. Syria, a neighboring country with a mix of volatile population and an authoritarian ruler, was soon sucked into the civil war.
The civil war in Syria is a conflict between the minority President Bashar Al-Assad-led Alawites, who are aligned with Shiite Muslims, and the majority Sunni. The conflict has, unfortunately, drawn other ethno-religious minorities, chiefly Christians, Druze, Kurds, Assyrians, and Armenians. The atrocities committed have been inhuman and against all norms of human behavior. Such chaos has complicated matters for the Kurds, who have always wanted a separate homeland and have a sizeable population in Northern Iraq, Syria, and Iran.
Of the estimated 23 million people in Syria (2011), approximately 70 to 74 percent of the population was Sunni Muslims, commonly described as Arabs by virtue of their language, culture, and history. The Alawite and Shia constituted around 16 percent of the population. Earlier the Christians had constituted a sizable part of the population. However, their numbers have steadily declined. The mass refugee exodus in Syria has seen over 5 million people leaving, a negative birth rate and incessant bombing by the Western nations, all adding fuel to the fire.
In order to draw manpower, the Islamic State has radicalized young and alienated Muslim people all over Europe. The internet has reduced distances and brought the conflict home. There are reportedly hundreds of youth who have volunteered to join IS in America, England, and other European countries. Contrary to common perception resentment is the common ground. Most of them are second or third generation immigrants. Some Indian youngsters have also joined the Islamic State. This is a cause for deep concern. What causes these youth to leave behind their homes to join radical Islam groups? There are no easy answers. But intelligence agencies need to find the answers as such a battle is about ideology. The western nations feel aerial bombardments is an option. They are, however, apprehensive about committing boots on the ground, which leads to a lot of collateral damage. Post-Paris most world leaders have increased force against this problem, without addressing why the Middle East is smoldering?
Indian authorities need to take note. The conflict is going to last a while. New Delhi must ensure that it stays away from India’s shores. The solution to the IS problem in India may lie in multiculturalism. Suffice to say, our Muslim heritage is as much a part of India’s tolerant ethos than any other. Will the intolerance debate at home affect our youth? From the freedom struggle to the post-Indpendence period, Muslims have stood shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Indians. It is the time our political class thought primarily in terms of development and economic prosperity. Religion is a deeply personal affair and should best be left to an individual. The 21st century will make the world flatter, not only economically but also in terms of ideology. It is time India concentrated more on economic progress and ensures its youth are not radicalized.
(The author is a retired Brigadier. Views expressed are strictly personal)