September 11, 2001, was gruesome enough on its own terms, but for many of us, the real fear was of what might follow. Not only had al-Qaeda shown it was capable of sophisticated and ruthless attacks, but a far greater concern was that the group had or could establish a powerful hold on the hearts and minds of Muslims. And if Muslims sympathised with al-Qaeda’s cause, we were in for a Herculean struggle. There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims living in more than 150 countries across the world. If jihadist ideology became attractive to a significant part of this population, the West faced a clash of civilisations without end, one marked by blood and tears.
More than eight eventful years have passed, but in some ways it still feels like 2001. Republicans have clearly decided that fanning the public’s fears of rampant jihadism continues to be a winning strategy in America. Commentators furnish examples of backwardness and brutality from various parts of the Muslim world — and there are many — to highlight the grave threat we face.
But, in fact, the entire terrain of the war on terror has evolved dramatically. Put simply, the moderates are fighting back and the tide is turning. We no longer fear the possibility of a major country succumbing to jihadist ideology. In most Muslim nations, mainstream rulers have stabilised their regimes and their societies, and extremists have been isolated. This has not led to the flowering of Jeffersonian democracy or liberalism. But modern, somewhat secular forces are clearly in control and widely supported across the Muslim world. Polls, elections, and in-depth studies all confirm this trend.
In 2002, the UNDP published a detailed study of the Arab world. The paper made plain that in an era of globalisation, openness, diversity, and tolerance, the Arabs were the world’s great laggards. Using hard data, the report painted a picture of political, social, and intellectual stagnation in countries from the Maghreb to the Gulf. And it was written by a team of Arab scholars. This was not paternalism or imperialism. It was truth.
Perhaps the most successful country to combat jihadism has been the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia. In 2002 that country seemed destined for a long and painful struggle with the forces of radical Islam. The nation was rocked by terror attacks, and a local al-Qaeda affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), appeared to be gaining strength. But eight years later, JI has been marginalised and mainstream political parties have gained ground, all while a young democracy has flowered after the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship.
Magnus Ranstorp of Stockholm’s Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies recently published a careful study examining Indonesia’s success in beating back extremism. The main lesson, he writes, is to involve not just government but civil society as a whole, including media and cultural figures who can act as counterforces to terrorism. (That approach obviously has greater potential in regions and countries with open and vibrant political systems — Southeast Asia, Turkey, and India — than in the Arab world.)
Since 9/11, Western commentators have been calling on moderate Muslim leaders to condemn jihadist ideology, issue fatwas against suicide bombing, and denounce al-Qaeda. Since about 2006, they’ve begun to do so in significant numbers. In 2007 one of bin Laden’s most prominent Saudi mentors, the preacher and scholar Salman al-Odah, wrote an open letter criticising him for “fostering a culture of suicide bombings that has caused bloodshed and suffering, and brought ruin to entire Muslim communities and families”. That same year Abdulaziz al ash-Sheikh, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa prohibiting Saudis from engaging in jihad abroad and accused both bin Laden and Arab regimes of “transforming our youth into walking bombs to accomplish their own political and military aims.” Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest and most prestigious school of Islamic learning, now routinely condemns jihadism. The Darul Uloom Deoband movement in India, home to the original radicalism that influenced al-Qaeda, has inveighed against suicide bombing since 2008. None of these groups or people have become pro-American or liberal, but they have become anti-jihadist.
This might seem like an esoteric debate. But consider: the most important moderates to denounce militants have been the families of radicals. In the case of both the five young American Muslims from Virginia arrested in Pakistan last year and Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, parents were the ones to report their worries about their own children to the US government — an act so stunning that it requires far more examination, and praise, than it has gotten. This is where soft power becomes critical. Were the fathers of these boys convinced that the US would torture, maim, and execute their children without any sense of justice, they would not have come forward. I doubt that any Chechen father has turned his child over to Vladimir Putin’s regime.
The data on public opinion in the Muslim world are now overwhelming. London School of Economics professor Fawaz Gerges has analysed polls from dozens of Muslim countries over the past few years. He notes that in a range of places — Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon and Bangladesh — there have been substantial declines in the number of people who say suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets can be justified to defend Islam. Wide majorities say such attacks are, at most, rarely acceptable.
This shift does not reflect a turn away from religiosity or even from a backward conception of Islam. That ideological struggle persists and will take decades, not years, to resolve itself. But the battle against jihadism has fared much better, much sooner, than anyone could have imagined.
The exceptions to this picture readily spring to mind — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen. But consider the conditions in those countries. In Afghanistan, jihadist ideology has wrapped itself around a genuine ethnic struggle in which Pashtuns feel that they are being dispossessed by rival groups. In Pakistan, the regime is still where Saudi Arabia was in 2003 and 2004: slowly coming to realise that the extremism it had fostered has now become a threat to its own survival. In Yemen, the State lacks the basic capacity to fight back. So the rule might be that in those places where a government lacks the desire, will, or capacity to fight jihadism, al-Qaeda can continue to thrive.
But the nature of the enemy is now quite different. It is not a movement capable of winning over the Arab street. Its political appeal does not make rulers tremble. This is not an argument to relax our efforts to hunt down militants. Al-Qaeda remains a group of relentless, ruthless killers who are trying to recruit other fanatics to carry out hideous attacks that would do terrible damage to civilised society. But the group’s aura is gone, its political influence limited.
The enemy is not vast; the swamp is being drained. Al-Qaeda has already lost in the realm of ideology. What remains is the battle to defeat it in the nooks, crannies, and crevices of the real world.
Fareed Zakaria is the Editor of Newsweek
The views expressed by the author are personal
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