The War on Terror that began twenty years ago was both a byproduct and an extending tool of American hegemony. Already an uncontested superpower before the terrorist attacks of September 2001, in their aftermath the United States’ discursive, political, and military paradigm of a “War on Terror” – in practice, against various manifestations of a poorly defined “radical Islam” – was adopted by any number of regimes, including in the Muslim world, for their own purposes. Two decades later, as Washington’s prestige reels partly because of its costs, the war itself shows little sign of letting up on the international stage. Rather, its indigenization among different states against their Muslim opposition continues to threaten genuine pan-Islamic politics.
Political Islam between the Cold War and War on Terror: The 1990s
The trendsetting potential of superpowers is nothing new; during the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union were imitated by many governments, often irrespective of geopolitical standing; thus could non-aligned Cairo adopt both Western hostility toward communism and the sort of overarching police state and single-party structure common in the Eastern Bloc. The Soviets’ collapse, catalyzed in no small part by a Muslim insurgency against their invasion of Afghanistan (Galeotti 1995), paved the way for a quarter-century of American hegemony. Thus, around the world, weaker states started to reshape themselves, at least aspirationally, in imitation of Washington. Markets were liberalized and political spaces at least formally opened, with multiparty elections – however flawed – mushrooming around the Global South. It was ironic that political Islam, which in Afghanistan had played such a role in heralding American unipolarity, soon replaced communism as the major opponent of Washington and, eventually, other states.
In fact, during the 1990s political Islam enjoyed an at least semiofficial role in much of the world that it had lacked for generations. States as different as democratic Malaysia, clerical-republican Iran, military-dictatorial Sudan, and monarchic Saudi Arabia promoted distinct forms of pan-Islamic projects (Liow 2009, Bokhari and Senzai 2013, Berridge 2017, Lacroix 2011, Hegghammer 2010). The international embargo on Bosnia’s under-armed government was resisted by several different states – among them Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – and private actors (Li 2019), though this could not prevent the tragic genocide. Islamist parties enjoyed much clout in Pakistan, whose military establishment had close links with Islamists in a number of regional arenas (Kiessling 2016); in Yemen, whose dictatorship was allied with the Islah Party (Campbell 2012, pp. 119); and in Sudan, whose particularly revolutionary Islamist party was long hand-in-glove with the military junta (Berridge 2017). It helped, too, that Islamists had historically helped these governments confront regional challenges, such as separatism.
Elsewhere, often populist or radical forms of political Islam became a common language of resistance against state corruption or abuse: this was most evident in Algeria, where a military coup was required to thwart an Islamist election win and heralded a bloody civil war, but there were Islamist critics of various types against the dictatorships in Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis. In following the Afghan pattern, Islamist militancy of various types also mushroomed against non-Muslim regimes such as Israel in Palestine, India in Kashmir, Ethiopia in the Ogaden, Russia in Chechnya, and the Philippines in Bangsamoro.
The War on Terror: The Globalization of the War on Islamism
Afghanistan itself, whose civil war partly pitted the mujahideen veterans of yesteryear – Hizb, Jamiat, and Taliban among others – against one another, showed the limitations of Islamist politicians in living up to their purported ideals (Dorronsoro 2005). It was there, too, that the war on terror began, after Usama bin Ladin’s pointedly provocative attacks in September 2001 shocked the world and gave the United States both an emotional incentive and political pretext to not only fight bin Ladin’s organization, but the Taliban regime before turning on other, often contrived, fronts around the world.
That contrived nature, in which any number of Muslim organizations – of various types, even charities – suddenly became subject overnight, saw the links between states and Islamists that had briefly flowered in the 1980s and 1990s sunder. In some cases, this was done by keeping an external rival’s exploitation of the new status quo in mind – thus Pakistan’s military junta publicly and controversially cut previous ties to many Islamists, largely in an unsuccessful attempt to preempt links between its rival India and Washington – but this steadily morphed from salvaging the state to salvaging the regime. The Saudi government’s alliance with the United States blatantly ignoring its interests had already been controversial in the 1990s, but such militants as bin-Ladin gave Riyadh a pretext, slowly but steadily embraced, an incentive to crack down on internal, largely peaceful, critics in addition to militants.
If former state supporters distanced themselves from political Islam in the interests of self-preservation, the same was doubly true of historically hostile regimes; thus, the totalitarian regimes of Uzbekistan and Syria embraced the war on terror as a vindication of their opposition to political Islam, on which they started to build links with the United States. This was doubly true of the governments of non-Muslim countries facing Muslim opposition – whether the Russians in Chechnya, India in Kashmir, Israel in Palestine, and China in the Xinjiang region – they enthusiastically embraced the war on terror doctrine for their counterinsurgency and weaponized it against Muslim rivals. Ethiopia’s disastrous invasion of Islamist-ruled Somalia, which paradoxically provoked the advance of Al-Qaeda’s most important affiliate Shabaab, was one such case. Israel’s special relationship with Washington was especially influential in exporting its counterinsurgency model; Tel Aviv’s penchant for the aerial assassination of enemy targets in civilian territory, controversial even to Washington in the early 2000s, soon became not only the American norm but an international norm as state after state adopted the War on Terror rubric.
Indigenizing the War on Terror: State Convenience and Its Limitations
But it is the indigenization among Muslims of the war on terror with which this article deals. Islam does oppose extremism, as any number of textual and scholastic sources indicate; what the war on terror did was redefine extremism to suit the temporary political agenda of political powers – first and foremost, ironically, non-Muslim powers such as the United States, but increasingly other including Muslim governments whose own behavior was often very suspect by Islamic standards.
Thus, not only were genuine extremists, themselves a disproportionately influential but marginal fringe, targeted but also Muslim organizations pursuing fairly mainstream practices – Islamic law, transnational solidarity, and self-defense by arms or otherwise. Political issues were pathologized and turned into an arbitrarily marked benchmark of extremism and moderation that had little to do with Islamic norms. The irony is that this continued even as, initially, the War on Terror actually served to spread Al-Qaeda’s influence: by the end of the 2000s, affiliates had popped up in North Africa, East Africa, South Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East, leaving Al-Qaeda temporarily far stronger than before the war on terror. That, in turn, served to inflate the bogeyman further, feeding into the cycle.
The trajectories of dictators Ali Saleh and Pervez Musharraf of Yemen and Pakistan, both aligned with Muslim militants before 2001, offer case studies in how entry into the war on terror could undermine both the regime and the state. Saleh had a long-running coalition-cum-rivalry with the Islah Party and had used Muslim militants against southern secessionists in the 1990s; Musharraf once thundered on the tradition of jihad against India and hailed from a military establishment linked to a half-dozen Islamist groups including the Afghan Taliban emirate. By 2004, both were involved in costly wars against clan-Islamist coalitions in their periphery (Ahmed 2013) that largely drew on their attempts to balance prevalent state policy with external pressure from both extremist ideologues and the United States.
Pakistan offers a particularly sharp case study because, in justifying his abandonment of the Taliban emirate next door, Musharraf explicitly cited a “Pakistan first” stance – implying a tension between Pakistani state interests and transnational interests, as well as the supremacy of the former. The irony was that this stance would fail on its own terms – Pakistani support to the United States weakened Islamabad’s regional influence, disrupted its internal sociopolitical fabric, and spectacularly failed in preempting an American-Indian coalition. Even before Musharraf’s downfall, intricately linked to a Washington that had no qualms about cutting him adrift, Islamabad had tacitly reverted to its former policy of enabling the Taliban movement (Brown and Rassler 2013, Kiessling 2016, Yousafzai 2021), eventually to the point of success in 2021. The Pakistani case indicates that, if anything, the state’s national interest had been served by cross-border cooperation between the Pakistani state and an Afghan militia – the state, therefore, had benefited only after jettisoning narrowly statist aims.
The War on Terror in the 2010s: Regime Convenience and Its Limitations
Other regimes have been even more willing to abandon internationalist solidarity to the purported national interest. Cairo’s decades-long detente with Israel, often to the point of closing the border with the besieged Ghazza strip, is a case in point; initially justified by Anwar Sadat as a point of national interest, it sharply diminished Cairo’s regional influence while providing no guarantee that the regime would survive; Sadat was of course assassinated, perhaps with the collaboration of disgruntled state elements (Kandil 2012, pp. 171-76), within years, while even his longer-lived successor Hosni Mubarak, a prized American asset before and during the war on terror, could not rely on foreign protection against a popular uprising.
If regimes have largely continued to prioritize the national – and, as argued here, usually parochial – interest over transnational links, the same cannot always be said of society. The uprisings in the Middle East during the early 2010s were a case in point, where definite links existed between, for instance, parts of the opposition in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt – most obviously in the case of the Ikhwanul-Muslimin and their fellow travelers (Milton-Edwards 2015). The downfall of several autocratic regimes, most of whom had been involved in the war on terror, and the prominent role of political Islam in most of the uprisings provoked a further entrenchment of surviving regimes in the region to dig in deeper, prioritizing not simply the state over the transnational but the regime over the state.
In justifying this policy, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia adopted a mixture of coercion and cooption to bend respectively Sufi and Salafi clerics to their will (Athanasoulia 2020). Such was the extent that by the mid-2010s, such monarchies had effectively branded any but the most narrowly docile Muslims as latent radicals – thus coopting at best, and internalizing at worst, the politics of the war on terror for their own aims. This policy was tailored to disarm non-Muslim powers – particularly the West but also Russia and China – so that political quietism in an Islamic guise was matched with increased social liberalism and, indeed, reliance on non-Muslim protection at the frequent expense of Muslim citizenry.
The irony is that this entrenchment of parochialism has now outgrown its Western enablers. China’s brutal clampdown on Uyghurs (Roberts 2020), loudly if somewhat hypocritically condemned by Western states, has met with overwhelming silence from capitals in the Muslim world; other persecutions, most notably the Rohingya genocide by Myanmar, met little action. The few bright spots in Muslim struggles – such as the Moro struggle for autonomy in the Philippines – have been the exceptions in a gloomy decade, though they show the continuing potential of Muslim political agency. The internationalist, cross-border Islamic impulse still exists in Muslim society but, with a few notable exceptions, is almost divorced from state policies. Whether societal solidarity for the Umma’s aching limbs can be returned to official policy is a major challenge of the upcoming generation.
Ibrahim Moiz is a student of international relations and history. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto where he also conducted research on conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has written for both academia and media on politics and political actors in the Muslim world.
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Last modified: April 13, 2022