Doomsday ideologies like the Islamic State are creating fear, which can only be countered by increasing opportunity, equity and hope.
Istanbul, Dhaka and Baghdad have dominated headlines this week. All three cities suffered spectacular terrorist attacks. In Istanbul, at least 43 people were killed and a further 239 wounded. In Dhaka, 22 died and 30 were injured. In Baghdad, at least 125 died and more than 150 were injured. The Islamic State (IS) claimed credit for all three attacks.
Although full details are unknown, the facts that are emerging are telling. Turkish government officials declared that the three suicide bombers who attacked Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on June 28 are “from Russia’s North Caucasus region, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.” Many pass through Europe’s third busiest airport on a regular basis. The attack has certainly created an atmosphere of fear and will have a chilling effect on Turkey’s struggling tourism industry.
There are three issues to note in the Istanbul attack.
First, Turkey has already experienced a string of deadly terrorist attacks, and this is the seventh major suicide bombing over the last year. As the Islamic State faces setbacks in Syria and Iraq, Turkey is its new battleground even though the country turned a Nelson’s eye to its rise for years. Now, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has drawn swords against the Kurds and all political opponents, has little choice but to focus on IS.
Second, the three suicide bombers prove that foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are a frightening proposition. The Soufan Group calculates that “between 27,000 and 31,000 people have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State and other violent extremist groups.” The organization’s December 2015 report makes for chilling reading. Foreign fighters have come from at least 86 countries, demonstrating the Islamic State’s cross-border appeal to a section of young Muslims. Strikingly, the numbers from Russia and Central Asia have increased by 300% since June 2014.
Now that the Islamic State is being pummeled by Russian airstrikes in Syria and has been beaten badly in Iraqi strongholds like Fallujah, it is expanding its operations abroad. The Soufan Group’s report observes that the essentially local and regional phenomenon of the rise of extremist groups in Syria and Iraq might be about to change with the reverse flow of foreign fighters. The attacks in Istanbul demonstrate that there is another twist to the story. The flow might not necessarily reverse but go in different directions and cause carnage in its wake.
Unlike Istanbul, the Dhaka attack is more confusing. The Islamic State claims credit for the attack but the Bangladeshi government disputes this.
The terror inflicted by the Islamic State is acquiring a bigger footprint and greater unpredictability as foreign fighters leave for home or for other locations. North Africa faces a big threat. So do France and Belgium. They provide the highest number of fighters per capita, and immigrants in both these countries feel highly marginalized. Of course, Turkey that shares a border with both Syria and Iraq has a real fight on its hands.
Third, the origins of the suicide bombers highlight the increasing Islamic radicalization in North Caucasus and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin first emerged as a political leader by crushing the Chechen insurgency. His policy of blood and iron has arguably brought Chechnya, Dagestan and other parts of North Caucasus to heel. Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s loyal satrap, has been accused of torturing an opponent with a blowtorch and murdering Anna Politkovskaya. The smoldering resentment in the region is resulting in young men becoming susceptible to the propaganda of IS.
The Financial Times reports a different reason for the radicalization of young men from former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In these countries, regional or local identity is far more important than the religious or national one. However, when immigrants from these places move to Russia, they lose their community and replace their local identity with a religious one.
Struggling economies and high unemployment contribute to the growing radicalization of young men from Central Asia and the North Caucasus. Tatars and Bashkirs, two predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in Russia, are also vulnerable. Russian officials initially allowed if not encouraged homegrown radicals to go and fight in Syria. This was their way of buying peace at home. Unsurprisingly, Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, points out that Russian is the third language after Arabic and English in the Islamic State. For these men from the North Caucasus and Central Asia, Istanbul provided a soft and sensational target.
In the future, blowback will come to Russia too. Muslims form 11% of its population, numbering 16.5 million. Another 4 million migrants from the North Caucasus and Central Asia are Muslim too. In the post-Soviet era, Russian identity revolves around ethnicity and the Russian Orthodox Church. The minorities are reverting to Islam as identity as well. Hence, Russia’s largely 20 million Sunni Muslims are outraged by support for the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad. The region is a tinderbox waiting to explode.
Unlike Istanbul, the Dhaka attack is more confusing. The Islamic State claims credit for the attack but the Bangladeshi government disputes this. It blames Jamaeytul Mujahdeen Bangladesh (JMB), a local militant group. On July 1, young men from well-to-do local families who studied in private schools and universities attacked a famous bakery in the posh neighborhood of Gulshan, killing mainly foreigners. Over the last two years, Islamist radicals have been hacking bloggers, atheists and religious minorities to death, using little more than machetes. The latest attack demonstrates that the likes of JMB are upping their game and becoming more dangerous.
In November 2015, the Atlantic Council examined the rise of the radical Islam in Bangladesh. It blamed the feud between Prime Minister Begum Sheikh Hasina Wajed and opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia, the “Battling Begums,” for the phenomenon. In classic Americano fashion, the venerable Washington, DC-based think tank is only part right. There is much more going on. What is happening in Bangladesh is tied inextricably tied up with identity in the Indian subcontinent. Is identity ethnic, linguistic, religious, national or something else?
Till 1971, Bangladesh was East Pakistan. The taller and fairer West Pakistanis believed they were racially superior to their cousins to the east and ruled them with an iron hand. The idea of Pakistan was based on a simple premise: The Muslims in India, regardless of language, sect or caste, formed one nation. East and West Pakistan were more than 2,200 kilometers apart but were farcically yoked together as one nation by the wonderful British who were in tearing hurry to leave after World War II.
The partition of India was an unmitigated disaster. It led to massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, savage sexual violence and the biggest migration in history. It turned out that the so-called East Pakistanis liked speaking Bengali instead of Urdu, disliked discrimination and desired dignity. When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the current prime minister, won a historic election in 1970 and the Pakistanis refused to honor the result, the die was cast. Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation in 1971 with Indian military support despite US President Richard Nixon’s active opposition.
Unlike fairy tales, life did not turn out happy ever after. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was murdered in a military coup and General Ziaur Rahman took over as Bangladesh’s big boss. The military man made Islam become a part of Bangladesh’s constitution. Bangladesh did not return to the East Pakistan days, but General Rahman harked back to its toxic mix of religion with politics. The general, in turn, was murdered later and it is his widow who now leads the opposition.
In Bangladesh, politics is a multi-generational family feud that puts The Godfather to shame. Yet the fundamental issue of identity still remains at stake. To put it horrendously crudely, Sheikh Hasina wants a more Bengali identity while Khaleda Zia wants a more Islamic one.
Add youth unemployment, rising inequality and an influx of Saudi money into the mix, and you get an increasingly radicalized Bangladesh.
The crumbling colonial system makes things worse. British-era legislation no longer makes sense, the police is little better than a gang, the courts are a joke, the press is dire and political parties are fiefdoms of the two Begums. Unsurprisingly, an angry and fearful people are susceptible to radical Islam.
When it comes to Baghdad, the blood is barely dry after the blasts on July 3, but it is part of an all too familiar pattern. The Islamic State conducted a massive blast during Ramadan to target shoppers who would be out late at night. It is payback for Fallujah and a clear message for Iraq’s Shia-led government. The Islamic State might have lost on the battlefield, but it can still hurt Baghdad.
In 2015, this author pointed out that the world created by Sir Mark Sykes and Monsieur François Georges-Picot had fallen down like Humpty Dumpty. In its place, a messy regional conflict with multiple parties and shifting agendas has emerged. It is the Middle East’s Thirty Years’ War. There will be blood for quite a while yet as rivalries, vendettas and agendas play out in this ravaged and ruined land.
Outside sunlit Silicon Valley, this is fast becoming an age of fear, anger, hate and terror. To quote The Economist, “depressed and down-at-heel” places are supporting the likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen. Technocratic elites have failed the people and taxpayer-funded bank bailouts have robbed the poor for the rich. It is little wonder that people are supporting demagogues who promise to take back control. They are the so-called First World’s answers to the Islamic State, and the monsters on both sides feed off each other.
If the weak have a stake in prosperity, if they believe their voice matters and if they have hope, doomsday purveyors of perverted ideologies like the Islamic State and rabble rousers like Farage will have less of a following. For that to happen, elites might have to display just a touch more humility, heed the concerns of the marginalized and develop a bit of a sense of service. Surely, that is not too much to ask.
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.