Monday, April 16, 2007

What We Should've Seen Five Years Ago

Just wanted to mention an absolutely tremendous program that started airing on PBS last night called "America at a Crossroads."

It's an 11-part series that covers, as described on the website, "the war on terrorism; the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; the experience of American troops serving abroad; the struggle for balance within the Muslim world; and global perspectives on America’s role overseas."

I watched the first episode last night called "Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda." It was terrific. It traced the growth of fundamentalist Islam from the 1940s, explaining how the organization known as Al Qaeda was formed from a splinter faction of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s (although the roots of the splinter go back into the 1970s).

There are two major themes that run through the development of the splinter group: 1) The application of violence, and 2) The emphasis on recruitment.

On the first theme
, the application of violence refers to ideological shifts rather than simply tactical changes. As the splinter faction became more entrenched in the use of violence to spread its message of fundamentalist Islam, it widened its definition of "the enemy" at key points.

In the late 1970s, the violence was aimed primarily at those Middle Eastern leaders who professed secularism, particularly in Egypt where Ayman al-Zawahiri -- Osama bin Laden's lieutenant today -- lived. But into the 1980s, shifts took place to widen the scope of violence to include Western powers, especially the US, that supported secularism in the Middle East and, probably even more important, virtually anyone who the splinter faction deemed to be an infidel -- even if that person professed a faith in Islam.

While the vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East, and even a majority of those who subscribe to fundamentalism, do not approve of the use of violence, the inclusion of Muslims in the definition of "enemy" was viewed by most Islamic scholars as a particularly inappropriate interpretation of the Koran, and it demonstrated just how far the splinter group had strayed from the rest of Islam between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s.

On the second theme of recruitment, fundamentalist Islam as a whole gained significantly from the Six Days War in 1967 when secularist leaders in Egypt and Jordan fell to the Israeli forces. That war convinced many young Muslims that secularism was being punished by Allah and that fundamentalism was the way to go.

But it wasn't until the 1980s when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan that the splinter faction gained its first influx of recruits, including Osama bin Laden. From that point the organization grew and in the late 1980s formalized itself under the banner of Al Qaeda.

Throughout the 1990s, bin Laden believed that provoking the United States into a "cowboy reaction" was the best tactic for confronting the West. He witnessed firsthand the success the Soviet excursion into Afghanistan had in galvanizing the splinter movement, and he wanted to replicate that development with the US.

The first American reaction came in 1998 when Clinton ordered bombing in the Sudan in response to attacks on two American embassies in east Africa, which only helped fuel Al Qaeda's development.

The next reaction was more severe. When the US invaded Afghanistan in the wake of September 11, bin Laden expected the attack to galvanize Al Qaeda, but it actually had the opposite effect. Aside from letting bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders go in the hills of Tora Bora in December of 2001 by not putting US forces on the ground, the war in Afghanistan was a resounding success for the US.

Aiding the success was widespread sympathy in the Muslim world for the horrific attacks of September 11 and general mistrust of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But, as the "America at a Crossroads" documentary made clear, all of that goodwill and momentum after Afghanistan was more than wiped away in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq and became -- in the eyes of many Muslims -- an occupying force in the region.

One Muslim commentator referred to the Iraq War as a "revival" for Al Qaeda, which was nearly flattened after Afghanistan. The Iraq War has brought about the development of homegrown terrorist cells throughout the region as anger and economic displacement led many to take up the banner of Al Qaeda even though the organization itself is less centralized than before due to disruptions in communication lines. At present, Al Qaeda serves more as an informal label or stamp for terrorism than an explicit chain of command.

It appears that only a few clips from part one are out on the series website, but hopefully they'll be adding more once the entire program has aired.

Parts two and three are set to air tonight on PBS -- at 8:00pm and 9:00pm, respectively. Each deal with the view of the Iraq War from the perspective of US soldiers.

The second part is called "Warriors" and it provides an in-depth profile of six American soldiers on the front lines of the Iraq War in Baghdad during 2005. The third part is called "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" and it looks at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the writings of the American soldiers who participated in the conflicts.

Here's the rest of the series lineup:

Tuesday, April 17
"Gangs of Iraq" at 8:00pm
"The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom" at 9:00pm

Wednesday, April 18
"Europe's 9/11" at 8:00pm
"The Muslim Americans" at 9:00pm

Thursday, April 19
"Faith Without Fear" at 8:00pm
"Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia" at 9:00pm

Friday, April 20
"Security Versus Liberty: The Other War" at 8:00pm
"The Brotherhood" at 9:00pm

Check them out if you have the time.

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Anonymous Mike said...

An interesting series. I urge you to read Reza Aslan’s “No God but God.” He recently spoke at Marquette and made a powerful argument that Islam is in the midst of a reformation, and that is the main cause of the rise of “fundamentalism.”

I agree with Aslan, while U.S. policies and actions since 9/11 have certainly had a negative impact on relations between the West and the Islamic world, continued internal problems (economic and political) in many Arab countries cannot be chalked up to U.S. actions, or Israel.

Aslan discusses that the ability of every Muslim to read the Qu’ran is a relatively new phenomenon, as with every religious text, interpretations vary widely. The rise of “fundamentalism” is the result of every day people reading a text to fit their worldview.

Thanks for posting on this topic, it is an interesting one.

April 16, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Thanks for your comment, Mike. I'll take a look at Aslan’s book.

April 16, 2007  

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