Small World: Getting to know the enemy

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Murders, beheadings, kidnapping, hostage-taking, guerrilla warfare: These are some of the tactics of fanatic Islamic fundamentalist in today’s Middle East. Hateful, barbaric acts.

Yet, on the theory that it might be wiser to try to understand the mentality of these young men rather than just despise them, I will try to conjure up the kind of person who signs up as a terrorist. Let’s call our fictional model Ahmad and suppose that he is a Sunni Moslem who grew up in Syria. He could just as well be a Shia from Iraq or one from Pakistan, England or France. What turns an ordinary youth into a suicide bomber or fanatic fighter?

First, as to Ahmad’s origins, it is probable that he was born into a religious family of limited means and educated in a free, probably Saudi-subsidized Koranic school where rote learning is the means of instruction. His studies completed, Ahmad is poorly prepared for the world of work. Out there are crowds of youth against whom he must compete. Over-population means poor schools, no jobs, little government help; it is the curse of the region. No job means no rented apartment means no marriage.

Added to these economic and social frustrations are bitter observations of the Middle Eastern political scene. The chief complaint is rampant corruption; a close second is dependency on outside powers; a third is rule by minority regime. Sometimes, overriding both is hatred of westernized behaviors that violate Islamic precepts — drinking, no veils, ostentatious wealth, perceived favoritism of other sects.

Ladled on top of these local evils is the despised domineering power of imperialism. The U.S. invasions and fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan probably recruited more volunteers for the extremists than any recent cause. And, of course, without the humiliating fear and hatred of Israeli aggression and the weakness of secular regimes, the rise of fundamentalist Islamic politics would have been much slower. In Ahmad’s mind, Israel, Iraq, Egypt, Libya are all pieces of a coordinated scheme to rule over Moslem lands — as in the days of the Crusaders.

But why Islam as a mobilizing engine? In part, it follows the remembered collapse of secular Arab nationalism under Nasser and his lesser imitators (Saddam, Assad, Qadafi) and the even earlier failures of the liberal, democratic, free market ideology introduced by the colonialists — as well as the futility of attempting to use communist doctrines.

That leaves only Islam as a binding system of belief that is region-wide and cannot easily be disputed by rulers or their pet intellectuals. After all, it is the word of God.

A year or so before the Egyptian “revolution” of 2011 my wife and I spent three weeks in Cairo and Alexandria. Each day, we would take the subway or tram into the central city and each day we would encounter young men doing the same thing. I struck up conversations in my bad Arabic with them and the several taxi drivers we hired. To a man (or boy), they were enthusiastic about Obama and his Cairo speech extolling democracy and criticizing Israeli settlements. They were most impressed that he had spent over half an hour visiting the great Sultan Hassan mosque, a medieval monument little known to tourists. And, to a man, they were dismissive of their president, Mubarak and Galal, his son and presumed heir. “I don’t care who hears me,” shouted an anti-Mubarak taxi driver, when I cautioned him about the omnipresent secret police.

I think of those fellows, wondering if they ever found work, whether they are disappointed with the course of the “revolution” and what they think of the spread of destructive Islamic terrorists. I don’t think they would have joined up or hurled a grenade. But it is likely that they would be mildly sympathetic with the terrorists’ anger and violence.

That’s what it takes for a guerrilla movement to survive, Chairman Mao said: A supportive or tolerant population, one more inclined to take the side of the rebels than the authorities. I suspect the turmoil in the Middle East will not be of short duration and Ahmad will be engaged in struggle for the remainder of his days — which may be few but will be followed by other volunteers.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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