Will Paris affect Western perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute?

15nytnow-paris11-master675Supporters of Israel wonder – sometimes hope – that Islamist attacks in the West, such as what took place in Paris on Friday, will make Westerners more appreciative of the threat of terrorism that Israel faces.

The answer is, it won’t. Events like this tend to reinforce previously held ideas. Those that see Israel at most fault for the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will point to Muslim grievance at this festering sore and will argue that more pressure needs to be put on Israel to bring about peace – thereby reducing a motivation for potential Islamist terrorists.

Others see Islamist terrorism in the West quite separate from terrorism against Israel. The former, they argue, is religious and the latter is nationalist.

Those that see the Palestinians as sharing most of the blame will identify shared Islamist motivations in attacks against Israel and the West. (That, for instance, is the position of the Israeli prime minister.)

The truth is somewhere in the middle. Palestinians are highly nationalist, compared with al-Qaeda and Islamic State types who want to do away with the notion of states and establish a global caliphate. But Palestinian nationalist discourse is saturated with Islamist doctrine – even when nominally secular groups like Fatah are involved.

Is the House of Saud a house of sand?

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Saudi Arabia and Iran are the principal actors in the Middle East’s spreading Sunni-Shi’ite battle. The two have for the past decade been the respective heads of the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs, but the competition between them was more Great Game than Game of Thrones. However, the related phenomena of the Syrian civil war spiralling out of control and the apparent US decision to pull back (note: not withdraw) from the Middle East has forced the Saudis to a realisation they need to be more hands-on.

Mostly, both parties act to empower proxies, much like the US and Soviets did during the Cold War. The problem for Western interests (because Western interests continue to lie with the Saudis) is that the Saudi product, with which it hopes to encourage proxies and the ‘Arab Street’, isn’t very good—Saudi Arabia is having trouble winning hearts and minds.

The message the Iranians are selling is:

  • Iran is the defender of Shi’ites
  • All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Shi’ites and will either kill them (e.g. Islamic State, al-Qaeda), oppress them (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
  • No one else can or wants to protect the Shi’ites, but Iran can supply Shi’ites with weapons and aid
  • The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Shi’ites putting their fate in its hands
  • The government of the countries where Shi’ites live (unless you live in Iran!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
  • Death to America! Death to Israel!

The message is easy to sell because most Shi’ites in the Middle East believe it. Indeed, cut out the Shi’ite-centric message, and it’s effectively the same message the various Sunni Islamist groups are selling:

  • We [name of group—e.g. al-qaeda, Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood] are the defender of the Sunnis
  • All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Sunnis and will either kill them (e.g. rival groups), oppress them (e.g. every Arab government, plus Iran) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
  • No one else can protect Sunnis (some groups are able to promise arms)
  • The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Sunnis putting their fate in its hands
  • The government of the countries where Sunnis live (unless they live in areas under our control!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
  • Death to America! Death to Israel!

The problem for the Saudis (and, for that matter, every Status Quo Bloc member) is that they are corrupt and aligned with the US (which is, of course, aligned with—and widely seen as subservient to—Israel). The Saudis also back many of the other corrupt states in the region, including Egypt. Although they are the guardians of the two holy mosques (i.e. Mecca and Medina), they struggle to present themselves as representative of the true Islam. The various Salafi groups out there also present themselves as such but their message is easier to sell because it is much closer to the message of Muhammad. The Saudi message is entirely flawed because what Saudi Arabia is trying to sell is, essentially, hypocrisy.

To mollify their own Islamists, the Saudis have spent billions investing in Wahhabi religious education throughout the Middle East, as well as the rest of the world, for several decades. The Middle East has become more devout—and more extreme—because of this.

There is little wonder that, faced with corrupt, basically secular political leaders, extremist Sunni Islamists felt they needed to take things into their own hands. Al-qaeda and the various militias that were organised after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 really started the process. But the Arab Spring and, particularly, the Syrian civil war let the cat out of the bag. And there’s no stuffing it back in now.

The problem for the Saudis is that unrestrained and popular Sunni Islamist movements are a real threat for the Saudi regime. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Islamic State will continue expanding southward until it overruns Riyadh, but that continuing successes of Islamist movements throughout the Middle East could sufficiently embolden Saudis to rise against their political masters.) The Saudis think that the way to resolve this problem is to have all manifestations of successful Islamist groups fail. That’s why Riyadh has been arming and funding groups in Syria that are opposed to both the regime there and Islamic State (for now, these groups are still under Saudi control, but I would expect that to change after a while). The Saudis have directly interfered in Yemen, in a badly-thought through attempt at defeating the Iranian-backed Houthi movement. And they’ve been propping up the Egyptian military dictatorship in Egypt (which overthrew the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 2013). Doing so is expensive, as Egypt is hopelessly corrupt, provides endless subsidies to its people, does not garner much tax from them and has no possibility of turning things round any time soon. Pouring money into an endless hole that is Egypt shows how much the Saudis want the Muslim Brotherhood to remain out of power. The Saudis have also tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) backed Israel in every war it has fought against Islamist movements Hezbollah and Hamas since 2006.

The Obama Doctrine and the rising tide
But it increasingly feels as if the Saudis are fighting the rising tide. To a certain extent, the US has realised this (consider President Obama’s April interview with Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, where the former pointed out that the biggest threat to Saudi existence was lack of democracy within its borders).  That said, I don’t believe the US effectively abandoning the field, as it has been progressively doing during the Obama Administration, is a reflection of this realisation (were it so, it could only be described as Machiavellian strategic daring rarely seen in the real world). Rather, I think this US pull-back is part of the two-pronged Obama Doctrine.

The first prong appears to involve a slight pulling back from allies (such as Israel and the Saudis) who have long benefitted from US largesse but frequently don’t do what the US asks of them. The rationale is to panic them into realising that US support is conditional, and thereby change in their behaviour into being more complying.

The second prong is to engage with enemies—to unclench the fist, as Obama said during his first inauguration address. The idea is to make the first move. Instead of waiting for enemies (such as Iran) to become conciliatory as a result of US sanctions or military might, the US will make some amends and invite the enemy to reciprocate (ironically, this is similar to the idea that lies at the heart of my honours thesis (published in 2004), though I would argue that my honours thesis had a chance of working…)

While the Obama Doctrine might work well on paper, to those it affects, it feels as if the US is being nasty to its friends and rewarding the bad behaviour of its enemies (especially since it is happening at the same time as the Middle East is aflame in violence). Iran has not been more conciliatory as a result of softening US policies. It continues to call for the destruction of the US and Israel; it continues to insist on its right to nuclear enrichment and to deny UN nuclear inspectors the right of entry to suspect sites; and it continues to aid proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. As a reward for this behaviour, it appears to be on the brink of the US and international community removing many of the crippling international sanctions against it. These sanctions, I would add, were applied because of illegal Iranian behaviour which hasn’t actually changed.

Saudi Arabia is, indeed, panicked by US distancing. But its reaction isn’t to run, pleading, into American arms, promising all the while to undertake the internal democratic reform that Obama wants it to. Rather, it has been rolling up its sleeves and getting involved—by funding its own anti Syria, anti-Shi’ite and anti-ISIS proxies in Syria, by heading a coalition against Iranian-backed proxies in Yemen, and by agreeing to buy nukes from Pakistan.

The Obama Doctrine feels as if it’s a decade too late; it might have worked when the Middle East was stable (even then, it probably wouldn’t have).

The tide is rising faster and faster
Were the Saudi product a good one, the implementation of the Obama Doctrine probably wouldn’t matter so much. The Saudis could have ridden out the two terms until Hilary Clinton arrives in the Oval Office (an early prediction!) without too much bother. But because the product the Saudis are selling is flawed, and because the Middle East is so unstable at the moment and, especially, because Iran is rising so quickly (with Western acquiescence), the tide will rise faster for the Saudis.

We will see more and more frenetic activity by the Saudis, and more and more money being thrown at unsolvable problems. But the Status Quo Bloc will become progressively weaker relative to Iran, and their respective governments progressively less legitimate in the eyes of their people, to the point where some of the stable countries that were not adversely affected by the Arab Spring might go under (quite possibly including Saudi Arabia itself).

The fact that the governments of Saudi Arabia and every other Arab country are endemically corrupt, with a near total lack of representation (and support the same throughout the Middle East), with the only people presenting a ‘solution’ being the Islamists (since secular democrats are both gaoled by the regime and discredited because secular democracy is seen as a trait of the hated/resented West) means there has always been an air of inevitability about the House of Saud’s house of sand crumbling from within.

I’m not blaming the Obama Doctrine for this approaching calamity, but it has certainly sped up the process.

The path to radicalisation

1512_lindt_spA spate of terrorist attacks have recently been carried out by so-called ‘lone wolves’. Attacks have occurred in the US (Boston Marathon), UK (Lee Rigby), Canada (Parliament), Israel (Jerusalem light rail and multiple stabbings), Belgium (Jewish museum), Australia (Martin Place) and, most recently, France (Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket).

Beyond the Islamist connection, what ties these attacks is the loose or entirely absent affiliation the perpetrators had with established terrorist organisations. Broadly speaking, they were individuals (or pairs) that took it upon themselves to conduct a terrorist attack.

The question now being asked by the media (and for many years by the security services) is how to stop lone wolf attacks. The short answer is, they’re impossible to stop. However, there are numerous steps a potential lone wolf perpetrator generally takes in order to carry out a successful attack. Preventing these steps being taken will help lessen the severity of the eventual attack, and might even prevent it from occurring at all.

These steps are:

  • Radicalisation
  • Learning how to attack (online)
  • Learning how to attack (physical training)
  • Preparing for the attack
  • Carrying out the attack

In a forthcoming post, I will discuss how to (try to) prevent lone wolf terrorist attacks. For the remainder of this post, I will discuss the radicalisation process.

Radicalisation of (usually young) Muslims can occur online or in the community. Broadly speaking, the pattern of radicalisation follows the well-worn path of the Arab world’s sense of victimisation since the late 18th century.

Impressionable Muslim youths see that some Muslim communities (such as the Palestinians) are ‘oppressed’ (one’s perspective informs one’s reality). They see that the leaders of most Muslim (and certainly all) Arab states are corrupt and do not lead devout lives (despite pretending to). They see the US militarily back these corrupt, secular states.

They see that Muslim countries are weak. They also see that Muslim countries cannot seem to change their weakness. That is, the Muslim countries cannot defeat Israel, they cannot eject the US presence from the region and, when the US (together with a coalition of Western countries) invades a Muslim state, they see the Muslim state powerless.

Those Muslims who would become radicalised would then be directed (either on the Internet or in person) to look at Islamic history. Islamist history would teach these people that back when the Muslim community was pure it was also the strongest. Muhammad and the four caliphs that followed him rode roughshod over all opponents, establishing in just a couple of decades a large empire, which covered what we now call the Middle East. In these first few decades, the Muslim empire overran the pagan Persian Empire to the east (and converted everyone therein), and took from the Christian Byzantine Empire the holy city of Jerusalem and most Byzantine land.

These same imams would teach these impressionable youths that as the Islamic empire grew less devout and more corrupt, and as individual Muslims did the same, it weakened. Eventually, after decades of malignant decline, the French invaded Muslim Egypt in 1798. And no Muslim army was able to dislodge it—it was the British that kicked out the French (but the British stayed). Muslim armies have barely won a battle—much less a war—since that date.

These impressionable youth, now more devout, might also be shown how individual and small-scale acts of Islamic violence have worked. A handful of bombs caused the US to leave Lebanon (1983). The Palestinian intifada (1987–1993) forced Israel to peace talks. A single battle caused the US to leave Somalia (1993). Hezbollah violence (1982–2000) forced Israel out of Lebanon. A handful of men caused death, fear and chaos in New York (2001). A single attack (with ten bombs) on Madrid trains caused Spain to pull out of Iraq (2004). Hamas violence forced Israel out of Gaza (2000–2005). And so on.

These impressionable youths are taught that the West’s strength is like a spider web; it looks loathsome but, ultimately, it’s very weak. That despite all its guns and tanks and planes, the West is afraid of war and death and will retreat rather than fight. They are pointed to the many passages in Islam’s holy books that preach the imperitive to fight, that predict the inevitable victory to Muslims, that teach Allah rewards all those who fight for him, and that martyrs are rewarded more than any one else.

This path to radicalisation has not changed in decades. The Wahhabis (founders of Saudi Arabia) trod this path in the late 19th century. The founders of the Muslim Brotherhood did so in the 1950s. Al-Qaeda’s founders in the 1990s. All followed the same path to radicalisation as the disenfranchised youth in Sydney’s West today.

What these impressionable youths are rarely taught is that many, many millions more Muslims have been killed by Muslims since 1798 than by the West (including Israel). They are rarely taught of the many battles and wars instigated by Muslims that resulted in the Muslim losing. They are rarely taught that the reason the West was strong in 1798 and thereafter was because the weakening of religious control of the state allowed for creative pursuits that resulted in more wealth and better weaponry; and that it was the stifling of such creative pursuits in the Muslim world (along with the fact the Muslim empire grew rich from taxing other people trading across its lands, not because it had to invent anything) that led to the centuries-long decline that allowed mass colonisation after the First World War. They are not told that imposing religious control over a society will not lead to Muslim victories but to degradation and even more weakness relative to the hated West.

The path to radicalisation is a very hard one to stop. The Muslim world (particularly the Arab world) will continue to be corrupt and weak for the foreseeable future. The West will continue to be strong. Palestinians will continue to be occupied.

The Internet will continue to be a source of easy-to-access information, anti-West sermons and gruesome images of dead Palestinian babies.

It is in the physical community that this path to radicalisation can be slowed, if not stopped. But non-Muslims, no matter how cynical or sympathetic, cannot make a difference. It is the Muslim communities themselves that must first acknowledge that there is a problem; that there is an aspect to Islam’s core teachings that leads some to violence. It’s a very bitter pill for a community to swallow, which is why communities have typically blamed the core reason for radicalisation on Israel or the West. But once the acknowledgment that the problem is internal is made, leading radicalised youths back to a devout though non-violent path (which the majority of devout Muslims follow) will be much easier.

There are signs that key Islamic figures around the world are starting to acknowledge the problem. On 28 December last year, Egyptian President el-Sisi—known as a devout man—said this in the heart of Sunni scholarship:

“I am addressing the religious scholars and clerics… We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in. It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world… I am referring not to ‘religion’, but to ‘ideology’—the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.

“It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world’s population of seven billion, so that they could live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionise our religion.”

In the face of a handful of Australian Muslims going to fight in Syria, some Australian Muslims are speaking out about the problem of radicalisation in their community. Again, this is a bitter pill to swallow, and I applaud the courage of those at the vanguard of this hopefully growing movement.1512_lindt_sp