Zarqawi and Terrorism: A Reality Check

Zarqawi’s death has generated endless stories about him, about the impact it will have on the Iraqi insurgency, on the future of US policy and presence in Iraq and finally the prospects of peace in Iraq. Bringing back peace in Iraq is undoubtedly a tough task. Iraq is now saddled with four realities that militate against peace Iraq and even beyond. One there is an elaborate apparatus that promotes hate and violence, two a political environment that is bitterly polarized, three as of now Iraq has no credible regulatory force and four US presence reinforces hate and violence. The only way to alter situation is to alter the third and fourth realities that have provoked this current level of hate, violence and political polarization in Iraq.

Iraq’s current reality will only alter under the pressure of a counter reality. Nothing less will work. Zarqawi’s death is only a minor factor in the problem that we confront. Some historical recall is necessary to underscore this fact. Although often it is argued that pragmatism and reason demands that we think of where is Iraq is now and of its future. That laboring on the blunder of the US invasion of Iraq, many argue, is inconsequential. Maybe.

Yet it always seems that we have not fully grasped what the anti-Soviet Afghan war, the last cold war and a truly multi-state undertaking, initiated in the eighties. The Afghan jihad essentially opted to ‘use’ the supra-national connective consciousness of Muslims who shared a particular worldview, to successfully fight the last cold war. This particular Muslim worldview had a specific religious and political orientation.

After these groups were recruited to fight the anti-Soviet jihad their
patrons created a weaponized, organizational, political, financial and
ideological infrastructure that supported a growing numbers of
politico-religious militant groups. And by extension also helped them
crystallize their political beliefs.

In addition to the main patrons of this cold war, there were other
regional governments and intelligence agencies of Libya, Iraq and
other states, also facilitated their growth. They used these
politico-religious groups as proxies in their respective regional
inter-state battles.

These groups that were provided the enabling infrastructure by the
US-Pakistan led international community’s policies in Afghanistan,
were operating on two tracks. One that was linked to their patrons.
The other track was organizationally and politically autonomous of
their patrons. On this track they envisioned their roles far beyond
Afghanistan. They were to provide the alternate ‘way of being,’ for
State and society. They were to wage an ideology-driven political
battle like ones that had been fought throughout history. What they
were exposed to, under US and Pakistani guidance, was the one between
non-believer Communists versus the believers was what they were
exposed to. These groups would naturally draw upon their own core
beliefs; the ones that were drawn upon and given a militant,
non-compromising and violence-based texture by their patrons. And they
had worked. The world had declared that the last cold war had helped
to dismantle the Soviet Union.

Hence the journey of these politico-religious groups continued beyond
the Soviet exit from Afghanistan. Some stayed in Afghanistan, other
moved to many global corners in South East Asia, South Asia, Europe,
Middle East, Africa and the US. Their politics found rationale in the
policies of the US and as much in the inadequacies of Muslim
governments. It drew upon that very political worldview that they were
told had worked against the other super power…the Soviets. These
groups still remained potent policy tools for governments who had
their own ‘national’ objectives to promote.

Also among people many within the Muslim world, these groups were the
response to the anti-Muslim policies of the United States, to the
blundering States in the Muslim world, to an increasingly ‘godless’ modernity that many saw as a counter to what their own beliefs, to a sense of a combined sense of inadequacy, injustice and anger within millions of Muslims living across the globe. Also the sectarian beliefs that hitherto had stayed restricted to the religious tutor and the student, could now be practically implemented. The weapons, organization, passionate frenzy and suicide bombers were now available to destroy the ‘other.’

These groups were onto a bigger stage. The global stage. On to a bigger agenda. They would force the American ‘Satan’ to redraw its steps in the Muslim world, they would battle for soul of Islam, they would capture the State and implement ‘true’ Islam, they will impose a global morality based on their belief system, they will help people prepare for the hereafter, they will ensure that Muslim women and men follow their version of Islamic way of being. For some groups who believe in the need to purify Islam, it is imperative to destroy the ‘other’ residing within the fold of Islam.

And then Washington made Iraq ‘happen.’ For these groups the US invasion of Iraq meant an instant enhancement of their moral, political and organizational clout. They were handed a vast theatre of operation. The invasion of Iraq and the conduct of the US war in Iraq provided fertile ground to these groups. Most of their agendas including destroying of the ‘other’ existing within the Islamic fold became easy to implement in a country with a history of sectarian problems. As the leading American security expert Anthony Cordeman explains in his analysis "Zarqawi’s Death: Temporary "Victory" or Lasting Impact.US Cordesmen also explains that in Iraq " Religion has proven to be an important factor in the composition of these groups and extending their reach into the Iraqi population. There have been reports that some "nationalists" have joined ranks with these neo-Salafi groups in Iraq. Mowaffak Rubaie, Iraq’s National Security Advisor, was quoted as saying, "Religion is a strong motive. You are not going to find someone who is going to die for Ba’athists. But Salafists have a very strong message. If you use the Koran selectively, it could be a weapon of mass destruction."ii

And the atrocities, the acutely abusive behavior of primarily the American soldiers in Guantanamobay, Afghanistan and Abu Gharaib and the stories of an Iraqi version of the massacre at My Lai , for many would justify much of what these groups stand for. Zarqawi had a following. Many ordinary peace-loving Muslim in his home country Jordan believe Zarqawi is now in heaven, that eh was a martyr. The disconnect between the reality of Zarqawi and the myth is obvious. But the myth prospers in a given context. The individual is significant only insofar as he or she is drawing upon the context for their survival. Be it physical or mythical. If people feared Zarqawi many supported him too.

So what does all this mean ? Two important facts. One that what in revisiting the trajectory of the creation and functioning of these groups we understand what a daunting phenomenon the past policies of those who are fighting terrorism created. Essentially simple-minded and very driven men from various communities of believing Muslims were converted into militant, armed and hating men with a mission to destroy the ‘other’ and to assert their own truth. Much else was picked up along the way by these groups, corruption, more hatred, criminal ways an expanding agenda and tighter organization plus perhaps expanding support too.

So the original problem is not with Islam, although now it has penetrated into the operational belief system of certain groups. The core issue is with the politics and the supporting apparatus that these simple minded and even maybe men with missionary zeal were exposed to. Significantly many of these groups are primarily driven by politics. As Cordesmen maintains that "The ideological belief structure of the various Neo-Salafi and other Islamist extremist groups is hard to characterize. They are far more political and military activists than theologians. As such, they are not puritans in the sense of Wahhabi, nor are they Salafis in the traditional sense of the word. While they are "Islamist," they are not so much religious as committed to a violent struggle for their beliefs. Their foreign leaders and cadres have been created in past wars, and their Iraqi members have been created since the Coalition invasion of Iraq."

The problem is not religion, it is politics. Although in many cases the politics has also influenced the core beliefs and practices of certain Muslim groups. However the issue still is the exposure that these groups got through the Afghan war. Had the Christian right been used in an Afghan-like jihad and then allowed free play within the US territory alongside growing communist within US’s bordering states, the Christian right’s militancy would have been on the rise. Hence this debate on Islam and terrorism is misplaced. It is simplistic. After all where was the so-called nexus between Islam and terrorism, before the international Afghan jihad ? Almost nowhere.

The other important fact that flows from this first is then where do we go from here? Towards greater reason. But not without justice. Security measures alone are inadequate. The response has to be a multi-layered one. It has to change the context in which all this, is continuing. Only a change in the context will help to definitively deal with the challenge of terrorism. Zarqawi’s departure is only an event one that will not dent the reality that exists; that flourishes in a given context.