As the world struggle to come to terms with the latest terrorist attacks in Brussels, it is important that we understand the causes of such extremism. After all, Islamic extremism was virtually unknown 50 years ago and suicide bombings were inconceivable. And yet today it seems that we are confronted with both on a daily basis.
Gary Leech asks “what happened to bring Islamic fundamentalism to the forefront of global politics?” While there are many factors involved, undoubtedly one of the primary causes is Western imperialism. Western intervention in the Middle East over the past century to secure access to the region’s oil reserves established a perfect environment in which Islamic fundamentalists could exploit growing anti-Western sentiment throughout the Islamic world with some establishing violent extremist groups. The most recent consequence of this process is the terrorist group known as the Islamic State, which emerged out of the chaos caused by the US invasion of Iraq.
In order to understand the rise of the Islamic State, Leech advises us to first briefly review the history of Western intervention in not only the Middle East but throughout the world to reveal that Islamic extremism in not a unique phenomenon. For the past 500 years, Leech asserts, peoples throughout the world have resorted to acts of violence that today would be classified as terrorism in efforts to resist Western imperialism. Indigenous peoples in the Americas often used violent tactics to defend themselves against the brutal European colonisers. There were also many violent slave revolts by Blacks who had been shipped from Africa to the Americas in the service of Western imperialism.
In Southeast Asia, according to Leech, the Filipino people first violently resisted the Spanish and then rose up again when the United States became the new colonial ruler of the Philippines in 1898. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the Zulu people were resorting to violence in an effort to resist British attempts to “civilise” them in the late 1800s. Back then, those who violently resisted Western imperialism weren’t labelled “terrorists,” but were just called “savages.” These are just a few examples of the countless attempts throughout the global South to resist the violent and often brutal expansion of Western imperialism, which included not only the imposition of Western values and culture on people, but also Christianity.
One of the reasons that Islamic extremism has only come to the fore in recent decades is the fact that Western imperialism in the Middle East is a relatively recent occurrence. Western imperialism didn’t begin to make serious headway in the Middle East until the early 20th century. In some Middle Eastern nations, Western imperialism initially took the form of traditional colonialism, which involved direct rule. In other countries, it has constituted a neo-colonial approach utilising international institutions such as the UN Security Council, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as well as direct US and European intervention in the forms of military coups and outright war.
While European nations, particularly Britain, had made some inroads into the Middle East in the late 1800s, Professor Whitney points out that it was the discovery of oil in Iran in 1908 that marked the arrival of Western imperialism. The London-based Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) gained the rights to Iran’s oil and, because its major shareholder was the British government, Britain effectively controlled Iran’s oil sector. During the ensuing decades there were major protests by the Iranian people who were unhappy with foreign ownership of the country’s oil and the fact that Iran was receiving only 16 percent of its own oil wealth, according to Gary Leech. In 1950, the Iranian parliament finally responded to popular demands and voted to nationalise the country’s oil sector.
Unhappy with Iran’s decision to claim ownership of its own oil resources and to use them for the benefit of the Iranian people, the United States and Britain orchestrated a coup to oust the moderate, secular and democratically-elected Mosaddegh government. Shah Reza Pahlavi was installed in power and the new pro-Western dictator immediately re-opened the door for Western companies to return to Iran. And to ensure that the Shah maintained iron-clad control over the population, the United States provided him with military aid as well as training for his secret police force, which would brutalise the Iranian people for the next 26 years.
Under the Shah, Western oil workers flooded into Iran and the country’s capital Tehran became a decadent playground for high-paid foreign oil workers who engaged openly in un-Islamic activities including alcohol consumption, casino gambling and prostitution. And while the country’s oil wealth was flowing into the pockets of foreigners and the Shah and his cronies, most Iranians were struggling to survive in poverty. Not surprisingly, Islamic fundamentalists began pointing to Western imperialism and Western decadence as an affront both to Islam and to the Iranian people. In 1979, under the leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a popular revolution overthrew the Shah’s repressive regime and established an Islamic state.
The first significant success for Islamic fundamentalism directly resulted from the United States and Britain overthrowing a democratically-elected and secular government and their subsequent support for a brutal dictatorship, all in the name of securing access to oil. Today, the West is not only still dealing with the consequences of this Western imperialism in their relations with Iran, but also with Iran’s support for other fundamentalist groups in the region such as Hezbollah of Lebanon.
The same year that Iran became an Islamic state, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to defend that country’s unpopular Soviet-backed regime from a growing insurgency. The mujahideen rebels, like the Islamic revolutionaries in Iran, were fighting against a Western-backed dictatorship. This time it was the atheist communists of the Soviet Union that were the imperialists.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan only boosted the strength of the mujahideen as recruits flocked from throughout the Islamic world to help liberate the country from the foreign infidels. Many of the tens of thousands of recruits came from Saudi Arabia, which contributed to the fundamentalist movement known as Wahhabism expanding from being a fringe sect of Islam that primarily existed in Saudi Arabia to a major religious force throughout the Sunni Islamic world.
The United States viewed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan through a Cold War lens and began providing weapons and training to the Islamic fundamentalist mujahideen rebels. Mike Whitney says during the 1980s, Washington supplied the mujahideen with $4 billion in arms that significantly strengthened the fundamentalists and President Ronald Reagan publicly referred to them as “freedom fighters.” One of the mujihadeen beneficiaries of US aid was a Saudi named Osama bin Laden. The primary objective of the war for this particular “freedom fighter” was the removal of a Western military from Islamic lands.
The mujahideen succeeded in their holy war in 1989 when the Soviet Union withdrew its forces. And then, in 1996, following a civil war between various factions of the mujahideen, the recently-formed Taliban emerged victorious and established a fundamentalist government in Afghanistan.