What did the West do to provoke Islamic hostility?

June 30, 2017

Dear Cecil:

One argument I hear about why Islamist terrorists commit their acts is because the West interfered in their countries. Some examples of this interference I can think of: (1) our support of Israel; (2) the 1991 Gulf War; (3) our interference in the Somali civil war in 1992-’93. As a Westerner born in 1977, these things seemed like ancient history to me by the time of 9/11. If Islamic terrorism is mainly a reaction to imperialistic Western intervention in the Muslim world, was it due to ongoing issues as of 2001, or was Osama bin Laden just trying to settle old scores?

Cecil replies:

No offense, Flik, but you're asking the wrong question. It's not what we did to tick off the Islamists. Rather, why did things suddenly get so much worse?

Answer: It’s the fault of those damn old Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union. If their workers’ paradise hadn’t collapsed ignominiously in the late 1980s, we wouldn’t be in this pickle now.

You’re thinking: Cecil, the geezer, can’t get his head out of the Cold War rut.

Not at all. It's easy to show that the fall of the USSR led directly to the rise of modern Islamist terrorism.

Don’t misunderstand. The Islamic world has its share of legitimate (or anyway comprehensible) beefs with the West. Although it’s silly to trace the whole thing back to the Crusades, in the decades following World War I the victorious allies sliced up what remained of the Ottoman Empire and environs to suit themselves.

To cite some obvious examples: Western interests carved out what became the state of Israel. (Granted, Jews had beefs of their own, but in the zero-sum Middle East you can’t favor one faction without ticking off the rest.) They finagled one-sided oil deals. They (OK, we) toppled democratically-elected leaders in favor of more cooperative types.

So yeah, long before 9/11, lots of people in the Middle East were peeved enough at us to go in for the occasional act of terrorism. But it was, how shall I put this, rational terrorism. Sure, you had Palestinians massacring Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and Iranian Islamists taking Americans hostage in 1979. But if you weren’t Israeli, or an American abroad, you could tell yourself: sad, but at least they won’t be coming for me.

For this we can thank the Soviets and evangelical Marxism. Islamic fundamentalism had been a force in the Middle East for a long time. Wahhabism for example dates from the 18th century, and the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928. But prior to the USSR’s collapse it was held in check by Soviet-backed Arab nationalists such as Nasser in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya, and the Baathists in Syria and Iraq. Often nominally socialist, Arab nationalists relied on the Soviets for arms and other aid.

True, they did this partly on the idea that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. But socialist solidarity wasn’t complete BS. Both the Arab nationalists and the Soviets were secular modernizers ostensibly dedicated to lifting up the masses. Both for a time enjoyed popular support. And both often brutally suppressed Islamists — not an approach that builds long-term good will, I acknowledge. But for a while it worked.

Did we lucky Westerners appreciate it? On the contrary, we did our best to undermine the forces of stability. In the 1980s, the U.S. supported the mujahideen insurgency in Afghanistan against the Soviet-backed regime. The mujahideen were ardent Islamists, as were many of their backers from elsewhere in the Muslim world. Elements of the latter coalesced into al-Qaeda, founded in 1988.

The next year the Berlin Wall came down, symbolically ending the Cold War, a giddy moment for the West. In hindsight we should have thought: now we’re in for it. With the Soviets out of the picture, the Islamists devoted their full attention to us. Osama did his thing; in retaliation, we launched a war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, a reasonable enough response in the circumstances, even if we’d given some of these guys their start.

But then what did we do? We overthrew the Baathist (read: secular) government of Iraq, ripping off yet another piece of the Islamist containment structure. Fine, Saddam Hussein was a mass murderer and perhaps not long for this world anyway. But nothing like some old-fashioned Western meddling to make a bad situation worse.

Don’t get me started on the Arab Spring. Not saying we could have done things much differently, although our dithering in Syria didn't help. The old-school Arab-nationalist regimes having been swept aside or crippled, the field was left to ISIS, with its implacable hostility to all things Western, seemingly a magnet for every malcontent in the Islamic world.

Ah, for the good old days of the Cold War! Sure, we faced the constant threat of nuclear holocaust. But did we ever actually have one? Whereas today you've got some random terrorist horror every month. You don't know what you got till it's gone.

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