Last week the BBC’s Paul Wood introduced a group of armed Syrian rebels in Damascus as ‘Islamists.’ The label was not intended to be pejorative. Wood clearly admired the young bearded fighters, who he presented as freedom fighters, heroically taking on a tyrannical regime despite the huge disparity of weaponry between the two sides.
Other media outlets covering the rebellion have cited religion in similarly approving terms. Last Wednesday, Luke Harding interviewed the father of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander killed in Aleppo, who told him
‘My son was honest, decent and a patriot…This regime is unjust. It is using fire against humans, trees, against everything.’ But could it be defeated? ‘Absolutely,’ he replied. ‘We have faith in our cause. We have God; they do not.’
Similar quotations might have been obtained in Fallujah before the two US operations in 2004, or the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead, but one suspects that they would have had rather different connotations.
The more positive representations of the Syrian rebels are very similar to the way the Afghan mujahideen were once regarded, in the days when Ronald Reagan described them as ‘the moral equivalent of the founding fathers.’
In those pre-al Qaeda, pre-Taliban, pre-9/11 days, the ‘muj’ were routinely lauded by American and British politicians as Kiplingesque warriors, nobly fighting defending their religion and their country against the godless ‘people without a book.’
The veneration of these groups tended to pass lightly over the mujahideen’s less admirable activities, such as their involvement in the heroin trade, the bombing of schools that taught ‘Marxist propaganda’ or simply taught girls, the executions of teachers and schoolchildren, and the savage treatment of Russian POWs.
Western governments did not generally use words like ‘jihadist’ or ‘Islamic extremist’, ‘Islamofascist’ or even ‘fundamentalist’ to describe these groups. The recruitment efforts undertaken by the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian governments that enabled the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Omar Rahman, and Osama bin Laden’s mentor Abdullah Azzam to bring thousands of foreign fighters to Afghanistan were not described as ‘glorifying’ or ‘facilitating’ terrorism’.
For Western governments seeking to project wars into areas of strategic interest, ‘Islamism’ has always had a dual purpose. On the one hand, these governments have sometimes supported ‘Islamist’ movements when it suits them, either directly or via proxy states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
In other cases, these same governments have chosen to describe marginal – though dangerous – groups such as the al Qaeda franchise as a mortal threat to civilisation and a new ‘totalitarian’ enemy to rival Communism or Nazism.
Within these parameters, there is ’bad’ Islamism, such as Iran, Hezbollah, or Hamas, or the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, which effectively means Islamism that confronts or challenges Israel, the West, or local governments wedded to Western interests.
But there is also room for ‘good Islamism’ – or at least an Islamism the West can use and work with, even if only to realise short-term objectives such as ‘making Russia bleed’ in Afghanistan or regime change in Syria.
The Syrian rebellion clearly falls within the second category. The Assad regime has long insisted that the Syrian rebellion is a foreign import and an expression of Islamic fanaticism. This is a convenient reductionist explanation to be sure, which many governments in a similar position have used in the past, whether it was Russia in Chechnya, the Serbs in Bosnia, China regarding Uighur separatists – or the United States and Britain in Iraq.
In all these cases governments and armies invoked the spectre al Qaeda and/or various forms of Islamism to stigmatize their political opponents and justify repression and state violence. The Assad regime is clearly engaging in a similar exercise, but that doesn’t mean that all its allegations are fabrications.
No less august a newspaper than the New York Times has reported that ‘The evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda. ‘
In another piece the Times reports that the CIA is steering arms to the Syrian rebels ‘across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.’
The Times also reports that ‘The C.I.A. officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.’
There is absolutely no reason to take such claims seriously. In Afghanistan, the US government, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan poured money into the most ‘Islamist’ mujahideen groups precisely because they saw political Islam as a powerful mobilising tool in galvanising resistance to the regime.
In Syria, a similar process is unfolding in the de facto alliance between the CIA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood which is aimed at bringing down the Assad regime and ultimately paving the way for the rollback of Iranian influence in the region.
If ‘Islamism’ can be used to facilitate that process, then it will be. And as long as this process lasts, we are unlikely to hear the car bombings, suicide bombings, killings of civilians, false flag operations and throat-cuttings carried out by rebel fighters cited as evidence of their barbarism, fanaticism and savagery, as the US and British governments routinely did in Iraq.
And if Muslims in London or New York raise money for the Free Syrian Army or perhaps recruit volunteers to fight jihad in Damascus or Aleppo, one strongly suspects they will not find themselves accused of ‘extremism’ or ‘terrorism’, or cited as further evidence of the Enemy Within with divided loyalties – at least until the day when the ‘good Islamists’ of the Syrian insurrection have served their purpose, and they and their supporters may become ’bad’ again.
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