Challenge from Within

By: Amir Zia
Published: December 1, 2017
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Terrorism is a global challenge, but it is the Muslim world which has suffered, and continues to suffer, the most at the hands of terrorists. Extremist mindsets and terrorist ideologies are not just spreading death and destruction in many Muslim lands, but tearing them apart, as violent non-state actors try to force regime changes or bring down some of these states altogether.

From suicide bombings to cold-blooded murder and other heinous acts of violence, terrorists use and abuse the sacred name of Islam to justify atrocities against fellow Muslims. At the core, it is essentially Muslim countries, which serve as the real battleground between moderates and those flaunting a flawed and distorted version of Islam.

Any terrorist attack in a Western capital triggers a global debate on terrorism, resulting in increasing hostility towards Muslims. But massive terror attacks in places like Egypt, Somalia or Pakistan rarely capture attention or condemnation beyond a cursory headline.

The United States and the rest of the Western world, supposedly the chief target of the Islamist terror groups have, by and large, managed to insulate themselves from religiously-motivated terrorism in recent years through effective control of frontiers, strict surveillance of the Muslim diaspora and taking the war to the Muslim lands. Yet, the West feels it is living under the constant shadow and threat of terrorism.

But the Muslim world finds itself trapped within a graver situation and caught in a double bind. Many Muslim countries directly bear the brunt of terrorism and extremism, yet some of them are being singled out and blamed for serving as the epicentres of violent non-state actors. Countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are the prime examples of this case.

While Pakistan and its institutions are fighting a protracted war with terrorist groups at a great human and economic cost, it remains the target of a non-stop direct and indirect smear campaign by the United States and its allies, which accuse it of not doing enough in this war. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is being blamed for promoting a radical and conservative brand of Islam, albeit in softer tones, as even its critics in the West do not want to offend this oil rich, wealthy state.

The biggest victim

However, the hard fact remains that Muslims are the biggest victims of terrorism. The enormity of this challenge can be gauged by the data shared by General (retired) Raheel Sharif at the inaugural defence ministers’ conference of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) in Riyadh in November.

According to General Sharif – Commander-in-Chief of the IMCTC – more than 200,000 people were killed and many more wounded in around 70,000 terrorist attacks worldwide during the past six years. In these attacks, more than “70 percent (of the) deaths occurred in the Islamic World in which Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan were the most affected.”

Many Muslim countries – from the Middle East to Africa and South Asia to Central Asia – stand shaken by violent, faceless non-state actors, who recognise no boundaries and do not adhere to any rules of the game.

Therefore, it is understandable that the challenge posed by terrorists, cloaking themselves in the garb of Islam, should be countered from within the Islamic world ideologically, politically and militarily. Although several Muslim states have been dealing with this challenge, a coordinated regional and global response has hitherto remained missing.

Islamic Military Alliance

The IMCTC, also called the Islamic Military Alliance, offers a joint platform against the twin scourges of extremism and terrorism in the Muslim world.

The idea and initiative to develop a comprehensive strategic approach against terrorism – under the banner of IMCTC – formally came from Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, in December 2015. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has now thrown his weight behind the initiative to empower this pan-Islamic united front against violent extremism in a bid to defeat it.

Initially, 34 Muslim countries were part of the IMCTC, but its membership has now increased to 41. Besides Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, important Muslim countries, including Turkey, Malaysia, Egypt, the UAE, Kuwait and Jordan, are part of the alliance. Other nations, which remain direct targets and victims of terrorism, such as Afghanistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh are also in its fold.

The IMCTC’s formation has been welcomed in most parts of the Islamic world, as well as in other important countries, including the United States, China and Germany. The alliance is being described as the best response to those forces, which are trying to associate Islam with terrorism.

However, there are elements which dub IMCTC as a sectarian front due to the absence of Shiite-majority Iran and Iraq from its ranks. But these allegations reflect more the Saudi-Iran tensions, as there are several countries within this alliance which enjoy friendly, cordial and close relations with Tehran including Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Oman and Kuwait. Even Indonesia, which announced support for the IMCTC has good relations with Iran.

Not against any sect

IMCTC Commander-in-Chief General Raheel Sharif has repeatedly said that the sole purpose of the alliance is to fight terrorism. “It is not against any country, sect or religion,” he reiterated in his November 26 address at the IMCTC’s Riyadh conference.

Most Muslim countries which are victims of terrorism are being targeted by Sunni militant groups – ranging from Al-Qaeda and Daesh (the Islamic State) to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Boko Haram. The other fringe and shadowy militant groups – operating in the Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia – are also predominantly Sunni Muslims. So it is natural that the Sunni Muslim states feel the strongest need to band together against this common threat.

The IMCTC aims to develop “a collective response against terrorism, capable of leading and coordinating the efforts of member countries with high efficiency and effectiveness,” said General Sharif while explaining the raison d’etre of the alliance.

The alliance plans to coordinate with other nations and global organisations to develop a united front against terrorism and extremism.

IMCTC’s four domains

Fighting terrorism, remains “extremely complex and resource intense,” maintains General Sharif.

In this unconventional war, terrorists have the advantage of selecting the target and timing of an attack. They are not bound by any code of conduct and often strike at soft targets – including places of worships, markets, educational institutions, public parks and even hospitals. Pakistanis have ample experience of witnessing this kind of violence in which men, women, young and old and even children have been killed in cold blood in the name of religion.

It is a very difficult and complex war, demanding a high-level of planning, preparedness and round-the-clock vigilance – which is easier said than done. The IMCTC has announced it will seek to develop synergy among its member states, in terms of institutionalised mechanisms, so they can pool their resources, experience and expertise to defeat the enemy within.

The first and foremost area of cooperation is developing a counter-terrorism ideology. This is the most important component of the four domains on which IMCTC has decided to focus. The alliance aims to win the hearts and minds of the people by promoting Islam’s universal message of “moderation, tolerance and compassion.” For this, a concerted effort is required on the intellectual front to counter the flawed, perverted and irrational message of the terrorists, who propagate that by one act of senseless ‘bravery’ and killing innocent people, they could revive their imagined glory of Islam.

The second important component of this strategy, supplementing the first point, is communications. The IMCTC has announced its plans to develop, produce and publish factual media content to correct perceptions about Islam and discredit radical and extremist narratives.

The third aspect of the IMCTC strategy is choking all types of financing to terrorists through collaboration and coordination of member countries and relevant stakeholders. For this, the IMCTC plans to develop and share financial intelligence capabilities, advance legal and regulatory frameworks and other support mechanisms.

The fourth pertains to developing a platform to help member countries in their counter-terrorism operations through intelligence sharing and capacity-building. This involves improving coordination between the forces of member states and conducting anti-terrorism training and joint exercises in rural and urban environments.

Conflict resolution

Terrorist and extremist narratives gain currency mainly by exploiting Muslim rage and anger due to the unresolved conflicts such as the occupation of Palestine and Kashmir and the invasion of their lands by foreign powers. Without resolving these disputes, a complete victory against extremism and terrorism would continue to evade us.

While there is acknowledgment of this fact among the member states of the alliance, this most important point was ignored in the Riyadh conference. The real challenge for the entire Muslim leadership is how to make any progress on this front. Going forward, the IMCTC leadership must give centre stage to disputes and conflicts, involving Muslims and their occupied territories, to defeat terrorist and extremist narratives. For this, greater cohesion, political will and ideological unity would be needed among the member states to make the alliance more meaningful.

At the same time, there is another major challenge for the Muslim leadership; to ensure that the West, and the world at large, recognise and differentiate between terrorism and the legitimate freedom struggle of the people in occupied lands.

This again requires political will, commitment and vision from the Muslim leaders to present and fight their case. Are the rulers of Muslim countries ready to play this greater role that circumstances demand of them?

The creation of the IMCTC and the announcement of its four-pronged strategy should be considered the initial few steps in the right direction, but the goal of defeating extremism and terrorism cannot materialise if Muslims in different parts of the world continue to suffer at the hands of occupation forces.

About the Author
Amir Zia
has worked for some of the leading national and internal media organizations in a career spanning more than 25 years and is counted among some of the highly regarded professionals of Pakistan’s media industry