FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: But first here’s my take. Watching the gruesome ISIS execution videos I felt some of the same emotions I did after 9/11. Barbarism after all is designed to provoke anger, and it’s succeeded. But in September 2001 it also made me ask a question, why do they hate us?
I tried to answer it in an almost 7,000-word essay for “Newsweek” that struck a chord with the readers. I reread the essay this week to see how it might need updating in the 13 years since I wrote it. I began the piece by noting that Islamic terror is not the isolated behavior of a handful of nihilists. There is a broader culture that has been complicit in it or at least unwilling to combat it.
Now things have changed on this front but not nearly enough. I also pointed out that we face not an Islam problem but an Arab problem. For example, in 2001 and 2002 Indonesia was on the top of people’s worries because of a series of terror attacks there soon after 9/11, but over the last decade jihad and even Islamic fundamentalism has not done well in Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world, larger than Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya and all the Gulf states put together.
Well, look at India which is right next door to Ayman Zawahiri’s headquarters and yet very few of India’s more than 150 million Muslims are known members of al Qaeda. Zawahiri has announced a bold effort to recruit Indian Muslims, but I suspect it will not do too well. The central point of the essay was that the reason the Arab world produces fanaticism and jihad is that it is a place of complete political stagnation. By 2001 when I was writing almost every part of the world had seen significant political progress. Eastern Europe was freed, Asia, Latin America and even Africa had held many free and fair elections but the Arab world remained a desert. In 2001 most Arabs had fewer freedoms, political, economic, social than they did in 1951.
The one aspect of life that Arab dictators could not ban, however, was religion. So Islam had become the language of political opposition to these secular regimes. The Arab world was then left with secular dictatorships on the one hand and deeply illiberal religious groups on the other. Hosni Mubarak and al Qaeda. The more extreme the regime the more violent was the opposition.
This cancer was deeper and more destructive than I realized. Despite the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and despite the Arab spring, the dynamic between dictators and jihadists has not broken. Look at Syria where until recently Bashar al-Assad was actually helping ISIS. How? By buying oil and gas from it and by shelling its opponents, the Free Syrian Army, when the two were in battle against each other.
You see, Assad was playing the old Arab dictator’s game, giving his people a stark choice. It’s either me or ISIS, he was saying, and many Syrians, the Christian minority, for example, have chosen him.
The greatest setback has been in Egypt where a nonviolent Islamist movement took power and then squandered its chance by overreaching. But not content to let the Muslim Brotherhood fare the polls, the military then displaced it by force, has moved back into power and Egypt is now a more brutal police state than it was under Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned, its members killed and jailed, the rest driven underground.
Let’s just hope that 10 years from now we do not find ourselves discussing the causes of the rise of an ISIS in Egypt.