Night of terror in Paris

Published November 15, 2015

THE sheer terror of the Paris attacks is difficult to comprehend. Like the Mumbai attacks and the Peshawar school tragedy, there are some crimes that numb the mind for their monstrousness. Nine-eleven was the turning point in the fight against Al Qaeda. Paris may well prove to be the turning point in the fight against the militant group calling itself the Islamic State. If that fight is to be won, however, the nature of the threat must be understood and the instruments and policies used to fight it informed by lessons of the past, particularly those in the global fight against Islamist militancy over the past decade and a half. The eerie similarities between the Mumbai, Peshawar and Paris attacks all underscore a simple truth: radicalised militants view everyone as an enemy — Muslims, Christians, Hindus, non-believers, everyone. Just as Al Qaeda killed indiscriminately, so does IS. Yes, religiously inspired militants claim to be following the tenets of Islam, but they are wrong. And there is no more obvious refutation of that claim than by looking at the identity of the victims of Islamist militancy globally. Al Qaeda was a threat to the civilised world, as is IS now.

Religiously inspired militancy is no ordinary threat, however. Just as once the Afghan jihad morphed into the global Al Qaeda threat and Al Qaeda’s pre-eminence has been usurped by IS, defeating IS alone will not be the answer. Nor will it be easy. As is now widely accepted, a series of errors, spanning the last decade and a half and catalysed by the historic mistake that was the US invasion of Iraq, has led to the rise of perhaps the most formidable militant threat in modern history. How France, other Western powers and the US in particular will react to the Paris attacks will have potentially long-lasting effects. Already in Syria, there is more of a policy disaster than any semblance of a winning strategy. Moreover, as was seen in the aftermath of the toppling of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, it is equally important to have a well-informed strategy for stabilising post-conflict countries. Otherwise, all military gains will be lost — and even deadlier threats than Al Qaeda and IS spawned.

Where, though, is the Muslim world in all of this? The destructive competition of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East and the Muslim world in general appears to have stifled any pan-Muslim initiatives. Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia — each has a large population and high stakes in helping defeat militancy. In the Middle East, there are states that could urgently lobby the Muslim world for a united approach. But each and every Muslim-majority country appears to have some reason or the other to not provide leadership — even though Islamist militancy is perhaps a greater threat to the Muslim world than to the non-Muslim world.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2015

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