Is it fair to blame the West for trouble in the Middle East?

A US Marine covers a statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with the US flag in Baghdad’s al-Fardous square in April 2003, before the statue was toppled. EPA PHOTO AFPI/RAMZI HAIDAR

For at least a decade, attempts to understand why some young Muslims living in Western countries turn to violence in the name of religion have raised questions about Western foreign policy in the Middle East. Many blame the United States’ foreign policy. The Islamic State uses anger and grievance against Western intervention as a powerful recruiting tool.

But is it really fair to blame Western foreign policy for the state of affairs in the Middle East?

There is some truth to the argument that anger at foreign policy and the West’s engagement with the Arab world is at the heart of Muslim anger, as well as a driver of radicalisation among Muslim youth.

US President George W. Bush and his senior staff in the Oval Office, working on the speech he delivered on the night of the September 11 attacks, 2001. The U.S. National Archives/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The “war on terror” – a phrase first used by US President George W. Bush just after the September 11 attacks in 2001 – was arguably a dismal failure.

American and British intelligence agencies have both reported that the US-led invasion of Iraq has actually increased the number of Islamist terrorists. The belief that the war on terror was a thinly disguised attempt to attack Islam was no longer limited to conspiracy theorists and 9/11 “truth seekers”. Instead, it became popularised among Muslims around the world.

However, to solely lay blame for the rise of a global and increasingly violent Jihadi movement on Western intervention ignores other crucial factors that allow extremism to take root and spread.

The origins of extremism

In his book A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the emergence of Islamism, Dr S. Sayyid describes five arguments that explain the spread of what is commonly called Islamic fundamentalism, Islamism or militant Islamism.

  • Islamism is a response to the failure of Arab leaders to deliver meaningful outcomes to their people.
  • Lacking opportunities for political participation, Arab citizens turned to mosques as public spaces for political discussion. As a result religion became the language of politics and of political change.
  • Post-colonialism also failed the Arab middle class, as the ruling elite continued to hold power and wealth.
  • Rapid economic growth in the emerging Gulf States increased the influence of conservative Muslim governments. At the same time, the expansion of the oil-based Gulf economy brought about uneven economic development, the response to which was growing support for Islamism as a mode of expression for internal grievances.
  • Finally, the spread of Islamism has also been due to the effects of cultural erosion and globalisation contributing to a Muslim identity crisis.

So the current state of affairs in the Middle East is not simply an outcome of Western intervention and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Western foreign policy in the region has no doubt influenced the current situation. But the conditions for the spread of militant Islamism have come from attempts to deal with the crisis within: a crisis that is as much political in nature as it is religious.

Filling a power vacuum

In terms of politics, the traditional seats of power in the Arab world have been toppled, creating a void and opening opportunities for other Arab nations to vie for power.

With the decline of Egyptian power and ongoing chaos in Syria and Iraq, the Gulf states have emerged as the most economically and politically stable influences in the region.

Egyptian protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir square in 2011. EPA/Mohamed Omar

Gulf state competition, particularly between Abu Dhabi and Doha, has become one of the defining features of the Middle East. While Doha supports the Syrian revolution as well as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, Abu Dhabi stands guarded against a foreign policy approach that strengthens Islamists.

Qatar, on the other hand, has been known to provide significant financial assistance to violent Islamist groups, including groups linked to Al Qaeda. It has also failed to act on wealthy citizens accused of financing terrorist organisations to the tune of millions of dollars.

Angered by its support for extremist groups, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia all withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March this year.

The political struggle for power has also played out as a struggle for religious space in the Arab world. Here, the declining role of Saudi Arabia as the traditional seat of religious authority and knowledge has contributed, as Saudi Arabia also struggles to contain extremist Islamist elements within its own brand of Islam.

Links have been made between Wahhabi Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia and the ideological frame of the jihadist movement. Such accusations have prompted Saudi Arabia to examine the Wahhabi Jihadist connection, leading to a review of religious programs and school curricular in the kingdom.

Seeing beyond a ‘clash of civilisations’

The Middle East is a complex mix of culture, religion, politics and history. To continue to engage with the Arab world on the basis of flawed assumptions that neatly divide it into the camp of moderate Islam and the camp of extreme Islam feeds into an equally flawed analysis of the conflict as a clash of civilisations.

It may be tempting to oversimplify the conflict as a battle of the West against Islam, just as it is tempting to overstate its origins in the history of Western intervention and foreign policy.

However, more nuanced analyses should also take into account the various internal factors that created the conditions for the spread of extremist Islamist ideologies in the first place. Such analyses are necessary to developing understanding of how to address the ongoing threat of non-state terrorism to national and international security.