At the United Nations on Wednesday, President Obama said “it is time for the world — especially Muslim communities — to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of Al Qaeda and ISIL.” As a human rights lawyer proud of her Muslim heritage, I concur entirely, and I hope this call will be heeded from Detroit to Doha. There is no way to fight jihadist terrorism without undercutting its ideological base.
Cherifa Kheddar, President of Djazairouna, the Algerian Association of Islamist Terrorism, who lost her brother and sister to the Armed Islamic Group during the 1990s conflict in her country, told me several years ago that “you cannot defeat terrorism by an anti-terrorist battle, without doing the anti-fundamentalist battle.” Jamil Omar, a former trade unionist and anti-militant campaigner with Pakistan’s Awami Jamhouri Forum, who was facing such persistent threats when I met him that he tried not to spend much time near colleagues because he might endanger them, told me that the core task ahead was “challenging fundamentalist thought.” He noted that this would not be an easy struggle, but that “Muslim societies… will only come of age when they are willing to challenge fundamentalism” and to reclaim what he called their “rational, secular, golden past.”
In fact, we should be clear that as welcome as Wednesday’s call was to tackle the political ideology of Islamism once and for all, many people of Muslim heritage are out in front of the American president, and have been putting their lives on the line for years to confront it. Liberal, secular, moderate, leftwing and feminist advocates in Muslim majority countries have for decades been calling on the world to understand the danger they were facing. Instead, they watched the United States and Britain support the archaic Gulf monarchies that exported Wahhabism to all Muslim majority regions of the world with their petrodollars. The U.S. also spearheaded an effort that trained jihadists from Morocco to Indonesia in its Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and this helped the problem metastasize. When President Obama mentioned the consequences of proxy wars in the region, that is the first example that came to mind. Moreover, after the Arab Spring, Western governments were seen to cozy up to fundamentalists who came to power in places like Egypt and Tunisia. Acknowledging the West’s own portion of responsibility in the process of radicalization is critical.
People of Muslim heritage too, especially those of us living safely in the diasporas, must accelerate our efforts to counter these thugs. This is an inescapable moral obligation. As Tehmina Kazi of British Muslims for Secular Democracy affirmed, “It is no longer enough to simply condemn British militants who join the Islamic State with words. We have to do much more.” She calls for building a critical mass of Muslim opposition voices and promoting positive British Muslim role models for youth.
Just after the news on Wednesday that the so-called Soldiers of the Caliphate -descendants of Algeria’s bloodthirsty 1990s jihadists — had decapitated rock climber Hervé Gourdel in Algeria, claiming they would “get closer to God by killing this Frenchmen”, I asked Cherifa Kheddar what her reaction was to President Obama’s call for a global struggle against fundamentalist thought. Kheddar, who has long worked to expose such terror groups, said by telephone from North Africa that she supported the President’s appeal, “as we already had our own Daesh [derogatory Arabic term for ISIS] in Algeria.” She did not wish for Syria and Iraq to have an entire “dark decade” as Algeria had experienced for most of the 1990s in its battle against armed extremism (as many as 200,000 may have died). But she also noted that when secular Algerians had warned of the dangers of fundamentalism back then, “no one listened.” So we must hear and actively support the human rights defenders who have taken — and are taking — the lead on the ground in this campaign against these “networks of death.”
I was also glad the president affirmed in his UN address that “where women are full participants in a country’s politics or economy, societies are more likely to succeed.” There is no way to challenge the ideology of Islamism without championing women’s equality. “Every step forward for women’s rights,” Nigerien sociologist Zeinabou Hadari told me “is a piece of the struggle against fundamentalism.” From Nigeria to Iraq, the first constituency to warn about the rise of fundamentalism has been women’s rights advocates and they are among the first targets as well.
I think in particular of Iraqi lawyer and human rights defender Samira Saleh Al-Naimi, kidnapped, then shot in the main square of Mosul by ISIS men on September 22, shortly after denouncing their activities as “barbaric.” In memory of women like Samira, we cannot set women’s rights aside to make war on ISIS. The international community can only defeat the ideas of ISIS if it fights for women’s rights, and supports the work of heroic women’s rights defenders on the ground.
I welcome the international recognition of the need for Muslims, with global support, to tackle Muslim fundamentalism — this set of extreme right wing political movements that exploit a draconian interpretation of religion to take power — and I hope civil society and governments alike will take up this call. Muslim fundamentalism is not just a security question for Westerners. It is a basic question of human rights for millions of people in Muslim majority societies and diaspora populations around the world.