Jihad, Utopia and 'Muddled' Foreign Policy

The brutal Assad regime, under father Hafez and son Bashar, has perpetrated some appalling atrocities and we can't be proud of cooperating with it, but it is the only force in the region capable of defeating ISIL.

'The enemy of my enemy is my friend' is often described as an Arabic proverb but it comes from Sanskrit. The new British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said on Radio 4's Today programme a few days ago that in his experience it no longer applied to the 'new' Middle East. I wonder what he meant. The question was about whether the West should work with President Assad of Syria to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).

Not only does it make sense to use President Assad to defeat ISIL, it becomes a necessity. The old Sanskrit adage applies to the Middle East today more than at any time before. I can understand why the official British line is not to talk to Assad. It painted itself in a corner three years ago when it declared that 'Assad must go!' It's difficult to make an about turn now on such a fundamental point of foreign policy.

But the admission by the US administration that ISIL positions in Syria will have to be taken out by the US air force, namely the ISIL stronghold of Raqqah, will be de facto extending a helping hand to Assad's government and will have to be done in coordination with the Syrian intelligence.

The brutal Assad regime, under father Hafez and son Bashar, has perpetrated some appalling atrocities and we can't be proud of cooperating with it, but it is the only force in the region capable of defeating ISIL.

People like Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador in Baghdad and one of the world's most experienced specialists in Middle East affairs, is of this opinion. So is Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British army.

The Western Alliance worked with Stalin during the Second World War to defeat Hitler although the Soviet Union was its sworn enemy. Britain fought in the Russian Civil War 1917-1922 against the Bolsheviks but when it came to fighting Nazi Germany it took on Stalin as an ally.

The foreign policy of the Western world (NATO and other liberal capitalist democracies) has been muddled since the collapse of communism in Europe in the 1990s. The West has lost its clear voice and clear message. It was much easier during the Cold War. The West offered the prosperity of the market economy and the freedom of expression against the rigid ineffectual Soviet bureaucracy, oppression of the individual and enforced collectivism. And it won. It in effect bankrupted the Soviet Union with a policy called 'the arms race'. The Russians realised they couldn't compete any longer and gave up.

However, the vacuum left after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client states in Europe was quickly filled with disparate ideologies. Radical Islam was one of them. It traces its roots back to the 1920s with the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood as an antidote to Western influence and domination. It almost died down after the Second World War in the euphoria surrounding the collapse of the old colonial empires. However, it raised its head in the 1980s during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan when the West applied the same old adage 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend'. The result was the birth of al Qaida.

The message of radical Islam is simple: if only we could go back to the old days of sharia when true justice would be administered according to the Koran everything would be fine. It's a utopian message.

The Egyptian poet, Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual father of modern day radical Islam, advocated Jihad in the 1960s against what he called the 'ignorant' societies obsessed with 'materialism, violence and sexual pleasures'. Qutb was put on trial for sedition and executed in 1966, thus making him a martyr for many in the Islamic world.

At the core of why young people embrace radical Islam today is the perceived sense of injustice. In the complex modern world, with the widening gap between rich and poor, many people feel they have been left behind. If you don't see the American model as a force for good, as I do, if you think the US dominates the world and imposes its values, sometimes through military interventions, then there is nowhere to go, there is no alternative ideology. Some have adopted climate change and anti-globalisation as the new anti-Americanism. Jihad is one such ideological refuge. It's the Utopia of the 21st century. ISIL is similar to Pol Pot's experiment in Cambodia - the Khmer Rouge Year Zero - a new beginning with no superpower domination, with equality and justice for all. What a disaster that was.

ISIL offers a minority of disenchanted testosterone driven young Muslims around the world an antidote to American supremacy. Jihad for them is a way of venting out frustration with a system, which doesn't offer inspiration. Jihad makes them feel important. When they claim that they want to fight for justice for their oppressed Muslim brothers and sisters, they actually think of themselves as having no meaningful future in our Western liberal society. That's why they develop their own sub-culture with jihadist music and jihadist fashion.

The only way to fight an idea is another idea. We need to find a way to inspire young British Muslims and offer them a sense of adventure, a belief that they can succeed in life, that life in a liberal capitalist society can be exciting. That's the long-term strategy.

In the short term, a pragmatic military alliance in the Middle East to defeat the imminent threat of ISIL is of paramount importance.

Before You Go