This House Blames the West for Islamic Extremism

When we see terrible acts of violence on the news attached to 'Islamist' groups, we have to consider how it is that normal people can get sucked into groups whose raison d'être is violence. Therefore it is relevant to look at the growth of Islamic extremist groups when we talk about Islamic extremism, rather than looking at the origins of particular ideologies.


Sam Deans

Of course, within any large enough faith or political movement, there will always be those who are prepared to use violence to advance their cause - the Animal Liberation Front springs to the mind of a biologist. But when we see terrible acts of violence on the news attached to 'Islamist' groups, we have to consider how it is that normal people can get sucked into groups whose raison d'être is violence. Therefore it is relevant to look at the growth of Islamic extremist groups when we talk about Islamic extremism, rather than looking at the origins of particular ideologies.

The answers, as I see it, rely on West's interactions with the Middle East and with Muslims at least since the 1980s, if not much longer ago. The funding of the Afghan Mujahideen is a case in point. In order to fight a proxy war against the Soviet Union, the USA poured money into diverse Islamist groups in Afghanistan, which were able to organise as coordinated networks. This is where al-Qaeda comes in; its formation in 1988 was catalysed by the aid given to guerrilla groups by the USA. Many large Islamic extremist groups have splintered directly from al-Qaeda (such as ISIS) or received funding from them (such as Boko Haram). From this, we see that the West's dedication to proxy wars have enabled the growth of these groups and their ideology.

The other element to the success of extremist Islamic groups is their recruitment. Locally, recruitment to extremist groups can happen by a number of mechanisms: coercion, which bolsters numbers but not ideology, recruitment along religious lines and recruitment through a common anti-western narrative. The last two are often mixed, but it would seem reasonable to assume that the correlation between the expansion of these groups is mainly due to anti-western sentiment for two reasons.

The first reason is that the impetus for the growth of Islamist groups in the Middle East has been Western military interventions in the region, most notably the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although power vacuums caused by conflict allow groups like ISIS to expand, dropping cluster bombs on people doesn't normally improve their opinion of you.

The second reason comes from looking at recruitment from abroad. Two men arrested in the UK last year going to fight in Syria had ordered "Islam for Dummies" from Amazon beforehand - a striking example of the way that religious ideology isn't the determining factor in Isis recruitment abroad. Rather, the religious ideology provides justification for turning anger at the West's conduct in the recent wars and, indeed, at widely-held prejudices at home, into violence. So here we see that the West's military interventions are more important in recruitment to extremist groups than preconceived religious notions.

The blame for the West, therefore, is twofold; in creating the jihadist groups which exist today, and in appalling behaviour in the Middle East which is used as a rallying cry. The growth in the ideology is a byproduct of the growth of militant organisations, and the blame for this can be set squarely at our own door.


Naomi Magnus

Much of the post-9/11 discourse and many of the events undertaken by the West as part of the 'war on terror' may have further contributed to Islamic Extremism, rather than alleviated it, through radicalising those who would not have previously been labelled as 'extremists', the root causes of Islamic Extremism long precede these events. Neither do the roots come from other events prior to the 'war on terror', which the proposition may refer to in order to lay the blame for Islamic Extremism on the West; for example the 1953 Iranian coup d'état, which disposed the previous leader and replaced him with the Anglo-American backed Shah Pahlavi, or the support given by some Western governments to anti-Soviet fighters - who would later form the Taliban Government -during the Soviet-Afghan War. These events may have (inadvertently) contributed to the spread of Islamic Extremism, but its roots were already there, and were not created or influenced by the West.

The modern Islamic fundamentalist movements have their origins in the late 19th century. The Wahhabi movement, the form of state-sponsored Islamic fundamentalism within Saudi Arabia, began in the 18th century, but gained traction and spread during the 19th and 20th centuries. Reviewing the history of Islamic extremism, in both Shiite and Sunni Islam, reveals their joint origin. Wahhabis, in the Arabian Peninsula, demanded a return to the Salaf (the early period of Islam) and found their desired government after a coalition with the Saud family. Abul Ala Maududi proposed the idea of reviving the caliphate and creating a unified government for all the Muslim lands during the Indian independence movement. He also wrote and published the first draft of a constitution for this government. His thought has been welcomed by Saudi Arabia. The ideas of Maududi also greatly influenced Sayyid Qutb, the main ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and he continued to spread the ideology of Maududi in reviving the Islamic government and opposing the West.

In the Shiite world, Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, inspired by the ideology of Maududi, presented and published a new version of the constitution of the Islamic government. When the Iranian constitution was being codified, he presented the religious elders of Iran with a template containing the general structure of the Islamic state. This template was given to the religious elders just as the interim government of Iran had presented to the Constitutional Assembly of the Experts a secular draft of the constitution. As a result, Mohammad Beheshti, the vice president of the assembly, immediately prepared a new draft based on the writings of Sadr and eventually, after small modifications, that same draft was confirmed by the assembly.

Even in its current form as a social movement and apart from its historical religious background, this movement was a reaction to the frailty and weakness of Islamic countries compared with their glorious pasts. Though the proposition may argue as such, the decline of many Islamic countries or empires cannot be uniformly pinned on Western colonialism. For example, the decline of the Ottoman Empire is related to a multitude of factors for which the West cannot be blamed; namely its role as one of the Central Powers, in alliance with Austro-Hungary and Germany, during WWI - particularly with regards to The Arab Revolt, which turned the tide against the Ottomans at the Middle Eastern front. The Revolt aimed to secure independence from the ruling Ottoman Turks and create a single unified Arab state spanning from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen.

Hence, though the West may well have contributed to Islamic Extremism (often when it is trying to do exactly the opposite) as a result of its direct or indirect actions, it cannot be 'blamed' for it. Ultimately, the roots of Islamic Extremism fall in the Islamic world - not the Western one.

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