Hundreds of thousands of individuals lost their lives during the “war on terrorism” in the last 12 years. Extremism in the Middle-East, especially in Muslim countries, has been the center of attention in the mainstream media for the last 12 years. However, this phenomenon is not new; it did not start on Sep 11, 2001, and it did not end on May 2, 2011 when Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.
Extremism and religious fundamentalism have been parts of everyday life in the region for centuries, but they had been taken for granted before they reached western countries. Extremism can be defined as “activities (beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions, strategies) of a person or group far removed from the ordinary.” (Andrea Bartoli, Peter T. Coleman. (Sep 2003). “Defining Extremism“. One may find the roots of extremism in history, but it has been said that contemporary events such as the economic boom in oil-rich Arab countries and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinians have provoked this phenomenon. There can be other causes for extremism too.
Lack of education, which can lead to misinformation, is probably one of the main causes of fanaticism. Statistics show that extremists are much more active in countries where illiteracy rates are higher. The illiteracy rate in Pakistan, which is known as one of the most extremist countries, is about 45% among adults. (UNESCO). The illiteracy rates in some other Muslim countries are high too. For example, about 20% of Egyptians are illiterate. (Al-Masry Al-Youm, 2013).
The education system in these countries is another problem. Even children who go to school may not receive a good education. According to a BBC documentary, titled “British Schools, Muslim Rules” (2010), some 5,000 British schoolchildren were being taught in Islamic schools that “Jews are transformed from pigs and apes” (Retrieved from The Guardian, 22 Nov, 2010). In fact these anti-Semitic ideas were part of a textbook which had been taught in Saudi Arabian schools for many years.
Another reason for fanaticism can be the political sphere in the Middle-East. Most of the countries in this region have been governed by dictators. Many dictatorships in the Middle-East have enjoyed western support, which has resulted in public hatred of westerners in these countries. The long-lasting conflict between Israel and Palestinians has contributed to suppressive measures these dictators take against their subjects. They have been accusing many of their opponents of collaborating with Israel. Furthermore, in order to draw public support from Muslim masses, they launched anti-Israel propaganda that eventually snowballed into greater anti-Semitism. These policies are rooted in history.
Almost all the countries in the region had been part of the Ottoman Empire until WWI[i]. Since Ottoman sultans needed legitimacy for declaring war on other countries, they usually used religion as a justification; they called Europeans “Infidels” and even Iranian Shia’s “heretics” in order to stimulating Sunni Muslims in the entire empire against them[ii]. Although Turkey, heir of the Ottoman Empire, abandoned these tactics decades ago, other rulers in the region still use them on a large scale.
As a result of extremism in Muslim countries and as a natural repercussion, fanaticism in other countries has been rising in recent years. In Israel, right wing politicians have gained victories in elections, in Burma, Buddhist extremists attacked Muslims and killed hundreds of them and even in the U.S, Qurans were burned by a pastor.
Western politicians have exhausted some measures to reduce or at least control extremism in the region. The first tactic they tried was controlling extremists by supporting secular dictators in these countries. One consequence of this policy was that extremists hid and gathered their forces. When the so-called “Arab Spring” broke out on 18 Dec 2010, many of the extremist groups rose again and this time, they seemed more powerful than ever. The other fruitless tactic by western countries was waging war against extremist groups. Although many prominent terrorists got killed, it was almost ineffective in weakening extremism in Muslim countries.
One solution for this phenomenon in the region can be convincing Arab countries to improve their education system. Elementary and secondary education should be free and mandatory in all these countries. Furthermore, textbooks should be replaced too; any racist or xenophobic material should not be tolerated. As for the political sphere, the civilized world should support liberal democracy in the region.
Having said that, the masses in the region should learn the definition of “Liberal Democracy”. They have to know that democracy is more than an election; if a party wins an election, it should respect the right of others to live and voice their disagreement. Free access to media and freedom of speech are necessary for a liberal democracy, and all of the politicians and individuals in the region should be informed that even a democratically-elected government cannot ignore “human rights”. The international community should also find a permanent solution for the Middle-East conflict.
As a conclusion, if this problem is rooted in history, the solution can be found in history too. The republic of Turkey may be a good example; as an heir of the Ottoman Empire, by establishing a secular democracy and a good education system, it has been able to control and abolish extremism to some degree. If Turkey achieves this, other Muslim countries in the region can too.
[i] Ottomans lost Egypt to Britain in 1882 and Libya to Italy in 1911. Almost all other Arab countries in the region (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel) were lost as a result of the Versailles treaty, 1919.
[ii] Iranian Shia’s had been considered as “heretics” by Ottomans and waging war on them was religiously legitimate until 1746. At that year, a treaty between Nader shah of Iran and the Ottoman sultan Mahmud established a new basis for relations between the two countries. According to this treaty, Iran was not a “Pariah state of Shia heretics” anymore, so Ottomans could not justify a war against them. (Osman’s dream, The history of the Ottoman empire, Caroline Finkel, P 286)