Reprinted from The Philos Project with permission.
Former Ambassador to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea Alberto Fernandez stepped to the podium at the Westminster Institute in McLean, Va. to examine the daunting challenges in defeating the aggressive Islamic ideologies that are currently raging in the Middle East and beyond. Although Fernandez said that he hoped for the emergence of a more tolerant and humanistic Islam, he warned that the process could take decades.
The Middle Eastern region has been in turmoil since the Arab Spring unmasked the corrupt, weak nature of the Arab regimes that foreign policy experts like Richard Hass once considered firmly entrenched. But although the “revolutionary bomb” hasn’t yet gone off in Syria, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, Fernandez called the regional glimmers of hope like the Arab Spring’s democratic development in Tunisia “very shaky success stories.”
The Westminster Institute event primarily focused on the Islamic State jihadists whose goal has been to “basically supersede the limited worldview that Al-Qaeda had,” moving beyond terrorism to governance. When ISIS seized Raqqa, Syria in 2013, that refugee-swollen city contained 2 million people, giving the Islamic State unprecedented control of a metropolis that was never experienced by its Al-Qaeda predecessors. The more than 6 million Sunni Arabs in areas under ISIS control facilitated the group’s expansion, as these people saw ISIS as the least dangerous option in comparison to the regimes dominated by Shiite “apostates or rejecters of either Damascus or Baghdad.”
Fernandez said that far more foreign jihadists than have ever gone to Afghanistan fought in Syria, an area of immense historical and theological importance in Islam. This includes the Islamic apocalypse. According to Muslim tradition, Jesus will return to the Damascus Umayyad Mosque’s White Minaret (namesake of the news service for the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra) in the end times, to kill both Jews and pigs. Fernandez pointed out that the modern ISIS apocalypse “is reintroducing these long-forgotten concepts from Islamic doctrine like jizya, the punitive tax put on non-Muslims to humiliate them. It is not for any other reason.
“We need to crush the Islamic State as fully and as completely as is possible,” he argued. “The longer it is around, the longer it will metastasize; the longer it will sink its roots deeply into the psyche of the region.” He called ISIS a “half puffer fish, half shark – an entity that blows itself up to make itself look bigger than it is and must keep moving to survive in the form of continual victories.” The concept of winning by losing exists in Judaism with its history of enduring exile, Christianity with its hope of resurrection after death, and Shiite Islam with its suffering after Imam Hussain’s death at the Battle of Karbala. In contrast, Fernandez said that in the Sunni Islam of ISIS, “if you are losing, it means you don’t have God’s mandate.”
The former ambassador advocated supporting regional ISIS opponents, suggesting that an “Anbar Awakening II” should emulate Sunni Arab tribes’ defeating the Islamic State’s Al-Qaeda predecessors during the Iraq War. Many Arab tribes are now “thirsting for revenge” after losing hundreds of men in combat and beheadings under ISIS.
While Fernandez’ presentation supported military aid for the region’s Kurds, the speaker worried that the Kurdish fighters might seize historically non-Kurdish areas after liberating them from ISIS control. “We shouldn’t kid ourselves that these are Jeffersonian Democrats,” he said, of the Kurds. “Kurdish rule in places like Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government looks good because of the other guys.”
Beyond the battlefield, the Islamic State media machine is a juggernaut that produces a daily average of 46,000 pro-ISIS Twitter accounts and 100,000 tweets in a “cyber-Salafism” Internet subculture. While Fernandez said that groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al-Shabaab in East Africa pioneered English-language jihadist media, “they did not do it on the industrial level that ISIS did. Given how their message is incendiary and powerful, the interesting thing is how few people have joined them. Nobody does it the way the bad guys do it.”
Fernandez described the jihadist domination in the public diplomacy realm. “Entities that put out poison dominate Muslim social media. Throughout the Middle Eastern publishing landscape, you can find the Islamic radical doggerel everywhere – but little is available from thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson.” While liberal initiatives in the Middle East are often haphazard and poorly financed, a Syrian friend told Fernandez that “you can always get 50 grand for another kind of embossed version of the Quran in the Gulf States.”
In criticizing various American public diplomacy efforts for the Arab world, Fernandez said that Alhurra TV was “very early on captured by vested interests like a Lebanese mafia and Shia mafia.” And Alhurra’s Iraq section put out pro-Shia Islamic party propaganda during the Iraq war. The channel’s companion radio station, Radio Sawa – although it appears to be a success – merely “plays pop music and gives a little bit of news,” something Al Jazeera already does in the region, but with various anti-American spins. “We need to reimagine the whole thing. Make it more pointed, make it more ideological,” Fernandez said.
Many in the Muslim world are “heroically fighting for a better future,” despite often being “political and economic orphans who don’t get bags of money from the Gulf.” Like Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, who was executed in 1985 in Sudan, they “seek to redeem the very language of Islam in which there are certain problems, not with Islam as the religion, but deep within the basis of Islam.” Taha believed that the Quran has the message for its day – which is about war and fighting and killing the infidel – and a “message for all time, which is about human brotherhood and about tolerance and about compassion and about God’s mercy.”
In the end, Islam’s struggle to realize the latter message as a true religion of peace will be long.