After long years of reading from the hymn sheet provided by its hosts, sense finally seems to have dawned on the United Nations. The world body has apparently concluded that it is insanity, in the words of Einstein, to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.
Addressing the UN General Assembly last Friday, Secretary General Ban ki-Moon did not beat about the proverbial bush as he unveiled a blueprint to tackle the challenge of extremism.
The UN chief was unusually honest in his counsel to those busy fighting the ever widening war on terror: “We all lose by responding to ruthless terror with mindless policy — policies that turn people against each another, alienate already marginalized groups, and play into the hands of the enemy. We need cool heads and common sense. We must never be ruled by fear — or provoked by those who strive to exploit it. Countering violent extremism should not be counter-productive.”
Cool heads and common sense? That’s the last thing anyone in the coalition of the willing wants to hear right now as it fights terror, forever shifting goal posts in the battle against imagined enemies.
Has anyone noticed that for the first time since the end of the last Great War, the two superpowers, United States and Russia, and their numerous gofers all find themselves on the same side of the fence as they purportedly take on the monster called Daesh.
Indeed, it is interesting that the usually voluble Washington did not make even perfunctory noises when the Russian bear barged into what has traditionally been Uncle Sam’s turf.
In his last ‘State of the Union’ address, President Obama trashed the talk of an imminent World War III between the West and Islam, accusing clowns like Trump of playing into the hands of Daesh. The first black president of the most powerful white, Western nation may not see it as such but many in the West already seem to have concluded that this is indeed a civilizational battle for survival. In fact, Pope Francis already sees the Middle East conflict as World War III.
Whether one likes it or not, after long years of Western wars and the violent extremism of groups like Daesh that they have spawned, this has indeed acquired the proportions of a civilizational clash, something that neocon pundits like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington have long dreamed about.
Meanwhile, a Pakistani columnist of a popular Urdu newspaper thoughtfully pointed out that with the involvement of the US, Russia, UK, France, Germany and other members of the NATO in the Middle East’s theater of war, nearly all major schools of thought representing Christianity — from the Catholic church and Church of England to the Russian Orthodox — are waging wars in Muslim lands or fighting forces that claim to speak on behalf of the believers.
Hardly surprising then notwithstanding the anger and revulsion that the Daesh tactics and its claim to represent the Muslims evoke everywhere, it continues to attract the young and restless from around the world.
On the other hand, after all these futile wars and years of carnage and destruction that have left millions dead and homeless in the region, not to mention the mindless destruction of historically rich countries like Iraq, Syria and Libya, there is still no sign of a willingness to confront or even acknowledge the sources and drivers of this conflict.
Indeed, a few weeks ago the New York Times reported that the US is considering a Pentagon proposal to set up a string of military bases in the Middle East, Southwest Asia and Africa which could be used, “for collecting intelligence and carrying out strikes” against Daesh’s many affiliates across those regions.
The bases would serve as hubs for Special Operations troops and intelligence operatives who would conduct counterterrorism missions, creating what the Times described in the Pentagon-speak, an “enduring American military presence” in these volatile regions. This despite the overwhelming evidence — and acknowledgement by President Obama among others — suggesting, that the Western invasion and occupation of Iraq gave birth to the specter called Daesh.
There cannot be a more absurd, crackpot of an idea. An “enduring American military presence” from the Middle East to Africa, over and on top of what already exists across the region, may be the best thing to happen to the extremist fringe, from Daesh to Al- Qaeda and TTP to Boko Haram, further allowing them to portray themselves as the “defenders of the faithful” and inflate their ranks.
If this isn’t precisely what the West and their allies are secretly hoping for, they would do themselves and the region a huge favor by not taking that perilous route.
Military force and brutal, police state tactics cannot defeat terror and extremism. The shortsighted and crude measures like the UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s threat to deport Muslim women if they did not learn English and his promised ban on Muslim veil do not help the cause of fighting extremism either. These pronouncements are hardly any different from the intemperate rants of US presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
The Camerons and Trumps would do well to spare 15 minutes to scan and mull over Ban ki-Moon’s proposals. The UN chief offers 70 specific recommendations for action, under five broad categories:
Prevention: It requires improving underlying conditions, helping individuals attain their full potential growth. It is humiliation and desperation that drives men toward extremism. “Extremism flourishes when human rights are violated, political space is shrunk, aspirations for inclusion are ignored, and too many people — especially young people — lack prospects and meaning in their lives,” pointed out the UN chief.
Principled leadership and effective institutions: The UN calls for building “inclusive institutions that are truly accountable to people.” The UN chief points out that “poisonous ideologies do not emerge from thin air. Oppression, corruption and injustice are greenhouses for resentment.”
Prevent extremism by promoting human rights: “All too often,” the UN chief noted, “sweeping definitions of terrorism or violent extremism are used to criminalize the legitimate actions of opposition groups, civil society organizations and human rights defenders. Governments should not use these types of sweeping definitions as a pretext to attack or silence one’s critics.” Inclusive approach: An “all of government” approach that breaks down “the silos between the peace and security, sustainable development, human rights and humanitarian actors at the national, regional and global levels — including at the United Nations.”
UN engagement: It involves actions by the UN itself while also promoting coordination with and support for national plans of action that address the many inter-linked dimensions of the violent extremism and terrorism threats.
Real food for thought there! The UN approach at last acknowledges why violent extremism has spread so rapidly around the world and attempts to craft an effective response to it that, in the words of Rami Khouri, cuts out its core drivers at the roots, rather than snipping off the buds that sprout at its extremities.
But if governments around the world, especially the world powers and their allies busy firefighting in the Middle East, do not take these recommendations seriously and adopt them as a global action plan, the UN recommendations are not worth the paper they are written on.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer.