The War In Gaza Is Changing The Muslim World

With their uncritical support of Israel, Western leaders have kickstarted the same polarization in Muslim societies that led to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the birth of violent Islamic fundamentalism.

The Western world is unequivocal in its support of Israel in the ongoing Gaza conflict. This much has been clearly demonstrated, when Western political leaders started parading the corridors of power in Israeli capital Tel Aviv after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israeli territory that according to Israeli claims, killed more than 1,400 people. A prolonged conflict in Gaza and the larger Middle East involving other regional countries apart from Israel and Palestine could be devastating for western European countries from two perspectives. Firstly, a prolonged conflict, especially involving Iran, could generate a refugee crisis with Southern European countries with coastlines on the Mediterranean Sea receiving most of the refugees from the Arab world. Secondly, as feared by some western experts, it could also lead to terror attacks in Europe.

In both cases, terrorists and refugees only have to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. This is not without precedent. In the wake of 9/11, Western and Southern European countries were hit by terrorist attacks on several occasions. Secondly, the conflicts and civil war in Syria generated a refugee crisis that brought a large number of Syrians to the shores of Southern and central European countries. European countries’ diplomats and leaders have been visiting and expressing unequivocal support for Israel and have been raising concern about a possible refugee crisis and terror strikes inside European countries as backlash against Israeli military atrocities.

After Hamas attacks, the heads of governments of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece and Italy have taken turns standing beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the past few days. “In such difficult times, there is only one place we can be: at Israel’s side,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, while visiting 10 days after the Hamas attack. However, according to experts, European leaders warned Israel against starting a ground offensive in Gaza, which in their opinion could lead to another major refugee crisis in the large Mediterranean region. These visits reflect an unease over the implications for regional security and the fears of another refugee crisis if the war escalates, as is expected with an imminent Israeli ground invasion – one that Europe wants Netanyahu to be careful about rushing into.

The massive destruction in Gaza caused by Israel’s air strikes and ground offensive could prove to be a turning point in the larger debate on terrorism, extremism and militancy in Muslim societies. The situation of unarmed and innocent civilians of Gaza attracted the attention of every household in the Muslim world, and the rest of the world. The question everybody is asking could be summed up like this, “if by killing 1,400 Israeli civilians, Hamas could be declared a terrorist then why is it that even after ruthlessly killing more than 20,000 Gazans, the Israeli Defense Forces cannot be labelled as terrorists?”

This question indicates a rather simple line of thinking, but it will have far reaching policy implications for Muslim leaders in their encounter with their Western allies. Countries like Pakistan in the past have harped on the theme of state terrorism when it comes to projecting the Indian military’s atrocities in Indian controlled Kashmir. But this time, the situation in Gaza has a much deeper and larger impact on Muslim minds around the world.

The massive destruction in Gaza caused by Israel’s air strikes and ground offensive could prove to be a turning point in the larger debate on terrorism, extremism and militancy in Muslim societies.

But old policy frameworks die hard. Last week, the Pakistani military hosted battalions of land forces from three Arab countries, which participated in what was billed as a “two weeks long multinational joint counter terrorism exercise Fajar Al Sharq-V,” conducted at the National Counter Terrorism Centre, Pabbi. In the joint exercises, special forces from Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait participated – with the Pakistani military sharing with the land forces of these three “brotherly” countries the expertise accumulated through 20 years long experience of fighting two insurgencies in the North West and South West of the country.

A day before the conclusion of the joint exercises, the Pakistani military announced that it had killed eight terrorists in Pak-Afghan border areas near South Waziristan. Although the military raid that killed eight terrorists had no connection with the joint military exercises, it is significant that the Pakistani military media wing announced both the exercises and military raid through press releases issued simultaneously. It is pertinent to mention here that the Pakistani press release mentioned that the exercises were aimed at enhancing the capacity of four Muslim countries’ armed forces to operate jointly. “Exercise Fajar Al Sharq-V is a multinational joint exercise in the Counter Terrorism domain among the Special Forces of Pakistan, Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait,” said the military press release, “The exercise is aimed at nurturing of joint employment and interoperability besides, harnessing the historic military to military relations among the brotherly countries.”

To a layman, this would come across as a situation where Muslim armies are conducting joint military exercises—a welcome development in the words of one of my neighbors. However, little do they understand that these exercises are meant to tackle internal enemies—terrorism, militancy and extremism. Ten years ago, I attended a military briefing in Rawalpindi where a senior military official told journalists that due to “our decade long engagement in the War on Terror, our capability to fight a conventional war has badly suffered.” This is true about every Muslim country under the influence of Washington. Muslim societies’ security paradigm has undergone a shift where fighting domestic enemies within Muslim societies became the prime objective of Muslim armies.

The vehemence of Pakistan’s foreign policy elite to condemn India for state terrorism dampened after they spent more than 20 years under Washington’s wings. Terrorism assumed a domestic character and its definition for Pakistan’s foreign policy elite only focused on non-state actors. In fact, the term non-state actor became a much-used part of our political discourse during the past 20 years. Pakistan became less focused on the state terrorism that the Indian military has unleashed in Kashmir. When one probes into how US foreign policy elites define terrorism, it does not come as a surprise that no US departments or agencies define terrorism as conduct that could also be carried out by the state.

Here are four definitions of terrorism from four United States government agencies

United States House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (2002): "Terrorism is the illegitimate, premeditated violence or threat of violence by subnational groups against persons of property with the intent to coerce a government by installing fear amongst the populace."
State Department (1984): "Terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."
FBI (1999): "Terrorism is defined as the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual... committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
DOD (2000): "Terrorism is the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological."

This is all understandable. Washington was acting as a state throughout the world in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to tackle the terror groups that had emerged in different parts of the world to carry out terror attacks against the United States and its western allies. Its security partners like European countries, Israel and Pakistan were all using state military and police powers against terror groups. The United States and the states of its allies needed the definitive support of Washington in this campaign. In South Asia, Washington changed horses when it almost ditched Pakistan and shifted its military favors towards India. India was using its military power in Kashmir against groups that were fighting for freedom. None of the groups which were fighting state power were on the right side for Washington. The Kashmiris are helpless and so are the Palestinians. The Afghan Mujahideen were once the favorites of the US security establishment, and they were clandestinely supported by the CIA and Pentagon.

The Gaza situation, however, clearly creates a moral imperative towards reformulating the definition of terrorism. If the world doesn’t take notice—and it will not, obviously—then it will be a clear indication that the balance of power in the international system is heavily tilted in favor of those who don’t value human life. Freedom, liberty and human rights are merely empty slogans.

Electronic media has brought the Gaza situation to the living room of every household in Pakistan and around the world. It is now plain for everybody to see how the Israeli military’s relatively small operation could become a horror for the people of Palestine. This exactly fits the definition of terrorism—small acts of terror could create a huge spectacle. One should hardly expect any revolutionary act from the Muslim world’s pro-American political elite.

The lessons of Gaza are for everyone to learn from: it is not only non-state actors that carry out terrorism, but states also carry out terrorism. Gaza is a prime example. One of the political problems of arriving at this definition of terrorism is the bitter reality that in many Muslim countries, armies themselves engage in brutalities of similar nature against their own people. The Gaza situation, however, clearly creates a moral imperative towards reformulating the definition of terrorism. If the world doesn’t take notice—and it will not, obviously—then it will be a clear indication that the balance of power in the international system is heavily tilted in favor of those who don’t value human life. Freedom, liberty and human rights are merely empty slogans.

Two particular trends deeply worry me at this point of time. Gaza will boost fundamentalist tendencies in Muslim societies. Many ordinary Muslims see the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of a cosmic conflict between truth and falsehood, between Islam and Judaism. They don’t see this as a problem where a powerful country with a strong military is killing innocent civilians mercilessly for the sake of controlling territory and resources. And this gives rise to a thinking where people say, “when my military kills your people, it is fine; it is only when your military kills my people that is cosmically bad.” We will be pushed further away from a situation where the killing of civilians will be considered normatively bad, whether they are my people or yours.This brings us to the second point: we will be pushed further towards a situation where everybody in the Muslim world will be dreaming about keeping a strong military or strongly armed group of non-state actors as a deterrent against the repeat of an Israel type attack on Gaza. This type of thinking feeds into the process of militarization of societies – as we have seen in the history of Muslim societies like Pakistan, in the wake of the 1971 war with India. I think Western leaders should be ashamed of their single-minded approach towards the October 7 attack on Israel. With their single mindedness and myopia, they have brought Muslim societies back to the post-1967 Arab-Israeli war situation – when the processes which gave birth to the monsters of Islamic fundamentalism and their offshoot Al-Qaeda were incubated. May God help us all.

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