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The World War

It is only through the provocation and perpetuation of wars with non-Islamic societies that Wahhabism (militant Islamist fundamentalism) can continue to spread and can aspire to leadership of the Islamic world.

THE THIRD World War began a decade ago. We have been losing it because we have failed to comprehend it. The world is approaching a pinnacle of instability with conflicts in Afghanistan, southern Asia, West Asia and the Caucasus. To varying extents, all of these crises have been provoked in the service of a single cause. A common enemy confronts diverse nations, many of which are antagonistic toward one another, and some of them are becoming more antagonistic because they fail to grasp their situation. On one side are countries including the United States, Russia, Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, and the Philippines. On the other side is a militant Islamist fundamentalism, known in Central Asia and the Caucasus as "Wahhabism."

Intra-Islamic conflict

This is not a war of civilisations. Rather it is an intra-Islamic conflict, a fight to shape the future of Muslim civilisation. Ultimately, it is a struggle between the moderate and progressive elements in Islamic societies on the one hand, and a loose array of Wahhabis on the other. But the war has been fought on battlefields from Moscow to Manhattan and from Arlington to Kashmir. The United States, Russia, India and Pakistan have been little more than pawns in this game, and in various ways all of them inadvertently have played into the hands of the Wahhabis.

Though its ideological roots can be traced to 18th century Saudi Arabia, militant Wahhabism was born in Afghanistan in the 1980s and bred in war between the Soviet Union and the international Mujahideen, or "holy warriors," who came from throughout the Islamic world. Those who entered the war with assistance from Osama bin Laden came to be known as Al Qaeda, but Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are only pieces in a larger puzzle. Militant Wahhabism was born and bred in war and it has always been nourished by war. Since its inception warfare has provided a constant stream of recruits and financial support, and that is why Wahhabis must continue to provoke wars. It is only through the provocation and perpetuation of wars with non-Islamic societies that Wahhabism can continue to spread and can aspire to leadership of the Islamic world. Flushed with their victory over the Soviet Union in 1989, they have never stopped fighting, and have repeatedly generated and perpetuated conflicts.

The Wahhabi movement is neither tightly organised nor centrally coordinated. Yet while there is sometimes discord among Wahhabi groups, many of them seek to unite Islamic societies into a single fundamentalist state. In addition to common goals, they share common values and communication channels; they have common sources of funding; and they have a common interest in provoking conflicts that will destabilise the Islamic world and throw its peoples into conflict with non-Islamic societies. These conflicts recall a romantic, pre-modern past that is the core of Wahhabi ideology, the foundation of its fund raising and recruitment efforts, and a reliable font of charismatic authority for those leaders and groups engaged in these struggles. The provocation and perpetuation of conflicts with non-Islamic societies is the means by which these groups spread their message, expand their influence, and vie for positions of leadership in the Islamic world.

A short list of these provocations includes the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001; attacks on U.S. embassies in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000, and the Pentagon in 2001; two invasions of the Russian Republic of Dagestan from Al Qaeda supported bases in Chechnya in 1999; a series of four apartment block explosions in Russia during the same year; and a series of high profile attacks against American, Australian, Israeli, Indonesian, Indian, and Pakistani targets in southern Asia and Africa. The attacks on the U.S. resulted in the war in Afghanistan; the attacks on Russia resulted in the current war in Chechnya; and the attacks on India have come close to provoking a full-scale war between India and Pakistan.

Most of these have been high profile provocations intended to maximise attention and antagonism. The result of these and many other terrorist attacks is an array of conflicts, and crises around the Islamic world that serve the interest of no one except the Wahhabis. In some of these conflicts, the stature of their adversaries lends prestige to the Wahhabi cause, and the very multiplicity of these crises limits options to control Wahhabi influence in any single one of them.

Tough response needed

An effective response begins with a comprehensive understanding of the Wahhabi strategy of provocation. A tough response from global and regional powers is crucial, though it will have to be better informed and coordinated than it has been thus far. Yet while a military response is important, we must also recognise that in responding militarily we are playing the Wahhabi's game. That is why we must act to cut the demand, as well as the supply, for terrorism. Wahhabism feeds on poverty, frustration and despair, all of which are connected to local perceptions of corruption and injustice. Along with a tough response, we must re-examine our policies toward Islamic societies to insure that perceptions of injustice are minimised.

ROBERT BRUCE WARE

(The author is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, who studies Islamic societies in the Caucasus).

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