Who are the terrorists?

by Ahmed Humayun

Egypt_MuslimBrotherhood_banner_Torn_downTwo weeks ago the United Arab Emirates (UAE) put dozens of Muslim groups around the world on its terrorism list. While the list includes organizations such as Al Qaeda, al-Nusra front, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which is uncontroversial, it also includes many other cultural and civic organizations in the United States and Europe, such as the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society (MAS).

The inclusion of this second group of organizations has perplexed Western governments, who have asked the UAE for an explanation. There is no real mystery here, however. The UAE alleges that these groups are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which tops the UAE list, and is the dominant Islamist organization in the Middle East. In outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood and organizations that are alleged to be connected to it, the UAE is following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia, which declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in March.

The antipathy of the dynastic Arab rulers to Islamists is well established. Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood call for political reform but Arab tyrannies see this as the end of their stranglehold on power. Hence, the opposition of the Gulf states to the Muslim Brotherhood after its success in the 2011-2012 elections in Egypt, and their subsequent support for the overthrow of Mohammad Morsi, the elected President. Of course, Islamists are far from Jeffersonian Democrats and they are illiberal on many issues, but they represent an ideological alternative to the status quo that has local appeal, a terrifying prospect for the current crop of Arab rulers.

This terrorism designation, then, is a signal to Muslim groups worldwide that they should align with the Arab status quo or else expect to be stigmatized, even when they are an innocous organization like CAIR, which has actively worked to counter terrorism in partnership with American law enforcement.

So much for the politics of this ‘terrorism' list. That the rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE think they can define terrorism and be taken seriously is extraordinary in itself. It is well and good that they condemn ISIL today but they provided the key financial support that fueled ISIL's conquest of Sunni provinces in northern Iraq as part of their war against Shiite influence in the region.

They only turned on the organization when it threatened their interests. Furthermore, we know that Saudi Arabia is ‘a critical financial support base for Al Qaeda, Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups' and that ‘donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide' with countries like Qatar and Kuwait not far behind. And we know that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have specifically funded extremist networks that indoctrinated children as young as eight years old to wage war in Pakistan.

A curious duality afflicts the behavior of these states. Saudi Arabia ruthlessly hunts down militants that pose a threat to the House of Saud while enthusiastically funding all sorts of militias across the globe. Of course, the Arabs are not the only ones engaging in a selective approach to militancy. Pakistan fights insurgents that threaten the regime in Islamabad, but coddles radicals that advance its security aims against regional powers. The common delusion is that these networks can be compartmentalized from each other.

The truth is that as long as states distinguish between good militants and bad militants, based on which group will advance a given strategic aim at a particular point in time, the bloody wars sweeping the Middle East and South Asia will further intensify. That this is a recipe for endless violence seems to be such an obvious statement that it should require no articulation. Yet the Arab authoritarians remain impervious to reality; they do not see what they do not want to see, that their medieval ideological obsessions, their unadulterated investment in tyranny, their comfortable, cynical willingness to let the rest of the world bear the costs of their sinister machinations can only end in disaster. At first, the House of Saud was threatened by Al Qaeda; now, it is confronted by ISIL, which controls huge chunks of territory and far more powerful than Al Qaeda. What can we expect in the next iteration?

This question does not appear to trouble the sleep of the autocrats in part because they operate with impunity in a global economy addicted to oil and in which Western powers clamor to trade petrodollars for weapon systems. When Vice President Joe Biden said in October that several Arab states (and Turkey) had ‘poured millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons' into anti-Assad militant groups, including Al Qaeda, he promptly apologized soon thereafter. (Of course, the fact that militant groups may well have received U.S. funding in the course of the Syrian conflict, directly or indirectly, is another question).

When even simple truths cannot be stated, there can be no change in behavior. Therefore, we will continue to call them the ‘moderate' states even as they defer the political reforms that may contain the spread of terrorism, and permit funds to flow to the radical groups that are turning the region into an inferno and threatening Western cities. All the while, they will have the effrontery to instruct the world on the difference between terrorists and moderates.