By Paul Thomas Chamberlin
July 16, 2018
Recent years have witnessed a surge of
interest in political Islam and jihadist violence. An array of commentators
have sought to link contemporary groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State
to classical Islam — drawing a straight line from the prophet Muhammad to Osama
bin Laden and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This sentiment animates much of the
rhetoric on the right. President Trump, along with members of his
administration, has been far more willing than his predecessors to conflate
violent jihadist groups with more moderate elements within the Muslim world,
both past and present.
In reality, however, the roots of
contemporary jihadist movements don’t come from the ideas of an ancient
religion but rather from the reality of the recent Cold War. For half a
century, U.S. leaders and their allies consistently worked to undermine secular
progressive forces around the world, fearing that they might side with the
Soviets. In the process, the United States unwittingly empowered the very
forces of religious conservatism that Washington is battling today.
Containment of Soviet-backed communism
formed the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy from 1947 until 1990. Central to
this strategy was an effort by the U.S. government to undermine secular
revolutionary forces in the so-called Third World through diplomatic
opposition, economic warfare, covert operations and military interventions.
American officials worried that these progressive groups — nationalists,
socialists and communists — were vulnerable to Soviet influence.
The problem was that the ideological
conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was often of secondary
importance to the new nations of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, which were
in the process of throwing off the yoke of Western colonialism.
For these postcolonial societies, national
liberation, economic development and political revolution remained far more
urgent concerns than the ideological clash between communism and capitalism.
Success required the destruction of the lingering vestiges of imperialism and
the seizure of national resources such as oil and foreign-owned estates. Such
actions signalled a commitment to nationalism — not subservience to the Soviet
All too often, though, the interests of
postcolonial leaders clashed with American Cold War priorities. In some cases,
these efforts at reform challenged the economic interests of Western
corporations like the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and military powers seeking to
maintain a presence in strategic locations like the Suez Canal. More broadly,
economic development often required quasi-socialist policies such as land
reform that cast progressive leaders as closet communists when viewed through
the binary prism of the Cold War.
And so nationalist leaders such as Iran’s
Mohammad Mossadegh, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Indonesia’s Sukarno appeared
— in Washington’s eyes — as potential vectors of Soviet influence. In response,
U.S. leaders launched coups, covert operations and foreign policies designed to
crush these potentially troublesome secular nationalists.
While these attempts were not always
successful, they compounded reform challenges facing postcolonial leaders. Now,
along with rebuilding the economy and creating new state structures, many Third
World leaders had to contend with the machinations of a hostile superpower.
The Cold War lens made the opponents of
progressive postcolonial leaders appear as allies in the struggle against world
communism. So the United States sided with their opponents: conservative
religious groups. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, U.S. intelligence toyed with
the idea of using movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood as counterweights to
leaders such as Nasser. Islamic youth movements played a prominent role in the
1965 annihilation of the Indonesian Communist Party that, in turn, led to the
installation of the pro-U.S. Suharto regime. And the U.S. supported Shah
Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran as he crushed all secular liberal opponents,
leaving only religious extremists to spearhead a revolution in 1979. During the
1980s, the Reagan administration partnered with Saudi and Pakistani
intelligence to run a massive covert aid program to Afghan resistance fighters
battling the Soviet army.
But politics in the Middle East, Asia,
Africa and Latin America were never a part of the black-and-white world of
communism vs. capitalism that the United States thought it was fighting. And
so, while U.S. officials could often contain the Kremlin’s influence, they could
not contain the worldwide desire for economic prosperity and independence.
The result of mistakenly trying to shoehorn
these countries into the Cold War binary was that, in many cases, conservative
religious regimes were nearly as hostile to U.S. influence as they had been to
that of the Soviet Union. Nowhere was this dynamic more evident than in the
wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which served as a stark example of the
rising power of political Islam. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his colleagues
rejected Soviet and American influence and instead charted a path that was
“neither East nor West.” In the coming decades, revolutionaries around the
world would choose to do the same.
When America prevailed in the Cold War,
U.S. leaders looked forward to a world in which American-style liberal
capitalism would reign. But in their pursuit of victory over communism, they
had empowered forces that challenged, rather than celebrated, America’s
much-heralded Cold War triumph: the Afghan mujahideen, militants from across
the Arab world and the vaunted Pakistani ISI, to name but a few.
Moreover, by opposing the forces of secular
revolution, U.S. Cold War policy helped to discredit secular moderates,
simultaneously foreclosing one of the most viable paths toward progress in the
postcolonial world and empowering conservative religious elements. Without
secular alternatives, aspiring revolutionaries channelled their energy toward
religious forms of rebellion, most notably globalized jihad. By the 1980s, this
meant that the most dynamic forces of revolution — groups such as Hezbollah,
Hamas and the mujahideen — had largely abandoned left-wing ideologies and
embraced ethnic and sectarian politics.
These ideologies would not draw the
immediate attention and opposition of the United States. By the time the Cold
War ended and the United States started perceiving the danger in these
movements, it was too late.
In this way, the destruction of secular
left-wing politics in the postcolonial world — facilitated by Cold War tunnel vision
— cleared the field for a new generation of revolutionaries inspired by appeals
to religious and ethnic identity. Ultimately, the rise of jihadist groups such
as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State owe less to ancient religious zeal than to
the far more recent legacy of Cold War geopolitics.
Paul Thomas Chamberlin is associate professor of history at Columbia
University and the author of "The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking
the Long Peace."