Looking at War from an Inside Perspective
by LaReina Montoya
It has been thirteen years after the start of the War on Terror, and the United States has spent trillions of dollars rooting out the terrorists that caused the tragedy of September 11th, thousands of lives have been lost, and the state of Afghanistan has been utterly destroyed. This is the reality facing us and is the basis for the senior capstone course, The West and the World of Islam after 9/11, at American University. This course, taught by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam by the BBC, aims to understand the change in geo-politics after 9/11 by looking at the historical, social, and cultural basis of the War on Terror. Every week we tackle a new topic such as American security issues, clash of civilizations theory, tribalism in Islam, etc. We are taught to investigate multiple perspectives in order to better understand the violence and chaos ensnaring the Muslim world and its effect on relations with the West. I chose this course for the exact reason that it promised an in-depth explanation and after taking another course by Amb. Ahmed I knew I would be presented with rich material that would challenge me academically.
This week in class we approached the topic of the anti-terror network and had the honor of talking with Khalid Aziz the former political agent of North Waziristan Agency, former Chief Secretary of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, and the head of a think tank in Pakistan. Mr. Aziz explained to us the innovative work of his think tank, the first of its kind to explore the conflict of Afghanistan and Pakistan through the perspective of the region. In order to better understand the conflict Mr. Aziz states, “we must go from the inside looking out” and we have to use the “human angle”. This means understanding how history, culture, and tradition shape the people of an area and build up structures in the mind. In terms of the Middle East, it is the emphasis on tribalism and spirituality that have perpetuated throughout the years and play a major role in the conflicts we see today.
It is impossible to respond to a problem unless you understand the framework of the issue, in other words you can’t keep throwing water into a leaky cup as the water will continue to leak instead you must search for the cause of the leak and then prepare to fix the leak. This is exactly what the United States failed to do when they first entered the War on Terror. Instead of understanding the culture and history of the countries we invaded, we instead chose to throw soldiers at the problem hoping that somehow we could “win” by sheer force. The USA, Mr. Aziz claimed, “painted a picture that took away everything, as if the world began after 9/11”. We categorized all Muslims as homogenous in ethnicity and religion, not understanding the intricate tribal, ethnic, and religious sect differences that are embedded in Middle Eastern society.
Mr. Aziz furthered his point by arguing that this is in no way a war between Christianity and Islam but rather one between sub-continental Islam and fundamental Islam. Sub-continental Islam has its roots in the Mughal Empire during the 16th century and was greatly influenced by Hinduism and Sikhism, becoming a softer version of Islam. The major part of sub-continental Islam that proves the greatest point of contention is that it has a foundation in Sufism or the belief that one can have a personal link with Allah. This is directly opposed by more fundamental Muslims such as those from the Wahabbi and Salafist sect. Despite this clash, Mr. Aziz claims that it’s this sub-continental Islam that is driving the Muslim world forward. Sub-continental Islam is fluid and what he describes as a “cuisine of religious thought”. Throughout the rest of Khalid Aziz’s speech, we were brought through the history of sub-continental Islam starting with the first Anglo-Muslim war and ending with the possibility of a sub-continental security alliance with Afghanistan, Indian, and Pakistan.
One aspect of the speech that truly resonated in the class was Mr. Aziz’s concluding point of “investing in people, not security”. We have witnessed firsthand the disasters of investing in security during war; the human rights violations, high civilian casualties, and trillions of dollars lost. We have yet to see any real positive achievements from engaging in this war, if anything we have only worsened the situation and encouraged more sympathy for the Taliban. This was a sentiment that had been echoed by previous classes but was really brought forth through Mr. Aziz’s speech.
America can no longer go through the world expecting complete victory, it must enter wars “as scholars rather than soldiers”. Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher said “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat”. At the end of this War of Terror, we have truly seen the aftermath of our failure to know our enemy, and it looks like defeat.
LaReina Montoya is a student at American University and Research Assistant to Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies