July 19th 2014

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Divorce now costs Australia $14 billion a year

FIRST WORLD WAR Were we right to go to war in 1914?

EDITORIAL Deep fissures divide Islamist militants

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Iraq: examining the professed caliphate

SCHOOLS Preventing bullying with emotional intelligence

CANBERRA OBSERVED Media circus obscures foreign policy initiatives

FOREIGN AFFAIRS China's Confucius Institutes pushing Beijing's line

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Beijing fury over Hong Kong pro-democracy rallies

LIFE ISSUES At last, we wake up to the truth about Dr Death

EDUCATION Fifty years on: reflections of Monash's first graduate

ENVIRONMENT Alarm that emperor penguins endangered by global warming!

BOOK REVIEW Youth's call to arms

BOOK REVIEW Creator, midwife and guardian of science

BOOK REVIEW A knight-errant walking the mean streets

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Deep fissures divide Islamist militants

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, July 19, 2014

From the time of the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy by Colonel Nasser in 1952 to Osama bin Laden’s attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, the focus of Arab nationalism was opposition to the West, particularly the United States, and the destruction of Israel.

For 50 years, these sentiments echoed around the Arab world, and deeply influenced the political and religious climate in much of the Islamic world. Anti-Western sentiment found fertile soil in which to germinate and spread. In fact, the al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers was intended to trigger Islamic revolutions in Egypt, Algeria and Bosnia.

Events did not turn out this way.

The Bush Administration in the U.S. worked closely with governments in the Muslim world to hunt down the Islamist extremists, and, with Saudi Arabian support, was instrumental in toppling Saddam Hussein, the long-serving dictator of Iraq. Bin Laden was eventually killed in exile in Pakistan.

Oil wealth and the emergence of new technologies from the 1990s — particularly global TV networks, the internet and later smartphones — undermined much of the anti-Western propaganda which had influenced popular culture in the Middle East.

It showed that problems such as endemic corruption, abuse of power, human rights violations and grinding poverty were the consequence of corrupt authoritarian regimes, not Western governments which had ceased being colonial rulers in these countries generations ago.

In 2010, popular uprisings broke out in many Middle Eastern countries in what came to be known as the Arab Spring. Western nations gave support to these movements, and, in some countries such as Libya and Egypt, assisted to bring about the demise of unpopular governments.

Since that time, an important change has taken place. The line of division has shifted to the point where the major fault line today is within the Islamic world, with battle lines drawn between the majority Sunnis and the minority Shi’a branches of Islam.

The divisions within the Islamic faith go back to the period after the death of the prophet Mohammed, nearly 13 centuries ago. Most of the Muslim world is Sunni, including most of the Arab world, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Shi’a branch of Islam dominates in Iran and Iraq.

The terrible civil war in Syria, which has cost well over a hundred thousand lives, began as a popular uprising against the Assad regime, but degenerated into a Sunni uprising against the dominant Alawites, who are a sect of the Shi’a faith.

The Syrian opposition divided when al Qaeda-affiliated extremists turned their weapons on their allies and took effective control of the opposition.

The early military successes of the Sunni extremists in Syria then led to the intervention of Hezbollah, a Shi’a organisation in Lebanon and a declared terrorist organisation, and volunteers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

There is now a full-scale sectarian war in Syria. The government forces have gained the upper hand over the rebels, who have shifted over the porous border into neighbouring Iraq, now ruled by a weak Shi’a government.

Some Australian Muslims have gone to join the Sunni extremists in this war, enlisting in a fighting organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which operates in the desert regions of both countries.

Because of ISIS’s extreme violence, even al Qaeda has disassociated itself from this new organisation, which recently changed its name to simply the Islamic State. Its self-proclaimed aim is to establish a caliphate, claiming religious authority over all Muslims and aspiring to bring most of the Muslim-inhabited regions of the Arab world under its direct political and religious control.

Its demands are opposed by most Arab governments and Muslim religious leaders in the region, and is irrelevant to the bulk of the Muslim world living in countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Its territorial conquests and vision of uniting the Arab world under a single religious authority help to explain its appeal to some young Muslims in the West, however bizarre it is to the rest of society. The clear concern of authorities is that its members who return to the West will deploy the same terrorist methods in Western countries.

Separately, deep divisions have appeared among Sunni states, particularly the oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Qatar bankrolls Sunni militants in Syria’s civil war and the al Jazeera media network, and supports the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

This explains the vindictive imprisonment in Egypt of al Jazeera journalists, including Australian Peter Greste, who is a pawn in this political struggle in the Arab world.

The current divisions are not a challenge to the West, but an internal response to the social, religious and economic challenges facing the Middle East, whose oil wealth has hardly reached the half of the Middle East’s population who are under the age of 25, educated but jobless.

Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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