Saturday, December 02, 2006

Al-Qaeda Threat Overblown?

A question I have had for some time is how connected up the various militant Islamists elements are. A case can be made that in many places the incentives for insurgency are local and provincial, in which case the various militant groups, even if in some contact, have little reason to cooperate except in the most elementary sense. Authors like Robert Naylor (Satanic Purses) argue that in fact al-Qaeda is a small network of fairly informally connected militants; to him the West's fear of al-Qaeda, etc., is overblown.

At the same time there are indications that some of the groups cooperate. Claims that Al-Qaeda and Iran or Hizbullah are cooperating seem preposterous to me: Al-Qaeda is a Sunni movement that cannot tolerate any divergence from their view; Shi'a for them are anathema. But the recent news that Hezbollah has trained several hundred members of Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Lebanon is plausible. It is also likely - perhaps only too obvious -- that Iran has been supporting Iraq's Shi'a militants, including the Mahdi Army.

Even so, I wonder if the scale of the militant movement, lethal and vicious as it is, has not been overblown. Islam - or rather Islamic terms, Islam as a political ideology -- now seems to be the popular vehicle of anti-Western expression in the Middle East and South Asia - which means that we cannot take the movement as an authentic religious movement, a struggle over "higher values," so much as an authentic political expression of frustration.

In the end, this is what many specialists of this region have been saying all along, while the public in the West has not internalized it.

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