Want to understand Islamic extremism? The answer isn’t in Islam — it’s in the Cold War.
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 signaled a commitment to nationalism — not subservience to the Soviet Union.
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 channeled 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.