Our current state of fear and instability is in part founded on the very technologies once touted as bringing peoples together, writes Azmi Ashour*
There is a lot in common between Afghanistan of the 1980s and Iraq of the opening years of this century. Afghanistan was a holy war, with the Soviets deemed ungodly occupiers. Afghanistan was a rallying cry for the Arab and Muslim world. Back then, the young needed a cause, and the tide of Nasserism was ebbing. Afghanistan became a magnet for the young who saw themselves as religious worriers rather than what they really were: pawns in an international power game.
The same thing is happening in Iraq today. A land is occupied, and the occupier is a superpower. Once again, religious sentiments are being rallied to the cause. Once again, there is glory to be made and heaven to be reached towards. Just as the Soviets were called ungodly in Afghanistan, the Americans are being portrayed as infidels in today's Iraq. Droves of would-be jihadists are drawn to the scene like moths to the flame, and the repercussions are uncannily similar.
Afghanistan gave us a generation of jihadists, the ones that were later dubbed the Arab Afghans. Many were young men who made a career fighting in Afghanistan and later on returned to their countries to do what they did best. The Arab Afghans turned against their own societies, launching one murderous wave of terror after another. Interestingly, the terror they launched gave the US reason to wage war again in this region. The US used the very demons it created to further its political goals. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans fought against former friends; people that it had sponsored at one time in the past. The Arabs who fought in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein and his men, all had worked for the Americans or at least cooperated closely with them. The US used them first as pawns then as target practice.
As facts became twisted, the image of our region was reinvented and ultimately distorted. The very people who fomented fanaticism in our midst blamed us for it. After 9/11, the international scene shifted, and the power games became more diffused, more tenuous. Individuals and illegitimate organisations surged in importance, and were often able to challenge the power of the state. All they needed to do was blow up something or slaughter enough people. Once they did enough damage, the media turned them into major players.
There has been mayhem in earlier wars, but never so widely publicised. The tremendous achievements of modern communication technologies have combined with the ruthlessness of extremists to give the world a new taste of horror. Anyone in a position to inflict some damage on the Americans became a hero. That was when fanaticism became more rewarding than enlightenment. That was where fanaticism had the edge.
* The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Dimoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.