Western Imperialism’s Role in the Rise of Religious Fundamentalism

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The citizens of the globe today are gripped by terror at a rising threat. This threat poses danger to the lives and safety of people of all nations, and it is rapidly expanding. Lives across the globe have been lost. Tensions soar, horror is sparked, and grief overwhelms the world. This threat is religious fundamentalism, executed in the horrifying forms of terrorism, bitter prejudice, homophobia, sexism, and rampant violence.
Terror attacks, propelled by fundamentalist ideologies, have occurred across the globe—from Paris, to Brussels, to Baghdad, to Dhaka. Motivated by hate and fueled by fear, such attacks dominate the world headlines and seize the attention of the global media. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has expanded rapidly and claimed power, land, and lives along the way—now emerging as one of the most intimidating threats to worldwide safety, peace, and well-being. The Taliban, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and other prominent jihadist forces are fed by a common ideology—a twisted, prejudiced, xenophobic, violent, baseless worldview that invigorates them as they perpetrate brutal killings.
In order to accurately grasp the roots of such barbarism, we must take a close look at how religious fundamentalism spread. Surprisingly, the extremism that we see so commonly today was quite rare before the mid-1900s. What changed? What fueled the rapid and unprecedented rise of religious fervor in the second half of the 20th century? Here’s the more startling surprise—the domination of jihadist forces can actually be traced back to whom we see as their biggest enemy: the Western world. The United States and Great Britain, to be precise.
This may seem counter-intuitive and unexpected. (It did to me!) But a close investigation of the facts reveal just how much Western influence contributed to the rise of religious fundamentalism and Islamist terrorism. The dominant ideology here is imperialism—the process of establishing national power over a colony through force. Western imperialism, conducted by the US and UK, led to a fanatic government being installed in Iran in 1979. The US’s “Operation Cyclone”, performed from 1979 to 1989 to overthrow Soviet forces in Afghanistan, directly established the powerful group that would later become Al-Qaeda. The invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 is what gave rise to the insurgents that would evolve into ISIS and the Taliban.
These are just a handful of examples of how Western influence nourished the development of fundamentalist forces. Let’s look at this in detail.
Operation Cyclone
This is the most prominent and eyebrow-raising case of Western imperialism leading to Islamic fanaticism. “Operation Cyclone” is a project by the CIA that lasted from 1979 to 1989, during the Cold War between USA and the Soviet Union. American officials used this operation to help overthrow the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Although the operation was successful, it inadvertently led to the rise of Al-Qaeda—the same fundamentalist organization that would later conduct 9/11, the worst case of terrorism on American soil.
Here is what happened. The USSR (Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic), also known simply as the Soviet Union, attempted to colonize Afghanistan in 1979. However, the Soviet troops were resisted by the mujahideen rebels of Afghanistan, who despised the idea of a Western government. The United States, seeing an opportunity to weaken its Cold War rival, launched Operation Cyclone. This operation funded the mujahideen rebels, providing financial support as well as weapons. The US supplied almost $4 billion dollars to the mujahideen.
In 1989, the operation was successful. The mujahideen rebels were victorious. The Soviet forces withdrew and departed from Afghanistan. The US celebrated the defeat of its Cold War enemy, praising the mujahideen as “freedom fighters” and heroes. But one man, a leader of the mujahideen, was not satisfied. That man would not rest until all Western powers were removed from the Middle East, including American forces. That man continued fighting and gathering armies, even after defeating the Soviets. That man would later devastate the same country that had provided billions of dollars for him. That man’s name was Osama Bin Laden.
Bin Laden organized a powerhouse known today as Al-Qaeda. His mission: to eliminate “Western” and “secular” powers from Islamic lands. While he and his fundamentalist crew gained strength, territory, and troops, another similar force emerged in Afghanistan—the Taliban. This, too, was a result of USA’s operation—the departure of Soviet troops left a vacuum in the government, with no viable leaders or a functioning government. In this vacuum, a group known as the Taliban seized power, establishing an oppressive, theocratic leadership.
Operation Cyclone also led to a rise in fundamentalist ideology elsewhere. As the mujahideen rebels grew and expanded with the help of American funding, soldiers flocked from Saudi Arabia to assist the rebellion. These Saudi soldiers helped popularize the ideology of Wahhabism, an obscure and especially conservative sect of Islam.
Wahhabism is known for its violent treatment of atheists, homosexuals, women, and anyone it deems an “infidel.” It is the prevailing ideology in a number of Islamic nations, including Saudi Arabia. This ultra-conservative worldview has helped establish oppressive laws pertaining to gender, sexuality, freedom of speech, and freedom of belief. Nonbelievers are continually punished and bashed under Wahhabi legislation. Such legislation also promotes a prejudiced view of women and LGBT citizens.
Interfering in Iran and Iraq
Both Iran and Iraq have suffered Western imperialism. The US and UK manipulated the political elections in Iran for economic benefit, unknowingly leading the way for an oppressive Islamist regime that would be established as an indirect result of their actions. In Iraq, former US President George Bush launched an invasion that would result in horrid political instability, leading to the chaos and turmoil that would result in ISIS easily seizing power.
USA and UK’s interest in Iran comes from the nation’s oil supply. Until the 1950s, Britain controlled Iran’s oil sector, using it for its own economic benefit. However, in 1951, the National Iranian Oil Company was established, forcing Britain (and other foreign nations) to lose its control on Iran’s oil. Enraged, the US and UK conducted a coup to overthrow the current government. The Western nations then helped establish a new government, headed by Shah Reza Pahlavi, that would allow Britain and other nations to access Iranian oil.
However, the Iranian people were not impressed by the new ruler. They suffered in poverty while foreign workers used up their oil and occupied jobs. The new ruler also used military aid and a “secret police” that brutally assaulted and oppressed the citizens of Iran. During this time, Islamic fundamentalists rallied the Iranian people against the West, pointing out how America and Britain’s imperialism devastated Iran’s citizens. Iranian support for extremists expanded considerably, until a fundamentalist party headed by Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the previous government in 1979. This began decades of a brutal, oppressive, prejudiced, and deeply intolerant Islamist government that is active to this day. The Iranian population’s resentment for the West for its interference also strengthened Iran’s support for the Hezbollah, a fundamentalist gang in the region.
In 2003, still recovering from the horrific events of 9/11, the US government announced war on Iraq. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney glorified this invasion, claiming it was to “liberate” Iraq from terrorists (in reality, there were almost no terror activities in Iraq at that time at all). In fact, it was Western imperialism itself that allowed Islamist forces to overtake Iraq. The US’s invasion destabilized Iraqi society, costing lives and stripping people of safety and rights. In the midst of this political chaos, it was easy for extremist forces such as Al-Qaeda to seize control of the region in 2006. It was in the aftermath of this invasion that ISIS emerged as an independent faction of Al-Qaeda, quickly gaining power—especially during the Syrian civil war.

We normally tend to think of the Western world as symbols of democracy, freedom, peace, and justice. While the West is more socially developed in terms of a stable, progressive democratic government, the US and some of its allies must be held accountable for its actions that have directly contributed to the rise of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other forces that promote hate and violence.
The consumerist, profit-driven ideology of the West has destabilized entire regions. Imperialism at its worst—a toxic thirst for more territory and power—has proven to be the driving force for the ascent of terror groups in the West. Lives have been lost, and the blood is on the wretched hands of fundamentalism. In their vain pursuit of economic gain, the West allowed for fundamentalism to gain the upper hand in the Middle East.
As a world whose aim is a progressive, peaceful democracy, we must unite and collaborate in order to realize this vision. There is no room for imperialistic ideologies or competition in this pursuit. A stabilized 2017 demands collective cooperation and focused efforts, not conceited missions for political or economic gain. It is time for the West to staunchly repudiate its imperialist tendencies and prioritize global safety over nationalistic gain.


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