When it comes to terrorism, US foreign policy, US military operations, the true nature of Islam and the extent of Islamic radicalization, there are no shortages of opinions. As a survivor of the 9/11 attacks and a former US soldier, I certainly had my own. But when it came to discussing Islam intelligently, I had more questions than answers. Frustratingly, most interviews I’ve read or seen were apologias for Islam; of course, a few were reflexively anti-Islamic shoutfests.
So it was with an eye towards conducting a challenging, clarifying conversation that I asked Sayed and Deen, two Muslim-American veterans, to sit down and talk with me. We bonded quickly, the way soldiers do, over jokes, bullshit and some shared bitching. I was impressed with their thoughtfulness and their passion. But our goal was understanding, not agreement. I found, in their answers, cause for both optimism and concern. This interview is hardly the final answer on many of these subjects — we spoke for three hours and we could have spoken for twelve. But hopefully, over the course of this nine-part interview, we’ve managed to shed a little more light than heat on a range of subjects that sorely need it.
— Christopher Paul Meyer
CPM: Do me a favor, guys. Rank the following in terms of the threat each poses just to Islam itself — let’s forget geopolitical considerations for the time being — Saudi Arabia, Wahhabist terrorists and Iran.
Deen: You can do the first two as one.
CPM: Really? Aren’t the Wahhabists a reaction — an overcorrection, if you will — to the monarchy? I’ve always heard it described that Wahhabist terrorists essentially extort money from the Saudi government so they will take their cause abroad and not stir up as much trouble in the Saudi street.
Deen: To a degree that’s true. If you look at the UAE and what they did with their standing mercenary group, with Erik Prince going down there, with like 18,000 mercs, their core concern was “no Muslims,” so the mercs are all Colombian or whatever.
CPM: So, if you take ISIS and al-Qaeda as one tentpole of Sunni extremism — do you think they’re aligned with the Saudi monarchy or do you think they’re planning insurrection against the Saudis?
Deen: They’re probably using them in some instances to gain money, to do things…
Sayed: …but eventually the training wheels come off.
Deen: ISIS doesn’t really need Saudi Arabian money anymore…
Sayed: …that’s what I was going to say.
CPM: OK, let me try out a hypothetical. Let’s say Bible Belt Christians began launching attacks across the globe, beheading people, terrorizing non-believers and violently enforcing rules that had been perverted from Christianity.
And people see me go to church and get nervous because I’m Christian too. If I feel like I’m being profiled and alienated in my own country, I’d be pissed.
Now, maybe I’d be a little ticked at my country for turning its back on me or maybe I’d be unhappy with, hypothetically, let’s say, the British monarchy for being bad stewards of Episcopalian Christianity, but mostly, I’d be pissed at the Christian terrorists that were giving me a bad name and making my neighbors afraid of me.
It’s fascinating to me that you guys don’t seem as bothered by, say, Daesh — which is really the cause of most American fears about Islam — as you are about Saudi Arabia which most Americans don’t care about.
I’m wondering why you guys aren’t more pissed off, like, “Man, you guys in Daesh are really screwing up Islam for the rest of us?”
Sayed: Tomorrow, we could gather a battalion of Muslim soldiers and airmen and everything from Canada, the US and England, and we could go eradicate Daesh, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram — overnight we could do it.
The problem is, it will come back. It’s like that toxic mold, unless you pull off the drywall and vent the entire thing, you’re not going to have anything done, because who is that “toxic mold,” who is that source behind the drywall? That’s Saudi Arabia or the monarchy.
If I start speaking up against the Saudis, or if I become a big thorn in their side, something will happen to me here. They have so much influence in the West. I’m not saying I’m going to sleep with the fishes, but maybe I won’t be able to travel, maybe I’ll be put on a list, maybe I’ll…
CPM: …I think a lot of Americans would wonder — if it was really that easy for Western Muslims to eliminate that many bad guys — why not just go do it? Once the “superficial” issue of Daesh or Boko Haram is settled, I don’t think the world have any issues letting Islam sort out whatever internal or theological problems it has with Saudi Arabia.
Deen: The problem is how do they go about doing that without being on the no-fly list, sitting in Guantanamo or being arrested?
CPM: I know many others Westerners have already gone on their own to fight ISIS in Syria. If a Muslim country like Indonesia says, “Hey, we’re being negatively affected by being lumped in with ISIS,” or if American Muslims say, “Hey, this is making us look bad, man — people are looking at us with crossed eyes when we’ve got nothing to do with ISIS,” shouldn’t there be action to unite and stop terrorism?
Deen: The problem is, Indonesia’s going to be like, “Look, we have our own damn issues, we don’t really want to make this worse then we can make it.” The problem is, no country wants to be another Libya or Syria or Iraq.
Even Turkey, prior to us using some of their bases and stuff like that to bomb ISIS, really wasn’t into that fight. They had the attitude of, “Don’t mess with us and we won’t mess with you.”
I’m not condoning what they did — I’m not saying it’s right or wrong — but once they started cooperating, letting us use some of their bases to launch a few airstrikes, what started happening? They’ve had to deal with a wave of attacks and they’ve got so many bad guys coming in and out of the their porous borders. So what they did for us is hurting them.
CPM: Then isn’t ISIS the more clear-and-present, front-burner threat than, say, Saudi Arabia?
Sayed: Muslims are standing up to ISIS, but they’re also being killed. The majority of the Muslims who want to go and fight Daesh and fight al-Qaeda, they’re also the ones calling for democracy in the Middle East — even the overthrow of the King. These authoritarian governments have them in prison or on watch lists, controlling them.
So, for many Muslims, they think, “Yeah you want me to go fight Daesh, but I got another terrorist in my country who happens to be the president and he oppresses our rights, so let me concentrate on my home front and the threat that’s at home before I focus on the threat in Syria, which is a couple of countries away.”
Look at Yemen, which was not religious at all. Yemen had a large Shiite population, but they were thinking about bringing back the King. Elements of that royal family leaned towards the moderate side and would have gone in a different direction than the Saudi monarchy — more of a British-style monarchy.
The problem is that a lot of Yemenis have duel nationality as Saudis. If they were to create a new monarchy, if they changed their government to be seen as a little bit more democratic, that could leak into Saudi Arabia and the Saudis see that as a threat.
Saudi Arabia sold the war in Yemen as Sunnis versus Shiite. Iran and the West ran with that. Now, with the human rights violations in Yemen, the Saudis are giving Daesh a run for their money.
Deen: If you look at Egypt when Mubarak was overthrown, they had an election and the Muslim Brotherhood won. Not a great thing, but that was what the people wanted. Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s an elected government.
Since we didn’t like the outcome, we backed al-Sisi while he basically staged a coup. So now, Egypt has an army dictator again. What’s the stability going to be like in that area?
All I’m saying is, all these groups — these radical groups — are despicable, they do bad things, we shouldn’t support them, but they’re a byproduct of their environment.
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