The predominant analysis of the ’Afghan-Pakistani’ region has gone well beyond its expiry date and that old paradigms cannot be used to gauge new realities, according to Mr. Kamran Bokhari, Vice President of Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs at Stratfor, a leading geopolitical and intelligence consulting firm based in Austin, Texas.
Delivering a talk on ’ISIS and the emerging patterns in West Asia’ at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi on March 3, Mr Bokhari highlighted the emerging concerns in the ’Afghan-Pakistani’ area which may be exacerbated after the imminent U.S. withdrawal from the region, as well as due to the growing Baloch extremism.Mr. Bokhari asserted that Islamabad is under-appreciated for its new bold stance against extremist militants. He claimed that the region is in transition and the changing geo-political realities will have new implications.
However, in his view, Kabul has shown early signs of political maturity and Taliban will not be able to overtake the state again. Mr. Bokhari left the discussion open-ended regarding India’s role in the region.Mr. Bokhari began by stating that the Islamic State cannot be understood without being located in context. Observing that there is a tendency to divorce emerging threats from their context, he stressed on the importance of studying the underlined dynamics of religion, politics and extremism in order to understand the emerging threats.
Mr. Bokhari then listed out a multiplicity of dynamics, in no hierarchy of importance they are — Geo-Sectarianism, Political Islam, Democratization and State Meltdown, Evolving Salafism, Turkish Resurgence, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and developments in the Afghan-Pakistani area.Elaborating on the term ’Geo-Sectarianism’, Mr. Bokhari said that, it is basically the Sunni-Shiite- rivalry which he feels has grown to levels not seen since the emergence of the nation-state era. ’Political Islam,’ according to the speaker, has been around since the 1920s in various forms. The Islamic State is the latest manifestation of it. He highlighted the terminology chaos that the Islam is presently facing. In order to describe the fragmentations, the speaker created four sub-categories namely: ’Acceptor Islamists’- those who engage both state and society; ’Propagandist Islamists’- those who reject the state but engage in society; ’Insurrectionist Islamists’- those who reject both state and society; and ’Salafists’- they are apolitical and are more concerned with piety.
Mr. Bokhari further stated that ’Acceptor Islamists’ made the largest numbers of Islamists. However, they get overshadowed by the more vocal and violent groups. He categorised the ISIS as a manifestation of ’Insurrectionist Islamists’ – the second largest form – those who reject both state and society. He asserted that the world is witnessing the emergence of Islamic fragmentations and it is crucial to recognize them and differentiate between them.
Emphasising on the political turmoil in Middle-Eastern countries like Egypt, Mr. Bokahri described the phenomenon of ’Democratization and State Meltdown.’ He claimed that the phenomenon involves two dynamics: a push from below – a growing public outcry for justice, lack of economic opportunity, weakening faith in the rule of law and other aspects of initial democratization process; the other dynamic is the impact created by the democratization process. He further gave examples of Syria, Yemen and Egypt to demonstrate the various stages of breakdown of the state.
Regarding ’Evolving Salafism,’ the speaker noted that this group used to be and still is, to an extent, quiet and apolitical. However, ’Jihadist Salafism’ or ’Salafi jihadism’ is a new emerging phenomenon. Mr. Bokhari then spoke about ’Turkish Resurgence’ stating that Turkey is a powerful actor that can play a significant role in the region but hasn’t done so yet because of certain constraints. Throwing light on future possibilities, he noted that “if Turks have to achieve their goals in the Arab world, Syria has to open up to them.”
Speaking briefly on the topic of ’Israel Palestinian conflict,’ Mr Bokhari noted that both Hamas and Fatah are rival fragmentations in the Palestinian region. They not only have to deal with complexities of maintaining their territories in face of Israeli threats, but also threats from each other. The talk was followed by a thought provoking question and answer round. The audience posed questions regarding the Muslim Brotherhood’s future in the middle-east region. Mr. Bokhari established that post-Egypt, the Brotherhood has to introspect and evolve to maintain legitimacy in the region. He also differentiated between differences in the Brotherhood’s influence in different countries. For instance, Jordanian Brotherhood is close to the monarch and the Brotherhood in Bahrain and Kuwait are pro-regime.
In further answers, it was established that long-term stability cannot be achieved without secularism. Although, the case of Tunisia demonstrates a glimmer of hope, in Mr. Bokhari’s view, coordination between secularists and Islamists is tough to achieve. He said that the best case scenario would involve disarming the jihadists. Answering questions about ISIS and its social media outreach, Mr. Bokhari stated that psychological warfare through social media can only go so far. ISIS requires people on the ground to wage an actual war and recruitment is not that easy. On the topic of ISIS’s role in South Asia, he noted that it is unlikely that the militant group short on monetary resources will invest in recruiting people from India to fight the war in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, we live in a world with competing jihadists and the South Asian market is already saturated with several competing militant outfits. Moreover, he claimed that the nature of Indian republic, the thrust on secularism and cultural differences make it an unlikely breeding ground for ISIS.
Earlier while welcoming the speaker, Mr. Manoj Joshi, Distinguished fellow, ORF, noted that the political turmoil in some countries of the Middle-Eastern and South-Asian regions is leading to an unprecedented mutation of violent extremism. He drew attention in particular to the worrying rise of the Islamic State and encouraged discussion on understanding their rationale as well as possible strategies to limit their influence.
(This report is prepared by Vidisha Mishra, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
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