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Opinion: Tolerating Extremism Always Backfires | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A member of the Iraqi security force stands at the site of a bomb attack in Ramadi April 16, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

The only argument that I have heard in response to what I wrote recently about the dangers of extremism—which is still spreading—is to ask why we should seek to contain extremists in our community while there are extremists of all nationalities and religious doctrines out there.

Some were even more insistent when discussing this issue with me. They told me that suppressing Sunni extremism would help countries like Iran—which is supporting its own brand of Shi’ite extremism everywhere.

First, this whole notion is wrong because extremism is most dangerous to the community that creates and hosts it. Second, those who believe it is inevitable that there will always be extremists around and that is safer to accept this state of affairs lest the extremists turn on them—or those who say that maybe it is better to employ extremists the way Iran and the Syrian regime have—will find out the true cost only later, when it is too late. We paid a heavy price in the past when we tried to co-opt the monster of rampant extremism: We got burned in Afghanistan.

What about the theory of using extremists against each other?

Over the past 30 years we have witnessed different experiences in dealing with terrorist groups that committed violent acts in the name of religion. In the early 1980s these groups were Shi’ite—namely Hezbollah—and instigated political violence in the name of defending Islam and resisting the Zionist enemy. They were all in fact part of a project seeking to export Khomeini’s Iranian revolution to the rest of the Muslim world. Then events in Afghanistan came along and Sunni extremists emerged as the mujahideen.

It is worth mentioning that many of those involved arrived after the evacuation of Soviet troops. The only people they killed there were other Muslims.

Much of this wave of Sunni extremism did not fade away after Afghanistan, and is still directed against Sunni communities in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, which have been targeted by Sunni terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and its affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al-Nusra Front, and Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis.

Sunni extremism often targets Sunni communities, and not Shi’ite ones—unlike Shi’ite extremist organizations which rarely attack their own institutions, communities and peoples. The reason is that extremist organizations like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq are linked to governments and abide by their restrictions. It is impossible to do the same in Sunni communities because terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda are against governments and seek their overthrow.

Therefore, the call to accept these groups under the pretext that the region is bursting with extremism and terrorism led by other communities is a misguided argument invented by extremists, who will ultimately turn on the society and country they live in.

Shi’ite extremists are operating under what amounts to a temporary truce, and will go in the same direction as the Sunnis because their terrorist factions—such as the ones growing in Iraq—will eventually start fighting each other and seek to control the Shi’ite community. Many Shi’ite extremist groups are already raising their voices and threatening Shi’ites who disagree with them.

As for the argument that it is unwise to restrain Sunni extremism so long as Iran and its affiliates are not restraining its Shi’ite counterparts, the results provide an appropriate response here: Most Sunni extremists have attacked their own countries and communities, despite their hatred for other communities and religions. More than 90 percent of terrorist operations by Sunni groups are directed against Sunni communities in seven countries that have witnessed acts of violence to varying degrees.

In the end, meddling with and twisting religious doctrines—while others stand idly by not doing anything about it—has proven to be the most dangerous of all weapons, as it often has a “boomerang effect” that rebounds on the society that has tolerated it.