Published in E-IR on 14 March 2019
The ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis has become fashionably outdated but still shapes the way we understand the connection between Islam, terrorism and the Middle East. In 2019, it is time to ‘forget the Middle East’ and change the way we perceive Islam. Vera Mironova, in ‘The New Face of Terrorism’, claims that the way Westerners think about ‘Islamist terrorism has grown dangerously outdated’, and the terrorist attacks at Western targets have been increasingly coming from militants of the former Soviet Union, not the Middle East. Following on these insights, I argue that it is time not only to ‘forget the Middle East’ but also stop essentializing Islam in the Middle East.
For Mironova, the relative increase in anti-Western terrorist attacks emanating from the post-Soviet world is a result of several national, regional and international factors. On the one hand, with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), militants from Russian-speaking areas turned from domestic to regional concerns. “By 2017, at least 8,500 fighters from former Soviet republics had flocked to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State”. In early 2019, following its almost total defeat in Iraq and Syria, the ISIS has lost its power and lure for these militants. Many ISIS fighters and brides have surrendered and want to return to their countries of origins, as the stark example of Shamima Begum’s case shows in the UK. On the other hand, the growing numbers of prosecuted Muslims in Asia has created new grievances to turn the militants’ focus from domestic to transnational issues. However, this is not a surprising trend. A careful student of Middle Eastern politics could easily identify the link between regional and international terrorism. For example, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 had a direct impact on the following Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which eventually led to the rise of mujahedeen, and then the Taliban, that are seen as the epitome of Islamist terrorism that defined the last decade of the 20th century.