*This commentary was originally published as “Transatlantic Take” by The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Editor’s Note: Adnan Kifayat is a senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and has held senior positions in public service, including at the White House, State Department, and Treasury Department. He most recently served as Secretary of State John Kerry’s acting special representative to Muslim communities. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer
WASHINGTON—Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama doubled his country’s troop and financial commitment to fight the Islamic State group (ISIS). Given the security threat ISIS represents to the region, further strengthening the U.S.-led military coalition is both important and necessary. But the transatlantic community cannot stop there. The Obama administration must build and lead a political coalition to focus seriously on defeating the spread of extremism in the Middle East. Now is the time to stand up and fight for the future of multi-state societies in the Middle East — societies that are open, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-faith.
Violent extremist groups like ISIS swell their ranks by peddling a vision of the future built on sectarianism and intolerance — the belief that diversity should be feared and people of different backgrounds and beliefs cannot live together peacefully. Their dystopia is bent on annihilating any minority in their midst, ethnic or ideological. They cloak acts of mass murder in the garb of religious self-righteousness, presenting an us-versus-them narrative that justifies not only ridding the Middle East of Christians, Jews, and Muslims they do not agree with, but calling on disconnected minorities in Europe and the United States to rally as foreign fighters in their bloody quest.
These groups are legion and all too willing to use violence and thuggery to intimidate and silence those who favor a pluralistic multi-state future. Over the past year alone, militias allied to extremist parties have killed opposition leaders in Tunisia and Libya, torched political offices in Egypt, and killed judges and police in Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen. Their murder of children in markets, and bombings of cafes sow mayhem and fear. They bully into town squares, grab megaphones, and distribute hateful propaganda. They presume to identify religious, social, and ethnic minorities as second-class communities.
Fighting for the multi-state requires protecting the rights and freedoms of everyone in society and being inclusive of all communities — no matter their faith, ethnicity, or social or political views. Majority rule does not mean trampling on minorities, but requires leaders to encourage open dialogue through a free and active press and equal access to information. In the transatlantic community, leaders across political lines agreed long ago that while their politics may collide, their societies would remain open and free. Today, political leaders in the Middle East stand at a juncture: they must publicly support the multi-state because any exemptions will fuel the extremists’ notion that the Middle East belongs to only some — and not all — of its inhabitants.
Demands for separate ethnic states and autonomous regions grow louder because leaders do not stand up to fight for open and pluralistic societies. The recent victory in Tunisia of Nidaa Tounes demonstrates the power of the multi-state to overcome the narrow interests of the Ennahda Movement. Yet, violence from Libya’s dueling parliaments underscores the need for leaders to elevate politics above sectarianism. Upcoming elections in Yemen, Jordan, and Egypt will also be important opportunities for leaders to fight for the multi-state and stand up to those peddling intolerance and hatred. The transatlantic community has a role to play, along with progressive allies like Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan.
As the heady days of Arab Spring fade farther into the past, the public demands for freedom and the pluralistic multi-state that filled Tahrir Square, Avenue Bourguiba, and Sana’a grow fainter. In September, at the UN General Assembly, Obama said, “we have not confronted forcefully enough the intolerance, sectarianism, and hopelessness that feed violent extremism in too many parts of the globe.” This is true — nor has the transatlantic community provided the kinds of political and financial resources needed to help those fighting for the multi-state. Too often, the international community is content to stand by as extremists take center stage, grab headlines, and influence elections — convincing itself that they are indeed the peoples’ voice. When thousands of Libyans protested in Tripoli, calling for an end to sectarian fighting — as has occurred twice just this year — the West barely took notice, much less provided support.
Eight years ago, as the voices for change were gathering momentum, Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush challenged leaders at the United Nations. “The nations gathered in this chamber must make a choice,” he said. “Will we support the moderates and reformers who are working for change across the Middle East, or will we yield the future to the terrorists and extremists?”
Obama’s call to action at the U.N. this year is no different and even more timely. The transatlantic community must pursue a clear strategy that not only defeats ISIS, but presents a vision for the future based on inclusiveness, pluralism, and openness. The future of the multi-state deserves nothing less.