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Roots of terrorism explored in lecture

Ziad Munson does not mince words when it comes to identifying the roots of terrorism against the United States.

“The Islamic terrorism against Americans today traces its origins to events in Afghanistan, and much of it was created with the help of resources from the U.S.,” Munson, assistant professor of sociology, said in a recent lecture. “U.S. policymakers during the Cold War were interested in one and only one thing—winning the Cold War against the Soviet Union.”

Munson offered his views during a series of lectures that examined aspects of the book The Kite Runner, Lehigh’s 2005 Summer Reading Program book choice.

For more on the Summer Reading Program, read "Program helps prepare students for rigors of college"

College of Arts and Sciences faculty members who joined Munson in the early September lecture series were Rob Rozehnal, assistant professor of religion studies; Rajan Menon, the Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations; and Amardeep Singh, professor of world literature.

Munson’s lecture, titled “Lost Dreams and Lost Kites: The United States and the New Islam in Afghanistan,” focused on the historical context of Afghanistan that he felt was absent from
The Kite Runner, as well as the key role that the U.S. played in the unfolding of that country’s recent history.

The Cold War

In 1979, Munson explained, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. For 10 years, the Soviet Union spent nearly 45 billion dollars fighting a war against Afghan rebels. Unable to pacify the country, the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989.

“One of the principal reasons the Soviet Union was unable to pacify Afghanistan,” Munson said, “is that the U.S. provided aid, armaments and public support for Afghan rebels. U.S. policymakers did not consider what effects this support might have. They did not concern themselves with any issue other than winning the Cold War.”

It is this American support, he said, that helped to build the infrastructure that led Afghanistan to be the nucleus of international terrorism today.

This singular Cold War focus was intensified when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In response, the United States funded the opposition through both the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. State Department, which funneled money, resources and advice to the rebel fighters, often through the Pakistani Secret Service. These resources found their way into the hands of a small group of ideologically driven young people who were interested in seeing a revival of Islam in Afghanistan and throughout the world, Munson said.

Linking Islam to politics and violence

After the Soviet Union and the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, both countries left behind massive stockpiles of weapons that were claimed by ethnic warlords throughout the country and were used to exert control through military force. These weapons were critical in the de-evolution of authority in Afghanistan that eventually laid the groundwork for a Taliban takeover in the mid-1990’s, Munson said.

“In 1996,” he said, “Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Taliban, for the first time since the Soviet Union left, ended the reign of the warlords and unified much of Afghanistan under their central control.”

One fact Munson attributes to the rise of the Taliban—an Arabic word for student—is the number of madrassas (Islamic schools) that opened up in Pakistan along the Afghan border. These madrassas, created when the overwhelmed Pakistani government did not have enough schools to educate its own citizens, were opened by social entrepreneurs who began educating thousands upon thousands of students in a form of Islam that was unknown anywhere else in the world.

“Many of these madrassas,” Munson said, “began to teach ideas about linking Islam to politics and violence.”

The students from these madrassas, Munson said, were eventually brought together in Afghanistan with young Muslim men from around the world that the U.S. had encouraged to come to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.

“In the U.S. fight against the Soviet Union,” he said, “we as a country consciously funded Islamic militants in Afghanistan and we funded and transported radical young Muslims from around the world to come and fight in Afghanistan.”

This brought together thousands of young Islamic men who would have never otherwise met or known each other, fighting hand-in-hand to defeat a world superpower, Munson said. That networking created the nucleus of the international Islamic system of terrorism that exists today.

While lessons can be learned from this time period in U.S. history, Munson warns that the same pattern is repeating today in Iraq.

“The same process is occurring in Iraq today, where there is complete lack of control,” Munson said. “Young Islamic men have come to Iraq specifically to fight against the Americans. When these young men become old enough to take leadership positions, when they leave Iraq and go to places all over the world, they will create their own organizations and develop their own ideas. The Iraqi War will have given them the experiences and the social networks required to begin the cycle again.”

Added Munson: “As Afghanistan may have been the nucleus of Islamic terrorism today, the Iraq of today is becoming the nucleus of the terrorism that will take place 10 to 20 years from now.”

--Sarah Cooke

Posted on Wednesday, September 21, 2005

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