“The most beloved of places to God are the mosques, and the most hated places to God are the markets.” —Muhammad
For the millions of Muslims who reject the odious interpretation of Islam advanced by militants, the great dilemma has been how groups like ISIS or the Taliban were able to come to power at all. How is it possible that local populations in which both women and men had previously been free had come to support movements that would curtail their freedoms, dictate their spiritual practice, rob women of the rights of full personhood, and brutally punish those who don’t fall in line? What is the common thread to explain their ascendancy to power in otherwise failed states?
It was a conundrum that Aisha Ahmad decided to investigate. An assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, she spent more than ten years travelling through some of the world’s fiercest political terrain to unravel the complex networks that have helped bolster and eventually propel to power several key Islamist movements. She wanted to understand how these groups were able to successfully wrest away power from others engaged in deadly power struggles. It was not as though Afghans, Pakistanis, Somalis, or Syrians had suddenly been persuaded to embrace or even simply accept the religious doctrine as practised by groups like ISIS or the Islamic Courts Union. It certainly was not, as far too many Western authors have insisted, that the movements were supported because their austere forms of Islam resonated especially with the populations they targeted.
On the contrary, what Ahmad found was not a spiritual or intellectual reawakening. The rise of extremist Islamist groups was bound primarily to one hard reality: money. Ahmad’s journey took her into arms bazaars, seaports, government offices, the homes of warlords, and most importantly, black markets. She delved deep into these systems to understand the historical context in which marketplaces had flourished and struggled even as governments crumbled. The bulk of her book delves into two case studies: Afghanistan and Somalia. Ahmad had extraordinary access, built through previous stints at local universities. Through her meticulous research and a journalistic ability to weave a compelling narrative, she presents a vivid and thorough on-the-ground story of the business networks that keep extremist groups in power.
This was dangerous work, no less so because of the risk in speaking to opposing sides and factions, and the added challenge of being a woman asking highly sensitive questions in often patriarchal, war-weary societies. But, as a Muslim, Ahmad was able to pay close attention to the cultural sensitivities of each environment in which she immersed herself, drawing out information that would likely have been far more difficult for a complete foreigner to elicit.
What she discovered was that the Islamist groups whose names now strike fear and loathing in the hearts of pretty much everyone were able to do something others failed at doing: win over the business communities in their territories and regions. They did this by providing order where there previously was only chaos, by undercutting others who were trying to profit from the lawlessness, and by using Islamic identity to unite communities that were otherwise sharply divided along ethnic and tribal lines.
Ahmad talks about two critical processes that facilitate this rise. One is the ability of extremist Islamist groups to build the trust that is the only way to function in a lawless space; the second is their way of finding a cheaper cost of doing business. Both strategies have played a vital role in the global rise of the modern Islamist proto-state, she writes. “The need for trust drives the business class to embrace Islam, and its desire for lower costs thrusts it into the arms of Islamists. Out of this nexus…emerges the Islamist proto-state, which threatens the very nature of the international state system.”
Anyone who is not a foreign-policy expert or well-versed in Afghanistan’s recent, bloody history may sometimes get lost in Ahmad’s recounting of the country’s pre-Taliban past. But it is a valuable recounting and provides necessary context of how a brutal war with the Russians decimated the local economy, and how the business class had to find ways to keep doing business—often illegally. From there, we have the growth of the opium economy just as local businessmen begin to embrace an even more fervent Islamic identity, very much in vogue following the victory of the mujahedeen fighters against their Russian foes. The hypocrisy of selling opium with religiosity on full display is obvious, and Ahmad highlights one example of a drug lord who amassed a huge fortune selling heroin and yet managed to pass himself off as a generous benefactor to hospitals and poor families, “for the sake of God alone.” Ahmad describes one closed-door meeting of powerful businessmen in which the dealer’s colleagues—some of whom are not involved in the drug trade themselves—lay out his charitable works and defend him against rumours that he is involved in illicit activities. His philanthropy successfully “cleansed” his professional reputation.
Neighbouring Pakistan’s sympathies toward Islamist groups underscored the value of Islamist credentials in this landscape. Islamabad was holding the purse strings on behalf of the CIA during the Russian-Afghan war and took the view that those who exhibited religiosity could be trusted (not immediately waking up for dawn prayers raised suspicions that one was a mole). This alliance of fighters, businessmen, and the Pakistani government (with American backing) successfully brought about the humiliating defeat of the Russian army. And as fighters died on the battlefield and in the air, the Afghan business class made its own killing.
It was not only arms and drugs that fueled the booming black market. Everyday necessities including food, clothing, and construction materials were obviously in demand. A highly corrupt system provided all of this. But as history has shown, often violently, there is no guarantee of peace in the wake of a victory against an external enemy. Afghanistan, like other nations of diverse, multilingual tribes and communities, quickly descended into internecine fighting. In the 1990s, the country was further traumatized by the creation of bloody fiefdoms. The Taliban would soon unite a divided nation whose people were suffering deeply from constant killings and rapes, what Ahmad calls the “monstrous depravity of the civil war.” “As the ethnic violence spiraled out of control, the militias that once defended Afghanistan had now become its predators,” she writes.
The Taliban movement promised safety, unity, and order. Ahmad details its growing popularity, which takes on an almost mythical dimension, as tales—both true and apocryphal—of Taliban fighters saving Afghan girls from rapists and protecting vulnerable villagers spread throughout the country. But as the world now knows, the movement would go on to establish a powerful Islamist state that would impose a puritanical, deeply fundamentalist version of the religion. And if business helped the Taliban achieve power, it did not ultimately benefit from Taliban rule because it failed to see what was coming once the group assumed power—a common storyline in other countries where Islamic fundamentalist regimes take hold. The traders who initially financed the Taliban as a way to circumvent the high tariffs being charged across trade routes by different factions would come to deeply regret their choice. The Taliban cracked down on the drug trade and mounted an anti-corruption campaign that decimated the business community’s wealth. The decline in the black-market economy did not lead to a growth in legitimate business. And barring women from leaving their homes—a reaction, in part, to the horrific violence seen before the Taliban’s ascent—led to further economic stagnation.
Ahmad found that a parallel tragedy had been playing out in Somalia. In a similarly in-depth study of the country’s past, she traces a trajectory that led the business elite to build up their wealth and resources just as the entire country crumbled beneath the weight of civil war. Much in the same way that their counterparts did in Afghanistan in the 1990s, Islamists in Somalia would enter the scene as a potential unifier of opposing tribes, providing a centralizing force where there was none.
That business continued to grow was a testament to the fact that Somali bazaars became the largest trafficking operations in the Horn of Africa, notes Ahmad. While the civil war continued and militias brutally terrorized vast populations, and hundreds of thousands of people fled Mogadishu to save themselves, businessmen and women knew there was money to be made. (Somali businesswomen were a force in the local economies, an anomaly compared with other regions where Islamists operated.)
As in Afghanistan, business interests were at the time threatened by the numerous checkpoints set up by various warlords wanting a cut of the profits. Somali businesspeople began to compensate for this “trust deficit,” Ahmad writes, by leaning “more heavily on Islamic identity and institutions to facilitate economic activities between groups.” In the absence of a functional state, Islam provided a critical source of social capital that gave traders a measure of certainty, allowing them to develop business partnerships with other groups and gain access to profitable markets in Gulf States. “Religious piety,” Ahmad writes, “proved to be an effective way to profit within the political anarchy.”
Enter the Islamic Courts Union, a network of courts that blossomed into a full-fledged organization that for a time controlled Mogadishu. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan, this movement grew out of a revulsion for the lawlessness that threatened everyone’s safety, and for the ongoing economic instability. The Islamic Courts built trust with communities, as well as with the businessmen and smugglers, eventually receiving financial support from both groups. The unification of various Islamic Courts groups into a singular union occurred in 2006 and was initially seen as a positive development. Religiosity alone could not account for their success, writes Ahmad; it was the financial backing they were able to attract by lowering the cost of doing business across clan lines.
As Ahmad was undertaking the extensive research of the business-Islamist alliances in Afghanistan and Somalia, ISIS exploded onto the scene. She concludes her book by testing her finding on the situations now unfolding in the Middle East (Syria and Iraq), North and West Africa (Maghreb and Sahel region), and South Asia (Pakistan). For the most part, her thesis is reinforced in all of these cases, though the dominant al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has not fooled most Algerians, who see through the thinly disguised pursuit of wealth over any sincere religious devotion.
For those who shake their head in wonder at the grim political currents in far too many Muslim-majority countries, the link between Islamist movements and business interests is illuminating. It clearly lays out the interplay between failed states and the rise of groups who can create order out of disorder, whether along religious or other lines. It may also help to explain why other popular Islamist movements have failed. Ahmad has invested academic rigour in studying one of the most important security questions of our time. For governments, policy makers, researchers, and anyone else tasked with finding solutions to these seemingly intractable questions, this book provides critical direction.
An important and sadly obvious corollary is that foreign intervention by Western states, no matter how humanitarian the objective, all too often leads to failure. “What the policy community can do…” writes Ahmad. “is to learn the fundamental lesson from these failed engagements and stop repeating them.” Rather than rely on the instruments of war, Ahmad recommends an approach that relies on political solutions—diplomacy over drones.
“The time horizon for these wars is indefinite, and the costs in blood and treasure are astronomical,” concludes Ahmad. “In our desperate search for peace in the Muslim world, all parties must come to terms with their own helplessness. Without this necessary drop of humility, the prospects of a future détente and peace are bleak; there will be no victors, only victims.”