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Corruption fuels religious extremism

Mary Boland

We in the U.S. suffer from a misguided view that the way to fight anything we dislike — crime, drugs, terrorism — is to declare war on it and use either police or military force against it. At the same time, we almost totally ignore the underlying political and economic causes of these diseases.

In the case of all three — crime, drugs and terrorism — lack of opportunity and a lack of a sense of fully belonging to a just society leads to the kind of despair and hopelessness that causes people, young people especially, to turn to these desperate escapes.

In February I wrote about the fact that U.S. meddling in the internal affairs of foreign states, in violation of all international law, as well as U.S. support of Israel despite their crimes against Palestinians, has been a main fuel of terrorism. But a new book by Sarah Chayes brings further to light another underlying cause of terrorism, namely corruption.

Ms. Chayes began her career in international relations as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, continued as an Arabic-speaking foreign correspondent for NPR, then spent over a decade in Afghanistan working for the U.S. government and as a private entrepreneur trying to provide decent employment. She then returned to Washington as a special assistant to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She is now with the Carnegie Endowment.

Her book is titled, "Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security." Her book details her personal experience with corruption and her research of the subject across North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.

She convincingly argues that the infamous corruption of the Nigerian government has fueled Boko Haram, as the argument gains ground that the only way to have honest government is to resort to a strict religious regime.

She demonstrates that the corruption of North African governments, from Tunisia to Egypt, was the primary cause of the Arab Spring. The people finally determined to end "the visible, daily contrast between ordinary people's privations and the ostentatious display of the lavish wealth corruptly siphoned off by ruling cliques" from public resources.

Obviously if the Arab Spring revolts fail to result in more just societies that provide equal opportunity and enjoyment of public resources, more and more people will turn to the belief that only religious extremism can provide relief from corruption.

Ms. Chayes also points out something we have all but forgotten. Even the Protestant Reformation in Europe was largely, if not primarily, a revolution against the kleptocracy and corruption of the Catholic Church with its sale of indulgences, ecclesiastical posts etc., etc. And the Christian Puritans, like the Taliban, opposed all drinking, dancing and festivities.

As she puts it: "In periods of acute, self-serving behavior on the part of public leaders, Christians and Muslims alike have often sought a correction in strict codes of personal behavior derived from the precepts of puritanical religion. And they have imposed it, if necessary, by force …"

Ms. Chayes presents fascinating detail about Afghanistan, where she labored mightily in various U. S. government positions to convince her colleagues and superiors that the corruption of the Karzai regime had to be tackled before religious extremism could be curtailed.

She finally succeeded to an extent when Gen. David Petraeus took charge.

Petraeus had already labeled the Karzai government as a "criminal syndicate" whose main purpose was to siphon off riches for personal gain.

But the efforts to attack this corruption under Petraeus' auspices were thwarted by the Karzai regime and the backing down of top U.S. officials in the face of Karzai's resistance. And no American official with real clout stepped in to protect exposed Afghan professionals the U.S. had coaxed into battling the Karzai clique's corruption.

For most Afghans, the passivity of the U.S. meant U.S. complicity in this corruption. In fact, the CIA was paying Karzai millions of dollars in cash every year as well as paying other members of his clique, thus knowingly abetting the corruption.

The truth is that at the highest levels the U.S. government believed it simply could not fight the Karzai regime and the Taliban and al-Qaeda at the same time. Which might well be true.

And that truth just points to the inescapable fact that we cannot police the world — we can only bankrupt ourselves trying to do so. What we could and should do is focus on the degree to which the capture of our own government by the wealthy is just so much corruption and kleptocracy. Unchecked, this will end with our becoming another failed state.

The best thing we could do for the world is to demonstrate that religious tolerance and democracy can provide a just society. We are not doing that now.

Mary Boland's column appears on the third Saturday of each month. She is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother and a longtime resident of Carbondale.