The Olympic Games have never been just about the Games. The Olympic Games have also been a venue where political and ideological dramas take the stage. From Jesse Owens’s dismantling of Hitler’s Aryan supremacy in Berlin in 1936 to 1980’s Miracle On Ice at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY and President Carter’s boycott of the Moscow Olympics in protest of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, current affairs have always been the invisible sixth ring of the Olympics. South Africa was even excluded from the Games for its apartheid policies.
As cameras are turned on Sochi, just outside the village lies a convergence of many issues driving domestic and international conflict. In recent weeks much attention has been focused on the militant Islamist threat. While it may seem strange to mix sport with Islamist extremism, we must remember that it was the Summer Games in Munich in 1972 that woke many to the reality of terrorism.
Initial reports focused on the threat from the so called “Black Widows”- widows of militant Islamists who, radicalized themselves, pledge to wage suicide attacks. But the threat is far wider. While the media may see the “Black Widows” as fascinating TV, there has been far less attention paid to a man known as Russia’s very own Osama bin Laden, Doku Umarov.
Last year, Umarov released a video explicitly calling for jihadi attacks against the Olympic Games, calling them “satanic dances upon the bones of our ancestors”. Just last month, a separatist Islamist group executed suicide attacks on Volgograd’s transit system, killing 34 just 400 miles from the Olympic Village. These cases are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Russia’s Islamist problem. The Caucuses region and specifically Chechnya is teeming with radical Islamists, their numbers are growing exponentially thanks to gulf petrodollars and the fascist, repressive approach of Russia’s security forces, which have only served to alienate much of their Muslim populations.
As usual, little attention has been paid to root causes of these threats. This refusal to engage the root causes of terrorism is our greatest downfall. It is high time we addressed the fact that our indifference combined with Russian tyranny and regional ambition has created a perfect storm for jihadist recruitment from the caucuses to Syria and Iran and the gulf. With America and Europe essentially withdrawn from any forward advocacy of liberty in any Muslim majority states and populations, this has created a vacuum. For decades, we have relied on Arab dictators and Russian nationalists to crush militants, turning a blind eye to the undeniable fact that this actually helps to fuel Islamist ideology.
The Obama administration has sadly squandered opportunity after opportunity to advocate for genuine liberals in the wake of the Arab Awakening in the Middle East. The millions in the Arab world who rose against their dictators have been left to fend for themselves while the free world takes a pass. Liberals seeking real reform are not blind to the fact that tyrants like Assad are still around because they are propped up by their fellow autocrats in Russia, Iran, or China. In response, our commander-in-chief has led the free world through repeated exercises in hand wringing that has left our best allies for dead.
In Cold War 2.0, we have seen the bizarre re-ascension of Russian influence in the region. A country beleaguered by its post-Soviet failings has capitalized on American passivity to resurrect its own regional aspirations economically and politically with complete disregard for human rights and liberty. Vladamir Putin has openly supported the genocidal Baathist Syrian regime of Bashar Assad maintaining their naval base in Tartus and continuing the almost two generation symbiotic friendship with Syria’s ruling fascist military party. Similarly Putin has also tightened economic and political ties in support of Iran’s regional ambitions and nuclear advancement.
Domestically, Russia has long been a leading violator of international standards of religious freedom repressing most faith traditions except the one denomination of Christianity which works closely with the Kremlin- the Russian Orthodox Church. In countering Islamist radicalism their repressive policies make no distinction between violent and non-violent ideologies. As a result separatist groups have flourished in the underground of Russia’s Muslim communities.
Syria is another example of how radical Islam’s greatest friend is sweeping repression. In the name of “counterterrorism”, Assad’s brutal policies, carpet bombing of opposition towns, and genocide campaign has only turned the Syria of today into the world’s largest breeding ground of Islamist jihadists. Assad and his father before him, both Alawite, considered to be a offshoot of Shia Islam, have brutally repressed opposition in the Sunni majority nation. This has turned what started off as a broad based Syrian Revolution against Ba’athism into now a deeply sectarian battle.
Many in the West have been content to just stay out of the fray in Syria and allow Shia extremists (specifically Hezbollah, backed by Iran) and Sunni extremists (Al Qaeda backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar) battle it out and destroy each other. This negligence is not a solution and in fact rather creates hardened, battle tested militant Islamists on both sides who have no love for either Russia or the West. Our absence of leadership with the grass roots freedom movements in Syria has allowed Assad to openly decimate the majority in Syria who asked for nothing more than freedom and now find themselves caught in the crossfire between radical jihadists and secular fascists. When Assad’s military is finally defeated, it may be impossible for America to regain any credibility as arbiters for liberty on the ground.
America holds the key to whether the Arab Awakening transforms into an Islamist winter or spring of liberty. It doesn’t have to cost one soldier’s life or anywhere near the billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan and Iraq. It requires that we first understand the sides at odds in the battle that is raging within the House of Islam.
Contrary to the media narrative and the conventional wisdom of the Beltway, there are more than two fronts. We must take the side of those that embrace the same ideological concepts that led to an American reformation – liberty, freedom and secular government. The majority of Muslims and certainly the majority of Syrians do not embrace the dead end of an Islamic state. They have been saddled with the binary choice of either secular dictators who hold their populace under their boots or theocratic extremists who do the same only in the name of God and Islam.
The spotlight on the security situation in and around Sochi gives us an opportunity to examine the threat and explore the pathways forward that may stem the tide of growth of Islamist extremism and build real opportunities for freedom for the peoples of the Middle East. Military options have been tried for over six decades and failed. We won’t win the greater battle for liberty until we engage on the ideological front and embrace the principles that we proclaim are meant for all humanity.