Inclusive Security for the Muslim World

Husain Haqqani | March 2016

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This article is from the “Women, peace, and inclusive security” edition of PRISM—a top defense and security studies journal—which was co-produced by Inclusive Security and the National Defense University. Read the full issue.

At 1.6 billion, Muslims comprise one-fifth of the world’s population. By 2050, that number is expected to rise to 2.76 billion. Sixty percent of the world’s Muslims fall between the ages of 15 and 59 years, with the median age being 24 years. 317 million of the world’s Muslims live in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) and 344 million in India and Pakistan. The security of the Middle East and South Asia is inextricably linked with Muslim views of self and the world.1

The Three Deficits

Muslim countries, however, have been late in embracing the notion of inclusive security, which was described by former U.S. ambassador to Austria, Swanee Hunt, as “not just political sovereignty and military strength, but also economic security, education, and personal safety.”2 In 2002, the first Arab Human Development Report identified three fundamental deficits that plague the Arab world: the freedom deficit, the women’s empowerment deficit, and the knowledge deficit.3 These deficits remain prevalent not only in the Arab world, but also in the greater Muslim world, and serve as impediments to inclusive security.

Of the 57 member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), only 4 countries are rated by Freedom House as “free;” 24 are rated “partly free” and 29 as “not free.”4 A number of these had or are still under authoritarian rule and have built extensive national security apparatuses. More resources are spent on defense than on social development, like education and health.

During the Cold War, massive amounts of military aid from western countries—including the United States—flowed in; but donors were seldom asked to invest in human security or development strategies that would improve social indicators and eliminate gender and other imbalances.

The OIC countries collectively account for approximately 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 7 percent of global output. The 23 Arab countries had a combined GDP of $1.9 trillion in 2010, compared with the European Union’s GDP of $17.5 trillion. Spain alone produced $1.43 trillion in GDP, without the benefit of natural resources, such as oil and gas.5 The wealth of Western nations comes from manufacturing and innovation, neither of which has found much favor in Muslim-majority countries.

The Muslim world’s knowledge deficit also remains unaddressed. Roughly half of the world’s illiterate adults are Muslims, and two-thirds of that number are women. Greece, with a population of 11 million, translates more books from other languages into Greek than the entire Arab world, which has a cumulative population of 360 million, does into Arabic. More books are published in Danish, the mother tongue of 5.6 million people, than in Urdu, which is the language of at least 300 million South Asian Muslims. Since the 9th century, when the Abbasid rulers of Baghdad patronized learning and built a huge library for its time, only 100,000 books have been translated from other languages into Arabic. The same number of books are translated from other languages into Spanish every year.6

A thousand years ago, Muslims led the world in the fields of science and mathematics. Today, they are noticeably absent from any list of recent inventors and innovators in science and technology. Since 1901, only two Muslims have won a Nobel Prize in the sciences, and one of them (Pakistan’s Dr. Abdus Salam, Physics, 1979) is not deemed a Muslim in his home country because of his association with the Ahmadiyya sect.

The current weakness of the Muslim world is by no means the fault of Western colonialism and postcolonial machinations, as is widely believed by Muslims. For a century or more, overcoming that weakness has been the driving force behind almost every major political movement in the Muslim world, from Pan-Arabism to contemporary Islamism. Nevertheless, Muslims have made less effort to understand the causes of their decline over the past 300 years. Outrage and resentment—and the conspiracy theories that inform them—are poor substitutes for comprehending why Islam’s lost glory has proved so difficult to resurrect.

Islamists see the world as polarized between the Ummah (the community of believers, whom they describe as one nation) and the rest. The West’s rise, rather than the Ummah’s decline, receives far greater attention from Islamist scholars and leaders. Their worldview is summarized in the Arabic-language title of a book by the Indian Islamist scholar Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi. Its English-language version is unremarkable enough—Islam and the World: The Rise and Decline of Muslims and Its Effect on Mankind—but the Arabic edition’s title translates literally as, “What the World Lost by the Decline of Muslims.”7 The civilizational narcissism is clear. “Our decline is the world’s loss,” it suggests. “We do not need to change anything. The West needs to fix things for us so that it does not lose the benefits of our civilization.”

An open discourse among Muslims about their decline might identify the reasons why the Ottoman and Mughal empires refused to accept the printing press for more than two and a half centuries after Johannes Guttenberg invented movable type. It might also explain why Muslims failed to embrace the Industrial Revolution, modern banking, insurance, and the joint stock company, even after these had emerged in Europe. Instead, most of the discussion focuses on real or perceived historical injustices. “We are weak because we were colonized,” Muslims tend to say, instead of recognizing that Muslim lands were colonized because they had become weak.

The most glaring insufficiency across the Muslim world is the gender gap, or the gender deficit. Women are excluded from the workforce in many countries around the world, but the practice is far more visible in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Most countries with Muslim-majority populations tend to place less emphasis on women’s rights and issues.

The Pew Forum’s 2013 study entitled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society” illustrates that traditional views of women’s roles have deep roots in most Islamic countries. Most Muslims in countries surveyed say that a wife should always obey her husband. In 20 of the 23 countries where the question was asked, at least half of the Muslims surveyed expressed that belief. Muslims in South Asia and Southeast Asia overwhelmingly held that view.8

In all countries surveyed in these regions, roughly nine in ten say that wives must obey their husbands. This includes 94 percent of those polled in Afghanistan and 88 percent in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. Similarly, in all countries surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa, about three-quarters or more say the same, including 93 percent in Tunisia, 92 percent in Iraq, and 74 percent in Lebanon. The views of women are often not different from those of men even though the issue affects them directly, most likely because of religious and/or cultural issues. Only 34 percent of Muslims in a more liberal, but still predominantly Muslim, country like Kosovo agree with the notion of female subordination to men, but in absolute numbers, and as part of the global Muslim community, Kosovo is less influential than Afghanistan.9

Islamic countries tend to have weaker democratic norms, making it difficult to change entrenched cultures of discrimination through education and public debate. Of 131 countries with which the United States has military-to-military ties, 46 are Muslim-majority countries.10 A majority of these countries remain hostage to traditional views on gender issues. While some Muslim-majority countries have inducted women into their armed forces, at least at a symbolic level, most of them are unable or unwilling to accept gender equality as a critical factor in inclusive security.

Women of Jihad

As the international community gears up for a defining struggle against Islamist extremism, the worst manifestation so far being the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), it is important to examine how an inclusive security approach might help defeat both the extremist ideology and the terrorist groups that embrace and exploit it. While conventional militaries have hesitated in bringing women on board, terrorists across the ideological spectrum have used women for a wide range of tasks, ranging from logistics and recruitment to a frontline role, say as a suicide bomber.

In a majority of Islamist and jihadi groups, women’s roles were traditionally limited to the spread of propaganda and incitement of husbands and male relatives to jihad. In the last few years, the leaders of some groups are responding to both the change in context, as well as women’s requests to play a larger role in offensive combat. This is reflected in the fact that between 1985 and 2010, there were over 230 suicide bombing attacks conducted by women.11

There are many reasons why terrorist groups use women operatives, especially in the Muslim world. Women provide structural support, which can include inculcating in their children how to be defenders of the ideology, maintaining the household for the fighters, encouraging other women to join them in their task and in other tasks that can be done at home, such as producing or translating extremist propaganda. Women are also seen as being critical in encouraging or shaming their male relatives into joining the jihad. Women terrorists have an advantage in traditional societies as their concealing clothes, such as the burqa, provide them relative freedom from scrutiny. Women also provide an element of surprise when they participate in a terrorist operation and, according to experts, female terrorists have a four times higher kill rate than their male counterparts.12

In recent years, a larger number of women living in western countries has joined extremist Islamist groups, a phenomenon that can be traced to factors such as grievances about the Muslim world being under siege, belief that joining these groups gives them a goal in life, and a sense of contribution to a cause in which they believe deeply. In her book, Bombshell: Women and Terrorists, scholar Mia Bloom points out that there are also personal motivations, such as the desire to marry a true Muslim, existing bonds with other women who have joined these groups, the sense of community membership provides, and, finally, a belief in having an obligation to provide support for jihad.

The recruitment of women as terrorists runs contrary to the traditional wisdom of Islamist ideology. Abul Ala Maududi, an ideologue respected by the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups, argued that Islam desires complete segregation between the sexes, a position that is endorsed by most Islamist scholars. In his book, Islam, Purdah, and the Status of Women in Islam, first published in 1972, Maududi stated that, “the problem of men and women’s mutual relationship is indeed the most fundamental problem of civilization.”13 Maududi and other Islamist scholars insist that a society’s progress is determined by defining the “appropriate” behavior of women. In the final chapter of his book titled, “Divine Laws for the Movements of Women,” Maududi makes it clear that women may leave the four walls of their house only if absolutely necessary. He further asserts that permission to leave the house is strictly limited, as women are forbidden from mixing freely with men in social situations. Exceptions are made, however, for the exigencies of war.14

Even the most conservative of Islamist scholars, like Maududi, say that the purdah or hijab restrictions may be relaxed so that women may offer adequate support to male warriors. This includes administering first aid to the wounded and cooking food for them. While women are not obliged to wage armed jihad themselves, if the occasion demands, they may serve the fighters in the way of Allah.

ISIL has argued that the fundamental function for women is “in the house with [their] husband[s] and children,” but that they may go out to serve the community in a number of situations, the most important being jihad. This is allowed, “if the enemy is attacking her country and the men are not enough to protect it and the imams give a fatwa for it.”15 Building on that argument, ISIL announced, in February 2014, the creation of its al-Khanssaa Brigade—an all-female brigade “whose purpose is to detect male activists who attempt to get through ISIL checkpoints by wearing women’s clothing.” Single women between the ages of 18 and 25 can join ISIL and are paid a monthly salary of 25,000 Syrian liras, the equivalent of about $114 USD.16

In January 2015, a document titled “Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study” was floated by online supporters of ISIL. The three-part document rebutted Western civilization on issues like women’s rights, provided eyewitness accounts of life in the Islamic State, and also offered a comparison of how women living in the ISIL regions are better off than their counterparts in the rest of the Muslim Middle East.17

Ironically, most independent sources suggest that ISIL fighters are “committing horrific sexual violence on a seemingly industrial scale.”18 The United Nations has documented that ISIL forced some “1,500 women, teenage girls, and boys into sexual slavery.”19 An Amnesty International report noted that ISIL “abducts whole families in northern Iraq for sexual assault.”20 “In the first few days following the fall of Mosul in June 2014, women’s rights activists reported multiple incidents of ISIL fighters going door to door, kidnapping and raping the [city’s] women.”21

In October 2014, a female-specific jihadi media group calling itself al-Zawra’a announced its establishment and stated its aims as preparing “women for the field of jihad by teaching lessons in Islamic Sharia, weapons use, media creation, and sewing and cooking for male fighters.”22 The announcement said, “We call upon our sisters the female supporters, those garrisoned on the frontlines of the media, to follow the work of this foundation that was established specifically for them, so that benefit comes to them and their brothers, by the power of Allah.”23 It exhorted female Muslims to be distinguished by not being concerned with bridal gowns, homes, or clothing, but by [their] wish and “life consideration” for “the explosive belt.”24 It urged women to pursue “martyrdom-seeking operation[s] that [afflict] the enemies,” and promised they would then be “immortalized among the joyous martyrs.”25

ISIL is not alone in trying to recruit women. Between 1998 and 2003, the Pakistan-based terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, published a three-volume book, Ham Ma’en Lashkar-e-Taiba Ki (“We, the Mothers of Lashkar-e-Taiba”). Compiled by someone calling herself Umm-e-Hammad, the books were published by Dar-al-Andulus in Lahore. The three volumes carry the same cover, depicting a large pink rose with blood dripping from it, superimposed on a landscape of mountains and pine trees. They comprise a combined total of 1,410 pages, aimed at awakening “the fervor for jihad in the breasts of our mothers and sisters.”26

Women at the Margins

It is clear that jihadi extremists have built a narrative for including women in their agenda, interpreting religious tradition in a manner that suits their objectives. The governments in Muslim-majority countries, however, are still not as ready as their enemies to fully embrace inclusivity. According to the World Bank, the percentage of women in the population of the Middle East North Africa region, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia nears or surpasses the 50 percent mark. Job creation in these countries already faces the challenge of absorbing the large and growing number of young jobseekers, and women cannot compete on an equal footing in slow-growing economies. For example, young women face unemployment rates as high as 40 percent in many countries in the MENA region.27

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD):

The average median age in the MENA countries is 25 years, well below the average of other emerging regions such as Asia (29 years) and Latin America and the Caribbean (27.7), and well below the average of developed countries in Europe (40.2) and North America (36.9). These young populations represent a tremendous opportunity, both as a market and as a labor force. Currently, the ratio of people aged 0–14 to those in working age (15–64), or the child dependency ratio, is very high at 48.7.28

The youth bulge does not guarantee economic and social development and can easily become a threat instead of an opportunity, especially if half the youth bulge—women—have nothing to look forward to. OECD recommends that governments and civil society create well-functioning institutions and implement effective policies to promote employment, health, education, and housing in the Middle East and North Africa. It is equally important to spread these opportunities across genders to ensure that women are productively engaged, rather than being left to be recruited by extremist Islamists.

As the major supplier of military equipment to Muslim-majority countries as well as the major donor of economic aid to several of them, the United States could play a key role in influencing changes in outlook and policy throughout the greater Middle East as well as South and Southeast Asia. In several cases, U.S. support has put the militaries of these countries in charge of most public policymaking. During the Cold War, strong militaries ensured that Muslim-majority countries were by and large inoculated against communist takeovers by a conservative national security apparatus.

In the current environment, however, national security states need to transform into prosperity oriented democracies that can protect their peoples from the ideological lure of Islamist fantasies. For example, Pakistan has the world’s sixth largest army, which is also the largest force in the Muslim world and the only one possessing nuclear weapons. The country’s per capita GDP ranks 147th out of 183 countries, while its nominal GDP ranks 42nd in the world. Pakistan’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Report, 135th out of 136 countries, reflects how its neglect of women is part of the reason for the country’s oft-cited dysfunction. The United Nations Gender Inequality Index, which measures gender inequalities in reproductive health, empowerment, and economic status, ranked Pakistan 123rd out of 148 countries indexed.29

Women comprise 48.6 percent of Pakistan’s population of 200 million. Of a labor force of 61.5 million, the female participation rate as percentage of total population of females was only 22 percent.30 More significantly, 62 percent of girls in Pakistan between 7 and 15 years old have never spent time in a classroom.31 At the same time, there are a mere 4,000 women serving in Pakistan’s armed forces, including a few female fighter pilots who joined Pakistan’s Air Force in 2006.32

Economists have often pointed out that female employment has a positive impact on a country’s economy, in addition to improving the wellbeing of women and families. Labor force data from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics and the World Bank indicate that labor force participation of women in Pakistan is much lower than international standards.33 A majority of the 22 percent of women who do work are found in informal sectors, such as subsistence agriculture.34 The labor force participation (LFP) of women in Pakistan is one of the lowest in the world, well below the global average of 51.2 percent. Countries like China and some regions like East Asia have LFP of women as high as 67.7 percent and 63.1 percent, respectively.35

Gender discrimination in Pakistan, and other Muslim majority countries, is said to be ingrained in political, legal, economic, and cultural factors. The approach to national security might, in fact, be a greater contributing factor. In building one of the largest armies and nuclear arsenals in the world, Pakistan has ignored its women as well as its economy. An authoritarian, top-down approach to governance in Pakistan (and other Muslim counties) has resulted in conferring disproportionate power on conservative religious leaders who exercise a virtual veto against women’s empowerment. The authorities, eager to have the clerics on their side in maintaining hard power, concede far too much ground to them on social questions. Other policies, combined with social and economic failings, have made Pakistan a major incubator of jihadi extremism.

Pakistan has received $40 billion in economic and military assistance from the United States since 1950, of which $23 billion in mainly military aid and reimbursements has flowed since September 11, 2001.36 Pakistan’s military, in particular, often looks to the U.S. for training, education, and equipment even though its worldview does not often coincide with that of the United States. This dependence gives Washington leverage over Pakistani policy that has not always been effectively used.

An inclusive approach to security, nudged by the United States, could result in Pakistan paying attention to women’s inclusion in the workforce, as well as policies that produce sustained economic growth. This has to go beyond symbolic gestures, like token women in uniform showing up at military parades. It would require raising women’s workforce participation in general and ensuring that women are an equal part of Pakistani society.

Other U.S. allies and major aid recipients in the Muslim world are not particularly better off than Pakistan. Women constitute only 24.1 percent of the workforce in Egypt, one of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance—$76 billion in the 35 years up to 2015, including $48 billion in military aid.37 Egypt’s population stands at 89 million, of which 49.5 percent are women.38 Of the total number of children that are out of school, 44.2 percent are boys and 55.8 percent are girls.39 In the 2012 Egyptian legislature, women held only 10 seats, or two percent of representation in the national parliament.40

Women constitute 30.5 percent of the workforce in Turkey and 15.42 percent in Saudi Arabia. Jordan, often cited as a progressive Arab monarchy, reflects a similar pattern. It has a population of 6.6 million, 48.7 percent of whom are women. But women comprise only 16 percent of Jordan’s 1.7 million workforce.42 Of the total number of children that are out of school, girls out number boys 15,545 to 9,382.43 Additionally, women hold only 12 percent of the seats in Jordan’s national parliament.

Arms and Influence

These statistics point to a policy error dating back to the Cold War era of building national security structures in most Muslim countries while neglecting social development, particularly gender equality. Governments from the Middle East and North Africa to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia have invoked religion and tradition to avoid key social and economic reforms, including expanding literacy and education and involving women in the workforce.

The conception of security and power of most U.S. allies in the Muslim world depends almost exclusively on a hard power framework. The rise of terrorism and insurgencies fueled by radical religion-based ideologies is forcing a rethink of the primacy of hard power as the instrument to deal with the threat. Jihadist ideologues can replenish the ranks of their fallen fighters relatively rapidly. Thus, it is not enough to kill the foot soldiers; the tide of the beliefs that help recruit them must be stemmed.

The fight against Islamist extremism poses a challenge to social change in the Muslim world, but it also creates an opportunity to combine countering extremist ideology with major social change. Just as the radical Islamist groups have involved women in recruitment, education, motivation, and training of terrorists, states and governments must involve women in systemic efforts to counter extremism. Women are an influential voice in keeping male relatives out of violent extremist groups, and can be for other men as well.

Empowering women to deradicalize would-be jihadis at a community level could increase the flow of intelligence from families about radicalized individuals. Several terrorist plots have been foiled due to tips from family members about the errant behavior of a relative. In 2009, the father of a Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a transatlantic jet on Christmas Day had voiced concerns to U.S. officials about his son well before he tried to engage in a terrorist act.44 The father’s concerns in the Nigerian case were supported by his wife, the mother of the would-be terrorist.

Methodical information operations could target mothers and other family members to encourage them to inform authorities about extreme beliefs and plots, characterizing it as a way to save their family member and serve society, rather than as “giving him up.” Women activists, in particular, can dissuade people from extremism as in the case of Pakistani activist Mossarat Qadeem, who works with mothers to keep young men from joining jihadis. Qadeem, a political scientist who left her teaching position at the University of Peshawar 13 years ago, lives in Islamabad. She drives “through checkpoints and dark mountain roads into the northern region of the country” to meet, at the invitation of mothers, with children who have joined radical groups.45 “Qadeem is fighting extremism in Pakistan one child at a time,” explained an article about her, adding that she meets “with mothers and their children to discuss the dangers of radical groups.”46

Once Qadeem meets radicalized young people, she asks them to help her understand why they joined these groups. She responds to their economic, political, and theological arguments and warns them that they would not be able to help their families if they were killed. Qadeem cites the Quran against suicide, as well as killing others. Her arguments have persuaded 78 young men to turn away from the path they have been led down by distorted religious texts and false promises. Her experience advances the case for creating “a nonviolent army of women promoting collaboration over confrontation as they lift up the moderate voices drowned out by radicals.”47

The case for including women in fighting jihadists was made by Ambassador Hunt on the basis of her work in Afghanistan. “It’s not just [about] bringing in more soldiers,” she observed, “More soldiers are going to bring in, yes, one kind of security, but with tremendous resistance from terrorists. But if you were to take that money and instead give crash courses to support women leaders in every village, you would be fighting a bad idea—the Taliban—with a good idea—women’s empowerment—which is much more powerful than fighting a bad idea with guns.”48

Husain Haqqani is a Senior Fellow and the Director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute. He served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-2011.

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