Foreign Policy Blogs

Op-Ed: Has the coronavirus encouraged Islamist extremism?

As we speak, the world is plagued by the coronavirus, which has claimed more than one million lives worldwide.  While many commentators have noted that the pandemic has created the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, horrific mental health problems among a great segment of the population and great social unrest, not enough people have noticed that the pandemic has also led to the strengthening of Islamist extremism across the globe.  

According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research, a recent poll found that if elections were held today between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas would win: The overwhelming majority of the Palestinians views the decision of the UAE to normalize relations with Israel as a betrayal or abandonment of the Palestinian cause, one that serves only the interests of Israel. A similar majority thinks that Saudi Arabia and Egypt, by endorsing that normalization, have in effect abandoned the Palestinian leadership.   But most Palestinians also place the blame on themselves because they are divided and have normalized relations with Israel long before others.”

If Hamas were to take over the West Bank, a Palestinian source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that this would be detrimental for women. The Hamas daily Falistin encourages gender apartheid in the Gaza Strip by calling for limiting women’s participation in public life for they are the “fastest transmitters of epidemics.”  From age 9 onwards, all schools are gender segregated in Gaza by law, even if the schools are privately owned, Christian or run by the UN.  Furthermore, male teachers in Gaza are forbidden from having female students. Women in Gaza are also barred from riding motorcycles, smoking in public, learning to drive in the presence of a man, using a male hairdresser and even submitting complaints of incest.  On top of that, Gazan women are forbidden from going to the beach or a restaurant unless they are accompanied by a male chaperon.  In fact, even mannequins in women’s clothing stores are required to be dressed modestly.  The Hamas Morality Police are known to frequently harass women who do not wear the hijab or conduct themselves in accordance with their ideology.  All of this occurred way before the pandemic reached the coastal strip.   

The Palestinian source added that minorities fare no better under Hamas rule as well.  The Al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades, the military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, warned people against celebrating Christmas a couple of years ago in a flier, claiming one should “not to go the way of the Jews and the Christians, indeed God is not for the evil people.”  According to the Hamas authorities, the flier was aimed not only at Muslims but also Christians in the coastal strip.  It is apparent that if Hamas takes over the West Bank, such radical Islamist extremism would reign supreme there too.   

Further to the West, Turkey has been inciting against Israel and India at the UN.  Recently, Erdogan stated that the “filthy hands” of Israelis are “increasing their audacity at Jerusalem’s holy sites,” a remark which has an uncanny resemblance to Mahmoud Abbas’s anti-Semitic “dirty feet” speech.  He also took a jab at India’s Kashmir policy.  Shipan Kumer Basu, who heads the World Hindu Struggle Committee, called Erdogan’s remark about Kashmir and Israel at the UN “highly reprehensible.” 

Erdogan also has been threatening the UAE and other countries who seek to reconcile with the Jewish state.  This came after they transformed the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and submerged a UNESCO world heritage site under water, both acts that showed that religious extremism is dominating Turkish politics these days.  They also have been taking advantage of the pandemic to try and deport Iranian refugees.   Not too long ago, it was reported that Turkey tried to deport Iranian women’s rights activist Maryam Shariatmadari back to the Islamic Republic.  Although she was spared in the end, the Turkish authorities have now eyed the deportation of another refugee from Iran. 

Sirwan Mansouri, a Kurdish political and human rights activist, was captured and tortured several times in Iran before he was finally forced to flee to Turkey: “I was recognized as a refugee 5 years ago by UNHCR and I was interviewed for resettlement in 2016, but my case went on hold till 2019 for unknown reasons. Again in 2019 my wife and I were interviewed for resettlement in Ankara, but no result again and every time I contacted them, they told me I should be awaited.  I am a refugee rights activist and manage a refugee website named: HANARefugees.”

“I publish the latest news on websites for refugees.  I also have done a lot of talks and interviews about refugees in Kurdish, Persian and English languages,” he added.  “I wrote some articles about their terrible condition and the rights they are entitled to in Turkey. Two years ago we wrote a letter in a type of petition with more than 5400 signatures to UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland and complained about the process, but received no response. Again, this year, we wrote another letter to ECHR (European Court For Human Rights) and complained about both the UNHCR and immigration office of Turkey.”

“I am Kurdish and due to my race, bear more discrimination in comparison with other refugees. Besides all I am a journalist and work on the human rights and refugees rights field and because of my activities in social media, the Turkey government put more pressure on me directly and indirectly. In their recent act, they took my Identity card without any reason and  are trying to deport me and have wanted me to leave the Turkish territory, while I am a refugee and based on Geneva convention no one has the right to deport a refugee to his/her country of origin.  I know Turkey responsible for holding my case in the resettlement section for 5 years without any reason, while according to UNHCR staff, I am eligible to resettle in a third safe country.  Furthermore, I am sick and have some different diseases such as diabetes type 2 and have polyps in my intestines suspicious of cancer and have all medical documents.” 

And according to Mansouri, he is not the only one: “In late 2018, the UNHCR formally handed over the review of refugees’ cases to the Turkish Immigration Office. Since then, the Immigration Office has rejected most of the cases on an unprecedented scale, given many refugees expulsion notices for leaving Turkish territory, and in some cases has deported refugees. And this process is continuing. All this is happening while according to the Geneva Conventions, none of the refugees who have been accepted by the UNHCR and are under international protection should under any circumstances be returned to their countries of origin.”

This fact was confirmed by Mendi Safadi, who heads the Safadi Center for International Diplomacy, Research, Public Relations and Human Rights: “Turkey was a refuge for opponents of the Iranian regime and many Iranian opposition figures saw Turkey as a safe haven, but now Turkey has turned into a great danger for them, given that the Turkish government is cooperating with their Iranian counterparts.  Said Tamjadi and Muhammed Rajabbi were sentenced to death in Iran after they were betrayed by Turkey.  Other Iranian refugees who fled Turkey are awaiting deportation back to Iran, like Mansouri.   The Safadi Center operates in the international arena to prevent such deportations from happening, for Turkey is violating international law.”

However, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey are not the only ones that turned more Islamist since the pandemic erupted.   Basu claims that radical Islam has also only got stronger in Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan since the pandemic erupted, and that it poses a threat to the continued existence of Hindus in these three countries: “A Hindu school girl was hacked to death for refusing to marry a Muslim in Bangladesh.  In that same country, a Hindu girl was raped inside a police station.  A Hindu family in in Eidalpur village was recently assaulted.  A 14-year-old Hindu girl was forcefully converted to Islam in Pakistan.  In the same country, a Hindu doctor had his throat slit and a Hindu temple was destroyed during the coronavirus lockdown.  And these types of incidents just keep getting worse.”  

“Due to the silence of humanity, the simple-minded Hindus of Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan are gradually disappearing,” he added.  “Environmental activists always played an effective role in protecting endangered species in various countries.   But no one has stood up to help the oppressed Hindus of these three countries.  This is very tragic.  I think that humanity should wake up from its slumber or else Hindus will cease to exist in these countries.  And given their radical Islamist ideology, they will not even establish museums to preserve the vanquished Hindu culture in their nations.   I urge humanity to step up to the plate before it is too late.”

The existence of this global pandemic is causing many people to turn to religion as a remedy for their sorrows.   However, Islamist extremists are taking advantage of this normal human reaction in order to push forward their extremist agendas that oppress women and minorities, and one day, this will once again threaten the West, after the borders open up again.   After all, an increase in the number of people adhering to extremist ideology leads to more terror attacks and rogue regimes.  Therefore, it is of utmost importance for Western policy makers to formulate a strategy for dealing with Islamist extremism, so that we will be prepared for what happens the day there is a vaccine.  



Rachel Avraham

Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and the editor of the Economic Peace Center, which was established by Ayoob Kara, who served as Israel's Communication, Cyber and Satellite Minister. For close to a decade, she has been an Israel-based journalist, specializing in radical Islam, abuses of human rights and minority rights, counter-terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iran, and other issues of importance. Avraham is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media," a ground-breaking book endorsed by Former Israel Consul General Yitzchak Ben Gad and Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara that discusses how the media exploits the life stories of Palestinian female terrorists in order to justify wanton acts of violence. Avraham has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She received her BA in Government and Politics with minors in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Maryland at College Park.