Will Global Warming Contribute to Islamist Extremism?

In “Waterworld,” a dispatch from Bangladesh in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Robert D. Kaplan uses the country’s current experience to examine a number of difficult problems faced by the developing world — from the inability of shallow-rooted democracy to handle certain ills, to how NGOs compete with criminal and violent elements to fill the societal gaps left by corrupt and inefficient governments.

But one pontential problem he highlights particularly caught our eye — the way in which global warming, especially in Asia, could contribute to the spread of Islamic extremism:

[Bangladesh’s traditional] low-calorie version of Islam is giving way to a stark and assertive Wahhabist strain. A poor country that can’t say no to money, with an unregulated, shattered coast of islands and inlets, Bangladesh has become a perfect setup for al-Qaeda affiliates, which, like Westernized NGOs, are filling needs unmet by a weak central government. Islamist orphanages, madrasas, and cyclone shelters are mushrooming throughout the country, thanks in part to donations from Saudi Arabia as well as from Bangladeshi workers returning home from the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula.

A decade ago, women in Dhaka and in the port city of Chittagong wore jeans and T-shirts, but more and more they cloak themselves in burkas. Madrasas now outnumber secondary schools, according to Anupam Sen, the vice chancellor of a new private university in Chittagong, who also told me that a new class of society is emerging that is “globally Islamic” rather than “specifically Bengali.”

Here is how global warming indirectly feeds Islamic extremism. As rural Bangladeshis flee a countryside ravaged by salinity in the south and drought in the northwest, they are migrating to cities at a rate of 3 to 4 percent a year. Swept into the vast anonymity of sprawling slum encampments, they lose their local and extended-family links, becoming more susceptible to a form of Islam with a sharper ideological edge. “We will not have anarchy at the village level, where society is healthy,” warns Atiq Rahman. “But we can have it in the ever-enlarging urban areas.” Such is the weakness of central authority in Bangladesh following 15 years of elected government.

The good news is that no country in the world appears as vulnerable as Bangladesh to the potential hydrologic effects of global warming. The bad news is that Sub-Saharan Africa and regions bordering the Indian and Pacific Oceans — all areas where Islam has a strong presence — appear likely to suffer the worst human health and economic consequences of global warming.

Of course, one should be cautious about being geographically deterministic. Some of the analysis ascribing, for example, the war in Darfur to global warming have been facile, as Kurt Pelda pointed out in the epilogue to his first Darfur diary published on WPR:

An article published by U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon in the Washington Post in June, under the title “A Climate Culprit in Darfur,” shows just how far removed the U.N.’s analysis has become from the core of the problem in Darfur. Ban Ki-Moon claims there that “amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.” On his account, the decrease in precipitation in Darfur as a result of climate change has led to a situation in which “for the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all. Fighting broke out. By 2003, it evolved into the full-fledged tragedy we witness today.”

Ban’s account makes it sound as if nomads and the sedentary population — “Arabs” and “Black Africans” — have come to blows as a result of a conflict over resources. But even if the U.N. General Secretary fails entirely to mention this fact, the genocide in Darfur has not been perpetrated by tribal militias running amuck, but rather by organized and well-armed fighting units that are paid by Khartoum. How, on Ban Ki-Moon’s abstruse theory, is it to be explained that the villages of Fur, Massalit, Zaghawa and other African tribal peoples are sprayed with fire from attack helicopters and bombed by government planes? And what does climate change have to do with the fact that the Janjaweed suddenly possess an abundance of automatic weapons, ammunition, Toyota pick-ups and fuel? Of course, the increasing scarcity of resources in Darfur does play a role. But such scarcity is to be observed in the entire region of the Sahel, from the Atlantic Coast in the west to the Red Sea in the east, and yet nowhere but in Darfur has it come to a bloodbath of even anywhere near these dimensions.

But looking at where geographical and environmental causes are likely to overlap with cultural and economic ones — as in Bangladesh — can be a useful tool for predicting which places in the world are likely to become hotbeds of, in this case, extremism and terrorism.

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