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Why We Shouldn’t Declare War on “Radical Islam"

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tags: radical Islam



Andrew Meyer is an associate professor of history at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

As a Jew and a Zionist, I often appeal to a particular thought experiment to illustrate the ill-wisdom of forcing American leaders to declare that the U.S. is at war with "radical Islam." Like other left-wing secular Zionists, I abhor the West Bank settler movement and the damage it has done to the prospects of peace in Israel and Palestine. Even so, slight variations in the rhetorical frame within which such opposition is voiced can elicit very different responses. A declaration that "those settlers are causing trouble in the West Bank" invites my support. The statement that "those Jews are causing trouble in the West Bank" awakens my suspicion and fear.

Much well-founded criticism has been leveled at the claim that the perpetrators of jihadi terror "are not real Muslims." As is true of the relationship between Judaism and the West Bank settlers, the goals and methods of groups like Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS can not be understood except by reference to Islam, thus any effective response to this threat must account for the role of Islam in its formation. But it is precisely because they and other jihadis are real Muslims, and will be recognized by millions of other Muslims as co-religionists, that their non-Muslim opponents must be extremely circumspect in invoking their Islamic identity.

A community in crisis naturally inclines to affirm the elements of their shared identity, especially in the face of outsiders, even at the cost of political liability. As an example, we can see that this principle has shaped the evolution of Zionism from its inception. Though the early Labor Zionist founders of Israel were thoroughgoing secularists, they knew that no movement for Jewish empowerment could achieve critical mass or strategic purchase without the participation of some part of the faithful. There has thus, extending back before 1948, always been a religious Zionist tendency at the fringe of Israeli politics. This state of affairs was reinforced by the experience of the Holocaust. If Zionism is a movement dedicated to defending the value and dignity of every Jewish life in the face of genocidal hatred, then that social compact must extend even to those misguided and malicious enough to desire the death of Yitzhak Rabin or the destruction of Muslim holy sites.  The messianic Zionism of the settler movement redounds to the detriment of all Jews. But, because they openly embrace and affirm the identity for which all Jews have been arbitrarily stigmatized, no Zionist of any stripe can wholly disown them or deny kinship with them.

An analogous principle is at work in the relationship of the advocates of "radical Islam" to the larger Muslim world. Though the global Islamic community is vastly larger than that of the world's Jews, and though Muslims have not been subject to a campaign of general extermination, much of the Islamic world today is nonetheless in crisis. This does not arise from a single threat or easily reducible problem. Rather, a complex of powerful forces and historical experiences- colonialism, commercialization, industrialization, the tensions of the Cold War (and its sudden end), the spread of new political forms and ideologies (nationalism, socialism, communism, fascism, republicanism, democracy, various forms of Islamism), the digital revolution, invasion, revolution, civil war- have radically destabilized the basis of society in a large part of the Islamic world, to varying degrees.

This complex of crises impacts every aspect of social and cultural life. The reactions it has evoked are multifarious and unpredictable. It is foolish, however, given the nature of human social life, to expect a majority of Muslims to abandon or ignore their commitments to Islam in the face of radical (and often destructive) change. Islam is implicated, for good or ill, in almost all of the power structures within which most Muslims live and with which they must interact on a daily basis. In societies ranging from Morocco to Indonesia, the position of, for example, a man within his family, or a wealthy women within her community, or a political activist in relation to the state, are all profoundly informed by the participation of these individuals in Islamic institutions and traditions. Even in cases where Islamic doctrine and practice is not clearly of benefit, such people can not openly break with Islam without abdicating any sense of normalcy and predictability in their social affairs, a prospect that few people will risk while they can feel the sands of history shifting beneath their feet. 

Because maintaining one's position within the Islamic community requires that one acknowledge fellowship with all others that profess the faith, most Muslims will be hostile to any attack upon other Muslims as Muslims, even those to whom they are politically (even violently) opposed. Groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram are counting on this fact. The more that they can make the various conflicts in which they are engaged about Islam, the more support (active and tacit) they will draw from the communities in which they operate. 

Al Qaeda, for example, has shown itself very clever in the manipulation of identity politics with the most recent attacks in France. The murder of the satirists at Charlie Hebdo was deliberately designed to make the fight about Islam. The perpetrators knew that many Muslims and non-Muslims would interpret the event and its aftermath differently. Non-Muslim citizens of industrial democracies were horrified by this assault on free speech. But many Muslim observers, not equipped to understand why the freedom to profane a sacred icon is so cherished in France and elsewhere, misinterpreted the intensity of anger evoked by the attack as a paroxysm of collective Islamophobia. 

A similar principle was at work in the attack on the kosher grocery in the Ponte de Vincennes. Those who ordered this crime knew that they were opening the guilty wound of anti-Semitism in European memory. But they also knew that the many expressions of sympathy that went out over social media would be susceptible to different interpretation in Muslim communities. The millions of tweets of "Je suis Juif" were deeply appreciated by those like me who were made to feel most vulnerable by the Ponte de Vincennes attack. But just as I can not forswear all kinship with the radical settlers that have intruded in the West Bank, I can not claim surprise if many Muslims misinterpret "Je suis Juif" as a statement of at least tacit support for the form of religious Zionism I so vehemently oppose.

Because these cultural dynamics are at work for any non-Muslim who would fight against groups like Al Qaeda, it behooves the U.S. and its allies to refrain from making this conflict about Islam in any regard. Narrowing the focus to "radical Islam" might seem to clarify the issue, but this is false. If the U.S. is at war with "radical Islam," is it at war with Iran? With Hezbollah? With Hamas? Unless one can come up with a coherent explanation as to why these groups fall outside of the ambit of radical Islam, the category loses all strategic value. Conversely, to insist that the U.S. is, in fact, at war with these groups is to construct a war so ambiguous that it loses all strategic logic.

The greatest strength of groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram is rooted in the same source as their greatest weakness. Islam provides them with a framework within which to make claims on the fellowship and appeal to the sympathies of other Muslims. This is a very powerful and versatile mechanism, especially in nations like Afghanistan or Nigeria riven by deep ethnic and linguistic divisions. But in the same way that the messianic ideology of the West Bank settlers puts them hopelessly out of step with the practical conditions of the twenty-first century, the adoption of Islam as a political program renders jihadis strategically impotent along any long-term trajectory of global affairs. Jihadis offer prospective followers and subjects a teleology plotting all near-term purposes and solutions along a path that leads toward a world caliphate that, in the face of current conditions, can never and will never exist. Thus they are rarely able to initiate or effect any constructive project that cogently serves their ideological ends. They can (and must, if they are to credibly claim any relevance) kill or destroy anyone or anything that offends their dogmatic vision, but they can never build or establish any structure or institution that clearly and necessarily embodies their particular (ultimately phantasmal) world view.  Apart from tendentious appeals to bonds of Muslim fellowship, the only short-term traction that jihadis can achieve is to co-opt issues about which Muslims care independently of their commitment to Islam. Thus Al Qaeda and ISIS claim to fight on behalf of dispossessed Palestinians, or for the oppressed Sunnis of Syria, or against the oligarchs and aristocrats that collaborate with Americans and Europeans, even though there is no obvious logical connection between these goals and the establishment of a caliphate. 

If the U.S. and its allies would exploit the greatest weakness of jihadis and deprive them of their greatest strength, we should avoid all formulations, logical or rhetorical, of a war on "radical Islam." The only way that a group like Al Qaeda can defer their inevitable arrival upon the scrapheap of history is to persuade as many people as possible that they are fighting in the cause of Islam, thus it would be supremely misguided of their opponents to corroborate that narrative in any way. The raw fact is that the U.S. is not facing "radical Islam" or "terror" in the abstract, but is embroiled in an asymmetrical war with specific groups (Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, etc.), each of which is pursuing power for its own purposes and within its own particular context. As is true in all asymmetrical conflicts, victory will depend much more on the skillful execution of political and ideological strategies than on battlefield success. In this regard, the politics of a war on "radical Islam" will invite military disaster.

What strategy, then, can succeed moving forward? Since any jihadi group can only sustain traction and momentum as long as it can make the fight about Islam, their opponents should do everything in their power to make the fight about something else. On the surface, this might seem easy, given the urgency and complexity of the crises ensuing in much of the Islamic world. Many millions of devout Muslims are mobilizing in support of women's rights, democracy, freedom of speech, economic justice, and religious tolerance. Each of these commitments puts multitudes on the opposite side of jihadis, despite their shared commitment to Islam. If jihadis' opponents (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) can make the struggle about these issues, the temporary lease on life that groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda have bought with the coin of Islamic piety will run out very quickly.

The difficulty, however, is in finding the ways that the U.S. and its allies, as outsiders, can meaningfully participate in these contests without adversely distorting them. Given the history of colonialism and exploitation that mars relations between large parts of the Muslim and non-Muslim world, any move on the part of a nation like the U.S. to champion, for example, women's rights, is vulnerable to being perceived as paternalism or cultural imperialism. This is not, however, an argument for inaction, but a caveat that any success in this arena is bound to be provisional, and an imperative for maximum sensitivity as to means. Both the invasion of Iraq and the award of the Nobel Prize to Malala Yousafszai, for example, might have evoked some ill will, but the latter is clearly a more effective way for non-Muslims to champion liberal ideals in the Muslim world. 

As the last juxtaposition suggests, the military is a very blunt instrument, the effectiveness of which is chiefly limited to the tactical realm. This is not to minimize the military dimensions of the conflict. Asymmetrical war is still war, and anyone who argues against fighting jihadis when and where they take up arms has a difficult empirical task. I would argue, for example, that whatever sins of excess are embodied by the U.S. drone program in Pakistan are more than matched by our errors of deficiency in Nigeria. 

Moreover, while the use of the military is chiefly tactical, it is not exclusively so. Our air campaign against ISIS in Syria might kill personnel and destroy equipment, but it is making no headway in the struggle to defeat that group. Because the human and material needs of an insurgent group are light, the power lost to casualties and destroyed equipment can easily be restored. Meanwhile, by tacitly partnering with the hated Assad regime, the U.S. has effectively reduced itself to the role of a partisan player in a sectarian conflict between Shi'ites and Sunnis. We have thus allowed ISIS to make the fight about Islam, when we should be working to make the fight about democracy and human rights. As long as the U.S. cedes opposition to the Assad regime to jihadis, no amount of American technological supremacy or tactical destructiveness will make real headway against ISIS.

In the horrifying and often surreal dance that has played out since 9/11, Americans and jihadis have viewed one-another as if through a glass darkly. "America" is not a real place in the ideology and rhetoric of ISIS or Al Qaeda, it is a symbol upon which they can project all of their complaints against the entire economic and social matrix of the twenty-first century. In the same way, America has served and continues to serve as the "Great Satan" for all types of groups pursuing imaginaries incompatible with current realities, from the partisans of "Greater Serbia" in the 1990's to the settlers trying to revive the "Kingdom of Judea" on the West Bank today.

Likewise, "radical Islam" is not a real or coherent entity. It is a peg upon which we Americans can hang our fears of enemies operating in distant circumstances, whose means and rationale we are not entirely equipped to understand. "Radical Islam" will exist so long as an unhappy, unfortunate, aggrieved, or simply alienated individual can co-opt Muslim doctrine to serve violent ends. That is to say, "radical Islam" will be here forever. If we want to fight a war that we can win, we should not fight a war against something that will never go away. Rather, we should fight to defeat ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and the other specific groups that are violently assaulting the U.S. and its allies. The most important tools we have for the conduct of that war are political, and the first task we must undertake in activating those weapons is to establish that the fight is not about Islam, but about the rights, lives, and autonomy of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

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