Juan Cole: A Treatment for Radical Ignorance About Islamic Radicalism

Roundup: Talking About History

Just as a commitment to containment of the Soviet Union served as a framework for U.S. foreign policy during the cold war, so the "war on terror" animates the foreign policy of the Bush administration. This struggle, in George W. Bush's words, is "a war unlike any other." Here, the enemy is vague, and terrorist groups are less the primary target than the conceptual glue holding together disparate policies toward Washington-defined "rogue states" such as Iran, Sudan, Syria, North Korea, and Saddam's Iraq. One difficulty with such a poorly defined war was admitted by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in a notorious leaked memo in the fall of 2003, when he wrote, "Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror."

A Middle East specialist can only be astonished that anyone, much less an enormously powerful U.S. cabinet secretary, would lump together secular, Arab nationalist Baath Party apparatchiks with Al Qaeda and the Deobandi seminaries of northern Pakistan that trained the Taliban, and then, elsewhere, relate them all to the disputatious schoolmen of Qom, Iran. Among the 55 wanted Iraqi Baathists referred to by Rumsfeld was Mikhail Yuhanna, a Christian Iraqi born in Mosul, who rose under the nom de guerre Tariq Aziz to become deputy prime minister. He adhered to Baathism precisely because it was a secular ideology that recognized Christians as full citizens. The Christians of Syria are also notoriously pro-Baath, fearing that the alternative is the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Rumsfeld himself, of course, took the same position in 1983 and 1984 when he served as Reagan-administration envoy to the Iraqi Baath regime seeking to counter the influence of the radical Shiite Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran.

It is almost as if, in the scenario popularized by the French historian Michel Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge, we are presented with a list of random things from another age and place, things that seem wholly unlike to us, but which an alien way of thinking or "episteme" has ordered as similar. The business of inventing a new episteme, in which ramshackle, toothless, third-world regimes are imagined as dire military threats to the United States and are connected by innuendo, conspiracy theory, and fraudulent documents to tiny Muslim extremist groups (often from a rival branch of Islam!), is booming in the hothouse think tanks of Washington. These "foundations" and "institutes," often backed by billionaire cranks, are ideologically monochrome, with "fellows" hired for their voting records, and they routinely publish sham "scholarship" that rises on the best-seller lists. Books such as Khidhir Hamza's Saddam's Bombmaker (Scribner, 2000), influential in making the case for an Iraq war, was promoted by Benador Associates, which represents a number of such right-wing, inside-the-Beltway intellectuals. It and many similar tomes are chock full of blatant falsehoods unchecked by any peer review, and are widely cited by decision makers and talking heads.

Elements of the Washington power elite, formed in the cold war, have attempted to configure the Muslim world as the new Soviet Union. R. James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, even suggested that the cold war was World War III, and that the "war on terror" is World War IV.

The problem, of course, is that the Muslim world is not actually like the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a state, and although it was always much weaker and much poorer than the paranoid hawks in Washington imagined, it was a power to be reckoned with. Almost all the states of the Muslim world, in contrast, are close friends and allies of America. As for Muslim publics, they evince an enthusiastic appreciation of democracy in all the polls taken, and mainly criticize the United States on specific policies and the immorality of Hollywood films. They do not hate our way of life, or at least no more than does America's own Bible Belt. While small Muslim radical groups with deadly intent and capacity do exist, they would logically be better targeted by Interpol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation than by the Pentagon.

So many extraneous efforts have been tacked on to the so-called war on terror, from basing rights in Uzbekistan to the repression of marsh Arab Shiites who have joined the radical Mahdi Army militia in the Maysan province of Iraq, that the original occasion for American public alarm — the 9/11 attacks — seems often in danger of being forgotten or slighted.

Into these Wizard of Oz-like miasmas a few brave academics have stepped with books that evince a clearsighted vision and solid expertise. Among the best of these is Fawaz A. Gerges's The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global. Gerges, a solid academic and a native Arabic speaker of Christian heritage who is originally from Lebanon, focuses on the core Al Qaeda group — veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Gerges explains that modern Muslim radicalism was founded on a new form of fundamentalist religion and a rejection of secularism and the colonial heritage that had so powerfully shaped most Muslim nation-states. It initially focused on internal goals....

comments powered by Disqus