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Nov 13, 2005 10:03 am

Mark Steyn: How Terrorism Advances the Islamist Cause

Mark Steyn: How Terrorism Advances the Islamist Cause The Islamist movement has two wings, one illegal and violent, the other legal and political. I believe the latter enjoys better prospects of success than the former. That's because law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and military forces know how to deal with the illegal and the violent, but the Western world lacks the muscles to defend itself from an insidious radical movement.

For these reasons, I consider the major terrorist assaults – 9/11, Bali, Madrid, Beslan – to be failures. They foul the nest and they rouse Westerners to action. Or, as I put it after the murder of Theo van Gogh,"Islamist terrorism in the West is counterproductive because it awakens the sleeping masses; in brief, jihad provokes crusade. A more cunning Islamist enemy would advance its totalitarian agenda through Mafia-like intimidation, not brazen murders."

Then along comes the irrepressible Mark Steyn who argues in the National Review ("A War Without Polkas") why 9/11 makes sense from the Islamist viewpoint. I am not convinced, but he does make an interesting case. He starts by assuming that Europe will be Muslim:

That being so, why louse things up by flying planes into buildings? Why not just lie low and in the fullness of time everything you want will come your way? The Wahhabists have successfully radicalized hitherto moderate Muslim communities from Albania to Indonesia; they've planted their most radical clerics as in-house padres throughout U.S. prisons and even the armed forces. Why screw things up by doing something so provocative it meets even [former secretary of defense] Bill Cohen's criteria for a response?

Here's why. It's always useful to test the limits of your adversaries, and, though it cost them their camps in Afghanistan and much of their leadership, the 9/11 attacks exposed many useful tidbits about the decadence of the West — the worthlessness of the post-modern NATO"alliance" and the active hostility of many of its key members to the United States, the immense deference accorded not just to Islam but to the most radical Islamic groups, especially when it comes to immigration and other aspects of national security. Many Islamists might have suspected all this, but it's heartening to have it confirmed: If the"sleeping giant" is hard to wake up, his European pals aren't sleeping so much as in irreversible comas. …

But the real battleground is the West itself, the heart of Europe, where bombs in Spain, murders in the Netherlands,"honor killings" in Germany prompt only shrugs or preemptive capitulation from the political class.

In other words, Steyn is saying, successful terrorist attacks boost Islamist morale and provide good intel. True, but this is not worth it. I see these atrocities as radical Islam's indulgences, not its path to victory. (May 23, 2005)

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Jason--I think you're right, but I would go further: I don't think the resort to fantasy is a merely "momentary indulgence." When jihadists destroy an important symbol like the WTC, it functions to re-affirm their sense that God is on their side; how else, on their terms, could such a spectacular success have been possible? Such successes dovetail very well with Quranic pronouncements about God's destruction of the wicked, whether via human violence or through "direct divine action" (e.g., God's dealings with the Pharoah, the cities of 'Ad and Thamoud described in the Quran, etc.).

It's not that jihadists reject the instrumentalist approach to politics. It's that they have a supernaturalist interpretation of instrumentalism. They think they're carrying out a divine plan, and the more spectacular and inhuman the success, the better the sign that they are succeeding in carrying out the plan.

Diana Moon - 5/21/2005

Irfan, I get your point, but isn't there a point where grand gestures no matter how self-affirming become sterile? Then, won't even a supernaturally-oriented jihadist be tempted to go onto something more destructive?

Jason Pappas - 5/19/2005

You’re right, one should go further, as you suggest in your first paragraph. I also minimized the instrumental factor, as you note in your second paragraph. It’s not either/or.

Now, it would be nice if Mr. Pipes joined us in the conversation.

Jason Pappas - 5/18/2005

I think you underestimate the re-affirmation aspect of jihadist violence. It galvanizes the faithful in what can only be categorized as a religious re-affirmational act. Yes, there is an accompanying fantasy but the very act itself is more than a momentary indulgence of that fantasy. Religions acts often seem like irrational indulgences or bizarre rituals to the outsiders.

We, in the West, have an overemphasis on the utilitarian or instrumental value that is all too common for the modern rationalist.