Two news items, spread within days over all the media, must be seen together so as to disclose an ominous reality. One was the news that Meriam Ibrahim and her family had finally arrived safely in the United States. The other news was that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was proclaimed Caliph of the new Islamic State. The story of Meriam Ibrahim tells of yet another horrendous cruelty perpetrated in the name of Islam. The new Caliphate expresses the intention of globalizing the horror.
There are two ways of looking at the record of these atrocities. One is to see them as intrinsic to Islam, the other as an aberration of genuine Islam. The first view is rarely proposed publically in the United States, though it may be quietly held by some Americans less affected by the prevailing culture of tolerance. It is more openly stated in Europe, for example by the Dutch populist Geert Wilders, who admitted that he hated Islam as an enemy of freedom (among other things he proposed that the Quran, like Hitler’s Mein Kampf, should be banned in the Netherlands). It is also interesting to compare the different attitudes to Islamist terrorism by the successive administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Immediately after the attacks of September 2001 President Bush made a speech in which he declared that we are not at war with Islam but with terrorism. (He also said that “Islam means peace”, which it does not. A linguistically challenged White House speech writer must have confused two Arabic words—salaam/”peace”, a common form of salutation among Muslims, and aslama/”submission”, the root of the religion’s name. Not that this matters; Bush meant well.)
The “war against terror” unleashed by the Bush administration has not gone well, to put it mildly. But the domestic reaction to the aforementioned speech was very positive. Numerous churches and synagogues went out of their way to express friendship for Muslims, courses on Islam proliferated in academia, and there was hardly any violence against Muslims (one terrible exception was the murder of a Sikh taxi driver, who was wrongly identified as a Muslim because of his turban). Early after his election President Obama gave a speech in Cairo in which he expressed his admiration for Islam (barely stopping short of apologizing for not being a Muslim). The response to the speech in the Muslim world was decidedly muted. Obama had no problem with Bush’s Islamophilia; he did have a problem with the word “war”—ever since the Cairo speech the Obama administration has maintained either that there was no war to begin with, or (presumably because of Obama’s wise foreign policy) the war was now over. Both Bush’s and Obama’s approaches are in tension with empirical reality. To suggest that Islamist terror has nothing to do with Islam is rather absurd. There is a great shortage of Presbyterian suicide bombers; the Muslim ones, as they blow themselves up, shout “Allahu akbar!”/”Allah is great!” To deny that radical Islamism (aberration or not) is not at war with us is also quite absurd. Barack Obama may not think that we are in a war, but the news has not reached Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Let me say what I think about this matter: Islam is one of the great world religions, and it has created one of the world’s great civilizations. The resurgence of Islam in our time is not coterminous with Islamist terrorism, but is grounded in the fact that millions of people have found meaning and moral direction in this faith. One must never forget this. However, as a courageous Egyptian commentator wrote some years ago, most Muslims are not terrorists, but most terrorists today are Muslims. Radical Islamists have committed unspeakable horrors. And the Al Qaeda of 2001 has morphed into a global alliance of kindred movements and organizations, who constitute a real threat to the United States and its allies. It cannot be defeated or contained by “soft power” alone, but must be met, if necessary, by “hard power” or its credible threat.
Meriam Ibrahim was born as the daughter of a Sudanese Muslim father and an Ethiopian Christian mother. The father deserted and Meriam was raised as a Christian by her mother’s family. She subsequently married Daniel Wasi, a Christian holding U.S. citizenship, with whom she had one child and was pregnant with another when she was arrested. The charge was apostasy and fornication. Under Islamic law the father’s religion determines the child’s, so Meriam is a Muslim. Unless she recants her professed Christianity she is guilty of apostasy. Marriage between a Christian man and a Muslim woman is prohibited, so her union with Wasi is fornication. She refused to recant her Christian faith. She was sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy, and for fornication to be whipped with one hundred lashes. Both sentences were to be suspended for two years after the birth. Her first child, a son then aged twenty months, was kept in prison with her and became sick under the brutal conditions prevailing at Omdurman Women’s Prison. [I cannot refrain from noting that in 1898 the self-styled Mahdi, a messianic title, was defeated by British troops at the Battle of Omdurman. These of course were the bad old days of colonialism. I am always intrigued by hidden connections.] Meriam was kept in shackles throughout her imprisonment and remained so while giving birth to a daughter, who may have been damaged as a result. [In fidelity to balanced reporting it should be noted that the practice of keeping pregnant women in shackles through labor occurs in some American prisons, although this is prohibited by law in several states. I am not suggesting moral equivalence between American democracy and the Sudanese dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, who incidentally was indicted in 2009 by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Dafur. I merely observe that there are underworlds of barbarity even in basically decent democracies.]
The Caliphate was proclaimed in the large territory seized by the rebel movement that called itself ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The name has now been changed, quite simply, to IS—the Islamic State. The name change is significant: It implies that this territory straddling the border between what have been two sovereign states, is now the Islamic State, potentially with universal jurisdiction. The title of Caliph (khalifa) designates a successor of the Prophet, by definition Commander of the Faithful demanding allegiance by Muslims anywhere in the world. The name of Abu Bakr is also significant: He was the very first Caliph after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE; under him began the creation of an empire which at its height stretched from Spain to the borders of China. The imperial fantasy seems unreal now and is unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future, but it has a transcendent aura that will appeal to many potential holy warriors.
The list of Islamist atrocities is a long one. No useful purpose would be served by compiling one here. I will only mention some egregious ones. One should distinguish between two different phases—when Islamists are insurgents fighting governments (this has been called “asymmetrical warfare”) and when they have become governments themselves. The trajectory from ISIS to Caliphate is exemplary. ISIS committed many atrocities before it set up a (still rudimentary) state: indiscriminate massacres of (mostly Shia) civilians, persecution of Christians, assassinations, torture, imposition of the cruel penalties of sharia law on populations even temporarily under its control. What happened when ISIS conquered Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, gives a good idea what the Caliphate would be like if it became a more established state. Immediately ISIS imposed the harsh rules and penalties of what it understands Islamic rule to be. In the footsteps of the Taliban in Afghanistan, it destroyed historic monuments dating from pre-Islamic times. But the most horrible atrocity was the treatment of the large Christian community, one of the most ancient in the world. At first ISIS seemed ready to extend to Christians the traditional protection of “People of the Book” if they accepted the status of dhimmi (second-class subjects paying a special tax). The new ISIS authorities then changed their mind. Christians were given the options of conversion to Islam, execution or exile. Most chose exile, preferably in the nearby Kurdish-controlled area (about the only part of Iraq where something like law and order prevails). On the way there they were robbed of the few possessions they were allowed to take with them. The atrocities of Sunni ISIS were duly reciprocated by Shia militias operating in collusion with government forces. The spillage into Syria of the Shia-Sunni civil war in Iraq is what made the Caliphate possible.
When Islamists actually run a state, they commit horrors in a more orderly fashion. Iran and Saudi Arabia have become the big states supporting, respectively, the two sides of the Shia-Sunni conflict now dominating much of the Middle East. Domestically Iran brutally persecutes Baha’is and hangs homosexuals; it is a major sponsor of international terrorism, such as the massive attack a few years ago on Jewish institutions in Argentina); and it has been playing a delaying game with the powers that want to stop its project of acquiring atomic weapons (which would make it the hegemon in the region). Saudi Arabia has also been a source of funding (by the government and by wealthy individuals) for various terrorist groups. Domestically the Saudi regime does not allow any non-Muslim public worship; its criminal law imposes stoning for adultery and amputation for theft; let me not go into its treatment of women [Saudi Arabia is also a more or less reliable ally of the United States.]
Just some pickings from the list of atrocities perpetrated in the “asymmetric” phase: The Taliban, who operate in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, have specialized in the murder of young girls who commit the crime of going to school; they have recently been murdering health personnel giving polio vaccines to children, an activity they consider un-Islamic. Boko Haram, an Islamist movement in northern Nigeria, has killed thousands of (mostly Christian) villagers; its most spectacular coup has been the kidnapping in April 2014 of over two hundred Christian schoolgirls, who were forcibly converted to Islam and threatened with (presumably sexual) slavery (at this time of writing they are still in captivity). Kidnapping of Westerners for ransom has been a common practice in Africa, first by religiously unaccredited Somali pirates, now a major source of funding for terrorist groups linked to Al Qaeda-central (which, according to the Obama administration, no longer exists). The New York Times reported on July 30, 2014, that one of its reporters, Rukmini Callimachi, found documents in an abandoned Islamist site in Mali, which prove that European governments had used intermediaries to pay millions of dollars in ransom for captive citizens. Al Shabab, the Islamist movement that for a long time controlled parts of Somalia, has extended its activities to Kenya, supposedly to revenge the deployment of Kenyan troops in Somalia. Al Shabab terrorists occupied a mall in Kenya and interviewed all the patrons they managed to capture; those who could not credibly identify themselves as Muslims were murdered on the spot. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country, has traditionally had a moderate version of Islam. It still has. But radical voices have become louder. The Islamist group Jama’a Islamiya has been thought to be responsible a few years ago for the attack on a resort hotel in Bali. There was a massacre of its guests, most of them Australians.
One of the ugliest actions of radical Islam has been its important role in the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe, typically disguised as opposition to Israel. [I’m not implying that Israel does not deserve criticism, especially for its settlement policy in the West Bank.] On July 13, 2014 [on the eve of Bastille Day!] a crowd of between 10,000 and 30,000 people, mostly Muslims, demonstrated in Paris, supposedly to protest the Israeli campaign in Gaza. The crowd flnally besieged a synagogue, trapping worshippers inside. The crowd shouted “Death to the Jews” and “Hitler was right!” Some shouted “We are all Mohamed Merah”; this is the man who killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse. [It is remarkable that many who deny that the Holocaust ever took place are proposing to repeat it.]
Let me conclude: Islam is not the enemy. Radical Islamism is. It has spawned unspeakable horrors, a veritable “axis of evil”. Its global proliferation is a very real threat to the United States (though not, or not yet, like the existential one posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War—a nuclear-armed Iran would change that). To say this is not to recommend any particular direction for US foreign policy. Obviously this country cannot intervene militarily in every place where horrors are taking place, or even where there are potential threats to American interests. I doubt whether an overall strategy can be devised that will fit all cases. But viable policy depends on a clear view of the empirical realities. One reality is that we are in effect at war with Islamist radicalism; it is very unhelpful if this reality is denied (which the Obama administration tries to do.) The denial is popular, because Americans are understandably tired of war. But another reality is that Americans want government policies to be morally charged; they will not easily accept a foreign policy based on sheer Realpolitik. To strike a balance between these conflicting realities requires political leadership in sparse supply on either side of the aisle.