Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a two-part series. Part One may be found in the Summer 2006 issue.
To continue this investigation into the nature of our enemy in the War on Terror, my premise, again, is this: Westernization is an endemic threat to any group wishing to retain its non-Western and often pre-modern corporate identity. This threat produces reactions shaped by demography (un- or underemployed adolescent males), by factionalism, by political circumstances and by the cultural predicates of religious belief. These demographic, social, political and cultural factors are often varyingly mistaken as causes of Islamist violence when, more properly, they should be called enablers. What has caused our Islamist enemies to be what they are erupts from factional divides we exacerbate when we push individual rights and freedoms, live as though we privilege the material over the spiritual, and universalize our notions of equality.
I have suggested that important policy implications flow from the divides Westernization engenders between those who wish to preserve their corporate identity (I refer to them as “nativists”) and accommodationists, who, along with us, imperil that corporate identity. These policy implications fall into three broad categories.
First, while not all forms of anti-Westernism produce violence, Islamist nativism does and will continue to do so. Nor will methods used to successfully limit earlier forms of nativist, anti-Western violence work against Islamists. Islam, a world religion, introduces new wrinkles into what was often “just” a localized, tribal problem in the past. This means that the War on Terror could well be a long war—although not for the reasons the Bush Administration has espoused. It will be long not because the democratic reforms necessary to transform the Middle East will be, in the President’s words, “the work of generations.” Rather, it will be long because nativists will ensure that to increasing numbers of Muslims the identity and existence of Islam itself will seem to hang in the balance.
Second, contrary to much common assertion, Islamists view the struggle as a religious conflict, not an ideological one. The contention that Islamism is a wholly modern ideology divorced from the sacred, having little to do with Islam as a religion, is wishful thinking. While Islamists have borrowed liberally from Western, Marxist and other ideologies, that does not mean that Islamism is essentially an ideology, or that it is mostly borrowed. At its core there is a religious and divinely mandated template as old as the Quran itself.
Third, the strategy that posits that the key to success in battling Islamist violence is to appeal to and separate moderates in Muslim countries from so-called radicals is a chimera. It presupposes the erection of political firewalls, as if these can keep co-religionists apart, or as if it’s possible to prevent moderates from being radicalized by unforeseen events. This presumes that we can identify who among our own population might go postal, who might shoot up a high school, or who might react to an incident like Waco as Timothy McVeigh did. Clearly, we can’t accurately identify or predict radicals here at home. What makes us think we can do any better abroad?
But even if winning over Muslim moderates were the key to defusing this “long war”, a U.S. values offensive—our advocacy of democracy, gender equality, “human rights” and religious freedom as defined in the West—is the worst possible way to proceed. Given the dynamics of factionalism and nativism, any focus on values hands nativists exactly what they need: By condemning their choices, we make traditional practices, and whatever religious precepts are thought to undergird them, the issue. It is hard to think of a policy concept that is more misguided or inimical to our interests.
Sources of the Long War
We need to be clear: Being anti-Western or even anti-modern need not presuppose anti-Western violence. Also, modernization is not completely synonymous with Westernization, so rejecting the former need not entail rejecting the latter: The Amish, for instance, are in many ways anti-modern, but they are hardly anti-Western. Almost all nomadic pastoralists (people who keep livestock)—Maasai in East Africa, Fulani and Tuareg in the Sahel, Bedouin throughout the Middle East, and many Somalis—can likewise be considered anti-modern: They reject permanent settlement. Nor does much of what modernity has to offer accord well with their peripatetic life. But so long as they can reject what they don’t need, and can remain culturally autonomous and nomadic, there is no reason for pastoral nomads to adopt a violently anti-modern let alone anti-Western stance.
Many American Indian tribes, too—Navajo, Lakota and most Pueblos—contain significant traditionalist, nativist and anti-assimilationist factions whose aim is to remain as spiritually Indian as possible. Because traditionalist Indians reject Christianity, we could say this makes them anti-Western (and not just anti-modern) by default, but they are not actively anti-Western. Rather, thanks to reservations and the space these offer, the U.S. government no longer needs to force Indians to assimilate, and so traditionalist Indians have no current reason to wage war against the United States.
We would do well to distinguish between anti-modern traditionalists who have inherited their way of life, however, and those who choose to reject the modern world in which they were raised. As to the former, nothing about their rejection of modernity requires them to take up arms. Typically, they are not interested in proselytizing; they just want to be left alone. The lesson this suggests is that if only we grant anti-modern traditionalists space, autonomy and the freedom to operate communally, they pose no threat. In contrast, those who choose to reject the world in which they were raised—like the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, for example—do pose a problem. This is the problem Olivier Roy and others have identified when they home in on young, de-communalized but not de-racinated Muslims in Europe. These are youth who want what modernity has to offer yet grow increasingly anti-Western in the process.
Again, peoples and factions in such circumstances need not turn violent. Take, for example, most self-segregated Muslim communities outside the Middle East prior to the Iranian Revolution, or most ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities everywhere to this day. The latter are religious but usually not politically mobilized. Having removed or isolated themselves physically from the larger society, and by purposely and carefully forgoing lots of things (even if not everything), they can assiduously avoid or control threats to their communal identity. Push a bit further, and what becomes apparent is that most such enclaves have figured out how to subsist “within us but without us”, which means they have reached an accommodation. So long as group members believe they can remain true to their traditions, they are unlikely to want to draw attention to themselves, let alone cause problems for us. In other words, with sufficient social distance, mutual tolerance—even if not mutual respect—may well be possible, but probably only when people are willing to remain marginal, subordinate and apolitical.
By contrast, people who cannot or do not wish to remain marginal, who cannot or do not wish to subsist without modern, Western amenities, yet who actively disparage and rail against Western values, make much less sense to us. This describes most Islamists and all jihadists, whether they live in the Middle East, Europe or North America. How can they take so much of what the West produces, be so dependent, and yet still act so hostile and aggressively anti-Western? To us this reeks of hypocrisy or ingratitude, or both. No doubt this is one reason we assume that, in despising us, Islamists really despise themselves; how can they not when they’re so technologically incapable and inferior?
The catch is that these are our readings of their motivations. We forget that as Americans we tend to measure worth according to technological prowess and individual freedoms. Without these characteristics we could not have generated our present wealth or well-being. Nor would we be able to keep growing, changing and generating more opportunities—the hallmarks of both democracy and capitalism. But embedded in this measure of worth is a self-reinforcing logic that may be more peculiar to us than we suppose: We privilege technology and opportunity because they have privileged us, and so we consider them to be the measures of success and superiority for everyone. In short, we are still quite Calvinist, and we take the fact that nearly everyone wants so much of what we produce and consume as further proof that our standards are universal.
However, the French (just to pick on them—why not?) would hardly agree. According to their sensibilities, they set the standard to which all should aspire: superior High Culture. Not only do the French know how to live well, but by the criteria of style, art and cuisine they reign supreme. Of course, Italians might beg to differ, while Swedes and Norwegians would doubtless argue that, in terms of health and social well-being, they actually live best. The point is that different peoples judge not only their own worth, but also that of others, according to standards that tend to reflect what they value most.
Such standards vary according to how, or even if, they can be measured. It is easy, for instance, to claim technological superiority. That is measurable not only in numbers of patents, but in engineering feats, miracles of modern medicine or through contests of arms. Claims to superiority based on style or high culture are harder to prove, though who people emulate and what they buy may be considered sufficiently convincing demonstrations of worth. But what about moral superiority? When it comes to moral worth, what could possibly count as an agreed-upon measure for peoples who adhere to different moral codes? For those who are religious, for instance, the only real proofs of moral rectitude come with divine judgment. And while different peoples might view natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes or floods as testaments, are these warnings or punishments? Even that cannot be answered with certainty.
What this in turn means is that for those who use morality as the yardstick by which to measure societal superiority, we can never prove ourselves superior, or even equal, unless we adopt their standards. This is what we are up against not only with Islamists, but potentially all Muslims who hold their faith dear. Muslims’ measure of their worth has everything to do with Islam’s moral superiority. A poor peasant who lives in a mud hut will consider himself superior to us, and there is nothing any information campaign or “war of ideas” strategy can do to persuade him otherwise.
This explains more about our current predicament than most policymakers want to recognize. For instance, Muslims’ convictions about their God-given superiority justify their making a whole range of separations that we do not. To take just one example, men and women are not the same and therefore should not be treated the same. That’s not just an ideological but a moral stance. Another example: The connections we make between our values and our productivity mean nothing to people who don’t believe material well-being and moral worth are causally related. Far more compelling, instead, is the notion that moral superiors deserve whatever moral inferiors are clever enough to design and build. If we are those moral inferiors—and we are in many Muslims’ eyes—then there can’t be anything hypocritical about using what we produce.
We err deeply when we assume that we can seduce people into adopting our values by getting them to adopt our stuff. There is virtually no evidence that this works in the non-Christian, non-West; if it did, there would no longer be a non-Christian, non-West. Consider all the Western goods that fill markets and houses in the Middle East and beyond. This should be an indicator that we only fool ourselves when we assume Muslims resent us because of our productivity and material success, and don’t instead resent us for our lack of moral worth—worth we lack because we refuse to recognize Islam as the superior faith.
Muslims’ commitment to their own superiority should not surprise us, for in case after case those who have fought Westernization have done so not just because they do not want to change, but because they consider their way of life, their beliefs and their morals to be both superior and at risk. Nobody rallied more American Indians to stand firm against whites than Tecumseh, a Shawnee, of whom it has been said that the “constant, crucial ambition of Shawnee was to remain Shawnee, which they were unshakably convinced was much better than being anyone else.”1 Clearly, this was not true for all Shawnee, since some willingly assimilated, but it is what drove Tecumseh to fight to the death. The same was the case for legions of other Indian leaders: Better to fight and die as an Indian than to surrender and become something else.
Submission is the critical concept here. How can a group of people sure of their moral superiority ever submit to anyone else’s moral code? (Civil authority yes, but only if it does not contradict religious precepts; not coincidentally, that is exactly what Muslim law obligates.) This issue of submission and moral superiority represents the crux of the struggle between Islamists and the West, which, tellingly, Islamists assert without reservation but which no Westerner in a position of power dares mention. For that would make this war essentially a religious war, which it mustn’t be—but which in fact it is.
The historical logic that emerges from earlier cases of anti-Western nativism suggests that if only we could grant Muslims sufficient space and autonomy to live communally and according to their own moral precepts, we could take the violent sting out of their opposition. But if we use history as a guide, we would also have to first either subdue and then sequester them, or let them go off and be anti-Western in some resourceless hinterland somewhere. Alternatively, we might try to forcibly Westernize all Muslims, obliterate them, or tolerate al-Qaeda-like attacks in perpetuity. But given that most of these options are demographically or logistically impossible, and the last is, or ought to be, unacceptable, we face a real dilemma: History suggests no arena in which a struggle such as the present one can be peaceably worked out or ended quickly.
2. See James Kurth, “George Bush and the Protestant Deformation”, The American Interest (Winter 2005).