President Obama’s professed desire to contain the Islamic State is unlikely to succeed without a serious effort by the West and its Muslim allies to question the ideology and steady stream of conspiracy theories that feeds Islamist terrorism. Given the global nature and regenerative capacity of Islamist movements, limited action against one group will only result in the birth of another.
The Islamic State emerged out of al-Qaeda’s ashes just as the Obama Administration was celebrating its successful efforts to locate and kill Osama bin Laden. Military action against IS, though necessary, will likely result in a new mutation, just as al-Qaeda evolved as a violent strain of political Islam preached by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The West, led by the United States, won the Cold War because it confronted Communist beliefs in addition to restraining Soviet expansionism. But Western leaders—including all candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2016—are reluctant to acknowledge that the West might be at war with radical Islam, out of concern for the prospect of unleashing a wave of bigotry against all Muslims.
But the falsified history and simplified explanations for Muslim decline that pass for discourse among Muslims has to be debunked if the West is to deny Islamists their raison d’être. The most practical way of denying further recruits to extremist Islamist groups is to systematically question and marginalize the outmoded theology of Islamic dominance at the heart of Islamist radicalism. A campaign to reject the dogma of Islamic supremacism would find many supporters among Muslims tired of the zealotry and self-righteousness of the Islamists.
An ideological struggle against radical Islam does not mean treating 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide as the West’s enemy. This huge population will not quit Islam by listening to television pundits in Europe and North America; nor will a ban on immigration prevent Western converts to radical Islamism from swelling the ranks of ISIS. Rather, it requires Muslims to examine the Islamists’ core belief that they must somehow be forcibly united, and that they have a God-given right to lead the world.
Soon after the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda ideologue Sayf al-din al-Ansari explained that the attacks were necessary to challenge the ascendancy of Western civilization. According to him, the Islamic community “cannot move in an orbit set by another.”
The Islamic State’s statement claiming responsibility for last Friday’s attacks in Paris declared that the attackers sought to “cast terror into the hearts” of the West. The attacks in France, patterned on the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, came within 48 hours of attacks in Beirut and Baghdad, reflecting the jihadis’ global reach.
Islamists target other Muslims to eliminate pluralism within Islam; causing fear and panic in Western society is part of the jihadis’ strategy to weaken and defeat Western civilization. The origins of al-Qaeda, IS, and other similar groups lie in recent Muslim history and ideology, not Western foreign policy.
Unlike Europe and North America, Muslim territories did not reach their contemporary status gradually. The British and the French in the Arabic-speaking lands, the Russians in Central Asia, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the British in India and Malaya brought new ideas and technology to Muslim lands as occupiers or colonizers.
Some Muslim leaders, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, opted to learn from and imitate the West. Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, told a peasant who asked him what Westernization meant: “It means being a better human being.” Others, however, recommended “revivalism,” or a search for lost glory through rejection of new ways and ideas.
Contemporary jihadis use modern means, including the internet and state-of-the-art weapons, to impose medieval beliefs in an effort to reclaim Islam’s global pre-eminence. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian founder, Hassan al-Banna, called upon Muslims “to regain their honor and superiority” in addition to recovering “their lost lands, their usurped regions and their occupied territories.”
While seeking honor or securing self-determination might be valid political objectives, the belief in the superiority of one’s community of believers only fosters fascism. Muslim countries have nosedived into turmoil, with the rise of those wanting to Islamize the modern world coming at the cost of those hoping to modernize the Muslim world.
There is a huge gap between the Islamist aspiration of dominating the world and the reality of the relatively poor political, economic, and educational status of Muslims in contemporary times. Muslims comprise 22 percent of the world’s population but account for only 7 percent of its economic output.
The number of new book titles published every year in Arabic, the language of 360 million, is the same as those published in Romanian, the mother tongue of only 24 million people. The annual figure for new book titles in Urdu, spoken by some 325 million South Asian Muslims, is comparable to that for Danish, spoken by some 5.6 million.
Muslim leaders and intellectuals have created a narrative of victimhood to explain Muslim debility, which in turn enables extremist groups to offer extreme strategies to change the circumstances. “We are weak and poor because we were colonized by the West” is a common refrain, whereas in reality colonization became possible because Muslim empires had already been weakened by failing to adopt new technologies and modes of production.
The jihadi plan for regaining Muslim pride is to challenge Western dominance by striking fear and terror in the hearts of Westerners. They are aided in their endeavor by the absence of discussion among Muslims of why all major ideas that define the contemporary world—from the joint stock company, banking, and insurance to freedom of speech—emerged in the West, or how these ideas, not just conspiracies and superior military technology, made the West ascendant in the past several centuries.
While the jihadis want a clash of civilizations, most ordinary Muslims are hesitant to examine their history or analyze their community’s prospects. Universities in most of the Muslim world focus on producing doctors, engineers, and people proficient in technical disciplines. As a result, even highly educated professionals embrace conspiracy theories about al-Qaeda and ISIS being Western puppets bent on dividing Muslims. Some who do not support the extremists still see value in their ability to at least challenge the arrogant West.
Military defeat alone will not rid the Muslim world of this intellectual malaise. Islamist movements use the humiliation of fellow believers as an opportunity for the mobilization and recruitment of dedicated followers. The resort to asymmetric warfare—the idea that a suicide bomber is a poor man’s F-16—has followed recent Muslim military defeats.
Yasser Arafat and his al-Fatah captured the imagination of young Palestinians only after the Arab defeat and loss of the West Bank in 1967. Islamic militancy in Kashmir can be traced to India’s military victory over Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh War. Revenge, rather than willingness to compromise or submit to the victors, is the traditional response of Islamists to the defeat of their armies.
Islamists represent a strain of revivalist thought that perceives a battle without a specific frontline and not limited in span to a few years or even decades. They think in terms of conflict spread over generations. A call for jihad against British rule in India, for example, resulted in an underground movement that began in 1830 and lasted until the 1870s, with remnants periodically surfacing well into the 20th century.
Western nations, together with Muslim allies, need a winning strategy for that generational conflict. They could encourage Muslims to recognize that success in the 21st century will not come from seeking restoration of the medieval order.
Jihadists are incubated in the anti-Western and anti-Semitic conversations and conspiracy theories that pervade the Muslim world. Islamists murder secularists and force many of them to leave their countries because they fear the seductive power of liberal ideas. In the first half of the 20th century, secular nationalism served as the antidote to Islamism.
But nationalist autocrats bred conspiracy theories themselves while strangulating freedom of thought. Instead of ushering in a Muslim enlightenment, authoritarian secularism only strengthened anti-Semitism and the search for the hidden hand manipulating Muslim nations and depriving them of their manifest destiny. Western nations and their Muslim allies embraced Islamists, who were rather weak at the time, in the context of their efforts to contain communism.
Now may be the time to reignite debate in Muslim countries about the real causes of Muslim debility. Western governments and even private organizations and individuals could help with wider circulation in native languages of material produced by Muslims who question the narrative that aids the Islamists.
Books and movies could be produced reflecting the ways that Muslim decline is caused not by Westernization but by poverty and ignorance, which cannot be over-turned by recreating the 7th century or sporadic attacks on Western cities. Support could be given to anti-Islamist political parties, just as non-communist groups were helped in several vulnerable countries during the Cold War. An international network of Muslim critics of radical Islam could reiterate and refine their message.
Some Muslim governments, notably the United Arab Emirates, have initiated efforts to debate and dispute the radical Islamist worldview. That effort needs to expand to include Western countries with substantial Muslim populations, as well as Muslim countries, which tend to produce disproportionately larger number of Jihadi recruits.
In countries like Pakistan (deemed a Western ally) the Jihadi narrative is sustained by the government and media to help groups that advance regional strategic objectives. But it inadvertently also advances the cause of jihadis that are out of the state’s control.
By refusing to identify radical Islam (not all Muslims) as the problem, Western leaders end up reinforcing the Islamist view that they are succeeding in rattling or confusing the West. A concerted ideological campaign, like the one that discredited and contained communism, run by Muslim allies would be the Islamists’ worst nightmare. It would augment military action and counter-terrorist operations against jihadi safe havens and would prevent the breeding of future jihadis.