Part One: The Facile
I argued late last month that, after Paris, Bamako, and San Bernardino, a clutch of mainly well-intentioned observers were exaggerating the role of ideology in the Islamist threat, calling (again) for a “war of ideas,” as though the desultory post-9/11 era experience on this score had never happened. I noted, as have many others both recently and more than a dozen years ago, that any consequential “war of ideas” has to go on within Muslim-majority countries. And it is going on, with signs pointing to the eventual rejection and marginalization of salafi extremism, and the emergence of something still inchoate that is neither Islamist nor entirely traditional. Of course we could help the anti-salafis in the region more than we have been, and we could be wiser about our methods. We could also go about this foolishly and counterproductively, as we have in some cases in the past and as certain presidential contenders are urging us to repeat (and worse).
Between the Western worldview and terror-prone Islamism, on the other hand, there is little intellectual or ideological conflict of significance that can be remedied by a “war of ideas.” There is a conflict, of course, and it is one between two universalisms: Western Enlightenment liberalism and Islamist supremacism. But this conflict is not the proximate source of our problem. There is rather a sociological problem in the region having mainly to do with the stresses of modernization on traditional and, in many cases, still largely tribally structured societies, and this agonizing civilizational churning happens to spatter blood beyond as well as within its borders.1 Regrettably, we in the West cannot master this problem, only manage it until those who truly own it work their way to some new and improved social equipoise. It is facile to suppose otherwise.
I know this argument will be unpopular in some circles, for the “war of ideas” mantra has become a kind of abstract rallying cry that supposedly complements the military/security instrumentalities Western governments must use to protect their citizens. Many people are uncomfortable or unsatisfied with an exclusively military-security response to salafi extremism and long to believe that something more philosophically elevated must be involved here. There is, no doubt, but I stand by my argument that the “war of ideas” notion, as commonly understood and promulgated, is not that something. Here I elaborate and complement that argument, in two parts.
First, I want to be more specific about the non-centrality of ideological conflict between the West and Islamism. What we Western observers often identity as ideological is really theological; but then we would do that, wouldn’t we, since most Western observers do not take theology as a social force very seriously anymore. The two are not the same, and thanks to a good deal of natural blurring between the understanding of ideology and theology among Muslims—because they do not take the category of the secular very seriously—rationalist arguments on an ideological plain made directly by non-Muslims to Muslims will get us absolutely nowhere.
Second, in part two, I visit the proverbial other side of the coin, for when our chatterati propose a “war of ideas” turning on the presumed centrality of jihadi ideology, they rarely leave off adjuring us here in the West to revivify and pump new energy into the liberal project that defines us both historically and prospectively. It follows that if we are warring on someone else’s ideas, we must have superior ideas in which we genuinely believe with which to win that war. Such adjuration makes for a terrific applause line, but it never comes with assembly instructions. There’s a reason for that.
To argue that there is no ideological conflict of significance between Western liberalism and Islamism is not to say that Islamists have no explicit beliefs about their relations with non-Muslims, including those of the West, or that they do not draw political implications and inspiration from those beliefs. The leaders of Islamist organizations do both, and some mid-echelon followers do as well. But the rank-and-file of Islamist organizations, notably those disposed to participate in violence and terrorism, tend to be not particularly interested in the esoterica of Islamist political theology, are neither well-versed in it nor educated sufficiently to parse it, and are not mainly motivated by whatever intellectually suasive power it may have. They join for other reasons of a run-of the-mill social-psychological sort that I (and many others) have discussed before. The Arabs native to the region and those who are attracted to the caliphate from Europe, Russia, Turkey, and America do not display precisely the same social-psychological profile, and their ability to direct their intellects to salafi thinking differs as well. Still, the point stands: What we think of as a rational, intellectual process of becoming persuaded by an argument plays a minor role, if any, for most jihadi warriors and supporters.
This matters, and here is why: What if there were an Osama bin Laden and an Ayman al-Zawahiri, and what if there is an Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi and his close circle of premillenarian fanatics, but with hardly anyone willing to follow them? How much danger would these marginally charismatic hysterics pose? Not much, or at any rate far less danger than the distinctly non-existential threat they pose today. What motivates the cadres matters for practical reasons, and that motivation is usually idiosyncratic and highly emotional. It is not well described as intellectual or ideological.
The cadres get a highly simplified narrative line from their elders—so simple, in fact, that a single sentence suffices to state it: The non-believers are conspiring against Islam, and it is your duty as a Muslim to uphold the superiority and ensure the victory of Islam. Put in slightly more elaborate form, as it might be pitched to a young would-be adept, it gathers up the ambient elements of the region’s deep-seated grievance culture and conspiracy-theory tendencies and says, in effect, “All the problems in our society, all the humiliations and lack of dignity and justice, are the fault of non-believers and their lackeys within our midst. If we vanquish them, we will restore the Muslim umma to its rightful place as global leaders in both faith and power. If you do not join the struggle, you dishonor your family and spite God and His Prophet.”
Now, is this an ideology? It seems a bit sparse to qualify. As that term is commonly used in the West, an ideology at a minimum needs to specify: some ideal political economy; some ideal relationship between society, state, and authority; and some ideal relationship between a given society and the world outside it. There is nothing very special in these regards about current Islamist thinking. There are some innovations, yes: the very strict segregation of the sexes in public spaces; the insistence that non-Muslims cannot hold any public office; the re-merging of religious and temporal authority in the caliphate. But even these innovations do not differ much from the standard traditional Muslim understanding of these matters, and that traditional understanding is too well known to require extensive review here. Simply put, it divides the world into believers and non-believers, and proclaims the superiority of the former and the inevitable transformation of the world into a single Muslim community and state through various forms of struggle. It creates special conditions for the protection of precursors to Islam (Jews and Christians, mainly) and it bans compulsion in religion. But the precepts of Islamic supremacism and the inevitability of struggle until victory are otherwise not constrained.
That said, over the centuries this traditional understanding has been authoritatively conditionalized in practical ways so as to enable Muslim polities to live normal lives, so to speak, both within and among other polities. That process began as early as the Umayyad Empire, developed appreciably in Abbasid times, and developed even more finely during some five centuries of Ottoman rule into a synthesis, or practical compromise, between a bare-bones traditional understanding and the practical adjustments required as time passed. Some of these adjustments became necessary because the unity of Islam deteriorated early on, and the original theory made no provision for either divisions among believers or the de facto separation of religion and temporal authority. Others became necessary because the power of Islam was insufficient to promulgate successful struggle at all times and places, and theories of truces with non-believers and the conditions of commercial exchange and diplomacy with non-Muslim entities had to be elaborated—and, of course, they were, in detail.
It is these adjustments, those that have concerned internal order and those that have concerned relations with non-Muslims, that the al-Qaeda and Islamic State leaderships wish to jettison in order to “return” to the supposedly purer Islam of the Prophet’s time. The problem is, first, that the Prophet himself did not idealize his own time (quite the contrary), and second, that there is not nearly enough “there” there in the Quran and other early, Rushidun-era sources to construct a workable system of governance and foreign relations for contemporary times. It turns out that the accumulated accretions born of experience over the centuries remain necessary.
That means that the leadership of the Islamic State, and of al-Qaeda before it and now in addition to it, already needs to authoritatively interpret scripture—in other words, it needs to do exactly what it wishes others had not done over all these centuries: adumbrate the pure and simple paradigm of Islamic thinking to cover practical necessity. The result has been a good deal of intellection and no shortage of disagreement.
Now, what is the nature of this Islamist intellection or interpretation? The simple answer is that its nature is theological, not ideological. (That further begs the question of what the difference is between the two, and I will come to that in a moment.) That means, in the case of Islam, that (1) its source of authority is scripture, (2) the interpretation of scripture is bounded by certain rules concerning how it can be interpreted and by whom, and (3) that, in a law-based system like Islam, interpretations almost invariably result in specific instruction (fatwa) as to what behaviors are obligatory, permissible, and forbidden. The ideological elements here, by which I mean those pertaining to political matters, are a subset of the theological. In other words, they are lesser-included cases of law-based thinking whose center is elsewhere.
Here, too, Islamists today do not differ from Muslims generally, except that their interpretations and derived law follow to an extreme what until about forty years ago was itself a minoritarian current within Islam. That current goes back to an exegete named Ibn Tamiyya, a 13th-century figure who came out of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence and who, looking forward, shaped the thinking of the 18th century Wahhabiya movement. Current Islamist thinking is even more extreme than its precursors, which is par for the premillennarian course, and it deviates from settled principle in a few cases beyond the three noted in passing above—like the protected status of Christian dhimmi. But even this is not unprecedented in Islamic history; the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim of the 11th century did the same, as did the Almohads of the 12th century.
If you were to read in Arabic the interpretations and responsa of the early Hanbalis, of Ibn Tamiyya and his near-contemporary followers, of Ibn al-Wahhab, and of the current Diwan al-’Iftaa wa al-Buhuth (Fatwa Issuing and Research Department) of the Islamic State, you would see that the language, structure, and even the tone of them all are essentially unchanged over the past thousand years. The basic approach is easy to describe: a question is posed about what is obligatory, permitted, or forbidden with respect to a specific issue; a verse or maybe two in scripture is identified as the lodestone against which judgments must flow; scripture is then interpreted, usually on the basis of statements from other, post-Quranic authoritative literature as to the reasons scripture reads as it does, and, depending on which authorities are chosen, schools of thought are followed; and then the law-like dos and don’ts of behavior are laid out in conformity with the interpretations. The recent stuff is less erudite and subtle, maybe, and experts can point to some innovations here as well, but it is eminently recognizable as part of the genre.
Now, if you happen to be an educated Orthodox Jew, you will notice a striking family resemblance here in the interpretive movement from Torah and Tanakh to Mishnah, to Gemorrah, to the responsa of the Gaonim (including a medieval near contemporary of Ibn Tamiyya—the Rambam), and then the gedolim down through the ages all the way to the present time. The parallel is not exact, but it is plenty close enough for, as we say, folk music and government work.
If you happen to be a Christian, which involves one in an Abrahamic but not a law-based system, you would likely be unfamiliar with this sort of literature. You might be in luck, however: a shortcut is at hand. An Islamic State pamphlet about concubinage and how female war captives may and may not be treated, issued by the aforementioned Fatwa Research Department, dateline Raqqa, made its way out of the Caliphate thanks to a U.S. Special Forces raid at Abu Sayyaf this past year. There is an English translation, along with photocopies of the original Arabic pages, and reading through this translation can give you a hint, at least, of what Islamic State “ideology” looks, feels, tastes, and smells like.
So what emerges from this observation? Three relevant conclusions stand forth: First, not just any semi-literate schmo can read and understand this stuff; second, interpretations will differ, and so different schools of understanding and law will emerge; and third, the extension of these differences into the political realm will create contending factions—and if those factions are free to arm themselves, they will, quite possibly, fight each other as they did in the distant past. Indeed, extremist Islamist sects are already doing so in the Levant today.
Aside from disagreements among Islamist groups, it should go without saying that there are even wider differences and potential conflicts between those groups and the rest of the Sunni Muslim world. Most contemporary Muslim exegetes, who are heirs to a multi-centuries’ long jurisprudential tradition, do not agree with Islamic State researchers when it comes to concubinage and the treatment of female prisoners of war, just as very few rabbis today take literally the words of Deuteronomy, chapter 21—which is, just by the way, the original basis of the Islamic take on this subject.
But more important for our purposes is the fact that Islamist “ideology” is not commensurate with any system of Western political values. Liberalism as the epitome of the Western way of thinking about politics is based on deeper philosophical currents, but it is not a mere lesser-included case. It has its own weight, its autonomy, its own discourse. The political world is a lesser-included case within Islamist (and Islamic) thinking. It is not autonomous but derivative. It does not have its own credentialed authorities and discourse, only the authorities and discourse of the clergy whose concerns far transcend politics.
There are exceptions on the edge. Contemporary Islamists could turn to a few thinkers, not themselves clergymen, whose main interest has been sociology and politics rather than theology, and whose stage, as it were, is the world at large. There is Hasan al-Banna, from the 1920s, the erstwhile Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sayyid Qutb is perhaps the best known such thinker of the 20th century, and his mid-century writing has no peer among Islamists for its clarity and passion. Several al-Qaeda leaders wrote Islamist tracts as well; Abu Anas al-Libi is perhaps the most noteworthy example. Osama bin Laden, who was himself no cleric and who was therefore disqualified from issuing any fatwa, made plenty of semi-substantive speeches, too, most of which exist in text form and many of which circulate on Islamist websites. But again, few rank-and-file Islamists today have ever read al-Banna or Qutb; most who come from outside of the region probably have never heard of them. As for al-Libi and bin Laden, one doubts whether Islamic State cadres, whether foreign or native to the Levant, fawn over their words either, or that most even know of them.
So there is some Islamist ideology, in the sense of politically relevant innovations from tradition, but most of what drives Islamic State leaders is a rarified form of theology, or, if we prefer Mark Lilla’s term in The Stillborn God (2007), political theology. And here we come to the difference between theology and ideology.
Theology is a recursive, non-falsifiable system of ideas about abstract matters. Ideology, on the other hand, as abstract as it can and often does get, is at length testable against the flow of historical reality. Take the trajectory of Communism as a case in point. Its arc of rise and fall traverses about a century, but fall it certainly did, because all of the avowed test cases of the ideology put into practice failed by their own lights. Insofar as there is such a thing as Islamist ideology, it seems to be more rapidly meeting the same fate, and for more or less the same reason. As for normal Islam, yes, it does contain within the supremacist doctrine, but not as the foremost obligation of believers or anything even close to it. We can readily coexist with normal Islam, as we and other non-Muslim states have been doing for many centuries.
Yes, both theologies and ideologies are creedal systems and so share a certain logical syntax—something Eric Voegelin first insisted on many years ago. But an idea that was once shockingly controversial eventually became such a commonplace that many people now conflate the two in their entirely. They are, however, not the same. We Westerners tend to turn everything into the political and hence into ideology, while our universalist Islamist competitors tend to turn everything into the religious and hence into theology. In the Muslim world, let us remember, there has never arisen a stable secular space comparable to that of the West, so the conceptual preconditions for Islamists distinguishing ideology from theology barely exist. Ultimately, this is why our having a calm debate about ideological ideas with them is damned nigh impossible.
The upshot of all this for practical policy purposes is that we cannot make war in the realm of ideas against Islamist ideology per se because there isn’t very much of it to fight. What there is of it is simple but implacable: Islam is superior to all other faiths, and it should by rights and God’s will be acknowledged as superior on earth. A basic implication follows: We get to dominate you, not the other way around.
We cannot fight that belief with a countervailing idea and not also implicate mainstream Islam, which, of course, would just make the problem worse. And if we try to fight directly, as opposed to encouraging Muslims already mobilized for that struggle, we find that what is rational and ideological to us is heard as emotional and theological to them. In their eyes we turn from liberals into Christians, and talk about, say, democracy or gender equality willy-nilly translates into a most unwelcome invitation to apostasy. This is exactly the perverse dynamic that the Bush Administration’s “forward strategy for freedom” created, and this realization in turn helps to explain why the original, post-9/11 “war of ideas” never got very far as a government exercise (although other reasons intruded as well—like lawyers warning policymakers that the First Amendment supposedly prohibits government officials from dicking around in anything even remotely religious).
Meanwhile, reform-minded Muslims who hope to dispel the precept of supremacism from Islamic thinking are hoping against hope. “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,” claimed my friend Husain Haqqani in these pages not long ago. Maybe he’s right, and bless him for trying—but any attempt to displace this dogma has a very long row to hoe. You might as well ask a believing mainstream Christian to set aside the notion of the divinity of Jesus, or an Orthodox Jew to set aside the idea of “the chosen people.”
In sum, there isn’t much Islamist ideology per se, and what there is cannot be displaced by argument. Whatever ideology there is constitutes, by our conceptual reckoning, a lesser-included case of a theological system whose intrinsic nature cannot be readily distinguished in method, logic, or tone from Islamic exegesis generally; and what motivates violence and terrorism in most members of extremist Islamist organizations has little to do with any of this in the first place.
Now if, while that problem is being “worked” among Muslims, fanatical Islamists come looking to kill us in our own part of the world, the proper first response is not to argue with them over ideas but to kill or capture them before they can harm us. That in itself won’t solve the larger, longer-term problem of course, but it will have to do for the moment.
1Just to be clear, “tribal” is not a normative term but is descriptive of a kind of social structure that comes directly from cultural anthropology. Similarly, “traditional” and “tribally structured” are not synonyms. A culture can be traditional without being tribal, and the rapid urbanization that has occurred in the Middle East in the past two or three generations, and that has sharply attenuated the significance of tribal social structures in many cases, can cause societies to become more traditional, in the sense of neo-fundamentalist. I briefly discussed this concept here.