Home / Articles / Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism
The events of 9/11 were a particularly lethal expression of the globalization of religious passion. Yet those events were something else, and something more. War had been declared upon us by an enemy whose motivations were utterly alien to the 21st century sensibility of the West.
It has taken us some time to grasp this new and dominant fact of international public life. But now, six and a half years after 9/11, we cannot not understand. For unless we grasp the character of this new kind of war, our chances of prevailing against an adversary with a very different view of the future—and a willingness, even eagerness, to die for the sake of hastening that future—are weakened.
The war is now being fought on multiple, interconnected fronts, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon/Syria, North Africa, Gaza, Somalia, Sudan, southeast Asia; there is an intelligence front, a financial-flows front, an economic front, an energy front, and a homeland security front. My purpose here is to identity what we should have learned by now about the enemy and about ourselves.
Understanding the Enemy
Lesson 1. The great human questions are ultimately theological.
How we think— or don’t think— about God has a great deal to do with how we envision the just society and determine the best means with which to build it. This means taking theology seriously, which includes others’ theologies as well as our own. We certainly should have learned this over the past six years. Yet commentators and statesmen continue to use “theology” or “theological” as synonyms for “superstition” or “mindless.” Such glib usages are an impediment to clear thinking about our situation.
Lesson 2. The trope that describes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as “the three Abrahamic faiths” obscures more than it illuminates, and ought to be permanently retired.
Of course the three faiths all trace their origins to Abraham, but in fact the theological parallelisms are rather limited, especially with regard to Islam.
It is often suggested that there is an affinity between Christianity and Islam that is virtually identical to what Rabbi David Novak calls the “common border” between Judaism and Christianity; Islamic regard for Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Mary, is often cited as an example of this affinity. Yet as Alain Besancon has pointed out, “The Abraham of Genesis is not the Ibrahim of the Quran; Moses is not Moussa…. Jesus is indeed granted a position of honor in the Quran, but this Jesus is not the Jesus in whom Christians proclaim their faith.”
Moreover, Islam’s deep theological structure includes themes that render the notion of “three Abrahamic faiths” unhelpful in understanding Islam’s faith and practice. Take the question of Islamic supersessionism—Islam’s claim that the revelation to Muhammad unveiled Judaism and Christianity as false religions. Despite the supersessionist claims that some Christians have historically made vis-a-vis Judaism, no orthodox Christian holds that God’s self-revelation in Christ negates God’s self-revelation in the history of the People of Israel.
Then there is the nature of the Quran itself. The mainstream Christian understanding of biblical inspiration was expressed by Vatican II in the 1960s: “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who… made full use of their own powers and faculties so that… it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.” That theological understanding of biblical inspiration provides for the possibility of interpreting the sacred texts and for developing doctrine in light of an evolving understanding of the full meaning of Scripture. The Quran, by contrast, is understood to have been dictated by its divine source, word for word, so that there is much less question of exegesis or of a post-scriptural development of doctrine. Thus the Quran is described by an influential Egyptian Islamic activist in these terms: “the Quran for mankind is like a manual for a machine.”
Thus Islam is “other” in relationship to Christianity and Judaism in a way that Christianity and Judaism cannot be to one another. The late Pope John Paul II recognized this. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he observed:
“Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Quran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and … the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.”
That theological anthropology yields a view of the just society that is dramatically different from that of Judaism and Christianity. Islamic theological anthropology is one root of what Efraim Karsh has termed “the fusion of religious and temporal authority” in Islam. That fusion has, in turn, led to what Karsh calls “Islam’s millenarian imperial experience”—and, one might add, the millenarian political expectations of some Muslims today. Islamic theological anthropology also helps explain Islam’s difficulties in creating the cultural preconditions for social pluralism. Whether Islam can evolve into a religion capable of providing religious warrants for genuine pluralism is thus one of the great questions on which the future of our century will turn.
Lesson 3. Jihadism is the enemy in the multi-front war that has been declared upon us.
There are many forms of Islam. Some of them, often called “fundamentalism” or “Islamism,” stress the need for a deep religious and moral reform within the House of Islam and for the reestablishment of Islamic political power. The specific form of Islamism which threatens the West is best described as jihadism.
Richard John Neuhaus recently defined jihadism as a “religiously inspired ideology” which teaches that “it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means necessary to compel the world’s submission to Islam.”Its adherents are, de facto, in a state of belligerency against the rest of the world. Neuhaus goes on to note, “It will be objected that, in the Quran, jihad can also mean peaceful spiritual struggle. That is true, as it is true that those Muslims who believe jihad means peaceful spiritual struggle are not the enemy.” Indeed, much of the history of this century will turn on the question of whether the jihadists’ definition of jihad becomes the most culturally assertive definition within the many worlds of Islam.
Lesson 4. Jihadism has a complex intellectual history, which must be grasped in order to understand the nature of the threat before us.
Modern jihadism is rooted in a profound Islamic sense of Islamic failure. One can see traces of that sense of failure in the inertia of the Ottoman Empire before World War I. That inertia has a far longer pedigree, which involved a kind of turning-off of intellectual inquiry in a Muslim world that once found ample room within itself for an incorporation of the wisdom of the classical world and helped transmit that wisdom to the medieval West.
The causal chain that takes us from medieval debates about Islamic law and theology to the caves of Tora Bora and 9/11 involves numerous figures, among them Ahmad ibn Abd al-Halim ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703/4–1792), and two contemporary theorists, Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949) and Sayyid Qutb (1903–1966).
To make a long story desperately short: At a time when the Mongols had conquered much of the Islamic umma, ibn Taymiyya taught that the survival of Islam required political power; that the pursuit of that power should be undertaken by means of armed force; and that jihad involved both an absolute love of God and an “absolute hatred” for all that God proscribes, which includes “not only heretics, apostates, hypocrites, sinners, and unbelievers (including Christians and Jews)…but also any Muslim who tried to avoid participating in jihad.” Ibn Taymiyya thus adumbrated the intra-Islamic civil war that has now spilled over into jihadism’s struggle against the rest of the world.
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab emphasized that God’s relationship to the world is that of an absolute lawgiver: God is will, and there is no spiritual wrestling with the divine will. Yet Wahhab had little influence in his own time, or indeed for centuries afterwards; it would take a vast transfer of western wealth to Saudi Arabia to make Wahhabism a potent force in the world.
Hasan al-Banna, Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the “mental colonization” of Islam under colonial rule and urged a struggle against a West that he perceived as having thus far won a “ruthless war whose battlefield has been the spirits and souls of Muslims.” Al-Banna proposed an Islamic social reformation. The educational, social, economic, religious, and charitable activities of the Muslim Brotherhood would be one form of this reformation. Jihad would be another, for God had given Muslims the privilege and duty of saving the world. After cleansing the House of Islam, true Muslims would cleanse their territories of infidels, beginning with Egypt.
Sayyid Qutb, whose formative experiences included being scandalized at the “decadence” he perceived at a church social in Greeley, Colorado, in 1949, brought these various lines of jihadist thought together in a singularly influential way. He, too, stressed the idea of God as Absolute Will, God as the unique lawmaker; thus, for Qutb, liberal political thought—even conservative liberal political thought—was a false religion, not simply bad politics. In a harsher way than others before him, Qutb stressed that those Muslims who did not live authentic Islamic lives were enemies to be fought and, if necessary, killed, as were Jews, Christians, and unbelievers. Here was a mind frozen in time, in which the Crusades and the Spanish Reconquista were present realities, summoning forth a perpetual struggle, violent if necessary, until the final global triumph of Islam.
The power of jihadism derives from its theological roots. As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in his Regensburg Lecture in September 2006, the key theological move that underwrites today’s jihadism is the identification of God as Absolute Will. If God is absolute will, God can command anything – even the irrational. And so, in an extension of Qutb’s thought, contemporary jihadists believe that the murder of innocents is not simply morally acceptable, but morally required, if such murders advance the cause of Islam. Mercy comes to be understood as weakness. Justice is traduced into revenge. Given Qutb’s conviction that Islam and modernity were “utterly incompatible,” and given the defective theology that undergirds Qutb’s worldview, what seems incomprehensible to many westerners—the death cult that forms the core of Al Qaeda and similar entities—begins to make a certain perverse sense. As Fouad Ajami writes, jihadism thus creates a “world without limits” in which, the battlefield “spans pizzerias, buses, public squares, commuter trains, and subway stations.”
The line from Taymiyya and Wahhab that would later influence al-Banna and Qutb came to one conclusion when Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, an Egyptian and a Saudi, a veteran political operator and propagandist and a somewhat dreamy charismatic leader, joined forces to form Al Qaeda: the result was global jihad.
Lesson 5. Jihadists read history and politics through the prism of their theological convictions, not through the prism of western assumptions about the progressive dynamic of history.
Jihadists read the 1990s as a moment that revealed fatal western weaknesses. To them, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan (even if it was made possible by western aid and technology) meant that modernity was on the run. This provoked new patterns of aggression, which were reinforced when the generally feckless U.S. response led to bin Laden’s apotheosis as the jihadist champion who had taken on the Great Satan and prevailed. Then, when the U.S. failed to respond to the attack on the USS Cole in such a way as to ignite the war in Afghanistan in which bin Laden hoped to trap the Americans, he decided that something else was required: as Lawrence Wright puts it, “he would have to create an irresistible outrage.” The result was a vast hole in the ground in Lower Manhattan, the loss of almost 3,000 lives, and an economic cost of billions of dollars.
Lesson 6: Necessary truth-telling is the prerequisite to genuine interreligious dialogue.
In Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture, the Holy Father gave the world an interreligious and ecumenical vocabulary to engage in a genuine conversation about the threat jihadism poses: the vocabulary of “rationality and irrationality.” Criticized at the time as a diplomatic “gaffe,” the Pope’s proposal has now drawn responses from international groups of Muslim leaders, and a meeting in March at the Vatican is planned. This newfound interest within senior Islamic circles in serious theological conversation with the Pope about the right ordering of society followed, not the exchange of banalities and pleasantries that too often characterizes interreligious dialogue, but a robust critique of the theological roots of jihadism. Surely there are lessons here for the future.
One is that the western media acquiescence to Muslim complaints about “Islamophobia” should stop: it is not “Islamophobic” for the Pope, or anyone else, to pray in the presence of Muslims; to defend religious freedom; or to condemn violence in the name of God—suggestions made by NPR, the New York Times, the AP, and the New York Daily News during Benedict XVI’s December 2006 visit to Turkey. It would also be helpful if the western press would call things by their right names: murderers in Iraq are murderers and terrorists, not insurgents or sectarians; suicide bombers are, in fact, homicide bombers; and so forth.
Lesson 7. This is a multi-generational struggle.
The below-replacement-level birthrates that prevail throughout virtually the entire western world are another factor in this global struggle. As the inimitable Mark Steyn puts it, given present demographic trends, soon “the Belgian climate-change lobbyist will be on the endangered species list with the Himalayan snow leopard”—a fact that, given Belgian parallels in the Netherlands, France, Spain, and elsewhere, has already changed the political landscape of western Europe.
Yet Steyn notes that birthrates are already declining in some Islamic countries, such that the jihadists’ demographic advantage will eventually decrease as well. So the historical window for the achievement of the jihadists’ most ambitious goals will likely begin to close in, perhaps, twenty-five years or so. The demographics of the Islamic world, coupled with the staying power of the passions unleashed by jihadist ideology, thus suggest that the current phase of the contest for the human future will last at least two or three generations. This is, indeed, a long war. We must understand that and plan both strategy and tactics accordingly.
Lesson 8. Genuine realism must avoid premature closure in its thinking about the possibilities of human agency in the world.
Grasping the inevitable irony, pathos, and tragedy of history; being alert to unintended consequences; maintaining a robust skepticism about schemes of human perfection; cherishing democracy without worshiping it—these elements of the Christian realist sensibility associated with Reinhold Niebuhr remain essential intellectual furnishing for anyone thinking about U.S. foreign policy in the war against jihadism. Yet realism must be complemented by a commitment to the possibility of human creativity.
As Dean Acheson said at another moment when history’s tectonic plates were shifting, the task he and Harry Truman faced “only slowly revealed itself. As it did so, it began to appear as just a little bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis. That was to create a world out of chaos.” Our task today is not dissimilar. In carrying it out, we would do well to remember the counsel of Charles Frankel: “The heart of the policy-making process…is not the finding of a national interest already perfectly known and understood. It is the determining of that interest: the reassessment of the nation’s resources, needs, commitments, traditions, and political and cultural horizons – in short, its calendar of values.”
The Bush administration’s efforts to accelerate change in the Arab Islamic world were determined by a realistic assessment of the situation after 9/11. Mistakes in implementation notwithstanding, the attempt to accelerate the transition to responsible and responsive government in the Middle East was a realistic objective, given an unacceptable status quo that was inherently unstable; that was unstable because it was corrupt; and that was producing terrorists and jihadists determined to challenge those corruptions.
Lesson 9. The objective in the Middle East is the evolution of responsible and responsive government, which will take different forms given different historical and cultural circumstances.
Bernard Lewis is, as usual, a wise guide here. As he recently wrote, “Different societies develop different ways of conducting their affairs, and they do not need to resemble ours… Democracy is not born like the Phoenix. It comes in stages, and the stages and processes of development will differ from country to country.”
The difficulties of post-Baathist political transition in Iraq should not, however, blind us to the fact that the war against jihadism and the quest for freedom are linked, and neither can succeed without the other. Moreover, Lewis encourages us to think that there is enough in both the traditional culture of Islam and the modern experience of the Muslims to provide the basis for an advance toward freedom, rightly understood. Trying to support and perhaps even accelerate that advance is the only realistic course of action.
Lesson 10. In the war against global jihadism, deterrence strategies are unlikely to be effective.
This is perhaps most evident in Iran, or at least among Iranians like President Ahmadinejad who believe that they can hasten the messianic age by unleashing nuclear holocaust in Jerusalem. As Adam Garfinkle asks, how does one deter people who are willing and even eager to turn their country and their entire religious sect into a suicide bomb?
Any deterrence value or dampening of jihadist enthusiasms that we might have expected to gain from Iraq will be lost if the outcome there is perceived to be an American defeat. Such an outcome would be little short of a catastrophe. It may be that the final outcome in Iraq is not, ultimately, of our determining—that the immediate future of Iraq will inevitably reduce itself to the question of whether Iraqis want even a loosely federal state more than they want to kill each other. But the premature abandonment of the effort to prevent that nightmare scenario from playing itself out would be read by global jihadists as a sign of fecklessness that will have untold, but surely awful, consequences.
I keep in my study a postcard copy of a World War II poster in which Winston Churchill points a finger at you over the emblazoned slogan “Deserve Victory!” What must we do to deserve victory in the war against global jihadism?
Lesson 11. Cultural self-confidence is indispensable to victory in the long-term struggle against jihadism.
The second part of Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture was a reminder to the West that, if irrational faith poses one grave threat to the human future, so does a loss of faith in reason. If the West loses its faith in the human capacity to know the truth of anything with certainty, it will have disarmed itself intellectually, culturally, and morally, unable to give an account of its commitments to civility, tolerance, the free society, and democratic self-government. Saying “No” to radical skepticism and moral insouciance is very much part of homeland security.
Lesson 12. Small concessions in the name of a false idea of tolerance inevitably lead to further concessions and erosions of liberty.
This process is well-advanced in Europe, where enclaves of sharia law exist in Great Britain, France, the low countries and elsewhere—enclaves where the writ of local law does not run, even in the matter of “honor” killings. The path to legal surrender was paved by cultural surrender, as when “Piglet” mugs disappeared from some British retailers after Islamists complained that the Winnie the Pooh character offended Muslim sensibilities. The Danish cartoons controversy of 2006 was the most ominous expression of the problem to date, for here, kowtowing to Islamist agitations led directly to the infringement of classic civil liberties.
The European experience of accommodation to Islamist and jihadist threats and demands has shown where the first concessions lead. Becoming a dhimmi, a second-class citizen, is not always a matter of accommodating to an imposed Islamic law. As the European experience demonstrates, self-dhimmitude is a danger when the nature of tolerance is misunderstood. Not only must the West defend its core values at home; it should intensify its efforts to promote religious freedom around the world.
Lesson 13. We cannot continue to finance those who attack us.
Global jihadism would not be the threat it is had the West not transferred some $2 trillion in wealth to the Arab Islamic world since World War II—which, among other things, has allowed Saudi Arabia to spend an estimated $70-100 billion spreading Wahhabi doctrine all over the globe. The national security threat of oil dependency is obvious and self-demeaning.
Setting aside the details of various alternative energy strategies, there ought to be broad agreement on former CIA Director James Woolsey’s argument that U.S. energy independence is preponderantly a problem related to oil and its dominant role in fueling vehicles. Woolsey proposed two policy directions to reduce this vulnerability: (1) encouraging a shift to far more fuel-efficient vehicles, and (2) encouraging biofuels and other alternative and renewable fuels.
A nation that created the global revolution in information technology surely can de-fund global jihadism by drastically cutting the transfer of funds related to petroleum imports. It beggars belief that peoples who did not discover a resource, much less the means to exploit it and make it the source of vast wealth, have profited by its development in ways that now threaten the very possibility of world order. This is dhimmitude of a global economic sort, and it must stop.
Lesson 14. Victory in the war against global jihadism requires a new domestic political coalition.
If we are indeed “present at the creation” once again, we would do well to adopt a lesson from Truman, Acheson, Marshall, and Vandenberg and create a domestic political coalition that understands global jihadism and is broadly agreed on the measures necessary to defeat it. There is a serious question, though, as to whether the kind of coalition that was assembled in the late 1940s can be replicated today. But were such a coalition to be formed, it should take as one of its tasks a rationalization of our homeland security policy. We have not yet reached the point of Great Britain, where one of the country’s most wanted terrorists slipped through Heathrow in 2006 by wearing a burka, as Scottish grandmothers bent over to remove their shoes at x-ray machines. But we could get there, unless we decide that effective counterterrorism is more important than political correctness in devising airport screening measures. Risk-profiling and the development of trusted-traveler identification cards would be two important elements in rationalizing homeland security.
Rationalizing homeland security will also require effective measures to rein in those parts of the federal judiciary that put irrational obstacles in the way of detecting terrorism plots. On a 2005 ruling by a federal district court, the NSA can alert MI-5 if it intercepts a phone call from Peshawar to London in which jihadists plot to attack London, but any NSA intercept of a call between Kandahar and Chicago in which terrorists plot to attack Washington is unconstitutional. This is insanity, and it, too, must stop.
Lesson 15. There is no escape from U.S. leadership.
The challenge of global jihadism can be neither avoided nor appeased. The war that has been declared against the West can only be engaged, and with a variety of instruments, many of them not military.
Whatever our incapacities, the fact remains that there is no alternative to U.S. leadership in the war against global jihadism. As Michael Gerson has put it, “There must be someone in the world capable of drawing a line—someone who says, ‘This much and no further.’” That someone can only be the United States. President Bush must insure that, whatever else happens, he leaves the American people, at the end of his term, with a clear understanding of the nature of the threat, and the magnitude of the stakes on the global table. There is no escape from the burden of American leadership, but that burden can be an opportunity for national renewal.