Is the fight against terrorism really what some are calling it, a clash of civilizations? Does calling it that change anything? I say it is and it does.
We see a world marked by lines of political demarcation. A world of nation-states. Now erase all of those borders and Google Map a world where the lines delineate majority religious affiliations. North and South America become largely a single color of varying shades of Christianity. Europe is the same. Asia is predominantly the color of Buddhism with some contrasting Confucian dabs in the eastern sections and Shintoism off the coast. Starting north of the Arabian Sea, we find the bright color of Islam, mixed at first with Hindu and Christian colors but then turning pure as it sweeps to the west, spreading across the African continent and through the Middle East all the way into eastern Europe. Now that bright Muslim slash is of Sunni and Shiite shades flecked with much smaller dabs of other religions. A single splash of bright contrasting color near the eastern Mediterranean marks the home of the Jews.
This is the map the Islamic State sees, the map that makes sense of their claims to a caliphate. We see a stain over Iraq and Syria, metastasizing into danger to the nations of Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Nigeria. But the Islamic State sees itself planting the flag of true Islam where apostasy had previously held sway among those Muslim colors, obscured by phantoms of tribe and national borders. Its enemy is every variation of the Muslim faith that contradicts its medieval reading of the Quran. And, of course, Christianity. In framing its struggle in terms more suited to the eleventh than the twenty-first century, it raises its battle flag not only against “the crusaders” who now pour into Muslim lands in the name of profit and national self-interest, but also against those original crusaders who fought under the Maltese cross of Christendom and yet again against all the imperialist nations who sought to impose national borders on desert lands culminating in the final insult: the displacement of Muslims to make room for a homeland for Jews in 1948. The caliphate sees this as a millennial struggle in both senses of the word. It began with the First Crusade of 1099 and will only end with the apocalyptic war that defeats the wicked and elevates their version of Sharia law, their one true faith. In their judgment that war has begun and is characterized by riot police, drone attacks, and incessant bombing. How do we know this? They tell us so. “There is no grayzone (sic) in this crusade against the Islamic State. The world has split into two encampments, one for the people of faith, the other for the kufr (disbelievers), all in preparation for the final great war.” Jihadists see the world in explicitly religious terms as structured by a selective reading of the Quran. They utterly reject what Western powers consider their most generous export: national identity. This truth is lost on the West, yet it is the defining perspective that divides moderate Muslims from the Islamic State and other jihadists. From the radicals’ perspective, this is the clash of civilizations we now face. Our blindness to their view continues to cost us.
Have you noticed how Western powers find the Islamic State somehow slippery to define? We first heard of ISIS, the Islamic State in Syria. Then it was ISIL, the Islamic State in the Levant, a larger geographic area. Then just the Islamic State. Or perhaps we should call it what the Arab states do: Daesh, meaning “the crusher.” Whatever name it is given, it seems clear that its goals are truly to crush not just the Syrian and Iraqi government but Shi’ites, Christians, Yazidis, Alawis, and Chaldeans. IS sees these faiths in terms they comprehend: as opposing but similar means of organizing peoples. They are blind to the means of political affiliation that moves peoples of the West as the West seems blind to theirs. Nations stumble in finding the name for this religious anachronism, this theocracy. More than their mutual hostility, this failure to recognize what unites our enemy is why the battle against the Islamic State, like the earlier one against Al Qaeda, is a true clash of civilizations.
People root their political affiliation in one of five sources of social cohesion: tribalism, dynasticism, theocracy, economic class, and nationalism. But political identifications are rarely pure. For instance, most nation-states also appeal to some ethnic, linguistic, or cultural tribalism. As a multi-ethnic nation with a unique origin, the United States is perhaps the world’s foremost proponent of the ideal of the nation-state, the purest distillation of the form, unsullied by other dilute attachments. Our e pluribus unam, secular, melting pot, bourgeois value system attempts with some success to scrape away the detritus of other forms of political union. We see the concept of nationalism inextricably bound to its idealized constituents: individualism, moral tolerance, capitalism, materialism, and democracy and make the moral case that no other form of government offers a more direct path to securing the common good for its citizens ( though not without some confusion, see “Two Senses of the Common Good”). From our perspective, the attractions of such a form of political affiliation should be self-evident to the rest of the world. Nowhere is that less so than in the Middle East.
When Donald Rumsfeld assumed that Iraq was hungering for democracy, he made a prior assumption that proved tragically false: that Iraq was a nation-state rather than a rickety mélange of tribal and theocratic tensions between Shiite and Sunni interpretations of Islam bound together by the dynastic oppressions of Saddam Hussein’s clan. Its theocratic tensions were suppressed by Hussein’s rigid dynasticism. The invaders ignored this reality in their naive assumption that what Iraqis “really wanted” was not theocratic, not tribal, and not dynastic, but rather a fourth way of organizing peoples, our way. The catastrophic consequences were entirely predictable. Ruthless dynasticism was demolished in a hail of bombs and bullets, but the only liberation the Bush administration achieved was the freeing of theocratically divisive tribalism. The blinders of nationalism caused this disaster. Or perhaps blunders is a better word, for the Obama administration made precisely the same mistake in Libya and more recently in Syria. Assad’s appeal to the Alawite minority is a stronger tribal identification than any waving of the Syrian flag, as recent spectacular failures to create a secular army to oppose him on purely national grounds have revealed. Syria and Iraq have fractured along the tribal and sectarian fault lines that only the brutal ministrations of Assad and Saddam could paper over, and the imperialist fictions imposed in the aftermath of World War I are now fading in the desert sun.
The Islamic State, blind to any nationalist appeal, has exploited the hybrid nature of their enemies’ unions, rejecting them in favor of a purified theocratic identity comparable to but implacably opposed to American idealized nationalism. The West’s analysis has it exactly backward. More nationalism is not an appeal the peoples of the region will respond to, at least not at this moment in history. Iraqi government troops slunk away in the face of IS attacks in Mosul. Afghan government forces are beaten yet again by a (seemingly endlessly) resurgent Taliban waving the banners of Sharia law. The Arab Spring with its familiar and (to Western ears) laudatory demands for human rights sputters into the repressions of yet another strong man. The Islamic State exploits Muslim resentment for the Westernized nation-state while also attacking every hyphenated means of political affiliation as heresy. Their religious purity is a true threat not only to Western nations but to all the hybrid means of political affiliation in Muslim states struggling with mixed tribal, dynastic, theocratic, or nationalist contention. Devout religionists in western countries are hardly exempt from this competition for their loyalties. Theocracies may reinforce nationalism, but only in polities with religious uniformity. In the present case, the conflict between theocracy and nationalism presents itself to devout religionists of every stripe, but it threatens to erupt in violence when thrown into sharp relief by a “pure” alternative like those espoused by champions of the Islamist State. They preach by example one message to the Muslim world: only an absolute theocracy reflects the will of Allah, and only their theocracy is pure. They say to the polities opposing them what Christians said to Muslims a thousand years ago: “God wills it.”
Their appeals to converts on social networks drive this message home. The disaffected (mainly) young men who respond explicitly reject the nationalist appeals of their homelands, the often broken promises of assimilation and material prosperity. The very brutalism of their fighters and the persecution of innocents in lands they control convince disciples of the otherworldliness of the call. Media reports of these converts’ prior criminality, drug use, and love of pop culture all fit the profile of moral anomie that is a chronic condition of Western youth culture. That call to prayer has power, in part because so few Westerners have until now ever heard it, even heard of it. It promises commitment to a larger moral cause and it couches itself in the familiar imagery of the tragic anti-hero fighting with a band of brothers against corrupt and venal opponents (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”). Critics of IS seem surprised at the sophistication of its media appeals. They shouldn’t be. Most of the young adults serving the cause of the Islamic State have been saturated in a Western culture they now explicitly reject.
So this is how they see it. How should we? How does seeing the struggle through their eyes help Western nations fight smarter and prevail? I would argue it imposes a negative and a positive strategy on this fight. It also suggests revision for the next one.
The negative strategy should change our thinking about the region. First, we should recognize that forcing a nationalist framework on any Middle Eastern policy distorts the reality on the ground. This is not to suggest that nationalism does not move some inhabitants of the region, but rather that national identity particularly in the U.S. form is never a pure source of political affiliation for the region’s inhabitants, which means it rarely functions as the powerful inducement to the change Westerners desire. We can stay in Afghanistan for another twelve years, or twenty, and Afghans will still see themselves as Pashtuns and Uzbeks and Muslims rather than as Afghans. We can pressure the Iranians to support the Iraqi fight against IS, but they will still favor Shiites over Sunnis in that struggle. If the last half of the twentieth century taught the former imperial powers and the soon-to-be former communist ones anything at all, it is this: you don’t impose identity. And as Western nations learned through their own struggles with theocratic authority (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”), religious conflict is the most difficult kind to resolve. It is utter hubris to impose a national filter on people who see find their identity in a sacred text.
This realization produces a problem for Western nations, though. Many of our frustrations in the Middle East stem from the theocratic, dynastic, or tribal affiliations that challenge the artificially created nations in the area. We ask why Israel cannot allow an independent Palestine or why Iran vows to wipe Israel off the world map. We question why the rich Sunni oil states refuse to accept Sunni Syrian refugees. President Obama was mocked for bringing up the Crusades as a comparable Christian viewpoint, but we will continue to fool ourselves and be fooled by events so long as we don’t recognize the failure of the nationalist model in the Middle East and its causes. The wild conspiracy theories and sense of victimization in Muslim countries targeting Western powers are inimical to our interests and disruptive to inhabitants’ eventual acceptance of the Western model of political affiliation. In the short term, our efforts there will arouse suspicion and resistance by even the most moderate regimes. Their memories are long enough for the Islamic State’s calling us “crusaders” to resonate. Americans may prefer to forget but Mideast Muslims cannot help but remember that a half-million Muslims died in the U.S. invasion of 2003. Imagine if a half-million Americans were killed in an invasion by a foreign power! The routine “death to America” chants in Iran trace back to the CIA support for the repressive regime of the Shah. Ditto for Nasser in Egypt. And Mubarek. Osama bin Laden built his network on resentment of American forces in Muslim holy places. The deepest thorn in the Muslim memory is America’s steadfast support for Israel, seen universally in the Mideast as oppression of Palestinian Muslims. In facing such a history, an immense patience is called for as Western powers operate in the region. Every commercial transaction, every Hollywood DVD, and every sign of Western military might tugs at the inhabitants’ conscience for what IS calls “insults to Islam.” This is not meant to negate, minimize, or discourage good faith efforts to promote modest democratic reforms, respect for human rights, and a retreat from manipulative interference in the internal affairs of Mideast governments. But viewing current actions in the garish light of past history must teach Western nations the wisdom of patience and restraint. In sum, our negative responsibility requires less blundering interference in the Mideast, not more.
That being said, we face positive obligations in our fight with the Islamic State. For “the world community,” which is shorthand for “Western interests,” this battle must be fought on two fronts: domestic and foreign.
On the domestic front, let us remember what face we present to our enemies. We take heart that the civilized world comes together in the wake of attacks on “soft targets” to condemn such barbarity. We see England and France in a soccer stadium singing the Marseillaise as a sign of comforting international unity. IS sees Christians singing in a stadium. We throw up roadblocks out of fear of Syrian refugees, and IS sees confirmation that Christians hate Muslims. Every thoughtless arrogance, every threat to a mosque, and every drone strike against a Muslim target confirms the theocratic war in every warrior for the Islamic State and every potential convert to their cause. Every alliance of Muslim and Christian disrupts that cause. Every act of kindness, every expression of fellow feeling between Christian and Muslim challenges the jihadist thesis. While we must refrain from imposing a purely nationalist thrust upon any of our political goals in the Middle East, we should even more steadfastly refrain from confirming a theocratic one. We should proudly express our own patriotism, and express it especially through religious pluralism within Western nations that demonstrate not only to IS but to all theocrats and tribalists that nationalism can be a successful alternative to sectarian and tribal warfare. All those refugees braving the hard road to sanctuary in Western states are advertisements for the nationalism we prize. Turning them away does the Islamic State’s work for them. Admitting only Christian refugees confirms the pernicious thesis that all our pious praise of democracy and pluralism is cover for religious war. Viewed in this light, what could be dumber than calling our enemy “Islamic terrorists”? It draws the fault lines of our struggle against jihadists exactly as IS desires and pushes moderate Muslims away from allying with Western nationalism in this fight as it casts the conflict as a theocratic confrontation between Islam and Christianity. Finally, it is shameful for Christians in Western countries to allow themselves to see this battle in religious terms, in other words, to see the battle as IS does. We ended that miserable era four hundred years ago, after divisions within the Christian faith nearly destroyed Western civilization itself. Nations were born in that struggle. In the present clash of civilizations, it is entirely in our interests to see nationalism triumph yet again. That will take generations to accomplish in the Middle East if it can be accomplished at all, and it cannot be imposed from outside. This gradualism is the only true winning strategy.
That leaves the present threat over there. How do we actively oppose the caliphate? The policy of containment the Obama administration has employed is as counterproductive as its pure appeals to Syrian nationalists to overthrow Assad. It only reinforces the antiheroic appeal of “real” Muslims bravely holding off the combined might of Christendom. Muslim Kurds fight Muslim defenders of the Islamic State because they value a tribal identity at odds with their Arab enemies and because they embrace a more moderate Islam. Working with them is in the West’s interest, so long as we can moderate Kurdish desires to secede from Turkey to form a tribal state. Arabs must contribute some ground forces to shrink the caliphate. They must realize how disruptive their involvement would be to the caliphate’s argument just as we must realize that their reluctance is yet more proof of the weakness of the nationalist argument in the region. To overcome their reluctance, we should use the same toolbox that got us through the last century in the region: military and economic assistance to ruling elites coupled with threats of withdrawal of support. Granted, these don’t work very well nowadays, but we have no other means to secure their involvement in the current environment. Iranian forces are also involved in the struggle, representing the Persian and Shiite side combating the Arabic, Sunni warriors of the caliphate. Notwithstanding their mixed motives, we should also use every means at our disposal to pressure all Muslims to join us also in the larger struggle: to openly condemn the killing of noncombatants, to welcome refugees, to proclaim a competing Islamist dogma, and to find common cause with the civilized world. Of course, these are the same expedients we’ve used since the Marine barracks were bombed in the Reagan administration. Our failures should move us to examine this course of action.
We try to finesse this gumbo of tribal and religious forces in the pursuit of national objectives, but at our own peril. We have failed to control these levers of power too many times in the recent past to hold out much hope for greater success against the caliphate without putting U.S. boots on the ground. We can choose to fight our fourth war in the region in the last quarter century. Given the likelihood of terrorist attacks aiming to goad us into just this move, it is likely that we will. It is also likely that such an effort will succeed in degrading or destroying the caliphate at more cost of our own blood and treasure. The Islamic State will be defeated. But its defeat will only reinforce the old conspiracy theory that already holds sway in the region: another crusader army killing defenders of the faith of the Prophet. Even when the Islamic State loses, it will win. And three years from that date, children playing in the streets of Baghdad, Cairo, Tripoli, and Abuja will hear of some new jihadist cult picking up the fight. Five years later, teens in Bruges and Grozny will do YouTube searches. The hydra will grow another head.
We should use the hope of a brief respite from terrorism to develop a better strategy based on an honest assessment of the ongoing threat of jihadist terrorism, a comprehensive approach that defends Western values without trampling on other means of organizing peoples. This reappraisal is in our long-term interests. The question in forming it is whether we can manage to tamp down our short-term ones in the brief window before the next clash of civilizations begins.