Forty Years of Misunderstanding Islam

When will it be time to listen to what the jihadists tell us about their faith-based hostility and ambitions?

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

The debacle in Afghanistan is first and foremost the consequence of the Biden foreign policy team’s spectacular incompetence. Setting a date-certain withdrawal was in itself a blunder, signaling the Taliban that all they had to do was to keep telling us what we wanted to hear and then wait, but withdrawing troops and abandoning Bagram airbase before evacuating our citizens was willful stupidity. It left the Afghan army vulnerable, and ceded the skies to the enemy. So too was leaving behind billions in advanced armaments for the Taliban. There’s no question that Biden’s name will forever be linked to one of the worst military blunders in the postwar period.

But an older error set the stage for bad decisions that have empowered modern jihadism for forty years––the failure to understand the true nature of Islam as documented in 1400 years of practice and doctrine. As a result, we have pursued policies based on delusion and false paradigms.

The first mistake was our misreading of the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution and the kidnapping of our embassy staff in November 1979. Jimmy Carter’s feckless response followed the stale narrative of anti-colonial resistance to our Cold War self-interested disregard for aspirations to national self-determination, political freedom, and human rights. Our ally the Shah of Iran, despite Iran’s geostrategic and economic importance, fell victim to Carter’s naïve belief that “moral principles” and “idealism” were more significant than military readiness and a realist willingness to use force to protect our national interests and allies. Misled by that paradigm, Carter withheld support from the Shah, assuming that a secular coalition would replace him.

Locked in the paradigm of neo-imperialist resistance to movements of nationalist self-determination, Carter failed to understand the true origins of the Iranian Revolution. In reality, the revolution was a religious phenomenon, a response to the Shah’s modernization and secularization policies such as emancipating women and protecting minorities like Jews and Baha’is. The Ayatollah Khomeini, godfather of the revolution, made this motive clear in 1963 when he said the Shah’s regime was “fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of a religious class.”

Missing too from Carter’s thinking was the historical role of jihad in Islamic reform movements. Khomeini’s sermons and books, the latter dismissed by our security agencies, were clear on the religious obligation to create a political-social order based on Islam and Sharia law. And the means for achieving it was jihadist violence and martyrdom. After he took power in Iran, Khomeini articulated the violent nature of jihad: “Islam is a religion of blood for the infidels but a religion of guidance for other people.” And its goal is the global triumph of Islam: “We shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry ‘There is no god but Allah’ resounds over the whole world, there will be jihad.” Such statements are consistent with Koranic verses such as “Slay the idolators wherever you find them,” or “Fight those who do not believe in Allah,” or “O you who believe! Fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness,” or “Kill them wherever you find them.”

None of this historically venerable doctrine seemed to have penetrated the minds of our foreign policy experts. National self-determination and reforms to institute governments based on Western principles–– human rights, separation of church and state, confessional tolerance, and equal rights for women––became the goal of our involvement in the Muslim Middle East.

This belief became stronger and adopted a missionary zeal after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was interpreted as a victory for the Western “rules based international order,” global free trade, liberal democracy, and human rights, all of which were presumed to be desired by all the world’s diverse peoples and cultures. This “new world order,” as George H.W. Bush called it, met its answer in the jihadist attacks on September 11, 2001, which culminated a decade of unanswered al Qaeda attacks on our military assets and personnel abroad.

George Bush Jr. responded by likewise promoting universal liberal democracy as the answer to the persistence of jihadism: “The United States must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere. . . . America must stand firmly for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property,” as he wrote in the National Security Strategy in 2002. In his second Inaugural speech, he reiterated this Wilsonian idealism, linking it to national security: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

These naïve generalizations ignored or whitewashed the essential nature of Islam as seen in 14 centuries of doctrine and practice. The late-14th century writer Ibn Khaldun, one of the greatest Islamic historians and philosophers, wrote in the Muqaddimah, “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.” When we see Muslim groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the mullahs of Iran, and others killing and dying in fealty to this traditional religious imperative, it is dangerous blindness for Western secularists to claim that there is no connection between Islam and jihadist terrorism.

Yet that’s what we’ve been doing going back to the Clinton administration, when his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Islam “a faith that honors consultation, cherishes peace, and has as one of its fundamental principles the inherent equality of all who embrace it.” Ask the frightened women of Afghanistan, desperate to escape the Taliban’s Sharia-based brutal practices, about the notions of “inherent equality.” Bill Clinton took the same tack when he praised Islam’s “deepest yearning of all––to live in peace,” a claim refuted by 14 centuries of Islamic invasion, occupation, plunder, and enslavement, all justified by the Koran, Hadiths, and Muslim jurisprudents and philosophers like Ibn Khaldun.

George W. Bush likewise indulged such ahistorical apologetics: Islam’s “teachings,” he proclaimed, “are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah, blaspheme the name of Allah.” But what we call “evil” to pious Muslims like Khomeini or Osama bin Laden or the Taliban are sacred duties to fulfill the will of Allah that the whole world embrace Islam, the one true religion. It bespeaks Western arrogance to tell pious Muslims what their scriptures really mean.

With such a depth of historical ignorance, no wonder that Bush’s attempts to create a liberal democracy, with Western notions of individual rights, found Afghanistan barren soil; or that Barack Obama and now Joe Biden are anxious to cut a deal with a members of a faith that historically has seen such negotiations and treaties with infidels as temporary expedients to be violated or discarded when they have achieved their aim as commanded by Mohammed: to wage jihad “until the cry ‘There is no god but Allah’ resounds over the whole world.”

This feckless failure of imagination, this inability to see a different culture and faith in its own terms, rather than reshaping them by imposing our own, is an important factor in the disaster in Afghanistan: thousands of Americans now virtual hostages, billions in armaments in the hands of a sworn enemy, American prestige damaged for the benefit of Iran, Russia, and China, and NATO allies snubbed. And don’t forget the thousands of Afghans, many of whom wanted to reform their faith and reconcile it with modernity, but are now the targets of heinous retribution.

Understanding the truth of traditional Islam is not a condemnation of every one of the 1.6 billion Muslims. Millions and millions of them have no doubt managed to remain faithful without endorsing the sacralized violence of Islamic doctrine and practice. But we don’t know what proportion of the ummah, the global Muslim community, falls into that category. Our government’s primary responsibility is to protect our citizens’ security and interests, and that means our focus must remain on the Muslim traditionalists who are very clear about those beliefs that our leaders have been marginalizing as the a “hijacking” of the faith, or the “heresies” of a renegade minority.

After 20 years of failure in Afghanistan, perhaps it’s time to listen to what the jihadists tell us about their faith-based hostility and ambitions. Maybe then we can avoid the misguided idealism that has endangered our security and interests, and condemned thousands of Muslim reformers to a gruesome fate.


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