Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
President Obama recently gave a speech at the Pentagon about our efforts against ISIS that confirmed he has little awareness of the real world our enemies inhabit. The talk reprised the usual received wisdom and unchallenged orthodoxy that comprise most of the foreign policy establishment’s ideas about Islamic jihadism and how we should fight it. Consider the following particularly egregious examples:
Ideologies are not defeated with guns; they’re defeated by better ideas–– a more attractive and more compelling vision.
This statement is a classic either-or fallacy. Anyone familiar with history would have added the adverb “just” before “with guns.” Obama is indulging stealth pacifism, a variation on the “violence doesn’t solve anything” and “use your words” mantras of the junior high playground monitor. Such a stance is politically convenient when the voters are against the use of force, and a leader doesn’t have the will or ability to convince them why force is necessary.
In general, the superior quality of what men fight for is indeed a force-multiplier, as the Greeks proved at Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea. But significant force still has to be applied to kill a critical mass of the enemy. And even with the best ideas, more often it is the “guns” that in the end make the difference. Those victorious Greek hoplites and rowers had weaponry and tactics superior to the Persians’, as well as the better ideals of freedom and autonomy. World War II was another battle of freedom against tyranny. But Nazism was ultimately defeated by the U.S.’s ability to produce armaments at a rate Germany could not match––just in one month of 1944, America produced more Sherman tanks than all the tanks the Germany produced in a year. If the U.S. hadn’t entered the war, the “better ideas” of English civilization, despite their expression in the soaring oratory of Winston Churchill, would not alone have led to Hitler’s defeat.
So yes, “better ideas” are critical for winning a war. As Napoleon said, morale to the material is as three to one. But the importance of “ideas” like political freedom, confessional tolerance, and individual rights lies not, as Obama suggests, in their power to make our enemies change sides or reject the ideas they are fighting for. Rather, their power lies in the way they motivate and inspire those who fight for their own superior ideals because they are confident that they are superior. Obama in contrast is alluding to the power of mere example when he mentions “a more attractive and more compelling vision,” a phrase vague to the point of emptiness. I think he means that if the jihadists or potential jihadists could understand and experience the freedom, peace, and prosperity we enjoy, they would reject their own motivating beliefs, particularly the doctrines of traditional Islam, which they so passionately believe are superior that in their service they will murder innocents and blow themselves up.
This naïve belief in the attractive power of our ideals has been the big mistake of our war against jihad, one made by both parties. To traditionalist Muslims, the ideals we cherish are not self-evidently superior to those of Islam. What we call freedom, for example, pious Muslims like Ayatollah Khomeini understood to be license: it is the “freedom that will corrupt our youth, freedom that will pave the way to the oppressor, freedom that will drag our nation to the bottom.” Similarly, al Qaeda theorist Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote, “The freedom we want is not the freedom to use women as commodities . . . it is not the freedom of AIDS and an industry of obscenities and homosexual marriages.” Of course, our idea of political freedom is much different from these social practices, but the biggest example of Western freedom that most Muslims see is the degrading spectacles available on satellite television, Hollywood movies, and the Internet.
Likewise with democracy, tolerance, separation of church and state, sex equality, and all the other goods that define the Western civilizational paradigm but are contrary to shari’a law and Islamic doctrine. For a Muslim who takes those doctrines seriously––and poll after poll shows that hundreds of millions do–– none of these goods is worth risking his eternal soul. Indeed, they are seductive temptations for the pious, the subtle weapons the infidels use to weaken the faithful and bring about their spiritual destruction. That’s why the mullahs call us the “Great Satan”: not just because in Muslim eyes we are evil, but because we are tempters who addle the minds of the faithful with what the Iranian political activist Al-e Ahmad in 1962 called “Westoxification.”
Our strategy recognizes that no amount of military force will end the terror that is ISIL unless it’s matched by a broader effort -- political and economic -- that addresses the underlying conditions that have allowed ISIL to gain traction.
The assumption that ISIS exists because of a lack of political and economic opportunity is founded on a similar misunderstanding of jihadists’ motivations. This simplistic explanation of terror has been with us since 9/11, when Bill Clinton said, “These forces of reaction feed on disillusionment, poverty and despair,” and leftist “activist” Barbara Ehrenreich blamed the attacks on “the vast global inequalities in which terrorism is rooted.”
But if poverty or a lack of democracy is the cause of terror, then why aren’t the billions of poor, disenfranchised young men across the globe committing acts of terror at the rate of young Muslim men? Why do so many jihadist leaders and theorists come from affluent backgrounds, like Osama bin Laden, or lucrative professions, like the surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri? Why do Muslim immigrants in the affluent West, with a level of material existence and citizen rights far beyond those of their cohorts in the Third World, murder their fellow citizens or flock to join ISIS?
This economic or political determinism ignores the powerful and passionate reality of religious belief among Muslims, whose faith commands them, “O believers! Fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness” (Koran 9:123). But having reduced religion to a life-style choice, Western materialist determinism cannot imagine that violent acts can be motivated by sincere faith and obedience to Allah’s commands. So like Obama, we search for causes that suit our own materialist, secular world-view, such as poverty or lack of political freedom. But as Ayatollah Khomeini said in refutation of this received idea, “We did not have a revolution to lower the price of melons.”
We’ll constantly reaffirm through words and deeds that we will never be at war with Islam. We’re fighting terrorists who distort Islam and whose victims are mostly Muslims.
This hoary cliché has done the most damage to our war against jihadism. And its patent falsity can be easily documented in 14 centuries of Islamic scripture, jurisprudence, history, and practice. As the Egyptian critic of Islam Ahmed Harqan said recently, “What has ISIS done that Mohammed didn’t do?” Behead captives? In 627, Mohammed beheaded 600-900 males of the Jewish Banu Qurayzah tribe, in line with Koran 8:12: “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.”
Enslave the defeated? Mohammed enslaved the women and children of the Banu Qurayzah, and following his model Islam has been one of history’s great slaving civilizations. Just between 1500 and 1800, the Muslim kingdoms of North Africa took 1.5 million European slaves. These depredations were in line with Islamic doctrine, as the representative of the pasha of Tripoli explained to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1785. It was “written in the Koran,” he explained, “that all nations who should not have acknowledged their [Muslim] authority were sinners, that it was their [Muslim] right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find.” And as Mohammed showed, taking slaves is the just reward for those who, like ISIS, prevail in battle.
Nor is ISIS’s goal of restoring the caliphate some fringe distortion of Islamic doctrine. Since its final dissolution in 1922––the “catastrophe” bin Laden mentioned after 9/11–– the caliphate has remained a potent dream for many Muslims, for whom secular nationalism is an alien Western idea contrary to the unified political-religious polity of Islamic doctrine. Thus as pan-Arab theorist Nuri al-Said wrote in 1943, Arab Muslim nationalism “springs from the Muslim feeling of brotherhood enjoined on them by the Prophet Mohammed . . . Although Arabs are naturally attached to their native land their nationalism is not confined by boundaries. It is an aspiration to restore the great tolerant civilization of the early Caliphate.”
We can hear the larger import of this same “aspiration” in Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb’s claim that “Islam came into this earth to establish God’s rule on God’s earth” and to form “a Muslim community in which individuals . . . have gathered together under servitude to God and follow only the Shari’a of God.” So too Ayatollah Khomeini’s boast: “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 struggle.”
Contrary to Obama and others willfully blind to the reality of Islamic doctrine and history, neither the aims of ISIS nor their methods “distort” Islam. Rather, the soldiers of ISIS are the latest in a long tradition of Muslim warriors inspired by Islamic precept and practice. They are a manifestation of Muslim Brothers theorist Hassan al-Banna’s traditional belief that “It is the nature of Islam to dominate not to be dominated, to impose its laws on all nations, and extend its power to the entire planet.” Obama may have forgotten about “war with Islam,” but war with Islam has not forgotten about him.
Just repeating the mantra “nothing to do with Islam” or “religion of peace” or “moderate Muslims” will not change reality. Neither can the other great illusions of modernity like pacifism, disarmament, or the diplomatic settling of disputes that are created by irreconcilable ideologies and conflicting beliefs. The reality of history teaches us that only mind-concentrating, overwhelming force can convince the passionate aggressor to change his ways. The alternative is this administration’s slow-motion appeasement that has left the region a shambles and is escorting Iran to possession of nuclear weapons.