World Affairs

The Problem With Islam Reconsidered

Last Fall I argued that Islam appears relatively more vicious than Christianity because the latter has been defanged as a result of a series of confrontations with secular forces in Christendom over the past few centuries, while the former has not; that Islam’s DNA is characterized by an unparalleled fusion of political and spiritual authority; that it is only Muslim societies’ non-adherence to Islamic principles that makes them somewhat consistent with modernity and societal achievement. It has, of course, not escaped my attention that my argument can be used by Islamophobes for their own agenda. But I will not lie: Islam is as bad as mass delusions get. It could certainly be argued that my essay was ahistorical. The Koran has remained virtually unchanged for centuries, while radical Islamism is new. Constants cannot explain variables. Very true. But I was not trying to explain Islamic radicalism at all; I was simply trying to defend Bill Maher on the grounds that, as a matter of fact, he did not say anything particularly controversial: none of the liberals who denounced him would concede that the beliefs he was attacking were defendable — they were simply denouncing him for locating these ideas squarely in Islam.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there are two strong arguments going around. Progressives point to the context of Islamic radicalism: the long-standing domination of the Muslim world by the West, rampant Islamophobia, and the alienation of Muslim communities in Europe. A great example is this piece by Fredrik deBoer. “We’re debating,” he says, “dead moral questions, and for the same reason we always do: because that debate allows us to ignore the ones that might lead us to a different place than the celebration of our own liberal righteousness.” What place? This one:

The question of the price that Muslims will pay for these attacks– that is a live question, the security and rights of the Muslim people is very much uncertain, indeed. If there is anything that this country [the US] has stood for in the last 15 years, it is its willingness to sacrifice anything to fight Muslim extremism, and in the process, innocent Muslims. We have invaded multiple Muslim countries, sent secret raids into far more, killed Muslims with drones and bombs, wiretapped Muslims at home and abroad, sent agents to infiltrate their mosques, thrown dozens of them into a prison camp without trial or judicial review, assassinated them without due process, tortured them, and spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives in doing so. Of all the things that you should fear your government will lose the resolve to do, fighting Muslim terrorists should be at the absolute bottom of your list. There is no function that our government has performed more enthusiastically for years. Can any credible person doubt our commitment to fighting Muslim terrorists, in 2015?

Quite true: it is hard to think of the end of “GWOT” in 2015. But deBoer’s eye-point is located in the US and he is presumably not paying much attention to the other side of the pond. Others more familiar with the specific history think along the similar lines. “Long before the identity of the murder suspects was revealed by the French police — even before I heard the names of Cherif and Said Kouachi — I muttered the word ‘Algeria’ to myself” writes Robert Fisk, perhaps the most respected MidEast correspondent in the Western Press. He is right of course: France’s brutal pacification campaign in Algeria not-so-long-ago is almost certainly part of the context. As is the fact that a quarter of French graduates of North African descent are unemployed. Let’s bracket all this for now and label it “context.”

The second argument going around is that the massacre had nothing to do with the teachings of Islam; that most Muslims are moderates who were as horrified as non-Muslims to learn of the slaughter; that terrorists “have no religion”; and so on and so forth. As opposed to progressives committed to raising awareness about “what we are doing to them,” this crowd, which includes almost all the heads of states, wants to depoliticize the atrocity. Seemingly more inclusive, this line of reasoning is actually insidious. It says: Pay no attention to Muslim grievances, pay no attention to the surveillance state or other abuses of the national security apparatus, join us in condemning terror as barbarism and go shopping, while we pursue the policies we see fit without public discussion.

In other words, the purpose of this sham is to shut down discussion of deeply-relevant questions: What is radicalizing Muslims? What role has the West’s, in particular, the United States’ policies played in fanning the flames of Islamic radicalism? What role have US client states in the Muslim world — especially those in the Arabian peninsula — played? Are drone strike creating more terrorists than they eliminate? Should the West continue to intervene in the Middle East? What policies should the West pursue to deal with the threat of Islamic radicalism?


What both the progressives and the “terrorists have no religion” crowd ignore are the pronouncements and motivations of the extremists themselves. It is important to understand what these guys are saying about their own agenda and to situate it in its historical context. For these radical Islamists are not simply motivated by irrational hate. They are working on a specific theory that seemingly explains the predicament of the Muslim world and gives them reason to believe that their actions will further the Muslim cause. What is this theory? How did it gain ascendancy? What are they trying to do? Without answering these questions, we cannot hope to defeat radical Islamism.


The core of the Islamic world in fact escaped the most brutal phase of European domination of the rest of the world. After the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, Europeans turned their attention to Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Most of the inhabitants of the New World were exterminated; millions of Africans were enslaved; and all three were colonized. What held the predatory Europeans off the Middle East was the power of the Ottoman empire, which was also growing in strength during the most violent, initial phase of European expansion (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries).

The rising threat from Europe was hardly noticed in Metropolitan Islam until it was bitterly learnt on the battlefield. The Treaty of Carlowitz (1699) was the first of many humiliations of the Ottoman caliphate that had hitherto shielded the Middle East from the European predations. Western military innovations were immediately copied. But that proved insufficient to stem the tide. Something other than superficial reforms and Western arms was needed. The ‘crisis of Islam’ led to a fanatical search for an explanation of the superiority of the Western barbarians who had hitherto been seen as inferior even to the barbarians of the East. As European wealth and power became increasingly evident, the question became more and more urgent: What was the talisman of Western success? How can we restore our competitiveness? [See under Lewis.]

Two particular answers emerged in the Ottoman caliphate. Given that we are very much still in the historical movement that started in 1492, these answers have unsurprisingly sustained their salience. The first explanation was that the ultimate roots of Western power lay in Western institutions; that the West had discovered political and economic principles that made it strong. As David Deutsch would put it, this was a ‘good explanation’: the West had indeed discovered what Karl Popper would call ‘the principles of open society’ that lie at the root of long-term success. Proponents of this view argued for ‘Westernization,’ or somewhat euphemistically, for ‘modernization.’

Deathly opposed to the first answer were traditionalists who argued that Western superiority was only apparent. What had occurred, in their view, was a decline of the Islamic world. And, crucially, this decline could be traced to the erosion of Islamic principles in society and government. The solution, therefore, was not Westernization but purification: a return to original Islamic principles. This, second answer, was a ‘bad explanation.’ Yet, it survived. You can see it in Qutb’s writing — Qutb is the intellectual father of the Muslim Brotherhood and an inspiration for all Islamist movements including Salafist-Jihadists such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. After its dismemberment at the hands of the European powers, the successor state of the Ottoman caliphate, Turkey, went decisively with the first answer. How then did the second, flawed explanation come to gain ascendancy towards the end of the twentieth century? Ideally, we would like an explanation that accounts for ideational content, timing, and dispersion of radical Islamism. In what follows, I will attempt to sketch a straightforward explanation that does just that.


Most of the Islamic world had long ago discarded any notions along the lines of a ‘return to purity.’ Indeed, the most prominent Islamic movement for centuries was sufism, a mystical version of Islam which emphasized communion with God over ritual and dogma. In other words, it involved an outright rejection of any commitment to the actual content of the Koran and the hadith. This of course meant that it everywhere and forever remained a counter-narrative, hunted by the state, despite its immense popularity. On the other hand, scribes have always played a prominent role in public affairs. In both Shi’i and Sunni traditions, a small number of schools of jurisprudence have played a decisive role in the direction of Islamic thought.

When American politicians or opinion makers are called ‘moderate,’ they can be located within the spectrum whose boundaries are marked by two bookends:the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; thus far and no further. For instance, a constitutional purist would insist that there be no legislation at all, and that independent courts be left alone to interpret the constitution; an interpretation that is beyond the pale. When Muslims say they are ‘moderate,’ they mean that their interpretation of Islam lies between the major scribes (say, someone at Al-Azhar University in Egypt) and the sufis at the benign extreme.

Who are the fundamentalists? There is no daylight between the dominant interpretation in the gulf on the one hand, and radical Islamist groups (ISIS, Al Qaeda et al.)’s interpretation on the other. Both are salafist. The Financial Times explains the ‘800 pound gorilla in the room’ much better. The Saudis like to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the rise in Islamist extremism. But the torch of Sunni Islamist radicalism long ago passed to the Salafists. Global Jihadism is synonymous with Salafist-Jihadism.

For all practical purposes, the only difference between official salafism and militant salafism is this: Salafist-Jihadists think that it is the duty of all Muslims to fight for the Umma against the infidel forces, and they reject the House of Saud as a legitimate protector of the two holy mosques (inter alia because of its relationship to the United States); whereas official salafism disagrees on both counts. All salafists consider the Shi’i to be heretics. Salafist-Jihadists find the license to kill in being a ‘vanguard of the faithful,’ who must impose the true faith on all heretics and infidels, by lethal force if necessary. In terms of what precisely constitutes the ‘true faith’ in nonpolitical matters, there is no disagreement. The only disagreement is political: whether or not one should take up arms to challenge the politico-military order. This is an uncomfortably short ideational hop. Progressives who want democracy in the Arabian peninsula must consider the fact that there is no doubt that salafists would prevail handsomely if free and fair elections were held in the oil monarchies today. Are you sure you want that?

But what explains the rise of Salafist-Jihadism late in the twentieth century? Here is my straightforward theory of what happened: The salafist interpretation — which went with the second answer — happened to flourish in the region with most of the world’s oil. That is precisely why the oil price revolution of the seventies led to the emergence of Salafist-Jihadism, which made its first appearance in the Afghan war of the eighties. The CIA and the Saudis funnelled weapons and money though the hands of the ISI to the Mujahideen. Many went to fight from the gulf. The coffers of superrich gulf Arabs have expanded enormously since the eighties. Today, the gulf contributes the lion’s share of ISIS’ external funds. I am sure this has not escaped the notice of Western intelligence agencies, so I have no doubt that they are already trying their utmost to monitor the flow of funds from the gulf.

Whereas the gulf connection explains the timing of the take-off of global jihad, what accounts for its dispersion? In particular, why has the Islamic world become a more fertile ground for jihadist recruitment? The answer to that must be sought in the deepening societal crises of the Arab states.


The termination of inter-state Arab-Israeli confrontation in 1973 privatized the confrontation with Israel. Egypt realigned from the Soviets to the Americans. Egypt’s exit from the ranks of the confrontation states meant the collapse of the entire project because no other regional power was in a geostrategic position to threaten Israel. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the attendant disappearance of the socialist project in the Middle East further decentered the system. With Turkey standing at Europe’s door and ignoring the Middle East, Iran busy standing up to goliath, and Egypt in disarray, the Saudis have managed to play an extraordinary role on the stage of the Middle East; under US protection of course. The Saudis have been hunting Al Qaeda since the nineties but the Iraq war and the Arab uprisings have destabilized the Middle East by orders of magnitude. After declining to dire straits in 2010, Salafist-Jihadist groups have reemerged as a formidable force.

What is going on is hard to miss. Large parts of the Islamic world have been outright conquered by Salafist-Jihadist forces. There is a multi-player, large-scale military contest going on within the Islamic world. One can roughly array the players into a spectrum between the strong secularists who form the backbone of Turkey on the one hand, and ISIS on the other. This may indeed be the beginning of the Middle East’s Thirty Years’ War. Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, found this description of Europe’s 1618-1648 version:

It is a region wracked by religious struggle between competing traditions of the faith. But the conflict is also between militants and moderates, fueled by neighboring rulers seeking to defend their interests and increase their influence. Conflicts take place within and between states; civil wars and proxy wars become impossible to distinguish. Governments often forfeit control to smaller groups – militias and the like – operating within and across borders. The loss of life is devastating, and millions are rendered homeless.

The Thirty Years’ War killed a third of the German populace. This is no ordinary war in the Islamic world either. What is at stake is the relationship between religion and politics. Indeed, the very nature of legitimate authority is up for grabs. If this is indeed Islam’s Thirty Years’ War, the West needs to talk about long-term strategy. Were it to leave the system ‘isolated’ so to speak, I would not bet on the long-term stability of the oil monarchies. In that scenario, ISIS would spread its influence, perhaps conquer Jordan and Lebanon, and threaten the Arabian Peninsula. Boko Haram’s gains sans Western intervention are anybody’s guess. In the gulf, Iran would establish its regional hegemony in short order. But no US President can ignore America’s strategic interest in protecting both the gulf and the lungs of world economy, to paraphrase the old British manner of referring to Red Sea route as the ‘lungs of the empire.’ The very idea of leaving the system isolated is preposterous in light of US grand strategy.

There are some things that the West can do to nudge the affair in the right direction. But for that, the West needs a clear-eyed view of what said right direction is. Everywhere in the Islamic realm, we find moderates pitted against fundamentalists. That is one vector that needs to borne in mind. Turkey’s model — which has followed the first answer even after the rise of moderate Islamism (which will survive the AKP) — “offers the only convincing Muslim model of dynamic and effective governance,” argues Graham Fuller, who used to be a top global analyst at the CIA. The Policy Tensor agrees with this assessment.

Pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism are both centrifugal. They are essentially claims to leadership in the Middle East that cannot fail to threaten regional powers that value their autonomy. Their very success is thus self-undermining. When Nasser was riding the high tide of pan-Arabism, it prompted countermeasures by Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the revolutionary Islamism emanating from Iran during the eighties threatened all its neighbours, leading in this case to a brutal war wherein the Saudis and the Americans backed Saddam’s reckless bid to crush the nascent Islamic republic.

The incoherence of Arab politics and the Arab street’s penchant for conspiracy theories are signs of a societal crisis. The crisis in Arab states, Egypt above all, is itself a symptom of the failure of their models of governance. And this includes not just Ba’athism and the strongmen modes of the Maghreb and the Levant, but also the revolutionary Islamism of Iran. Identity is not enough; the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse. The reason is the same. Any model that generates relentless confrontation, with the unipole no less in this case, is automatically self-limiting.

While oil wealth has made the societies on the Arabian peninsula prosperous, their prosperity hides a blatant societal failure evident in their extraordinary dependence on the competence of outsiders. In any event, their counter revolutionary rentier state model is neither attractive nor reproducible elsewhere in the Islamic world. Nowhere in the greater Middle East outside Turkey is a viable model of governance to be found. This is precisely why I agree with Fuller’s assessment. In Turkey itself, the AKP’s days are numbered. But the astonishing rise of the Gulen movement, with its strong commitment to a de-facto secular polity, gives us good reason to believe that the model will survive the AKP’s demise.

But even if Iran joins Turkey and adopts a viable model of governance, that is not going to be enough to tip the scales. Unfortunately for the Middle East, neither Iran nor Turkey are Arab; Iran is not even Sunni. Although Turkey is easily the strongest regional actor, minus a serious decline in Arab nationalism, it’s days of regional hegemony appear to be over. There are other, Arab, contenders that are not that inferior. The domestic politics of the Middle East countries are strongly coupled, which makes ‘pivot states’ more influential than their geopolitical weight would otherwise allow. As the center of gravity of the Arab and Muslim worlds, Egypt is the true pivot. Much will depend on the outcome in Egypt.

In the gulf, the only long-term viable strategy is to bring Iran back into the fold. The really long-term allies of the West are after all Iranian businessmen. Iran is also the natural regional hegemon whose reemergence is likely to stabilize the gulf. A moderation of the sectarian temperature would also help. The anti-Shi’ism emanating from the gulf can be radically reduced with US pressure. Therefore, the US needs the space to arm twist the Saudi royals. For this reason, the Policy Tensor has advocated bringing both Damascus and Tehran in from the cold and a ‘tilt’ away from the Saudis. In any event, the ‘principle of least action’ suggests that a strategy of equipoise is optimal for a bipolar regional system.

As for the ‘arc of weakness’ stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, the strategy is in some sense overdetermined by the prominence of Salafist-Jihadist forces. The United States has little choice but to try to prevent the worst case scenarios from obtaining. First and foremost, it must try to ‘do no harm.’ Another misguided adventure like the Iraq war is surely a terrible idea. The US could’ve easily tolerated nationalist militants espousing limited aims conquering territory, even if they were ‘terrorists’ (not ‘all terrorists are the same’). This is not the case. The Salafist-Jihadists have unlimited aims and will not go away unless they are militarily defeated. Since air power is insufficient to defeat ISIS, I have advocated a limited intervention with US ground forces. Kimberly Kagan’s plan calls for 25,000 combat troops. That should do it. In fact, the most attractive strategy available now is a joint US action with regional players, especially Iran, to return Iraq and Syria to the territorial status quo ante circa 2011.


The ‘context’ that we bracketed long ago, is certainly relevant to the fertility of the soil in which Islamic radicalism can grow, but this cancer will not erase itself even with credible promises of the West’s excellent behaviour in perpetuity. Even after ISIS is eliminated as a serious contender in the coming years, Salafist-Jihadism is not going to disappear. A long-term strategy is thus necessary. Any viable long-term strategy to defeat Salafist-Jihadism must both militarily defeat the extant groups and make the ground less fertile for its growth.

There is plenty more the West can do at home to reduce the alienation of Muslim communities and thereby make them infertile grounds for radicalism to grow. On this front, North America vastly outperforms Europe. Unfortunately, the tidings on the tired continent point in the opposite direction. As for the United States, prosecuting the torture of Muslims by US agencies would go a long way in restoring US prestige in the Islamic world. Reining in its recalcitrant national security agencies would help restore its reputation as a constitutional republic.

Apart from being on the ‘right side of history,’ there actually isn’t all that much that the United States or the West can do to nudge Islam’s Thirty Years’ War in the right direction. Indeed, while we make a big fuss about Islamic terrorism in the West, the real military, political, ideational, and social struggle is taking place in the very heart of Islam — that is where it will be settled. This war will ultimately be decided by Muslims themselves. In the “Problem With Islam,” I pointed out that Islam never had its Reformation. Perhaps this is it. Let’s hope it doesn’t last as long as the fight in Christendom.


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