Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The West and Islamism: Testing the “War of Ideas.” By Adam Garfinkle.

The West and Islamism: Testing the “War of Ideas.” By Adam Garfinkle. The American Interest, January 11, 2016.


I argued late last month that, after Paris, Bamako, and San Bernardino, a clutch of mainly well-intentioned observers were exaggerating the role of ideology in the Islamist threat, calling (again) for a “war of ideas,” as though the desultory post-9/11 era experience on this score had never happened. I noted, as have many others both recently and more than a dozen years ago, that any consequential “war of ideas” has to go on within Muslim-majority countries. And it is going on, with signs pointing to the eventual rejection and marginalization of salafi extremism, and the emergence of something still inchoate that is neither Islamist nor entirely traditional. Of course we could help the anti-salafis in the region more than we have been, and we could be wiser about our methods. We could also go about this foolishly and counterproductively, as we have in some cases in the past and as certain presidential contenders are urging us to repeat (and worse).

Between the Western worldview and terror-prone Islamism, on the other hand, there is little intellectual or ideological conflict of significance that can be remedied by a “war of ideas.” There is a conflict, of course, and it is one between two universalisms: Western Enlightenment liberalism and Islamist supremacism. But this conflict is not the proximate source of our problem. There is rather a sociological problem in the region having mainly to do with the stresses of modernization on traditional and, in many cases, still largely tribally structured societies, and this agonizing civilizational churning happens to spatter blood beyond as well as within its borders. Regrettably, we in the West cannot master this problem, only manage it until those who truly own it work their way to some new and improved social equipoise.

I know this argument will be unpopular in some circles, for the “war of ideas” mantra has become a kind of abstract rallying cry that supposedly complements the military/security instrumentalities Western governments must use to protect their citizens. Many people are uncomfortable or unsatisfied with an exclusively military-security response to salafi extremism and long to believe that something more philosophically elevated must be involved here. There is, no doubt, but I stand by my argument that the “war of ideas” notion, as commonly understood and promulgated, is not that something. Here I elaborate and complement that argument, in two parts.

First, I want to be more specific about the non-centrality of ideological conflict between the West and Islamism. What we Western observers often identity as ideological is really theological; but then we would do that, wouldn’t we, since most Western observers do not take theology as a social force very seriously anymore. The two are not the same, and thanks to a good deal of natural blurring between the understanding of ideology and theology among Muslims—because they do not take the category of the secular very seriously—rationalist arguments on an ideological plain made directly by non-Muslims to Muslims will get us absolutely nowhere.

Second, in part two, I visit the proverbial other side of the coin, for when our chatterati propose a “war of ideas” turning on the presumed centrality of jihadi ideology, they rarely leave off adjuring us here in the West to revivify and pump new energy into the liberal project that defines us both historically and prospectively. It follows that if we are warring on someone else’s ideas, we must have superior ideas in which we genuinely believe with which to win that war. Such adjuration makes for a terrific applause line, but it never comes with assembly instructions. There’s a reason for that.

To argue that there is no ideological conflict of significance between Western liberalism and Islamism is not to say that Islamists have no explicit beliefs about their relations with non-Muslims, including those of the West, or that they do not draw political implications and inspiration from those beliefs. The leaders of Islamist organizations do both, and some mid-echelon followers do as well. But the rank-and-file of Islamist organizations, notably those disposed to participate in violence and terrorism, tend to be not particularly interested in the esoterica of Islamist political theology, are neither well-versed in it nor educated sufficiently to parse it, and are not mainly motivated by whatever intellectually suasive power it may have. They join for other reasons of a run-of the-mill social-psychological sort that I (and many others) have discussed before. The Arabs native to the region and those who are attracted to the caliphate from Europe, Russia, Turkey, and America do not display precisely the same social-psychological profile, and their ability to direct their intellects to salafi thinking differs as well. Still, the point stands: What we think of as a rational, intellectual process of becoming persuaded by an argument plays a minor role, if any, for most jihadi warriors and supporters.

This matters, and here is why: What if there were an Osama bin Laden and an Ayman al-Zawahiri, and what if there is an Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi and his close circle of premillenarian fanatics, but with hardly anyone willing to follow them? How much danger would these marginally charismatic hysterics pose? Not much, or at any rate far less danger than the distinctly non-existential threat they pose today. What motivates the cadres matters for practical reasons, and that motivation is usually idiosyncratic and highly emotional. It is not well described as intellectual or ideological.

The cadres get a highly simplified narrative line from their elders—so simple, in fact, that a single sentence suffices to state it: The non-believers are conspiring against Islam, and it is your duty as a Muslim to uphold the superiority and ensure the victory of Islam. Put in slightly more elaborate form, as it might be pitched to a young would-be adept, it gathers up the ambient elements of the region’s deep-seated grievance culture and conspiracy-theory tendencies and says, in effect, “All the problems in our society, all the humiliations and lack of dignity and justice, are the fault of non-believers and their lackeys within our midst. If we vanquish them, we will restore the Muslim umma to its rightful place as global leaders in both faith and power. If you do not join the struggle, you dishonor your family and spite God and His Prophet.”

Now, is this an ideology? It seems a bit sparse to qualify. As that term is commonly used in the West, an ideology at a minimum needs to specify: some ideal political economy; some ideal relationship between society, state, and authority; and some ideal relationship between a given society and the world outside it. There is nothing very special in these regards about current Islamist thinking. There are some innovations, yes: the very strict segregation of the sexes in public spaces; the insistence that non-Muslims cannot hold any public office; the re-merging of religious and temporal authority in the caliphate. But even these innovations do not differ much from the standard traditional Muslim understanding of these matters, and that traditional understanding is too well known to require extensive review here. Simply put, it divides the world into believers and non-believers, and proclaims the superiority of the former and the inevitable transformation of the world into a single Muslim community and state through various forms of struggle. It creates special conditions for the protection of precursors to Islam (Jews and Christians, mainly) and it bans compulsion in religion. But the precepts of Islamic supremacism and the inevitability of struggle until victory are otherwise not constrained.

That said, over the centuries this traditional understanding has been authoritatively conditionalized in practical ways so as to enable Muslim polities to live normal lives, so to speak, both within and among other polities. That process began as early as the Umayyad Empire, developed appreciably in Abbasid times, and developed even more finely during some five centuries of Ottoman rule into a synthesis, or practical compromise, between a bare-bones traditional understanding and the practical adjustments required as time passed. Some of these adjustments became necessary because the unity of Islam deteriorated early on, and the original theory made no provision for either divisions among believers or the de facto separation of religion and temporal authority. Others became necessary because the power of Islam was insufficient to promulgate successful struggle at all times and places, and theories of truces with non-believers and the conditions of commercial exchange and diplomacy with non-Muslim entities had to be elaborated—and, of course, they were, in detail.

It is these adjustments, those that have concerned internal order and those that have concerned relations with non-Muslims, that the al-Qaeda and Islamic State leaderships wish to jettison in order to “return” to the supposedly purer Islam of the Prophet’s time. The problem is, first, that the Prophet himself did not idealize his own time (quite the contrary), and second, that there is not nearly enough “there” there in the Quran and other early, Rushidun-era sources to construct a workable system of governance and foreign relations for contemporary times. It turns out that the accumulated accretions born of experience over the centuries remain necessary.

That means that the leadership of the Islamic State, and of al-Qaeda before it and now in addition to it, already needs to authoritatively interpret scripture—in other words, it needs to do exactly what it wishes others had not done over all these centuries: adumbrate the pure and simple paradigm of Islamic thinking to cover practical necessity. The result has been a good deal of intellection and no shortage of disagreement.
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We Westerners tend to turn everything into the political and hence into ideology, while our universalist Islamist competitors tend to turn everything into the religious and hence into theology. In the Muslim world, let us remember, there has never arisen a stable secular space comparable to that of the West, so the conceptual preconditions for Islamists distinguishing ideology from theology barely exist. Ultimately, this is why our having a calm debate about ideological ideas with them is damned nigh impossible.

The upshot of all this for practical policy purposes is that we cannot make war in the realm of ideas against Islamist ideology per se because there isn’t very much of it to fight. What there is of it is simple but implacable: Islam is superior to all other faiths, and it should by rights and God’s will be acknowledged as superior on earth. A basic implication follows: We get to dominate you, not the other way around.

We cannot fight that belief with a countervailing idea and not also implicate mainstream Islam, which, of course, would just make the problem worse. And if we try to fight directly, as opposed to encouraging Muslims already mobilized for that struggle, we find that what is rational and ideological to us is heard as emotional and theological to them. In their eyes we turn from liberals into Christians, and talk about, say, democracy or gender equality willy-nilly translates into a most unwelcome invitation to apostasy. This is exactly the perverse dynamic that the Bush Administration’s “forward strategy for freedom” created, and this realization in turn helps to explain why the original, post-9/11 “war of ideas” never got very far as a government exercise (although other reasons intruded as well—like lawyers warning policymakers that the First Amendment supposedly prohibits government officials from dicking around in anything even remotely religious).

Meanwhile, reform-minded Muslims who hope to dispel the precept of supremacism from Islamic thinking are hoping against hope. “A campaign to reject the dogma of Islamic supremacism would find many supporters among Muslims tired of the zealotry and self-righteousness of the Islamists,” claimed my friend Husain Haqqani in these pages not long ago. Maybe he’s right, and bless him for trying—but any attempt to displace this dogma has a very long row to hoe. You might as well ask a believing mainstream Christian to set aside the notion of the divinity of Jesus, or an Orthodox Jew to set aside the idea of “the chosen people.”

In sum, there isn’t much Islamist ideology per se, and what there is cannot be displaced by argument. Whatever ideology there is constitutes, by our conceptual reckoning, a lesser-included case of a theological system whose intrinsic nature cannot be readily distinguished in method, logic, or tone from Islamic exegesis generally; and what motivates violence and terrorism in most members of extremist Islamist organizations has little to do with any of this in the first place.

Now if, while that problem is being “worked” among Muslims, fanatical Islamists come looking to kill us in our own part of the world, the proper first response is not to argue with them over ideas but to kill them first. That in itself won’t solve the larger, longer-term problem of course, but it will have to do for the moment.