Since I have only a textbook knowledge of Islam, I have to rely on other scholars and researchers for any insight into whatever connection there may be between Islam and Islamic terrorism. This article, entitled "The Religious Sources of Islamic Terrorism," appeared in the June 2004 issue of Policy Review. Despite the author's erudition, I find that I'm very disappointed with his strategic recommendations on how to fight Islamic terrorism.
The author is Shmuel Bar, an Israeli scholar. He begins by noting Western reluctance (which may be sincere or mealy-mouthed) to trace Islamic terrorism back to the tenets of Islam itself. Instead, various social and cultural grievances are usually highlighted as the cause of Islamic terrorism. (It's here that the "root cause" analysis finds its place.) Bar, however, thinks that Islam clearly has something to do with Islamic terrorism. Yet he offers the following warning at the end of his second paragraph:
A skeptic may note that many societies can put claim to similar grievances but have not given birth to religious-based ideologies that justify no-holds-barred terrorism. Nevertheless an interpretation which places the blame for terrorism on religious and cultural traits runs the risk of being branded as bigoted and Islamophobic.
I don't know about you, but whenever I come across such an admonition, I have to restrain myself from feeling bigoted and phobic by the end of the discussion. Usually, the author in question seems to make a strong case for the very bigotry and phobia that he or she is hoping to quash. But let's press foward.
Bar turns to radical Islam and jihad. The former, he says, has the following underpinning:
The underlying element in the radical Islamist worldview is ahistoric and dichotomist: Perfection lies in the ways of the Prophet and the events of his time; therefore, religious innovations, philosophical relativism, and intellectual or political pluralism are anathema. In such a worldview, there can exist only two camps Dar al-Islam ("The House of Islam" i.e., the Muslim countries) and Dar al-Harb ("The House of War" i.e., countries ruled by any regime but Islam) which are pitted against each other until the final victory of Islam. These concepts are carried to their extreme conclusion by the radicals; however, they have deep roots in mainstream Islam.
Well, I ask myself, if the concepts that undergird radical Islam have deep roots in mainstream Islam, then doesn't that mean that mainstream Islam is bound to be largely sympathetic to radical Islam? If so, Bar has failed to reassure me; and his views only become more disturbing to my peace of mind as he unfolds them further.
The 1980s, says Bar, witnessed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan a holy war to be fought not only by Muslims in Afghanistan but also by other Muslims from nearby countries. All Muslims, it seems, are obliged to prevent the reversion to non-Islamic rule of lands once ruled by Islamic law, and since there are so many lands in which this has occurred, it seems to follow that all Muslims have a duty to join the jihad.
The jihad against the Soviets, Bar claims, is where many of our current troubles were born:
The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union were perceived as an eschatological sign, adumbrating the renewal of the jihad against the infidel world at large and the apocalyptical war between Islam and heresy which will result in the rule of Islam in the world. Along with the renewal of the jihad, the Islamist Weltanschauung, which emerged from the Afghani crucible, developed a Thanatophile ideology in which death is idealized as a desired goal and not a necessary evil in war.
An offshoot of this philosophy poses a dilemma for theories of deterrence. The Islamic traditions of war allow the Muslim forces to retreat if their numerical strength is less than half that of the enemy. Other traditions go further and allow retreat only in the face of a tenfold superiority of the enemy. The reasoning is that the act of jihad is, by definition, an act of faith in Allah. By fighting a weaker or equal enemy, the Muslim is relying on his own strength and not on Allah; by entering the fray against all odds, the mujahed is proving his utter faith in Allah and will be rewarded accordingly.
Bar then discusses some of the legal issues surrounding jihad: Who is to participate? Which means are acceptable and which are forbidden? And so forth. Nothing that he writes indicates that mainstream or moderate Muslims should somehow regard jihad as alien to their understanding of Islam. Quite the opposite is true, he says:
It can be safely assumed that the great majority of Muslims in the world have no desire to join a jihad or to politicize their religion. However, it is also true that insofar as religious establishments in most of the Arabian peninsula, in Iran, and in much of Egypt and North Africa are concerned, the radical ideology does not represent a marginal and extremist perversion of Islam but rather a genuine and increasingly mainstream interpretation.
Furthermore, moderate Muslims fear being labeled apostates; consequently, they are very wary of confronting the radicals:
Moderates are reluctant to come forward and to risk being accused of apostasy. For this very reason, many Muslim regimes in the Middle East and Asia are reluctant to crack down on the religious aspects of radical Islam and satisfy themselves with dealing with the political violence alone. By way of appeasement politics, they trade tolerance of jihad elsewhere for local calm. Thus, they lose ground to radicals in their societies.
If local governments aren't especially willing to combat the radicals who engage in terrorism, then what can be done? Bar says that we need a comprehensive strategy that remains true to our democratic values. He asks whether or not a strategy addressing the ideological roots of radical Islam is a possible one. He doesn't really answer his own question, unfortunately. Here is what his strategy would look like, leaving aside for a moment the issue of its likely success:
First, such a strategy must be based on an acceptance of the fact that for the first time since the Crusades, Western civilization finds itself involved in a religious war; the conflict has been defined by the attacking side as such with the eschatological goal of the destruction of Western civilization. The goal of the West cannot be defense alone or military offense or democratization of the Middle East as a panacea. It must include a religious-ideological dimension: active pressure for religious reform in the Muslim world and pressure on the orthodox Islamic establishment in the West and the Middle East not only to disengage itself clearly from any justification of violence, but also to pit itself against the radical camp in a clear demarcation of boundaries.
Such disengagement cannot be accomplished by Western-style declarations of condemnation. It must include clear and binding legal rulings by religious authorities which contradict the axioms of the radical worldview and virtually "excommunicate" the radicals. In essence, the radical narrative, which promises paradise to those who perpetrate acts of terrorism, must be met by an equally legitimate religious force which guarantees hellfire for the same acts.
He then fills out the details with six bullet points that I won't quote. You'll find them towards the end of the article.
Overall, I find Bar's recommendations very disappointing. He realizes that he is calling for an "Islamic Kulturkampf" (his phrase, found in his penultimate paragraph). But given what he has written earlier, can we reasonably expect one to take place? If we really are in a religious war (once again, his phrase, which I quoted above), is it rational to premise part of our strategy on reform within the Islamic world, when we have no good reason to believe that moderates will challenge radicals in the manner required by Bar's strategy? Perhaps they are willing to confront terrorists in some fashion to save themselves. But will they do so on our behalf? Bar doesn't answer this question.
Are moderates (and, of course, they exist) really willing to act in a fashion that in effect makes them our allies and the radicals (who are their co-religionists) their enemies? Perhaps they are, but why should we believe that they are so willing? What evidence of their willingness has Bar provided? In short, has Bar given us a viable strategy? The policy that he advocates seems nothing but fanciful.
As the Bush administration has learned during the past year, hope is not a plan. Bar is from Israel, as I noted at the beginning of this post. Could Israel have had any success with the strategy that he proposes? Not as far as I can tell. Look at how easy it has been to radicalize the Palestinian people. Perhaps the West might more readily pursue the strategy that Bar recommends, but his article isn't at all encouraging on this point. Instead, if Bar is right in his diagnosis of the religious roots of Islamic terrorism, then his prognosis ought to be commensurately gloomy. That is, we may be in a religious war without an end in the foreseeable future.