Wanting to give a chance for the heat of the moment to pass, I did not post on this topic last week. However, our wonderful politicians to paraphrase another statement, never miss an opportunity to make things worse by over-reacting to the crisis du jour. While it is unclear that the current proposed legislation on refugees actually changes the screening process, the timing of this legislation and the specific requirement that the Administration give periodic reports to Congress is another blunder on the PR side of the war on terror — sending a clear message to the Muslim world that the U.S. sees Muslims as our enemy, even though that is not the case. Several points need to be made (and hopefully will be made by those who want to be President and our other national leaders, but I am not optimistic).
First, and foremost, fundamentalism — whether Islamic or Christian or Jewish or Hindi or Buddhist — is an idea. An idea can’t be defeated by military force. In today’s world, all it takes is a computer (or smart phone) to communicate messages — both to recruit new participants and to coordinate plans — and to transfer the funds needed for operations. While controlling a piece of territory (especially one rich in natural resources) can allow a training program and help with raising funds, it is not absolutely necessary. Thus, if our only strategy is a military one, we face the modern day equivalent of a mythical Hydra — lop off one head (Al-Qaeda) and a new head (ISIS) emerges to take its place within a year or two.
Second, all religions have the potential for a fundamentalist streak, and most religions have some text that can be interpreted to support holy war (call it a jihad, a crusade, or whatever) against non-believers. Most also have texts that can be read to support tolerance and non-violent attempts to convert by persuasion and demonstrating the goodness and truth of the religion. Christians attempting to convince others that Islam is different should first closely examine their own history — even at this late time, we are only a couple of decades removed from the troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Bosnia, much less the continued mistreatment of gays and lesbians on religious grounds by Christian leaders in Africa. We also need to recognize that all religions have different sub-denominations. If a Muslim tried to lump in Episcopalians with Southern Baptists, both groups would quickly respond about how different Episcopalian beliefs are from Southern Baptist beliefs — although both qualify as Christian and protestant. Yet, in the U.S., we quickly gloss over the differences between Sunni and Shia and all of the divergent schools of belief that fit within each of those two broad categories.
Third, we need to be aware of history. For example, due to its own history, France is particular vulnerable to domestic terrorists (who happen to be Muslims). France used to have colonies in the Arab world (particularly in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. As the colony system collapsed in the 1950s, many Arabs who were loyal to France and not to the independence movements moved to France (the same way loyalists in what is now the United States relocated to Canada after the American Revolution). Unfortunately, the new Arab citizens of France tended to be treated as second class citizens by the native French. There is still some of this feeling among French Arabs, making it easier for groups like ISIS to recruit French Arabs to aid in terror plots. At this point, it looks like the majority of those involved in the Paris attacks were native French Arabs (or native Belgian Arabs).
Fourth, the internet has changed things. Two decades ago, it was hard to grow a cult. Most cult leaders, whether a Jim Jones or a David Koresh, started with one “church” and added members locally. Spreading further took a lot of effort. Today with an internet, the Jihadi cult can reach the entire world. And the potential recruit is the same as the potential recruits for the old cults — young adults who are dissatisfied with their lives seeking some “purpose” for their existence. Cults and Fundamentalism offer easy certainty and answers for people desperately looking for certainty and purpose. As the declining membership of moderate religions show, it is hard to convert people to your beliefs when your beliefs recognize that we live in a world in which right and wrong involves shades of gray and human fallibility. The next major terror attack by ISIS may involve a person who was born Christian, but became a Muslim Fundamentalist through internet persuasion.
Fifth, while the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not fundamentalists, the fundamentalists begin their message with grievances and concerns that many Muslims share. Some of these grievances are matters of perspective that will be hard to change. For example, while the U.S. did make efforts to protect Muslims against Christians in Bosnia and Kosovo, many Muslims still perceive that the West is out to get the Muslim world (a perception aided by the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). While conservatives complain about the lack of Muslim condemnations of terror, they ignore their own patterns. There have been many violent attacks on abortion clinics and doctors in the U.S., but conservatives do not expect the pro-life movement to hold rallies condemning those attacks every time that it happens. Just because violent extremists distort a group’s viewpoint, it is unrealistic to expect those groups to put their own agendas on the backburner to spend their time protesting the extremists.
Sixth, any strategy going forward has to have two components. First, the U.S. needs to be more PR savvy in dealing with Islam. In too many Muslim countries, the U.S. has supported authoritarian regimes (and continues to support them) until the regime collapses. Under such regimes, opposition tends to be centered in the local mosques (as the only institution outside government control) and the replacement governments tend to be more fundamentalist than we like. We need to encourage and persuade our allies to gradually move toward more open and democratic systems in which moderate Muslims are able to develop strong political parties so that when the system becomes fully democratic, secularists and moderates are able to compete with fundamentalist. Additionally, we need to build the perception that U.S. involvement in the Muslim world is something other than just invading any Muslim country that tries to go its own way and propping up puppet regimes.
The other component will remain a military-legal strategy. When groups like ISIS pop up, we will need to deprive them of territory and try to bring them to justice. The military strategy, however, can’t be U.S. boots on the ground every time. We will need help from other countries, included Muslim countries, to defeat these groups. The American people will not support the type of long-term occupation needed to pacify unstable parts of the Muslim world. Furthermore, every time that the U.S. invades a Muslim country, it feeds the perception that the Christian West is engaged in a crusade to keep the Muslim world under Christian control.
Seventh, the U.S. needs to avoid giving in to fear. As the Paris attacks show, there are way too many vulnerable targets. You can’t impose massive security at every place where 100 or 200 people could gather. It would be prohibitively expensive and the annoyance would only minimally improve security. While you can keep an individual from bringing a gun into a crowded restaurant for later use, that security is not enough to keep three individuals with machine guns from attacking that restaurant. Unfortunately, unless the U.S. wants to pull back entirely from the world (walls at both borders, no international flights, no trade with other countries, no travelling abroad), the U.S. and Americans will be targets because we are the most powerful and influential country in the world (not as powerful and influential as some think, but still more important than any other one country). Some Americans will die in terror attacks. All that we can ask of our government is that it take reasonable steps to enhance security without asking us to surrender our freedoms for the myth of security; that it take reasonable steps to try to bring terrorist to justice and deny them the space in which to operate; that it do the right thing in international politics; and that it clearly communicate to the people of the various parts of the world that we do not oppose any people or religion and that — when we take action against any group or government — it is of strict necessity because that government or group has attacked us first or poses a threat to the security of the U.S. and others.
It has taken a long time (with plenty of mistakes by the U.S. and the West) to find ourselves in a world in which some Muslims see engaging in terror attacks against the West as the best way to achieve their domestic agendas (and despite sweeping rhetoric about what the Muslim world will do once united, the focus of these groups is primarily domestic). It is going to take a long time to get to a world in which terror attacks are rare. Giving into the politics of fear and hate will only make the process longer.