On the other hand, it is also wrong to pretend that the Muslim religion had nothing to do with this massacre, that it is mere happenstance that this mass murderer’s crime was incidental to his Islamic faith. The US is in a war against Islamist terrorism. What Hasan did yesterday, on the evidence, was an act of Islamist terror. Period. When a devout Christian commits an act of violence against an abortion clinic, and does so pretty clearly in the name of his religion, it would be an act of stupidity, and possibly moral cowardice, to declare an investigation of his religious motive off-limits. And, in fact, we don’t do that, even as we are, or ought to be, aware that the overwhelming majority of Christians neither commit nor endorse such acts. Similarly, it is right and proper to have a critical discussion of the role Hasan’s religion played in this evil act, if only so we can identify Muslims like him in the future before they’re tempted to act on their convictions. —(my emphasis)
Let’s look at that assertion I’ve highlighted. The US is in a war against Islamist terrorism.
This, as the young people say, is the part where I break it down (word by word).
As has been said by many others, you can’t shouldn’t have a war against a tactic. Terrorism is a tool and will horribly be deployed. A country like the US particularly doesn’t want to declare itself in a war against a tactic whose technological and social trajectory is inevitably headed in the upward direction. Otherwise you have definitionally set yourself up for failure.
Another reason I think the US (or any country for that matter) would not want to define itself in a war on terrorism is that it leads to the potential for ideological backlash. e.g. I’ve never lived in a village where robotic aerial drones frequent and periodically drop bombs. I assume however it is an act that would cause me to experience sheer terror. If a country defines itself in a war on terror than it will admittedly set itself up for the charge of hypocrisy if it uses tactics that are seen to be (or really are to be fair) terror-inducing.
Also given Rod’s own analogy between the shooter and say a Christian abortion-doctor murderer, why is the US then at war against Islamist terrorism and not simply, as a civilized rule-based society, opposed to all criminal terrorist acts? Does this individual’s despicable actions represent any real threat to the government of the United States? Does any talk even of domestic home-grown Islamic extremism represent a substantially more serious threat to public order than say Salvadorean gangs, Mexican drug lords, and/or ultra ring-wing terrorist organizations?
I agree with Rod that when you have say anti-abortion terrorist activities by self-defined Christians claiming religion as their motivation, you should study their religion. I agree with that proposition in the Ft. Hood case. But why go from there to this act as part of some larger war?
Here’s terrorism expert Marc Sageman (h/t Yglesias) testifying before Congress this past October (p.2):
I excluded lone wolves, who were not physically or virtually connected to anyone in the global neo-jihad, for they often carry out their atrocities on the basis of delusion and mental disorder rather than for political reasons.
Sound relevant in the Ft. Hood case?
On to the other word I suppose to answer that one.
Islamism is political view that seeks to create an Islamic state. There are all kinds of problems with saying the US is in a war against Islamist terrorism.
A) al Qaeda attacked the US on 9/11. Presumably everyone, on whatever side of the ledger, supports the view that the US should seek to destroy or at least thwart al Qaeda (though there would of course be disagreements concerning the best means whereby to achieve that goal).
Now look at Rod’s definition again: Islamist terrorism.
al Qaeda is certainly a terrorist organization but they are not Islamist in nature. So either Rod is suggesting that the US is not involved in any conflict with al-Qaeda (somehow I doubt this) or more likely, he is conflating al Qaeda with Islamism. This isn’t a verbal tisk-tisk I’m administering like a schoolmarm, this makes an enormous difference as to how to interpret say the murders at Ft. Hood.
al Qaeda is not Islamist because AQ does not seek to create an Islamic state. It believes the state, understood in the contemporary sense of nationally bounded and identified nation-states, is a heretical infidel construct of the West. Rod in a followup post points to some possible links between the shooter (Hasan) and an American version of The Muslim Brotherhood. This is a potentially very important piece of information that is worth investigation, but al Qaeda and The Muslim Brotherhood are enemies as the Muslim Brotherhood is Islamist and does therefore seek a state. The MB has even gone so far as to participate in democratic elections in a number of countries. Doesn’t mean The Muslim Brotherhood (or all aspects of that movement) are good guys, simply that you need to be clear on who exactly you are fighting and the idea in war is to divide your enemies and to use natural animosities between various groups against each not pile enemy upon enemy.
al Qaeda desires to create some worldwide Islamic caliphate, some worldwide revived Islamic empire that will control the world. They have no actual real plan for such an endeavor since there is no way such a thing is ever going to take place. al Qaeda are ultimately apocalyptic utopians in their vision and consequently nihilistic in their practice. Now as nihilists hell-bent on destruction, then can kill and maim life and are therefore a serious threat, but they are not an existential threat to the US. Unless of course the US were to say play right into their strategy.
B) But you might say we are certainly in a war against The Taliban and they are Islamist. This one is a little more complicated. The Taliban when they ruled in Afghanistan during the 1990s were actually a neo-fundamentalist group not Islamist. That is they didn’t actually do much of running a state but rather tried to impose their insane puritanical moral and social vision on the country. And they would (presumably) still be doing such a thing were it not for their hosting al-Qaeda who then later attacked the United States.
The Taliban were then of course routed from power in Afghanistan. The occupation of the country of Afghanistan by US/NATO has certainly led to insurgent violence (and terrorism) against Western forces as well as Afghan civilians. The insurgency is comprised of a number of groups including Gulbuddin’s Hezb-i-Islami, a group that could legitimately be called a jihadi Islamist organization. So they meet Rod’s criteria of some group the US is in a war against. This war however is somewhat belied by the fact that the US (along with Pakistan) funded Gulbuddin. He used to be our ally and if the US left Afghanistan his group would not be in a fight against the US. His is a nationalist Islamist undertaking. So is the US in a war against all Islamist insurgent groups, even locally motivated, locally focused ones? Does talking about a worldwide war against Islamist terrorism not in some manner end up uniting on the ideological battlefield groups that are fairly autonomous of one another….does it thereby end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if it guides policy decision making?
It’s not clear whether The Taliban will come back to power in Afghanistan and if they did whether they would be considered Islamist. And if they did whether they would automatically have a sanctuary relationship with al Qaeda. Various factions of the newer Afghan Taliban are creating something like law courts in various parts of Afghanistan lacking a state function.
But what has begun to occur is the narco-ization or essentially mafia-ization of terrorist networks, including jihadi ones the planet over. There is even some evidence that al-Qaeda is basically becoming merged with the fortunes of localized Western/Southeast Asian insurgent groups as it has become seriously debilitated in ways of reaching out to attack the West.
Not to mention that the “war” phase of the war in Afghanistan has been over for years and the cleanup or “peace/stablization” phase continues. (A peace phase does involve military battles btw). So again war is a pretty unhelpful term in this context.
C) Other Islamists groups (potentially/probably having had their own form of terrorism):
–The ruling regime in Iraq (Shia Islamist group), along with other US allies like The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. They participated in the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad. Somewhat difficult to be in a war against your own allies. So it must not be all kinds of Islamist ‘terrorism’ and certainly not all forms of Islamism (see the ruling regime in Turkey) that the US is opposed to. But only certain kinds.
–The ruling Iranian regime.
All of whom the US apparently is at war with by this definition. Wars that would be hard to win in the case of say a Hezbollah or Hamas since they are social movements that have legitimacy amongst their population. Also one of which (Hezbollah) accepted democratic electoral consequences and is (however tenuously) participating in a coalitional government.
3) What is the actual fight/threat?
As Sageman’s testimony to the Senate makes clear:
The dramatic increase in global neo-jihadi terrorism in the first decade of the 21st Century has come from al Qaeda inspired autonomous groups with no link to formal transnational terrorist groups. This is especially true since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which has inspired local young Muslims to strike out against the West. It seems clear that this invasion has created more terrorists in the West, refuting the thesis that “we are fighting them there, so we don?t have to fight them here.” (p.7)
The above statistics are crystal clear: 78% of all global neo-jihadi terrorist plots in the West in the past five years came from autonomous homegrown groups without any connection, direction or control from al Qaeda Core or its allies. The „resurgent al Qaeda? in the West argument has no empirical foundation. The paucity of actual al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist organization plots compared to the number of autonomous plots refutes the claims by some heads of the Intelligence Community (Hayden, 2008) that all Islamist plots in the West can be traced back to the Afghan Pakistani border. Far from being the “epicenter of terrorism,” this Pakistani region is more like the finishing school of global neo-jihadi terrorism, where a few amateur wannabes are transformed into dangerous terrorists.
Now if you read Sageman’s testimony (and I highly recommend you do, it’s quite illuminating), you will see that there were very few real terrorist plots (and even less attacks) in the West in the last number of years. And where there was, as Sageman notes it had to do with locals opposed to US foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like said Nidal Hassan.
Sageman calls these autonomous neo-jihadi groups and I think that’s a decent definition (since I’m such a stickler for frames & definitions). Jihadism as a political movement has failed. Look at the ruling regime of Iran or Sudan or the Afghan Taliban of the 90s—hardly what anyone would call a success. So these autonomous neo-jihadi groups represent potential for destruction, mayhem, and murder (i.e. just like criminal gangs of all kinds do in our society), but they don’t represent a threat or a unified army to which would be fighting a war.
What I’ve never understood about all these Huntington-inspired right-wing takes on Islamo-fascism, Islamo-terrorism, Islamo-communism, Islamist terrorism, whatever the term, is that they really want us to take the motivation of the actors themselves seriously. They believe liberal PC culture has blinded us from speaking the truth. Fine.
Let’s take their motivations seriously and by their motivations I mean not just some generic terms like “infidels”, “jihad” but real political goals. Do they have any? Not really–not when the imam who apparently was some influence on Hassan was talking about a worldwide Islamic state. It’s not going to happen. Their motivations make clear that they represent (at this juncture and seemingly into the future unless merged with other groups) no real political threat to the West. Their motivations in other words push an intelligent observer I believe in precisely the opposite direction from this notion of a Clash of Civilizations or some War or whatever. It means that it is a threat, a domestic threat not ultimately that more substantial than other criminally-minded, anti-government groups.
No country in Europe is headed towards some Islamic state status. Non-Muslims Europeans are not headed for a neo-dhimmitude.
The danger is the same danger that is represented by any number of violent groups, Islamic, (any kind of) religious or otherwise: technological increases allowing for smaller numbers of individuals to perpetrate increasingly lethal attacks.
But I realize I had to write all that to clarify and it isn’t covered in a fancy emotional term like “We are War with Terrorists!!!” Cue the Team America theme (NSFW).
Update I: Sorry I missed this earlier, but Jamelle’s post on the same subject is definitely also worth a read.
Update II: News coming out that Hassan tried to contact al Qaeda. All this does is continue to prove Sageman’s point that the neo-jihadi movement is leaderless and consists of small numbers (or in this case one guy) who take up their own attacks and al Qaeda is only someone they contact in order for legitimacy and potentially some helpful terrorism tips. al Qaeda is reduced to waiting to be contacted by guys like Hassan. Remember that in the inevitable right-wing overreaction to all of this and the fear mongering that will go on. (See Katherine’s comment, comment #1 on the analogy of anarchist terrorism of the late 1800s/early 1900s.)