Recent events with the attempted blockade run have gotten me thinking about the twin problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and radical Islam’s war on the West. Now, I don’t think I have any magical solutions, but I have learned some important facts that put the current conflict in perspective.
The most important thing to realize is that although violence in the Middle East is older than the Old Testament, the dominance of radical Islam is not.
Atatürk became known as an extremely capable military officer during World War I. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, he led the Turkish national movement in the Turkish War of Independence. Having established a provisional government in Ankara, he defeated the forces sent by the Allies. His successful military campaigns led to the liberation of the country and to the establishment of Turkey.
The most important thing about Atatürk, however, was that he was a committed secularist. Not only did he adopt and adapt the infrastructure of modern western nations, but in 1924 he took the extreme step of abolishing the caliphate. Saying, “The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past,” he seized all the political authority of the religious office and then erased it. The repercussion of this action echoed throughout the Islamic world, and in 2 or 3 different conferences it was decided that a new caliphate must be created to continue the Islamic world, but none was ever made.
Throughout most of the rest of the 20th century Turkey was a model for modern Muslims living in a secular world. This is part of the reason that – up until the 1970s a lot of the Arab-Israeli conflict was largely secular.
How did that work out? Not so well. From the founding of Israel onwards the Arab nations were repeatedly humiliated by their smaller foe, and as a consequence the prestige of secular authority fell. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, two events brought Islam back into the world of politics.
The first was the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the second was the successful expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan. Radical Islamic clerics seized the opportunity and milked everything they could out of it. According to them the Islamic Revolution proved that Islam could humiliate the United States, and the mujahideen in Afghanistan proved that the Islam could humiliate the USSR. Where secular power had failed, the radicals claimed, Allah had prevailed.
Of course there are problems with those claims. The fact is that the Islamic Revolution was not initially Islamic. It was a populist Iranian revolution bringing together fundamentalists, moderates, and even atheist Marxists together in a united front. Only after the Revolution was largely successful did Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turn on his less-theologically pure allies and eradicate them. The Revolution was quickly rewritten as a religious movement, but that was a lie. Radical Islam was claiming credit for a revolution that was only partially theirs.
The case of the mujahideen is even worse. The holy fighters got more benefit from CIA funding and American Stinger missiles than anything else. In reality they were pawns fighting a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union. But, due to the secrecy of the American effort and the lack of follow-through after the war, the radicals were once again able to claim credit for a victory that was not theirs alone.
These two events – combined with the losses to Israel of the various Arab states – created the perfect storm that led to a tsunami of Islamic radicalization across the world.
The question we face now is what to do about it.
The West doesn’t like religious wars. This is more than just political correctness. Our deeply held tradition of religious tolerance makes us extremely reluctant to see the extremism we face at home and abroad as a fundamentally religious question. And I agree with this assessment. Even if refusing to utter the words “radical Islam” is a ridiculous excess of political cowardice, it’s equally simple-minded to see the world as simply “us vs. the Muslims”. Evil men have hijacked a religion, and they have found – since the West doesn’t like to attack religions – that it’s a very convenient sheep’s clothing for this wolf to wear.
I only see two possible scenarios out of this situation. And – if it’s not obvious yet – I’m no expert. I’m just a guy reading Wikipedia, talking to friends, and trying to figure things out. But the way I see it radical Islam cannot be militarily defeated outright, but it must be discredited wholesale.
I believe that was the real impetus behind the invasion of Iraq. If the reconstruction had gone as planned, then we would currently have a prosperous, stable, powerful Arabic state compatible with secularism and moderate Islam. That would have been a wonderful, peaceful way to discredit radical Islam, but – due mostly to bungling of the occupation – that can never happen now.
So the first of the two scenarios left to us is a highly visible, decisive military confrontation with an emblem of radical Islam. It’s not hard to figure out the most likely candidate. Al Qaeda is too nebulous and – frankly – too conventionally weak to suffice. Saudi Arabia is too closely allied with American interests and – as a result – most of the Arabic states are out. After all, a strike against an Arabic nation incites cultural as well as religious blowback.
But Iran isn’t Arab. More than that, Iran is certainly the most clear and present danger to regional and global stability. Given the long-standing hostility between the Arabs and Persians (ask them whether it’s the “Persian Gulf” or the “Arabian Gulf”), blowback from an attack on Iran would be much less than any other state in the region. Whether they are willing to admit it or not the Arabic states are not much happier about a nuclear-armed Iran than the rest of us.
With an occupation of Afghanistan underway and a decisive defeat of Iran leading to regime-change, the two pillars of credibility for radical Islam would be permanently shaken.
The second alternative also involves Iran, and I vastly prefer it to the first. The people of Iran are not thrilled with their own regime, as the recent and ongoing protests and political unrest demonstrate. I have no wish to punish them for the sins of their insane, despotic theocratic leaders. If the people of Iran – with or without foreign aid – overthrow their own government and institute a moderate/secular replacement then we will have achieved the same objective with far less cost in human blood and misery.
I know that a topic as heated as this one makes a lot of people feel like any careful, nuanced argument is just spineless hair-splitting. I understand that. But I also understand that what serves the interests of our nation and the principles we believe in is knowing who the real enemy is. It’s like the basic rules of firearms: know your target and what’s behind it.
We aren’t at war with Islam, and we don’t make America safer by pretending we are. We are at war with a hardcore of radical Islamists who are hijacking Muslim, and we don’t make America safer by pretending we’re not. That’s the line we need to tread.