“…It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” (Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities). Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, editor of Le Figero back in 1839 coined an epigram for such contradictions, “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”, the more things change, the more they remain the same. And so it is today.
As we in America and others in advanced democracies contemplate the incredible potential of the 21st century, Islamic zealots motivated by an archaic interpretation of their faith stampede headlong back to the 12th century, determined to drag everyone within their reach with them, sowing misery and despair wherever they go. And so it was in France this week, and Australia last week, and Canada and America in recent weeks, and in England and Spain in past weeks, and so it is and continues to be in Syria, and Iraq and Nigeria and Somalia and Yemen and Libya and Mali and Kenya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Zanzibar and Bali. It has become the growing norm across a wide and ever growing swath of no-longer governable geography.
Think of it. At a time when we in the west can seriously contemplate — robotic artificial hearts, the end of famine, self-driving automobiles, and automobiles that combust nothing to drive, life-saving elimination of (or the effect of) deadly mutations in the human genome, the elimination or control of most of mankind’s known diseases, practical mass-scale harnessing of solar energy — in short, an explosion in innovation unrivaled in all of human history, the world is, at the same time, traumatized as though caught in an ebb tide drawing us relentlessly back to the darkest periods in human history. This is not simply radical Islamist war against the West. Most of the war is being waged against other Muslims who do not subscribe to the tenets of radical Islam or who are simply caught up in the never-ending hatred between Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.
In October 2013, New Yorker Magazine published a box score of the Islamic carnage that was rampant in just the prior month.
Kenya: Militants of the Somali jihadist group Al Shabaab attack the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, slaughtering visitors with grenades and machine guns, separating out some Muslims from non-Muslims, in a killing spree that ends three days later with an assault by the Kenyan military. Death toll: at least sixty men, women, and children, along with several soldiers and militants. Somalia: Al Shabaab car and suicide bombers blow up a restaurant in Mogadishu for the third time. Death toll: fifteen patrons and staff. Pakistan: Suicide bombers detonate themselves outside a Protestant church in Peshawar. Death toll: eighty-five. A remote-control bomb explodes on a bus carrying government employees near Peshawar. Death toll: nineteen. A remote-control bomb explodes in an old, crowded marketplace in Peshawar. Death toll: thirty-seven. Nigeria: Militants of the extremist group Boko Haram attack an agricultural college. Death toll: forty young male students, most of whom were sleeping when they were killed. Iraq: Car bombings, suicide bombings, revenge killings, and assassinations reach levels not seen for at least five years. Death toll: nine hundred and seventy-nine. Wounded toll: twenty-one hundred and thirty-three, most as the result of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence. Syria: Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels tighten their grip across northern Syria, intimidating local residents with public floggings and executions. Yemen: Militants from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula stage attacks on soldiers and police in southern Yemen. Death toll: at least thirty. Afghanistan: Sushmita Banerjee, the Indian wife of an Afghan man, who converted from Hinduism to Islam and wrote a memoir about life under the Taliban which was later made into a Bollywood movie, is abducted from her home in Paktika Province, taken to a Taliban safe house, and shot twenty-five times. Two suspects are arrested and claim that they killed her because she had written about the Taliban, and because she had installed an Internet connection in her house. Zanzibar: Attackers throw acid in the face of a Catholic priest as he leaves an Internet café, one month after two young British women were assaulted in the same way.
Then, of course, there was the recent horror in Pakistan. “God is great,” the Taliban militants shouted as they roared through the hallways of a school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Then, 14-year-old student Ahmed Faraz recalled, one of them took a harsher tone.” A lot of the children are under the benches,’ ” a Pakistani Taliban said, according to Ahmed. ” ‘Kill them.’ ” By the time the hours-long siege at Army Public School and Degree College ended early Tuesday evening, at least 145 people — 132 children, 10 school staff members and three soldiers — were dead.
This seemingly unprecedented carnage is, to a great extent, taking place as America is withdrawing from the Muslim world. After all, we withdrew from Iraq years ago, and we are in the process of withdrawing in Afghanistan.
Today, the chaos in Syria has become a stage for foreign fighters from all over the world, including from America even as America keeps its distance. Much of Europe slept while their ever-growing Muslim populations grew and within those population there also grew an attraction to radical Islam.
France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, some five million or 7.5% of the population, compared with Germany’s four million or 5% of the population, and the UK’s three million, also 5% of the population. If only 2% of their Muslim populations have become radicalized, that could equate to 240,000 Said and Cherif Kouachis’s who methodically massacred 12 people Wednesday at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, or Amedy Coulibaly’s who shot a policewoman to death south of Paris, and four Jewish French citizens at a Kosher grocery market in Paris.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, once thought of as the source of all turmoil, remains the focus of U.S. foreign policy and a source of grievances for Muslims and naïve sycophants around the world. It is, however, but a sideshow. Nothing America or any of our allies do is going to end the violence.
The genesis of all the turmoil and chaos is, sadly, cultural. And anyone who believes we are not involved in a clash of cultures is simply meandering aimlessly and senselessly in a field (or nightmare) of dreams. The root cause of this worst of times is an internal, sectarian, tribal, political, and economic time warp that dominates the Islamic world.
At its very source are perverted ideas about the meaning of Islam in the modern world, not the world of the prophet 1300 years ago. We know, but do not talk about these ideas being promulgated in mosques and coffee shops and schools, and on the Internet and on satellite TV. Islamic fanatics who employ conspiracy theories, half-truths, deceptive editing, and lies manipulate all news from the outside world. The fits and starts and on again-off again stabs of U.S. foreign policy will have little or no effect on this type of deadly mischief.
Listen to the harangue of Abu Mohammad al Adnani, an ISIS “spokesman” who announced to all “lone wolves” wherever they reside: “Rig the roads with explosives for them. Attack their bases. Raid their homes. Cut off their heads. Do not let them feel secure. Hunt them wherever they may be. Turn their worldly life into fear and fire. Remove their families from their homes and thereafter low up their homes. Civilians should not be exempt from brutality. Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers. Both of them are considered to be waging war. Hinder those who want to harm your brothers. The best thing you can do is to strive to do your best and kill any disbeliever, whether he be French, American or from any of their allies.”
So sure, we must go after terrorists wherever we know they exist. That’s just a matter of self-defense. But it won’t win the war because terror is simply a tactic and you cannot wage war on a tactic.
As New Yorker Magazine pointed out — “War turned out to be far too blunt an instrument against the complexity, volatility, and durability of Islamist violence. Targeted kidnappings and killings are effective against the leadership but do nothing about the next generation of recruits, perhaps only galvanizing it.” The reality is that this clash of cultures can only be won within the Islamic world by Muslims who look West, and who reject the notion that their future and their faith will be defined by the radical thinking that dominated a long-ago, by-gone, dark age. We can strike back with drones, or bombing runs or even boots on the ground, but this cultural madness can probably only be stopped by those within the Muslim world.
This view is the brainchild of Ed Husain the London-born author of “The Islamist,” an autobiographical account of his years as a young man in radical Islamist organizations and his turn to a more liberal version of Islam. Husain now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where his policy paper, “A Global Venture to Counter Violent Extremism,” recently was published online. Husain points out that a fund is needed to combat Islamist extremism, which he calls the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience. The goal is to raise two hundred million dollars over ten years, from governments and private donors, and to identify and finance grassroots groups around the Muslim world that will do the difficult work of opposing extremist ideas at home. These groups would take on the Islamists where they live, in mosques and community centers, in chat rooms and on social media. The American role would be very much in the background; citizens, organizations, and governments of key Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, would take the lead. Done properly,” Husain writes, “within eight to ten years al-Qaeda’s theology and ideology can become as unattractive among young Muslims as communism became to East Germans.”
Religion, however, is not the same as political movements. As George Packer wrote in New Yorker Magazine, It is rooted in Islamic countries far more deeply and historically than Communism was in the Eastern bloc. To argue against Islamist extremism with young citizens of countries where people are overwhelmingly pious and the non-Islamist ruling regimes are dismal failures is a much tougher challenge than arguing against Marxism in countries where the failing regimes were Communist. But Husain—a living example of a convert to moderation—is surely right in pointing to the ideas of the Islamists, and not just their circumstances or tactics: “Unless such ideas are challenged and discredited, extremist groups will continue to regenerate no matter how many terrorists are killed.”
And so we are, indeed, living in the best of times and the worst of times. We won’t know whether the best or the worst will prevail for a long time. But the battle for the minds of men (and women) in the Muslim world will go on for a long time and, sadly, so will the bloodshed.