Obama counter-terrorism advisor is off target

President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan spoke yesterday on “A New Approach for Safeguarding Americans”. The full transcript of his speech is here.

Brennan begins by emphasizing the administration’s commitment to the use of military power  and other forms of action such as law-enforcement and economic interventions “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and its allies” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I think we have seen that the administration does appear to be taking this narrowly defined conflict seriously.

But I fear that Brennan — and Obama’s — overall conception of the threat we face falls short of reality.

Brennan says, correctly, that the enemy isn’t “terrorism”:

As many have noted, the president does not describe this as a “war on terrorism.” That is because terrorism is but a tactic – a means to an end – which, in al-Qaida’s case, is global domination by an Islamic caliphate.

So if it isn’t a war on terrorism, what is it a war on? And here is where the disturbing aspects of the administration’s view appear:

Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against jihadists. Describing terrorists in this way, using the legitimate term “jihad,” which means to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal, risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself. And this is why President Obama has confronted this perception directly and forcefully in its speeches to Muslim audiences, declaring that America is not and never will be at war with Islam. [My emphasis]

Instead, as the president has made clear, we are at war with al-Qaida, which attacked us on 9/11 and killed 3,000 people. We are at war with its violent extremist allies who seek to carry on al-Qaida’s murderous agenda. These are the terrorists we will destroy; these are the extremists we will defeat. [My emphasis]

Doubtless Osama bin Laden believes that his jihad against the US is a “holy struggle for a moral goal”. But Brennan’s definition leaves out the historical meaning of ‘jihad’ as an expansionist, offensive struggle against non-Muslims, an aspect which is still very much part of the concept in the minds of many present-day Muslims (for an exhaustive and persuasive analysis of this topic, see Daniel Pipes: “Jihad and the Professors“).

While it is important to say that — at least as yet — the US is not “at war with Islam”, the enemy that we are facing is more than just al-Quaida and “its extremist allies”.  It is militant Islam, which emphasizes violent, offensive jihad as a fundamental part of Islam. As Daniel Pipes points out, jihad in this sense was highly important in the past and has been reemphasized by modern Islamist thinkers like al-Banna and Qutb.

Militant Islam is rapidly becoming more and more prevalent in the Muslim world; one just has to look at the inroads Hamas has made in the Palestinian movement for an example.

There seems to be a worldwide trend toward fundamentalism in the three major monotheistic religions, while many ‘moderate’ sects are losing influence and membership. I don’t know the reason for this, but it is certainly affecting Islam as well as Christianity and Judaism, and the traditional sense of ‘jihad’ is part of Islamic fundamentalism.

Compounding his failure to recognize the problem as broader than just a few “extremists”, Brennan takes an unfortunate turn in his discussion of how to deal with it:

Even as the president takes a more focused view of the threat, his approach includes a third element – a broader, more accurate understanding of the causes and conditions that help fuel violent extremism, be they in Pakistan and Afghanistan or Somalia and Yemen.

The president has been very clear on this. Poverty does not cause violence and terrorism. Lack of education does not cause terrorism. But just as there is no excuse for the wanton slaughter of innocents, there is no denying that when children have no hope for an education, when young people have no hope for a job and feel disconnected from the modern world, when governments fail to provide for the basic needs of their people, then people become more susceptible to ideologies of violence and death.

Extremist violence and terrorist attacks are therefore, often the final, murderous manifestations of a long process rooted in helplessness, humiliation and hatred. Therefore, any comprehensive approach has to also address the upstream factors, the conditions that help fuel violent extremism. Indeed, the counterinsurgency lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan apply equally to the broader fight against extremism.

We cannot shoot ourselves out of this challenge. We can take out all the terrorists we want – their leadership and their foot soldiers – but if we fail to confront the broader political, economic and social conditions under which extremists thrive, then there will always be another recruit in the pipeline, another attack coming downstream. Indeed, our failure to address these conditions also plays into the extremists’ hands, allowing them to make the false claim that the United States actually wants to keep people impoverished and unempowered.

Brennan tries hard to distinguish this position from the discredited one that “Poverty [causes] violence and terrorism” by suggesting that lack of education, poverty and repression may not be the primary causes, but create the conditions under which “ideologies of violence and death” flourish. It’s a weak argument.

I think Brennan underestimates the pull of the militant Islamic ideology itself, especially in Arab cultures. After all, the leadership of radical groups like al-Quaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. are all well-educated, and in the case of bin Laden, quite wealthy. It can be argued that in some cases — like the Palestinian Arabs, who have probably been the recipient of more Western ‘development’ aid than any other similar group — there are cultural pathologies that work against political stability and economic development, as well as making the culture fertile ground for radical ideologies.

So when Brennan suggests that we need to attack these ‘conditions’ as well as fight ‘extremists’, he misses two points:

  1. The ‘extremists’ are not just a small group of crazies, but part of a significant faction of fundamentalist Muslims who — while they may not themselves engage in violent jihad — accept the ideology of militant Islam which promotes it. As long as this is the case, there will always be a supply of ones who are violent.
  2. Unless the cultural issues that make it hard for societies to develop in what we Westerners see as a positive direction (democracy, economic development, fair allocation of resources, etc.) can be counteracted, Western attempts to ameliorate poverty, lack of education and political repression will be seen as so much cultural imperialism.

The solution isn’t going to be easy. Maybe there isn’t any, besides continuing to fight the shock troops of militant Islam.

One thing about which I’m certain is that our position is not improved when we do not publicly face the fact that militant Islam is far more than a few violent extremists. It may well be the future of normative Islam.

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