Barbarians at the gates? They’re already in the town square. How could this be? The Western democracies possess the most sophisticated intelligence gathering systems, multi-layered defences, and formidable military power ever devised. Yet their responses so far have had as much impact on the violence as a rain dance on the weather. Since nothing in history has prepared democratic states for the scale and brutality of the barbarism being visited on them, some confusion, anger and fear are to be expected. But months have grown into years without an end to the violence, without even the dimmest prospect of an end. Predictably, citizens are asking: Is this the new normal? Is this what our governments expect us to get used to? Do any of them have any idea how to stop it, not “contain” it or “degrade” it but stop it?
George Orwell once wrote of another age: “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men”. Herewith eight statements of the obvious which governments have resisted.
1. There’s a war on and you’re in it, whether you like it or not.
There is a new world war under way. It is unlike any of the world wars of the 20th century, each of which also had distinctive features. Eliot Cohen has observed that: “The Cold War was World War III, which reminds us that not all global conflicts entail the movement of multi-million man armies or conventional front lines on a map”. Some have characterized the new conflict as World War IV, including former heads of the CIA and the French intelligence service.
If you’re “uncomfortable” using the term “war”, acknowledge at least that it’s something very like it. What it certainly is not is peace. According to the latest data from the respected Global Terrorism Index, the annual death toll from terrorist attacks rose from 3,361 in 2000 to 32,658 in 2014 – almost a tenfold increase. That’s before the attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice and all the rest in the last 18 months.
2. You have an obligation to deal with it.
It has become a cliché that the first responsibility of government is the safety of citizens. Yet few governments have taken that responsibility seriously enough to put in the time, money and effort it deserves. Granted the current barbarism is new, and there are few established doctrines or existing institutional arrangements to apply against it. But what does exist is an expectation that those we have chosen to govern us will figure out what has to be done and get on with it. Instead, many governments appear intent on avoiding having to develop the necessary strategies and ducking the unpalatable measures required — if they can delude the population into believing the dangers are exaggerated, there is no “existential threat”, and the perpetrators are a “small minority” no worse than other malcontents in history. Every morning newspaper and evening news broadcast begs to differ.
As Churchill once observed, the responsibilities ministers assume for the lives and freedoms of their countrymen include resorting to the use of force if necessary. “And if this be so, it should be used under conditions which are most favourable. There is no merit in putting off a war for a year if, when it comes, it is a far worse war and one much harder to win”.
3. The enemy is real, even if not easy to define.
Another term you might not like to use is “enemy”. The enemy is certainly more difficult to define than in the past – some are states, others not, some operate in the open, others in the shadows. But don’t think they will disappear if you turn off your television.
Yours is not the first generation to have its head in the sand. G. K. Chesterton warned, “Evil always wins through the strength of its splendid dupes; there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin.” Soviet Communism benefitted from the “useful idiots” who refused to see the truth in the 1920s and Nazism from the appeasers of the 1930s. Today, it’s the supposedly “war-weary” folk of our own time. After Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. who wants another war?
Politics 101. For those who believe in freedom and democracy, the “enemy” is any idea about how human society should be organized which does not provide for individual liberty under the law and government dependent on the consent of the governed. The idea becomes problematic when it is advanced by a political movement intending to impose it on society. And it becomes really dangerous when its advocates resort to brute force to get their way. If you don’t stop them early, your task becomes all the greater later. And if they succeed, they not only snuff out freedom and democracy but, commanding all the levers of state power, are immensely difficult to displace. These are the truths of the 20th century, and they still apply.
So the enemy can be an idea, a political movement informed by the idea, or a group employing violence to compel others to submit to the idea.
4. The idea espoused by today’s enemy is not new, just new in its objectives.
There’s an idea which has afflicted humanity throughout the ages. It is that human beings can be “improved”. In modern times, its most influential advocate was the fashionable and demented 18th century intellectual Jean Jacques Rousseau. Society’s ills, he argued, would be cured by citizens submitting to what Rousseau called the General Will embodied in a righteous state. Since the role of the state would be to inculcate virtue in the citizenry, the people making the laws could not by definition be unjust, the laws themselves would necessarily carry moral authority, and any opposition to them would have to be in error. Herewith the origins of modern totalitarianism.
In the 20th century, we twice encountered the phenomenon of totalitarian ideologies being transformed into political programs and brought to power by brute force. Neither succeeded, but we can learn from the experience.
Communism was first an idea, then a revolutionary movement, and eventually a form of government which controlled a score of countries around the world. The idea was a “workers’ society” in which all property would be owned in common and distributed “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. Marxists promoted the belief that Communism was so self-evidently superior to any other form of human organization that it would only be a matter of time before the “internal contradictions of capitalism” generated spontaneous workers’ uprisings and led to Communism becoming a universal system of government. In fact, Communism never came to power anywhere except through the threat or use of force and never amounted to anything more than the dictatorship of Communist parties speciously claiming to be “the vanguard of the proletariat”.
Fascism too was supposed to represent a higher order for managing human affairs, but it appealed more to emotion than reason. Where Communism espoused the universal interests of the “working class”, Fascism exalted the “nation”. It accorded one people or volk a mystical past and a purity of race, all others being inferior (untermensch). It also promoted the cult of the heroic leader who would restore the nation to lost greatness: il duce, der fuhrer, el caudillo. Benito Mussolini was the first to package Fascism in trappings which distinguished it from earlier political movements: the emblems of power drawn from ancient Rome, the black shirts and extended-arm salute, and the public pageantry. But it was Adolf Hitler who infused the movement with the exclusivism and combativeness that ruthlessly disposed of millions of Jews and other minorities, claimed a right for the German nation to living space (lebensraum) in eastern lands, and precipitated a world war in pursuit of that goal.
Islamism is of a kind with Communism and Fascism. Like them, it is an ideology espousing the establishment of a state with an authoritarian form of government directed by self-appointed “guardians” of the people. Its aim is a single Islamic regime or “caliphate” across the globe. This regime would be directed by an oligarchy of clerics and administrators who would brook no opposition. They would impose their own version of Islam over the whole of public and private life, to which individuals would be expected to submit willingly and completely. And because they believe Islam to be the only acceptable way of life, every form of coercion would be justified including the death of those unwilling to submit.
5. Radical ideas left unchecked lead to murdering “for the cause”.
Ideas matter, warned the 20th century British philosopher Isaiah Berlin. “When ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them – that is to say, those who have been trained to think critically about ideas – they often acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism”.
Communism and Fascism had a superficial attractiveness when they first appeared, as Islamism does for some today. Common to each “idea” has been reliance on the application of force to succeed. Most people would conclude this constitutes prima facie evidence of the bankruptcy of the idea, but not so the leaders of the movements who feel no shame or reservation about murdering for the cause. To quote Isaiah Berlin again:
To cause pain, to kill, to torture are in general rightly condemned; but if these things are done not for my personal benefit but for an ism – socialism, nationalism, Fascism, Communism, fanatically held religious belief, or progress, or the fulfilment of the laws of history – then they are in order. Most revolutionaries believe, covertly or overtly, that in order to create the ideal world, eggs must be broken, otherwise one cannot obtain the omelette.
Berlin knew what he was talking about. The great political charlatans of history never shied from using force.
LENIN: As long as we fail to treat speculators the way they deserve, with a bullet to the head, we will not get anywhere. We are not carrying out war against individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. This is the essence of the Red Terror.
HITLER: The one means that wins the earliest victory over reason is terror … The very first essential for success is a perpetually constant and regular employment of violence.
MAO: The seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution. Every Communist must grasp the truth, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”.
And more recently …
HASAN AL-BANNA (Founder of the Muslim Brotherhood): It is the nature of Islam to dominate not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations, and to extend its power to the entire planet.
SAYYID QUTB (Leading theorist of Islamist fundamentalism): The turn of Islam and the Muslim community has arrived … Let us plant the seeds of hatred, disgust and revenge in the souls of (our) children and teach these children that the white man is the enemy of humanity and that they should destroy him at the first opportunity.
RUHOLLAH KHOMEINI (Founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran): Islam says: Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword. People cannot be made obedient except with the sword. The sword is the key to paradise.
OSAMA BIN LADEN (Founder of al-Qaeda): The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military, is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty Allah.
6. The enemy is not Islam, it is Islamism.
In order to deal effectively with the threat posed by violent Islamism, it is important to keep the following distinctions in mind. The enemy is not the religion of Islam; it is the ideology of Islamism, the Islamist political program, and the effort to advance the Islamist program through “jihad”.
In his magisterial study Islam: Past, Present and Future, the most renowned theologian of our time, Hans Küng, notes there are three prevailing images of Islam: idealized, hostile, and real.
The first depicts Islam as uncomplicated in life and morality, reasonable and tolerant, an eternal doctrine of belief in one God, sustained by its “five pillars”: faith, daily prayer, charitable giving, regular fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca (“hajj”) at least once in a lifetime. The second image presents Islam as internally intolerant, militant towards the outside world, and backward. Better to see Islam as it really is, Küng argues, neither monolithic nor unchanging, with many strains and with forms and rituals that change with the times.
In Küng’s view, there is a religious essence to Islam that has persisted through the ages, but “the perversion of the essence of every religion is a dark shadow on all historical eras”. Even the highest religious idealism and readiness for sacrifice can be abused by the power-hungry and the obtuse. Like Christianity and other religions, Küng writes, “Islam often has been and is used by rulers as a political instrument instead of being lived out as faith and ethics … Islam has sown hatred and violence and inspired and legitimated oppression and war, instead of disseminating justice and humanity”.
Conclusion: the issue is not Islam, it is those who seek to impose their strand of the religion on others using brute force – the violent Islamists. In the elegant phraseology of journalist Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, the problem is not “the state of Islam” but “the Islamic state”, i.e. not the religion but the politicization of the religion.
7. The war against you is a “religious” one.
It’s nothing short of obtuse to hold the belief that the Islamists are just youngsters acting up because they’re disadvantaged, when they’ve made it quite clear they want to destroy you in the name of Allah. There’s not a scintilla of doubt in their minds that the war they’re waging isn’t about economic opportunity but the ascendancy of Islam — a holy war, a “jihad”. Yes, it’s an absurd notion right out of the dark ages. But it’s the reality.
Many today refuse to acknowledge the plain truth that the Islamist assault on the democratic way of life is religious in origin. But just because the jihadists claim the authority of the Koran for their war doesn’t mean they represent all Muslims; they don’t. Or that you have to dignify them by accepting their claim that they are the only true Muslims; they’re not. On the other hand, don’t buy into the argument that they’re not “real Muslims”; they are – just fanatics and in some cases murderous psychopaths.
The Islamists have a political agenda they have made no effort to disguise. It has varied over time and from place to place, but it is unequivocally authoritarian and anti-democratic. There is a basis for representative government in Islam, but Islamists abhor the notion that laws should be made by anyone but Allah. They live for the day when the whole earth follows the “right path” of sharia law – as they themselves interpret it, of course.
8. Because it’s a new kind of war, your war-fighting strategy has to adapt.
Governments and opinion leaders need to abandon the paradigm through which they have viewed the Islamist threat. There are actually three battles to be fought: the ideological battle, the political battle, and the anti-terrorism battle. Each requires its own strategy.
A. The ideological battle
The first and most important, but regrettably least attended to, is the battle of ideas. Islamism has deep historical and cultural roots, considerable geographical reach, unlimited ambition, extraordinary ruthlessness, and wide appeal especially to younger Muslims, all of which make it a formidable enemy. But it is not an inevitability. In fact, it is something of an absurdity. The Islamists’ goal to establish a universal system of government based on Islam is even more hopeless than the one Marx and Lenin wanted to create based on the “working class”. The notion that their basic tenets would find worldwide acceptance is preposterous. As Egyptian President el-Sisi famously observed at a Muslim conference at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, what Islamists have actually succeeded in doing is “antagonizing the entire world”. Is it conceivable, he asked, that 1.6 million Muslims really want “to kill the rest of the world’s population of 7 billion, so that Muslims can prosper?”
Islamism is an anachronism, espousing customs, relationships, and attitudes towards minorities which were primitive even 1400 years ago. In the few places where it has managed to hold sway, life has become a living hell. Moreover, its leadership is diffuse and divided, its strategy incoherent and opportunistic, and its resources puny compared to the vast power and wealth of those it aspires to displace. But Islamism will wreak havoc so long as its supporters continue to believe it can one day prevail and their faith is not shaken by countervailing ideas.
This last point is key. You can’t beat something with nothing. Those who believe in the dignity of human life, the rights of the individual, the rule of law, and democratic government, need to go on the ideological offensive. In an age of moral relativism and multiculturalism, the path will not be easy but it must be taken.
In the final analysis, it ought not to be beyond the ken of the democracies to pursue a strategy which respects Islam as it deserves to be, exposes Islamism as the toxic force it is, and reminds people why freedom and democracy are so much more compatible with human aspirations. But it will take a surge of intellectual leadership on the part of governments, the media, the universities and think tanks, and business leaders; and much more vocal denunciation of Islamist heresies on the part of Muslim leaders and clerics. The alternative is to allow Islamist radicals to continue unchallenged to promote doctrines of “hatred, disgust and revenge” as espoused by Sayyid Qutb and his successors and to encourage impressionable followers to act on them. Outrages such as those in New York, Madrid, London, Paris and Brussels might have required networking and logistical support, but for slaughters such as those in San Bernadino, Orlando and Nice it was enough that individuals heard the message – regardless of where they were born.
B. The political battle
With Islamists having declared a jihad against democratic states and actively conducting warlike operations against them, it ought to be self-evident that a condition of war exists and that democratic states need to get on a war-footing. Drawing on the experience of fighting Communism, they should take as their point of departure that Islamism is an inimical ideology, Islamist organizations are hostile entities, Islamist fighters are enemy soldiers – and war measures are a more appropriate response to the Islamist danger than criminal justice measures no matter how vigorously applied.
In the political realm, the measures adopted would be the modern-day equivalent of some of those used in the fight against Communism. Laws would provide that any manifestation of Islamism or affiliation with an Islamist organization would be proscribed and persons involved would be prosecuted, expelled, or refused entry. Security and intelligence services would have a largely free hand to target individuals and groups suspected of Islamist sedition, including those hoping to operate from the safe havens of religious institutions and websites. Governments would cut off the support Islamists receive from abroad, ending tolerance for “friendly” regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf who condone if not actively sustain the export of Islamist propaganda, propagandists and financing to democratic states. They would be told to choose between terminating their aid and being treated as a belligerent.
C. The anti-terrorism battle
Much is already being done in the battle against Islamist terrorists, but the battle lacks commitment.
Victory certainly requires ensuring that one’s home base is secure, but victory can only be achieved when the fight is taken to the enemy. Only then will the inspiration and support which organizations like the Islamic State lend to their cells outside of the Middle East dry up – and, drying up, produce the atrophy which reduces the motivation and capacity of the cells to cause mayhem. Once the Islamist cause is lost in the Muslim heartland, it is unlikely to last very long anywhere else.
Commitment can be enhanced in at least two ways. The first is for democratic governments to devote the military resources required to win. While many countries consider themselves members of the coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, only seven democracies are actually involved militarily: US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Australia. There were eight until Canada withdrew its CF-18s fighters in 2016. Even the most engaged participant, the United States, has only 4700 troops on the ground, despatched piecemeal over the last several years. This means that the “fourth world war” is being fought with a fraction of the resources available.
The function of the additional troops would not be to try to assume physical control over territory while training indigenous forces to take over security responsibilities, as in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Their purpose would be to seek out and destroy Islamist command centres, supply lines, and fighter concentrations, almost regardless of what indigenous forces did next. And to repeat attacks as often as necessary until the enemy no longer had the capacity or will to fight. In brief, to fix the problem not the country.
Commensurate with such a strategy would be rules of engagement which broadened the scope of permissible military actions. The law of international armed conflict (LOIAC) provides a belligerent state much leeway in keeping with the demands of military necessity while curbing its freedom of action in the name of humanitarianism. Under LOIAC, Islamist fighters would henceforth be treated as combatants who could be targeted “wherever found, armed or unarmed, awake or asleep, on a front line or a mile or a hundred miles behind the lines”. And because they have breached the war-fighting rules of the Hague and Geneva Conventions, Islamist fighters would also be treated as unlawful combatants who had forfeited the protections accorded prisoners of war. Those captured would be subject to detention, trial and punishment by military tribunals.
The war against Islamism is entirely winnable, but it has to be fought. The democratic states have enormous resources at their disposal, and there is no question they can prevail against Islamism. But they have to have the will to win. The enemy, in contrast, lacks everything needed to win – and cannot win. But he does have two things going for him: an idea that continues to attract adherents and a formidable capacity to hurt. Eliminate these and there will be nothing left of him.
In his history of the 20th century, Modern Times, British historian Paul Johnson wrote that “The failure of intellectual leadership in the twentieth century, or rather its apparent inability to offer clear and firm guidance to a perplexed humanity … lay at the root of the tragedies of the age”. Let that not be said of our own times.
The feature image: One of the ten children killed in the Nice terror attack on 14 July 2016 (Reuters)