By Barry Rubin
Commander Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, a U.S. Navy officer, has written a really interesting book with a lot of good information—even though I disagree with some of his basic premises—about Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat (Naval Institute Press, 2010). The true measure of reading a book is not whether one agrees with everything it says but whether it inspires one to a better understanding not only of what the author thinks but also what the reader thinks.
Having said that, though, the book also reflects and clarifies much wider debates and confusions on these issues. Aboul-Enein sets out to provide a guide for the U.S. military on Islam and its political manifestations. The key to his premise is three categories: Islam, Islamists, and Militant Islamists. He quite correctly separates out Islam itself as a religion (more on this later) from the political doctrine of Islamism.
To put it simply but accurately, Aboul-Enein says that the Islamists want to gain state power and use it to transform their societies into what we used to call theocracies; Militant Islamists are using violence toward this end. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhoods are Islamists; al-Qaida, Iraqi insurgents, and the Afghanistan Taliban are made up of Militant Islamists.
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Thus, Aboul-Enein’s distinction is naïve in the larger sense though the two opening sentences are quite correct If applied to the U.S. military. The following sentence would be disastrous if it becomes policy:
“It is the Militant Islamists who are our adversary. They represent an immediate threat to the national security of the United States. They must not be confused with Islamists, who, although desiring the establishment of an Islamic state that might bear animosity toward the United States, wish to achieve changes within the political frameworks of their respective countries and abhor the violent methodologies espoused by Militant Islamists.” (page 2)
“Abhor?” Then why does, for example does the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood enthusiastically endorse Hamas and the Iraqi insurgents? They don’t “abhor” the methods at all. They either support them when being done by others or accept them in principle but don’t choose to use them at this specific moment. Why? Not out of principle at all, but simply due to the fact that they recognize what would happen if they tried to use violence in Egypt: the regime would crush the revolt and issue the Brotherhood’s leaders with a one-way ticket to torture chambers and concentration camps.
Equally, it is rather useless for the author to claim that certain issues—like Hamas’s participation in 2000 elections or al-Qaida’s antagonism to the Brotherhood—“have opened a wedge between Militant Islamists and Islamists, between violent versus merely politicized Muslims.” (page 46) Of course, most revolutionary Islamists oppose al-Qaida. The Shias know al-Qaida hates them and wants to murder Shias (a factor which does help U.S. efforts in Iraq); the Brotherhood knows al-Qaida is a rival for power in the region.
Let me repeat that for the U.S. military’s purposes the author is correct: the armed forces are going to have to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban, but not the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas. This has nothing to do, however, with the threat that all of them posed but only with the type of threat they pose at present. The former group pose a terrorist threat, the latter a much larger strategic and political threat.
Al-Qaida destroyed the World Trade Center, hit the Pentagon, and attacked U.S. embassies. But it isn’t going to take over whole countries inhabited by millions of people and offering regular militaries and billions of dollars which can be used to wage future wars.
So does this categorization mean that the United States can use Islamists against Militant Islamists generally? The enemy of your enemy is your friend, runs the Middle Eastern aphorism. But what if the enemy of your enemy also views you as a high-priority enemy, even a higher priority enemy than your other enemy? An analogy with the U.S. alliance with the Soviet Union during World War Two does not completely fit since al-Qaida is not actively fighting the Islamists but rather relatively moderate regimes that the Islamists also hate.
One could then go to another potential case: the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. It was correct for U.S. and European policy to see Iraq as the lesser of two evils. Yet should we not remember what happened after that war ended, with Iraq invading Kuwait and then flouting its agreements to the point that this situation—whether rightly or wrongly—led to another war?
In short, if U.S. policy helps “Islamists” against “Militant Islamists,” once the latter are defeated—and outside Afghanistan and Iraq they don’t offer much of a threat—the United States would be in a far worse position facing the actions of radical Islamists regimes in Arabic-speaking countries.
Again, it is quite possible to argue that from a U.S. military standpoint, his separation of Islamism from Militant Islamism is useful. After all, the U.S. armed forces have to fight Militant Islamists, not Islamists in battle. But from a U.S. national interests’ point of view, say in the White House or State Department, that same interpretation would be disastrous. After all, the Islamists want to create anti-American regimes that will spread violence, overturn U.S. allies, and expel U.S. influence. They are not using violence today but are quite ready to do so if they deem it useful for their cause. And their goals are the same as those of the Militant Islamists, to use Aboul-Enein’s terms.
Why are Islamists different from Militant Islamists in reality? Basically, for two reasons:
–They fear repression by the state authorities, as with the Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhoods or the Turkish AKP.
–They think the time isn’t ripe because their mass base isn’t large enough but are waiting and watching for the day when they can launch a revolution or “peaceful” seizure of power.
That’s the only difference they have with a group like Hamas or Hizballah, which have no strong state authorities to repress them (Fatah and the Lebanese government being too weak).
Moreover, the Islamists support the Militant Islamists and generally do everything possible to strengthen them.
Thus, one should not make too much of this distinction though it is useful in a strictly military sense. Today’s Islamist is—especially if U.S. policy doesn’t help block them and discourage them—tomorrow’s Militant Islamist. What can emerge is a very foolish policy like that of the British authorities who work with Islamists and give them money and power in the belief that this will discourage Militant Islamism. It might today; it won’t over time, quite the opposite.
An interesting parallel might be made to how the United States dealt with Communist parties. If in the late 1940s, U.S. policy hadn’t identified the non-violent French and Italian Communist parties as hostile and combated them, Moscow’s clients might have taken over two of the key European countries in elections, the USSR would have won the Cold War, and the world would look very different (and much worse) today.
What Aboul-Enein does most well is to provide good arguments for those who want to combat Islamism in either variety. One of his most fascinating points is that Medieval Islam which was more tolerant and open to other ideas (though this should not be exaggerated) achieved the highest level of civilization, prosperity, and even power. This counters the Islamists who prefer the early period of Islam as more religiously pure and the time of the great conquests.
Aboul-Enein also points out, and gives examples, on how Islamists suppress more moderate Koranic verses and Islamic ideas. The problem, of course, is that he doesn’t equally point out how more traditional or moderate Muslims do precisely the same thing in pretending that extremist verses and ideas don’t exist.
An example of the problem with this whole approach is his discussion of Jihad. Aboul-Enein rightly points out that many claim Islamic law limits Jihad both in terms of when it can be waged and how it can be waged. Jihad, for instance, must be waged in response to an attack on “Muslim lands” and must be approved by duly constituted religious leaders.
This is not as helpful, however, as Aboul-Enein would have it. Obviously, examples of “invasion” could be deemed to be Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But how about such places as southern Thailand or northern India or Lebanon (not only invaded by Israel after decades of being attacked from that country but also by Western forces intent on peacekeeping in 1982-1984)? Or the Western incursion into Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1990-1991, which was after all the basis for the founding of al-Qaida. How about “cultural” invasion or support for a local regime, as in Egypt or Jordan or Morocco?
As for getting clerics to endorse the Jihad, both Islamists and Militant Islamists–if one wants to make such a distinction–can certainly find such people. What appears easy, therefore, quickly becomes much harder. Westerners can say: Hey, you haven’t fulfilled the proper requirements of Jihad! You are violating Islamic tenets!
Yet there’s still more. Many accepted Muslim texts do not limit jihad to being defensive. There is also jihad to expand the lands ruled by Islam. After all, how were all those places conquered between the seventh century and for the next eight centuries?
Of course, Westerners can chime in all they want for “moderate” interpretations, even to claim jihad means mainly or only an internal moral struggle, which is a joke. But what Muslims would possibly care about such arguments being made by infidels?
Despite the above criticisms, there is a lot of useful information in the book. Perhaps the best line of all is this one: “Even Muslim Arabs have to be taught how to read the Qur’an.” (page 20). It reminds me of Karl Marx’s parallel line: even the educators must be educated.
The bottom line is that the political orientation of Muslims does not depend so much on an abstract “correct” reading of Islam’s holy books but on what their teachers tell them. In this context, though, we must study the actual way that Islam is being interpreted and taught. For that accurate depiction is a double-edged sword.
If the view they are being taught is consistent with the radical Islamist interpretations, saying that the Koran is “really moderate” or open to interpretation doesn’t matter very much, does it? We say that Islamists “misuse” Islam because we oppose them or because their interpretation doesn’t fit with our (non-Muslim) world view, not because we are the ultimate arbiters of “proper” Islam.
To put it another way, what is most important is not the “true” nature of Islam—religion of peace or religion of aggression—but the way Muslims interpret Islam today.
Militant Islamists and Islamists misuse Islam. On a tactical level this is good position for West but do they “misuse” of just use in their own way. It is misuse because we oppose it not because we possess the truth of proper Islam.
It might well be good tactics to argue that the Islamists are distorting their own religion and don’t “own” Islam. But this kind of game-playing—refusing to speak about Islamists in official documents, claiming that Islamists are hijacking Islam, building mosques in Afghanistan, etc.—really won’t get you very far in winning hearts and minds.
This is relatively harmless, however, compared to the main danger: If Western policy yields to Islamist totalitarian movements merely because they are able to take power without violence.
The violence will come afterward. After all, Iranian revolution in 1978 wasn’t massively violent either. In the end, the United States even supported regime change there at the time. And look what happened. Repeating this policy in the Arabic-speaking world will bring catastrophe far beyond the imaginations of contemporary Western policymakers. It will also provide whole new missions for the U.S. military: war with “just-plain Islamist” regimes.