Losing The War Against Radical Islam?
Fareed Zakaria notes that there are several hopeful signs in the fight against Islamist terrorism, including the capture of important leaders and several schisms threatening to break apart alliances in Iraq and elsewhere. Moreover, he argues, the jihadists face numerous structural problems.
The split between Sunnis and Shiites—which plays a role in Lebanon as well—is only one of the divisions within the world of Islam. Within that universe are Shiites and Sunnis, Persians and Arabs, Southeast Asians and Middle Easterners and, importantly, moderates and radicals. The clash between Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian territories is the most vivid sign of the latter divide. Just as the diversity within the communist world ultimately made it less threatening, so the many varieties of Islam weaken its ability to coalesce into a single, monolithic foe. It would be even less dangerous if Western leaders recognized this and worked to emphasize such distinctions. Rather than speaking of a single worldwide movement—which absurdly lumps together Chechen separatists in Russia, Pakistani-backed militants in India, Shiite warlords in Lebanon and Sunni jihadists in Egypt—we should be emphasizing that all these groups are distinct, with differing agendas, enemies and friends. That robs them of their claim to represent Islam. It describes them as they often are—small local gangs of misfits, hoping to attract attention through nihilism and barbarism.
The greatest weakness of militant Islam is that it is unpopular almost everywhere. Even in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has some roots, it was widely reviled. And now, when Taliban fighters occasionally take over a town in southern Afghanistan, they disband the schools, burn books, put women behind veils. These actions cause fear and resentment, not love. Most Muslims, even those who are devout and enraged at the West, don’t want to return to some grim fantasy of medieval theocracy. People in the Muslim world travel to see the glitz in Dubai, not the madrassas in Tehran. About half the world’s Muslim countries hold elections—representing some 600 million people. In those elections over the past four or five years, the parties representing militant Islam have done poorly from Indonesia to Pakistan, rarely garnering more than 7 or 8 percent of the vote. There are some exceptional cases in places suffering from civil war or occupation, such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hizbullah in Lebanon. But by and large, radical Islam is not winning the argument, which is why it is trying to win by force.
Zakaria is right on all counts. Unfortunately,winning by force may be possible. The terrorists don’t have to “win hearts and minds” or even occupy ground; they just have to keep up the pressure on the government and keep it from being able to fulfill its basic functions. As we’ve seen in Iraq, anti-government forces do not need to like — or even communicate with — one another in order to create and sustain an atmosphere of fear and chaos.
He’s right here, too, so far as it goes:
The only durable solution to these ongoing disruptions is for these people to see themselves—and, most important, the societies they come from and still identify with—as masters of the modern world and not as victims. How to open up and modernize the Muslim world is a long, hard and complex challenge. But surely one key is to be seen by these societies and peoples as partners and friends, not as bullies and enemies. That is one battle we are not yet winning.
Obviously not. There’s no obvious path for changing that, either.