Fighting the war of ideas against militant Islam

Cross-posted from Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi at Hudson New York

Dealing with the threat of militant Islam was raised again recently by the newly appointed Chief of the Defence Staff in the UK, General Sir David Richards. Although the general may be right that a containment strategy might be a better approach than direct, overt military intervention — in places where the US carries out drone attacks against militant groups like Al-Qa’ida in Pakistan and Yemen, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Islamists are constantly gaining ground at the expense of increasing destabilization of these countries — is General Richards, as an Independent editorial put it, “also right to argue that promoting education, prosperity and democracy in countries most at risk from subversion is the best way to immunise people over the long term against the virus of radical Islamism”?

His view is rooted in the common assumption that economic hardship attracts people to the ideology of militant Islam; it is an opinion that has been echoed many times by Western politicians. Former President Bill Clinton, for example, declared that “these forces of reaction feed on disillusionment, poverty and despair,’ and suggested the solution might be to “spread prosperity and security to all.” Similarly, Edward Djerejian, formerly a key figure in the U.S. State Department, argued that “political Islamic movements are to an important degree rooted in worsening socio-economic conditions in individual countries.”

An examination of the empirical data, however, reveal just the opposite: that Islamists, particularly active militants, normally derive from the urban middle classes, are upwardly mobile, and usually have a good education. Such findings are confirmed by ample evidence. Marc Sageman, for instance, a professor of Psychiatry at Pennsylvania University, in 2004 released a book entitled Understanding Terror Networks that contains a study of 172 cases of mujahidin (holy warriors). Over 90% of the members of his sample came from caring, stable families, 63% had gone to college, and 73% were married; most of them had children. Likewise, in 2007, a densely researched paper entitled ‘Engineers of Jihad’ by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog argued in its abstract that “graduates from subjects such as science, engineering, and medicine are strongly overrepresented among Islamist movements in the Muslim world, though not among the extremist Islamic groups which have emerged in the Western countries more recently.” Researchers from Muslim countries agree with such conclusions, including the Egyptian social scientist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Palestinian journalist Khaled M. Amayreh, and the Egyptian economist Galal A. Amin.

One could also look at the recent alleged terrorist cases of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Faisal Shahzad. Abdulmutallab’s father is among the richest men in Nigeria; Umar himself was a graduate of the prestigious University College of London (UCL). Faisal Shahzad is the son of a deputy director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan; and as the New York Times reported, “while in recent years Mr. Shahzad struggled to pay his bills…he still owned his home and held a full-time job when he began signaling to friends that he wanted to leave the United States.”

It should be clear on reflection why militant Islam does not attract the poor: in a state of poverty, one’s priority is to survive, not to concern oneself with ideology.

For Islamists, wealth is merely a means to an end.

Additionally, religious education for the poor in Muslim countries often consists of merely learning to recite the Qur’an in Arabic — which most Muslims do not, know, and which is written in a style of 1300 years ago, similar to the distance between Homeric Greek and Modern Greek, or Chaucer’s English and Mark Twain’s English — without having to know what the words mean and studying commentaries on core Islamic texts by classical, orthodox scholars like Ibn Kathir, Al-Ghazali, Qurtubi and others, all of whom justified doctrines of jihad as warfare — whether offensive or defensive.

The explanation of poverty as the real “root cause” of militant Islam is patronising in implicitly assuming that militants are unable to know their own motives. In fact, there has been at least one case where a militant has denied that poverty played a role in motivation: American-born Al-Shabaab member Omar Hammami stated, “They can’t blame it on poverty or any of that stuff. They will have to realize that it’s an ideology and it’s a way of life that makes people change.”

A similar attempt to dismiss ideology as the root cause was undertaken by Robert Pape in Foreign Policy, dismissing the idea that “Islamic fundamentalism was the central motivating force driving the 19 (9/11) hijackers to kill themselves in order to kill Americans” as a “simple narrative.” Does Robert Pape therefore think that Mohamed Atta, the chief hijacker, did not somehow believe that “when the time of truth comes and zero hour arrives, straighten out your clothes, open your chest and welcome death for the sake of Allah” or that he would be entering “paradise…the happiest life, everlasting life” (from instruction manuals found in the hijackers’ luggage)?

Does Pape also imagine that Faisal Shahzad did not really mean what he said when he affirmed in a tape released by Al-Arabiya that “you will see that the Muslim war has just started…until Islam is spread throughout the whole world…Islam is coming to the whole world…and the democracy will be defeated…and the word of Allah will be supreme,” but that underneath these proclamations his real motivation was just to end drone attacks in Pakistan (something that was undoubtedly one of his objectives)?

All this reflects the central problem of the debate over militant Islam. On one side, there are those who, like Robert Pape, see the failures of direct military intervention but do not recognise the central role of ideology and identity behind the militants’ motivations. On the other side, there are those like Michael Rubin, who identify the problem of militant Islam as one of ideas, yet continue to support operations like the present surge of troops in Afghanistan, a strategy that seems to be failing. Exceptions exist (e.g. Matthew Hoh and Daniel Pipes), but few see both the need for containment and the problem of militant Islam as an issue of ideology.

What are the implications for US policy?

The first step to be taken is to reduce direct involvement in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, and make it clear that any foreign aggression will be met with severe retaliation.

Most notably, this will mean ending drone strikes.

The alternative, however, is not simply to give more financial aid. On the contrary, pouring in development money appears to only increase corruption, as these experiments in Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan show.

The most important way of combating militant Islam lies in the hands of peaceful Muslims, who might not only acknowledge that jihadists draw on broad elements of traditional theology to justify their ideology and win recruits, but also devise effective counter-interpretations and bring mainstream schools of Islamic jurisprudence in line with modern concepts of human rights and liberal democracy. Although such a program does not mean that the US government should provide taxpayers’ money to Muslim groups and comment on the nature of “real Islam,” it would help to translate and disseminate works on Islamic historiography in Muslim countries, such as those of Ignaz Goldziher and Theodor Noldeke. This would make it easier for peaceful Muslims to view the dictates in the core Islamic texts as not being literally true for all times and places.

It is necessary for a new approach to be adopted that is more nuanced than those of the Bush and Obama administrations. Facilitating the spread of liberal democracy, and defeating militant Islam in Muslim countries, should be a gradual process, and not entail just calling for sudden elections as Bush did; involving US forces so heavily; or the current “business-as-usual” approach of Obama. Although the phrase “war of ideas” applies here, so far we have yet to treat the war against militant Islam as such.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.