Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Still Getting Jihadism Wrong

by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine

Photo via FrontPage Magazine

Photo via FrontPage Magazine

President Obama’s recent claim that Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam was nothing new. Since 9/11, we have heard from both ends of the political spectrum that jihadist terror has material causes and psychological conditions created by social, political, or economic dysfunctions. This argument is an old one, and was common in the aftermath of 9/11. Typical of such thinking was Bill Clinton’s claim that “these forces of reaction [al Qaeda] feed on disillusionment, poverty, and despair.” Left unexplained is the fact that billions of other people around the world even more impoverished and hopeless have not created a multi-continental network of groups dedicated to inflicting brutal violence and mayhem on those who do not share their faith or who block their visions of global domination.

Such materialist analyses ignore or rationalize the historical and theological context of modern Islamic violence. As a result, well into the second decade of our war against jihad we are still misdiagnosing the problem and hamstringing ourselves by resorting to democracy-promotion or economic development, solutions that have nothing to do with the root of the problem––the theologically sanctioned violence, intolerance, and totalitarian universalism that define traditional Islam.

A recent example of this failure of imagination appeared in The Wall Street Journal in an essay by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. De Soto is one of Latin America’s most eloquent champions of free-market economies and the prosperity, freedom, and opportunity they create. Referencing the success of some Latin American countries in throwing off dirigiste or socialist economies, de Soto claims that in the Muslim world as well, “Economic hope is the only way to win the battle of the constituencies on which terrorist groups feed.”

To buttress this claim, de Soto uses an analogy between Islamic jihadists and the radical Marxist-Leninist terrorist group “Shining Path” that troubled Peru in the 90s. Just as economic and legal reforms created opportunity and wider prosperity, and thus drained support for Shining Path, de Soto argues, so too in the Middle East similar attention to encouraging entrepreneurship and laws favorable to business could neutralize the numerous jihadist outfits. This analogy, however, ignores crucial differences between a faith-based movement and one like communism predicated on a secular, materialist ideology.

Islam and communism do share similarities, as numerous writers have noted for nearly a century. Bertrand Russell wrote in 1920, “Bolshevism combines the characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam . . . Marx has taught that Communism is fatally predestined to come about; this produces a state of mind not unlike that of the early successors of Mahommet [Mohammad].” Later, French sociologist Jules Monnerot wrote in 1949, “Soviet Russia is merely the geographical center from which communist influence radiates; it is an ‘Islam’ on the march, and it regards its frontiers at any given moment as purely provisional and temporary. Communism, like victorious Islam, makes no distinction between politics and religion, but this time the claim to be both universal State and universal truth applies not only within a civilization or world which co-exists with other different civilizations, other worlds, but to the entire terrestrial globe.”

These comparisons, as Ibn Warraq shows in his survey of them, are apt insofar as they highlight the universalist ambitions and totalitarian nature of communism and Islam as ideologies. But the important differences between the two belief systems as they actually appear in practice make the analogy less useful when the issue is how to reform Islam and neutralize jihadism. We can see this problem in a more recent, and influential, example of comparing the Soviet Union to Islam, Natan Sharansky’s 2004 The Case for Democracy, which inspired George W. Bush’s failed ambition to create democratic freedom in Iraq. Sharansky argued that just as the Soviet Union collapsed because of the innate desire for freedom, so too in the Muslim world creating democratic governments that respected political freedom and human rights would deprive jihadist leaders of recruits.

This analogy, however, ignores a profound difference between communism and Islam. Soviet communism was a materialist, atheist ideology imposed by force on a deeply religious people. It tried to suppress the religious needs of Russians, and to deliver material prosperity in compensation. It failed on both counts. Notice that today an autocratic Vladimir Putin enjoys widespread support among Russians, partly because he acknowledges the religious sensibilities and pride of the Russian people, and champions their belief that religious piety lies at the core of their national identity and separates them from the godless secularist West. And this support remains strong despite the manifest dysfunctions and corruption in the Russian economy.

Putin’s autocracy is similar to the even more autocratic governments in the Muslim Middle East. There such regimes are careful to respect and gratify the religious sensibilities of their peoples, most obviously in Saudi Arabia, where the support and tolerance of Wahhabism and jihadism abroad have helped to keep the House of Saud in power. So too in Iran, where the Mullahcracy enjoys significant support among the mass of pious Shiites in the villages and towns beyond the reach of Western cameras in Tehran; or in Turkey, where Tayyip Erdogan has rolled back a century of Kemalist secularization and democratization by reviving traditional Islam’s pride of place as the sole paradigm for social and political order.

In all these examples, autocratic leaders, for all their tyranny and illiberalism, still maintain solidarity with their people founded on their religious piety, a harmony between rulers and ruled that did not exist in Soviet communism. And they share resentment and often hatred of the West and especially the United States, which to the pious Muslim is a godless Sodom of materialism and depravity fostered by rootless individualism and irresponsible license camouflaged as prosperity and democratic freedom. So even though the desire for political freedom and material prosperity isn’t being met by autocratic Middle Eastern regimes, religious needs are.

It is this profound Islamic spirituality that de Soto and other secularists ignore. If the economic development championed by de Soto and others has wrought the impiety, sexual license, and godlessness that Muslims can see everyday on satellite television and the internet, why would they want to gain such a world at the cost of their immortal souls? That this picture of the U.S., one now nearly a century old, is a one-sided caricature to some degree doesn’t matter. It is what Muslims see, what they hear in Friday sermons at their mosques, and what sharpens the centuries old, cosmic conflict between the faithful and the infidels, the House of Islam and the House of War.

Economic development is not the answer to Islamic terrorism. Iran and Turkey are not impoverished nations, yet they actively support and fund jihadist terror. So too does Qatar, which is fabulously wealthy. Like the autocrats, jihadists share fundamental beliefs with millions of Muslims worldwide. The latter may not blow themselves up or wage jihad personally, or they may believe that such violence is tactically wrong, but that doesn’t eliminate the spiritual solidarity, desire to live under shari’a law, and dreams of Islamic global dominance founded on traditional Islamic belief and practice, a solidarity that an atheist, secularist ideology like communism never enjoyed with the masses of people, whether in Russia or Peru. Until we see jihadism as a spiritual rather than a material phenomenon, we will continue to pursue tactics and policies doomed to fail.

Copyright © 2009 FrontPage Magazine. All rights reserved.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

11 Thoughts on “Still Getting Jihadism Wrong

  1. The conclusion reached is both logical as well as filled with very serious implications.

    Left unsaid is, “What are our options to defend against such a religious belief system when it is shared by so many billions of people in the world?” The fact is, there is nothing to preclude those current non-jihadist Believers from joining the ranks of those who engage in the barbarity we see today.

    Much has been written about how what is happening is NOT a war between Cultures (viz., Western Civilization versus Islam). But what if it really IS – as appears more and more to be the case?

    Short of declaring Islam and ALL of its followers ‘enemies’ to be dealt with militarily and without mercy (a totally unthinkable option), what can be done?

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) Declare once and for all war against Jihadism using all the force with which the Axis powers were defeated. The U.S. should officially assume the mantle of ‘Defender of Western Civilization’ in much the same way as Great Britain stood alone over half a century ago.

    Fortunately, at this point in history, the U.S. need not go it alone as Great Britain did, much to its ruin. . The threat of bloodbaths so frequently demonstrated by home grown Jihadists has already demonstrated the stake which U.S. Allies (including some Middle East countries) have in eradicating proponents of terrorism at home.

    Those followers of Islam who insist on following the savage tenets of that belief system should be considered Outlaws whose behavior is well beyond the bounds of civilized humanity. If this sounds something like a war without mercy against these individuals, the latter is the kind of war already declared by the Jihadists. And that being the case, is there any other option?

    2) In so many words, with the agreement and through the work of those believers in Islam who reject its martial and political themes, ‘rewrite the Koran’ in so many words, to eliminate those passages which espouse the morals, norms and agendas of centuries ago, in an era where Religious beliefs trumped all logic and political systems were subservient to those beliefs.

    Just as the Old Testament contains many passages dealing with such things as treatment of women, slavery, religious conquest, etc., which are looked upon today as a result of the thinking of the time, the New Testament was both a revolution in its ‘One God’ centric view as well as – for the time – an enlightened view of Man’s relationship to both God and Man.

    Was Christianity used wrongly for political as well as religious purposes? Without a doubt. Much like Islam, Christianity was spread by the sword and the rack for centuries.

    A ‘New Testament Koran’ could offer those Islamists who truly view their Religion as one of peace and good will a venue for peaceful co-existence with other belief systems (and not JUST Christianity).

    Can this happen? The question is, what if it can’t? Is the World to experience its ultimate destruction at the hands of religious fanatics with weapons of mass destruction at their fingertips?

    The odds are too great this is exactly what will happen. Islam desperately needs a revolution – one of beliefs.

    • Michael D Marcus on October 15, 2014 at 2:10 pm said:

      Amen. For years, since 9-11 attack, I have been espousing the need for a Muslim Reformation, much in the same order that the Catholic Church experienced. While the Church was split, the Reformation was “good” for Catholicism as it pushed the Church to begin to reform itself.

      Islam’s time for reform is upon it, but the question is where are the Martin Luthers and the John Calvins of the Muslim world? The Christians cannot lead this one, but we can help. In line with T.E. Lawrence’s principle that it is, “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly.”

      • Steve and Michael D Marcus,

        You have both asked for islam to fix itself, something Christianity continually does, Islam doesn’t.

        What if the fix is actually, to further ameliorate Christianity?

        This is the work prepared by “In That Day Teachings.”

        Makes sense as is doable, if you think about it.

        • Are you suggesting that Christianity could be ameliorated in some way as to have an impact on eliminating the beliefs of Islam which espouse/encourage barbarism against non-believers? I can’t really fathom how that would work, but how would that solve the radical intolerance jihadists adhere to the billions of people holding other religious beliefs? For example, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., etc..

          Just to clarify, I’m not of the mind that Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, and other variants of the Christian faith(s) are free from dogmatic themes which others find distasteful, illogical or exclusive; however, Christian proselytism simply can’t be compared to Islamists who wish to conquer, convert, and/or decapitate those who resist.

          • Listen to Bruce Thornton’s lectures & read his books. Ditto for Victor Davis Hanson.

            The West believes in one Hebrew/Christian God and in one civil society based on liberty’s mutual pledging dedication to self-restraint under the understanding that all leaders have devils on their shoulders, and so systems much check their power.

            This package is spiritual and political.

            Islam believes in a prophet named Mohammed who’s God is Allah, and that one civil society must be Sharia Law’s horrid barbarity, including Theocrat thugs as leaders with the crazy notion they don’t have shoulder devils and should have unlimited power.

            This package is spiritual and political.

            Progressivism believes in no God and that the one civil society is the one that deconstruct’s the liberty, it’s pledge of self-restraint and that leaders have shoulder-devils and that power must be limited. Rather power much be increased in the few select leaders! The goal is to destroy fixed constitutions that limit power. The goal is to upend whatever the West is and does and will be (which is good and prosperous and humane in solving problems.) Progressivism uses cruel answers to problems real and invented.

            This package is spiritual and political.

            So the world will decide, and wars are the most decisive things that always change the most minds in the most impressive manner, either the West’s God and civil organization; or Islam’s God and its Theocrat-Thug organization… or Progressivism’s Religion (probably the most fervent and dangerous, and most evil) and civil death (because the religion is obsessed with death as much as Islam is.)

            So the logical conclusion is to pick life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! (The West)

  2. Dear Professor Thornton,

    Amen and kudus to your great think piece on what the answer to global Islamic terrorism. It’s hard to see the answer, just as it is hard to see the trees because of the forest!

    Just as the answer to Twentieth Century ascendency of Nazi and Japanese Tyranny was for the US, with Allies, to gain and retain High-Function Superpower Military status; and just as the answer to Twentieth Century ascendency of Soviet Communism was, strangely, for the US, with Allies, to gain and retain High-Function Superpower Economic status; the answer to Twenty-First Century ascendency of global jihadism is for, even more strangely, the US, with Allies, to gain and retain High-Function Christian-Hebrew spiritual status.

    What would High-Function Christian-Hebrew spiritual status look like? Living Master leaders, scholars and most important of all, general populace. Perhaps “In That Day Teachings” could help. Many things are aligned to help (i.e. Western story-telling & movies, books & poetry.) And this just may come about, though think in terms of decades rather than years.

    So there you have it. First Military Superpower, then Economic, then Spiritual. The West leads the way.

    Only, who can believe? It will take faith greater than the first two epic achievements. But it’ll be done!

  3. The easiest to understand description of what islamic terror is based on. Not the desire for more stuff but the desire for all to live under sharia law. Latin America wants more and better stuff not communism or sharia law. Chinese want more and better stuff not sharia. Russia wants more and better stuff not sharia law. Islam is a threat to everyone who does not want to live under sharia. Islam will lie, cheat and steal to enslave or kill non believers. It doesn’t take a genius I.Q. to understand what the terrorists want. But when our own President says ISIL or ISIS is not Islam and gets away with making that statement then we have given up our requirement for honesty from government and the media and this can only lead to revolution from within our Country to stop the dissolution of our Country. I know Savage has a book out about civil war here in the States. I have not read it but I don’t need to to understand that government can’t keeping lying about what’s going on right before american’ eyes without severe consequences and I don’t mean electing republicans instead of democrats. We’re going to get hit again and it may or may not open our eyes to the real combined threat of progressive thought and Islamic terror for the West. You get a distorted view of economics and foreign policy relations from progressives and this leads to increased threat of terror attacks and a weakening of our economy due to expanding government interference. Young people growing up here are mostly clueless about how the real world works. It’s not all smart phones and taco Tuesday’s. Sometimes its death and destruction right in front of you and you need to be prepared to fight back not just twitter about it.

    • One other thing that’s pretty obvious to me. Obama and his young supporters are always saying how we don’t need to do things the way we always have in the past. I don’t have a problem with that when we’ve made mistakes and want to try something new to correct them. This is what has made America exceptional. Our ability to get things righted. But Obama is like a child that says his parents were mean for making him do his homework, go to school everyday and go to bed on time. Why should he have to do things like his parents did? Why should America be a bully and go around telling the world how great it is and what other countries should be doing. Leave Iran alone. They just want to build nuclear plants to create safe, cheap energy when their oil runs out. Russia is just acting out like the bully Putin is and once the world sees it then Putin will be embarrassed and stay within his own borders. ISIS will stop its rampage once America leaves the middle east and stops supporting Israel. We have a government run by children.

  4. Art Hippler on October 15, 2014 at 5:22 pm said:

    Islam has no institutionalized way of changing its basic message, that is; the duty of every Muslim is wage war against the inhabitants of the Dar-al-Harb (the world of war wherein dwell non-Muslims) offering them these choices: convert to Islam, accept dhimmitude and pay the jizzya tax (an option open only to “people of the book”), or be enslaved or killed. For a Muslim even to argue against this is apostasy and the punishment for apostasy is death. This punishment may be administered by any Muslim. To cover this brutal choice from the world Muslims are constrained to use the doctrine of taqiyya (lie about anything potentially injurious to Islam). To further confuse the non-believer Muslims must not tell them about the doctrine of naskh which states that later revelations (the ones insisting on bloody destruction of Kaffirs) abrogate the earlier ones that urge sweetness and light. (The Koran is organized by verse length not by sequential history).l Islam is irreformable and can only be suppressed with force to protect non-Muslims. It is not a “religion of peace”. Any appeasement of Muslims is seen by them as proof off the superiority of Islam. It is a religion completely incompatible with a free society.

    • Mr. Hippler:

      Thank you for your enlightening remarks regarding the Koran and its teachings. As stated, the tenets described leave no evident room for reformation – which on the surface leaves only the complete eradication option. Having said that, it’s difficult to believe that so many billions of the followers of Islam actually adhere or truly believe in such radical commands/directions. Perhaps that is truly the case, and perhaps too many billions of believers are simply too backwards/ignorant to do anything but blindly accept what they are taught. There are certainly MANY historical proofs of such blind obedience to malicious dogmas.

      I would be interested in your thoughts regarding ‘solutions’ to the problem? Thank you.

  5. David Park on October 16, 2014 at 9:08 am said:

    Historically, it seems that totalitarian movements trump education, religion, wisdom, and common sense. When those are trumped, they become useless as defensive weapons against its followers. In recent history, terror has been countered by countering it with a greater terror. A movement is made ineffectual when most of its adherents lose their ability to administer terror or no longer exist at all.

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