An absolutely horrific act was committed in Nice, France last week. Like the attack in Florida, the murderer had only tenuous and recent ties to Daesh (ISIS), though Daesh (ISIS) has embraced the murderer of dozens of people as a soldier. Then there was an attempted coup in Turkey which is now being followed by revenge on the part of Erdogan. Before that there were attacks in the U.S., Turkey and France. The response of Newt Gingrich, speaking in response to the attack in Nice, was to call for a loyalty test of all Muslims living in the U.S. to determine whether or not they are followers of Shariah. The statement was both stupid and offensive but it reflects a more general lack of effort at serious analysis of how to address the problems caused by non-state actors that engage in terrorist acts.
Taken at face value, the statement defies common sense. It stands in contrast to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution that Newt Gingrich claims to be defending. The First Amendment allows people to freely practice their religion and to express views that are contrary to the Constitution. We do not ask orthodox Jews whether or not they follow the law or quiz Christians as to their views of Leviticus. But the kinds of statements made by Gingrich are not meant to be taken literally: The real message was to simply paint a portrait of a generalized other and thereby to stoke fear and hatred towards all Muslims.
Yet while Newt Gingrich’s nonsense received quick and deserved condemnation, his remarks reflect the confused labels we have applied since 9-11. We have labeled the current war, the “war on terror”. But this is a term of propaganda: not a term of analysis. The term “terrorism” is no longer used to describe specific tactics, and is instead conflated with Islamic extremism. Hence we fail to recognize that not all terrorist groups are Islamicist, and that not all Islamicists are terrorists. From the perspective of any serious geo-strategic analysis it only serves to confuse the issues at hand. We are now 15 years into a war and we have yet to clearly define who or what the enemy actually is, or what our goals are.
At present, we are engaged in armed combat with multiple non-state organizations that employ tactics outside the laws of war. These groups murder civilians: not as a reckless act, not as “collateral damage”, but as a deliberate tactic with the goal of achieving their ends through terror. Their targets are not limited to Westerners or Christians or Jews. Many of their victims are Muslims and many Muslims actively oppose these groups. Their ideology is often described as “Islamicist”, “Jihadist” or “Salafist”. The organizations with whom we are actually engaged in combat with are mostly Sunni, but there are also Shi’a groups such as Hezbollah with ties to Iran whom the U.S. also considers to be terrorist organizations.
After 911 our enemy was Al Quaeda and the Taliban, but this enemy has now become multi headed. We dislodged Al Quaeda from Afghanistan but we are still fighting the Taliban. Al Quaeda split and morphed into Al Quaeda in Iraq and is now Daesh (ISIS). Daesh holds territory in Syria and Iraq among other places. Yet the actual Al Quaeda and other groups are still active. The goal of these groups is to create an Islamic Utopia, presumably modeled on the era of rightly guided Caliphs. The new Caliphate, if installed would also presumably restore the territory of lost Caliphates at their peak. People like Newt Gingrich seem to fear that this is in actual, immanent possibility which will be quickly followed by new battle of Tours.
The fear of a new Caliphate has come to occupy the same cultural space as the old Soviet Empire. And indeed, it is stunning how much of the old rhetoric is used the simple substitution of words such as “Sharian” and “Caliphate”. But while these groups may, in actuality, harbor fantasies of avenging defeat at Tours and conquering France the comparison is absurd. These groups can inspire murder and mayhem. But they are not a strategic threat in any conventional sense. And were they to ever actually gain power over a significant territory their rule would in all likelihood implode.
In actuality, these groups are rag tag militias of several thousands who can control territory only because of power vacuums. And I hasten to point out these power vacuums have been created by our very own succession of foreign policy disasters. Nor could these various groups exist were it not for our allies, or groups within the security establishment of our allies, at a minimum, turning a willful blind eye away or making occasional tactical alliances with these groups.
Though Saudi Arabia has been a target of these groups, the Saudi state is founded on an alliance with Wahabbi’sm and actively spreads its brand of Wahabbi Islam. This particular version of Islam in turn provides inspiration for these groups, who periodically threaten the House of Saud. At one point President Jimmy Carter hailed the “freedom fighters” of Afghanistan fighting against the “atheistic communists”. These “freedom fighters” then fought the Soviets with U.S., Saudi and Pakistani aid while receiving spiritual inspiration in the Saudi sponsored madrassas of Pakistan. As Afghanistan degenerated into warlordism, the The Taliban achieved power with the sponsorship of the Pakistani ISI. It is not clear what we can conclude from the now released 9/11 documents related to potential Saudi involvement with Al Quaeda. What does seem clear is that Saudi Arabia would like to see an Islamicist, Sunni state in Syria. This would of course buttress Saudi and Sunni hegemony in the Middle East as well as the Saudi’s own totalitarian religious rule. Meanwhile, in Turkey, Erdogan has steadily eroded the democratic and secular character of Turkey and has been accused of aiding Islamicist groups in Syria. Pakistan’s ISI has had long standing links to element of the Taliban and terrorist acts against India. It is dubious that these states wish to see groups like Daesh or Al Quaeda in power, as that would threaten the power of their own elites. And the authoritarian, brutal and corrupt nature of these states also lends legitimacy to calls to purify these societies of corruption. But each of these states plays a double game which goes largely unchallenged by us.
Somehow, these regimes have come to be our allies and cast as moderates. But there is nothing moderate about the totalitarian religious regime in Saudi Arabia. And when we start to unravel the U.S. relationship with the house of Saud, the Pakistani military and the ISI we are confronted with the global political economy of oil.
This presents multiple dilemmas for secular democrats who wish to see a demilitarization of our foreign policy. There is a man in Syria who is both a butcher and a psychopath by the name of Bashar Assad. I would like to see him gone. But it is not clear who or what would replace him. The military coup against the Islamicists in Egypt has only put the lid on the pressure cooker. The recently attempted coup against Erdogan, who has steadily eroded democracy and secularism in Turkey would also likely have only served to reinforce extremism. But this does not mean that the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan and the AKP, or even Fethula Gulen and the Hizmet movement should get a pass.
It is important to speak out against efforts to target any group for official state hostility, acts of violence or discrimination. This does not however mean that religious extremism, any specific religion, or religion general should be exempt from criticism . There are Christians (or people who act in the name of Christianity) who commit terrorist acts. There are Christians who want want to impose religious law in the U.S. and who wield some practical influence. Though Trump’s running mate does not have direct ties to Dominionist groups, he too looks to religion to determine important policy questions. At present, creeping Dominionism is kept in check by a largely secular society. The multiple non-state organizations motivated by Islamic extremism present a picture of a present a picture of a totalitarian religious right that refuses to be bound by the shackles of a secular society.