Monday, 9 February 2015
The World War Inside Islam, BY JAMES TRAUB
In the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative polemicist and editor of Commentary, wrote a long essay arguing that the battle against Islamist extremism amounted to “World War IV.” Podhoretz had a flair for the apocalyptic coinage, but many commentators on both the right and left understood al Qaeda’s shocking attack on American soil as the opening round of a war between the West and “Islamofascism,” as Christopher Hitchens called it. That mood subsided as the terrorists failed to mount similarly spectacular attacks (at least in the United States) and as the grotesque failure of the war in Iraq cooled the ardor of many armchair combatants for a battle to the death between radical Islam and the West.
Suddenly, however, the metaphor of world war does not seem so hyperbolic. The establishment of a self-declared “caliphate” in the heart of the Arab world, as well as the slaughter of a group of cartoonists in the heart of Europe, has made radical Islam look far more effective, more powerful, and more threatening than it had when the movement was led by a handful of men in caves. Even some of the realists who would have laughed off Podhoretz’s call to arms — and would have recoiled at the premise that the Cold War constituted World War III — now fear that the West is in peril. George Friedman, the Kissingerian analyst who runs the global intelligence firm Stratfor, recently wrote that “a war between two worlds” — Islam and Christianity — has dawned. Foreign Policy’s own Aaron David Miller, a reliable skeptic of grandiose adventures abroad, has described the conflict with Islamic extremism as a “generational struggle” and “the long war.”
I do not find this language ridiculous. The radical Islamist denial of the primacy of individual choice in a secularized public space, along with the willingness of large numbers of people to kill others and themselves in order to destroy that way of being, poses a fundamental challenge to the West. Yet the metaphor of civilizational struggle misleads us into believing that we can do, and must do, what we cannot do and therefore should not do.
What kind of “world war” do we now find ourselves in? The only world war of the 19th century, that between France and Britain in the decades after the French Revolution, was — despite France’s republican pretensions — a classic struggle for mastery between great powers. World War I constituted the last of these geopolitical, rather than ideological, convulsions. Global struggle since that time has been precipitated by totalitarian ideologies that seek to extend themselves across the globe. Both the struggle against fascism and the struggle against communism, though global in their geographical spread, were wars between a liberal and a profoundly anti-liberal conception of how to organize Western society.
Islamist extremism presents the exact opposite situation — a war inside a non-Western civilization that has overtaken and consumed the West. This did not at first seem to be the case. Long before al Qaeda, Islamic terrorists targeted U.S. Marines in Lebanon, European and American airlines, and synagogues and Jewish institutions. But the 9/11 attacks, as well as Osama bin Laden’s own rhetoric, gave Podhoretz and many others good reason to believe that radical Islam had declared war on the West. That rhetoric, and those tactics, have continued to this day in the form of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the plots against the United States that were hatched in Yemen, and the mayhem inflicted by terrorists in London, Madrid, and other cities. Western capitals constitute the citadels of the secular order that jihadis have pledged themselves to destroy, and for those terrorists who live in the West, these cities and their citizens are ready targets of opportunity.
But even if we say that we have entered upon a war between Islamist extremism and modernity, the locus of that struggle is shifting from the West to the Islamic world itself. This is the significance of the rise and spread of the Islamic State.
The “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria represents a very serious threat to the West, but it is an existential challenge to the Islamic regimes in the region.
status quo ante
In this war of the civilization next door to our own, there is very little that the West can do to fortify the legitimacy of Arab regimes — even if it seems that those regimes are harming their own long-term prospects.